Fango Flashback: Verhoeven’s “ROBOCOP” (1987)
Being from the younger generation of today’s cinephiles, there’s a certain pool of veteran filmmakers that I’d love to see deliver one more passion-fueled film before calling it quits. With Hollywood becoming more tentpole-focused however, it’s unlikely to imagine a world where subversive genre filmmakers such as John Carpenter, David Lynch and Paul Verhoeven would get that chance to relive their bloody glory days. Thus is the nature of the business, but still, there’s such an exhilaration from revisiting their work that the absence of new, well-funded films from these filmmakers leaves a hole in the world of imaginative onscreen storytelling. In the case of Paul Verhoeven, who is still working busier than ever outside of the US Hollywood system, that return to the system that brought us classic sci-fi gorefests like TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS and ROBOCOP always seems to be coasting on the horizon as his films are neutered in mega-budgeted, misguided PG-13 remakes.
In light of TIFF’s Bell Lightbox screenings of his oeuvre, this writer took it upon himself to revisit some of Paul Verhoeven’s Hollywood work, hoping that each film lives up to the promise of their initial viewings. As with each of his Hollywood input, part of Verhoeven’s appeal is that the films being sold to the audience are never quite what they appear, whether it be exhibiting brilliant political or social satire in between the moments of explosive action or subversively interweaving nods to his influences, whether it be new wave, noir or even religious in nature, into tales of brutal heroism. In that sense, Verhoeven becomes somewhat of a modern Brother Grimm, wielding cartoonish violence with a straight face and a childlike wonder while using state-of-the-art special FX to create literal monsters that walk among his sexy and clean-cut cast.
Of course, Verhoeven broke into the Hollywood Zeitgeist following his financial flop FLESH + BLOOD with his allegorical action-revenge film, ROBOCOP. Inspired by the idea to create a self-described “American Jesus,” one reborn under the ideals of justice in a futuristic Detroit, which functions as a haven for crime with skyrocketing police deaths and a privatized police department, Verhoeven’s film secretly tapped into urban and suburban fears, striking a chord with audiences worldwide and creating an unforgettable action film in the meantime. Rife with satire of news, pop culture, corporatization and the criminal justice system, Verhoeven doesn’t settle with just telling a story about an unstoppable super-cop, instead offering colorful, multi-dimensional characters and a living, breathing universe with its own believable products, programming and nightlife.
Verhoeven’s imaginative and unconventional filmmaking style isn’t the only place where credit is due, as his vision wouldn’t have nearly been as affecting without his band of merry madmen. Genre SFX icon Rob Bottin, fresh off of John Carpenter’s THE THING, was tasked with the special FX for the film, aided by Craig Davies and Phil Tippett, who were in charge of the hulking ED-209, as well as the Chiodo Brothers, who were in charge of puppeteering effects in one of the in-film commercials. Furthermore, Verhoeven was aided with a biting script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, slick photography from DP Jost Vacano and a riveting score by Basil Poledouris. And one can’t forget just how excellent the cast is in the film, which includes Peter Weller in a career-defining lead role, Kurtwood Smith in a breakthrough villain role, and a rogue gallery of great genre performers like Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer and Ray Wise.
Having revisited the film’s stunning 4K Blu-ray transfer, there’s somewhat of a trade off in terms of the viewing experience. Obviously, the FX have never looked better and the remixed audio pops with astounding clarity, which makes the film look even more realistic in its futuristic glory and the blood-letting even more off-putting and visceral. However, ROBOCOP is a film that deserves to be seen on a gritty, 35mm film print, evoking the same nostalgic feeling of exploitative anarchy seeping through each frame. In either case, the film is still fun, hilarious and captivating, and can still be considered the perfect movie to introduce the uninitiated into the wild world of Paul Verhoeven.
ROBOCOP screens Friday, March 7 at 9:30 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, as part of FLESH + BLOOD: THE FILMS OF PAUL VERHOEVEN.