Detroit, 1991: All of Bernhard Goetz's bad dreams have come true. For that matter, so have Ralph Nader's. Crime is Big Business, crooks in wing tips vie with punks in leathers and toxic wastebaskets sit on every corner.
Enter "Robocop," a bionic phoenix-cum-Frankenstein's monster, son of the Six Million Dollar Man. He's the creation of a ruthless junior executive who will stop at nothing to stop crime in 40 days. Peter Weller, who also played Buckaroo Banzai, returns to sci-fi triumphant in the physically trying title role of this sleek, satiric thriller.
Weller begins as a much-commended cop named Murphy, a recent transfer to the Old Detroit precinct house where the air hangs heavy with ash and the smell of rising fear. Thirty-one cops have died since OmniConsumer Products Corp. took over the police force (everything is privatized). Murphy, partnered with a gum-popping powerhouse played by Nancy Allen, is legally dead before the end of his first shift -- blasted to tatters in a shocking, blood-soaked scene that leaves Murphy no choices and the audience thirsty for revenge.
So Murphy rises from the dead as Robocop, a little flesh and a lot of titanium, to track down his own killers, hydrophobic drug dealers led by Kurtwood Smith as a smiling sadist with sordid savoir-faire. Robo later finds the source of his sorrows among the white-collar criminals who pursue the executive washroom key with the ruthlessness of Mafia dons. Miguel Ferrer, son of Jose' Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney, gives a cunning performance as the up-and-comer behind the Robocop project. He makes a mortal enemy of a rival executive (Ronny Cox), whose defective "enforcement droid" shot up the boardroom, leaving one yes-man as full of holes as a hairnet.
With its droll underpinnings, "Robocop" does for cyborgs and Detroit what "Blade Runner" did for androids and L.A. It's about pollution, albeit of the psyche, and the ascendancy of Manmade over mad men. Holland's Paul Verhoeven, who came into his own with the perverse eroticism of "The Fourth Man," directs this cops-and-robots thriller -- his first American feature -- with sanguine pizazz. In lesser hands, it might have been merely fast-paced and action-packed. But Verhoeven strives for bloodcurdling, darkly comic eloquence. He gives us heart with the hardware. Savagery with smarts.
He creates a Motor City (actually shot in Dallas) of rape, robbery and Reaganomics gone awry. Actually, it's not all that far-fetched. Corporations run essential services that inept city governments can no longer provide, and there isn't a consumer watchdog in sight. The media are represented by a couple of breezy, bubble-headed TV anchors who wouldn't know a muckrake if they stepped on one. The airheads, so deftly tweaked in the movie's rendition of the nightly news -- "give us three minutes and we'll give you the world" -- go to commercials for Jarvik hearts and Nukem, the family board game. It makes for snappy exposition and preps us for the creation of the cyborg. "Robocop. Who is he? What is he?"
Weller takes the best turn since Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator," adding chivalry and vulnerability to a limiting part. He's more than just a ham in a can, moving mechanically and doing Dirty Harry dialogue in a metallic baritone. There's a "Rheingold" Wagnerian beauty to Weller's face and a grace that says here is a mythic warrior, so that his mutilation is all the more horrible.
Cowriters Edward Neumeier, also coproducer, and Michael Miner, who developed "Repo Man" with Alex Cox, see little difference between the mores in the streets and those in the glass boxes. They make these observations with deliciously understated dialogue, and twist the cartoon-simple plot into an inspired swipe at everything from brain-gum game shows to misspent defense monies.
But at the story's heart is the resurrection -- the man in the machine, his memory blanked by the corporation, rediscovering and regaining his humanity. It's cleverly designed, though, for crossover audiences. Action fans can easily ignore the deeper meaning, sit back and enjoy the ripping pace, the vicarious vigilantism, the clever effects and the many fine explosions.
With all our flesh-and-blood heroes failing us -- from brokers to ballplayers -- we need a man of mettle, a real straight shooter who doesn't fool around with Phi Beta Kappas and never puts anything up his nose. What this world needs is "Robocop."
Robocop, at area theaters, is rated R and contains extreme violence.