1987 // USA // Paul Verhoeven // May 22, 2011 // Blu-ray - MGM (2007)
I've always struggled a bit with Paul Verhoeven's peculiar stripe of satire. The director's ironic films look awfully similar to his genuinely brainless, lurid genre works, to the point where distinguishing between the two can be challenging. I'm comfortable placing Flesh+Blood, Basic Instinct, and Hollow Man unambiguously in the latter category, but films like Showgirls and Starship Troopers straddle the kitschy and satirical in a way that's strangely slippery. It's telling that a decade and a half later, enthusiasts and critics still debate whether those two films in particular are actually colossal jokes.
Not so with Robocop, which I regard as Verhoeven's best film precisely because it so effortlessly and successfully exemplifies the bloodthirsty excesses of the Reagan era while also viciously dismantling those same excesses. In short, it functions as both a satire and the target of that satire, and it does so without feeling clunky or smug. Unlike Showgirls and Troopers, which I find exasperating in places, Robocop is juicy R-rated entertainment from beginning to end. Verhoeven is clearly having a grand old time, and his unflagging, demented playfulness shines through every frame.
Case in point: Just before the climax, the film spends several minutes observing the Bad Guys as they turn a city block of Old Detroit into rubble with a pair of gargantuan assault cannons. Verhoeven presents the scene in a manner that suggests spoiled little children at play with their shiny new toys. This sort of gratuitous digression--reveling in violence and also mocking it--is emblematic of Robocop's approach, but also conspicuous in a film that is otherwise fairly lean and mean. The smash-cut opening and closing shots in particular make me long for the days when action films presented themselves with such ruthless, no-bullshit efficiency.
It's tempting to laud the film's futurist vision of nihilistic consumerism, corrupt privatization, and acute economic stratification as eerily prescient. However, I think that vision says less about the soothsaying abilities of Verhoeven and screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner than it does about their ability to discern the most enduring warts on the American character. The casting provides some hefty backup in this respect: Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer practically ooze loathsomeness as caricatures of the 1980s Corporate Asshole (Veteran and Young Turk models, respectively). When Cox sneers that his company's "urban enforcement" robots don't have to work properly, they just have to generate a lucrative parts-and-maintenance contract, you have to pinch yourself and recall that this film was released sixteen years before Halliburton became a household word.