The 1980s are often considered to be a sort of ‘Golden Age’ for testosterone fueled action cinema, mostly manifested under the guise of some sort of jab at the violence perpetuated – and perhaps warranted – by the Reagan administration. Leading actors carrying guns of increasing size and power was a trend that could be traced back to 1971 thanks to DIRTY HARRY’s ever present .44 magnum which was “…the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off…”. That film was acclaimed and accepted by the public but deemed fascist by major critics including Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, which should come as no surprise to the screenwriter – self described “zen fascist”, admitted firearms diehard and oozing machismo – John Milus. Following DIRTY HARRY, the vigilante film would become increasingly financially viable and an integral part of Americana, both on and off screens. DEATH WISH (1974) and TAXI DRIVER (1976) opened only a couple of years apart and were both set in the modern day wasteland one was likely to see/visit, New York City. Violent crime across America was a problem and, as in accordance with COBRA’s (1986) advertising campaign, it needed a cure and the movies were going to give it one. Or at least die trying.
Ronald Reagan was elected to office in 1980 and a lot changed, including the movies, or at least what people were choosing to see. The end of the 1970s was a violent time in American cinema, from 1977 through 1979, box office favorites included A BRIDGE TOO FAR (1977), THE GAUNTLET (1977), HALLOWEEN (1978), DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), THE DEER HUNTER (1978), THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979), APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and ALIEN (1979). Horror cinema had become more vital than it had been since the days of black & white and Vincent Price and everything had become bloodier and darker. Thanks to STAR WARS (1977) and JAWS (1975), movies were bigger than ever, which made them not only a bigger target for censorship but also a means to make your voice heard as loudly and widely as possible. Especially if you’re wielding a gun.
The early 1980s would end up giving us FIRST BLOOD (1982), 48 HOURS (1982), DEATH WISH II (1982), SUDDEN IMPACT (1983), 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983), LONE WOLF MCQUADE (1983) and UNCOMMON VALOR (1983). Vietnam was still fresh in the movie-going public’s minds and military action would reign supreme, for the most part, with vigilante justice filling in those gaps, especially after Reagan survived a shooting attempt in 1981. We were on guard and needed something to protect us. Something behind home defense. Enter the machines.
THE TERMINATOR is released in 1984 and that is fucking it. George Orwell knew something was coming but he never let on to it being a naked Austrian muscleman portraying a time traveling android hell bent on murdering the mother of the savior of humanity. THE TERMINATOR ushered in not only a renewed interest in science-fiction, but perpetuated a relatively newfound fear in technology. Especially technology that was meant to protect us. Here comes ROBOCOP.
In 1987, Paul Verhoeven would release his first Hollywood feature, changing everything. Not just for himself – we probably wouldn’t have SHOWGIRLS if this one didn’t exist – but for genre cinema and pop culture in general. ROBOCOP reinstates the idea that a cop can be more than just a protector of its respective community. DIRTY HARRY showed that police are not always just, but it also allowed the general public to react to scenes of police brutality in ways they saw fit. They could cheer, boo, wince in pain, whatever they may. ROBOCOP takes that and runs with it. We see our supposed heroes of the police force enter a battle that they can’t win mere minutes into the feature, against baddies that make DIRTY HARRY’s Scorpio seem sane. Alex Murphy, our soon to be titular spectacle, is gunned down in a fashion so savage that Peckinpah likely would have thought it too much. Shortly after, thanks to the marvels of near future technology and a complete abandon for the teachings of Asimov, ROBOCOP is born.
Paul Verhoeven has always had a controversial career. He’s an enfant terrible of sorts that has never shied away from portraying excess in any form, but remains controversial regardless of that. For all of its blood-bag body effects, what marks ROBOCOP as an aggressive work isn’t the glee with which it riddles bodies with bullets, it is in Verhoeven’s oft remarked on political stance. If DIRTY HARRY is a fascist film, what is ROBOCOP? Eastwood’s character may have political leanings of his own – which aren’t discussed in the film – but he is human, entirely so. Robocop is “part man, part machine, all cop” and entirely idealized by screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. He is programmed to perform a service, a service that is intended to do good for the public and the police force. But, like Harry, he chooses another agenda and finds a means of over-riding command. Only unlike Harry, he can’t be stopped.
ROBOCOP was released during a three year period which not only saw the re-election of Reagan but the release of titles like RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985), INVASION USA (1985), COMMANDO (1985), COBRA (1986), THE DELTA FORCE (1986) and LETHAL WEAPON (1987). During this same period, the Iran-Contra affair occurred, almost appearing as a parody alongside the serious carnage that was happening on American movie screens. Reagan would leave office in 1989 with George Bush taking his place, and the Cold War still ongoing, creating a need for more action cinema, including the likes of DIE HARD (1988), Paul Verhoeven’s follow up to ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL (1990), TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991) and even an over the top parody on action cinema, HOT SHOTS! (1991), which would mimic real life more than any of its serious-minded counter-parts.
ROBOCOP would have a life longer than most other 1980s action cinema. It would spawn two theatrical sequels, a few different television iterations (mostly targeted at children, strangely enough), video games, comic books and a remake released this year, 2014. The remake this year opened to both poor box office and equally lackluster reviews, most citing that not only had the violence been diminished (they went the PG-13 route this time) but the politics as well. Verhoeven’s film was aggressive, juvenile, a bit pretentious but it always was (and still is) somehow didactic. And, at the end of the day, there’s a reason Robocop has a middle finger.