In fourth grade, I went to school every day with a RoboCop lunchbox. In retrospect, this seems insane. RoboCop is arguably the bleakest, most violent, most nihilistic movie ever made by an American studio. Every scene seems to drip with malice even when nothing especially dramatic is happening. It's a masterpiece of brutality, a spectacle of hate that mercilessly satirizes everything around it, including itself. A 10-year-old had no business serving as a walking advertisement for this thing. But that lunchbox had a cool-looking hero punching a cool-looking monster—the titanic bipedal ED-209 police robot—and a cool title with a cool font. For the movie to cut as deep as it did, it had to appeal to the inner 8-year-old of every adult who went to see it. And it pulled all that off so spectacularly that I consider this to be the best movie ever made, by anyone.
Going back to this 1987 classic for the umpteenth time, the thing that strikes me the most about it is the way it looks. The movie is set in a near-future Detroit (even though its camera crews never got anywhere near the actual city), and everything is cold and dirty and brutalist. Even the corporate skyscrapers look harsh and unforgiving. More impressively, everyone's faces look just as harsh and unforgiving. The mad Dutchman Paul Verhoeven, directing his first high-profile English-language movie, has always shown a powerful knack for finding actors with hard, vivid faces, people whose bone structure makes them look slightly unreal. He never did that better than he did here.
Verily, every actor in RoboCop has a face that looks like a steel skull-model with a thin layer of plastic pulled over it. Peter Weller, the star, has cheekbones that, I swear to god, go above his eyes. A pre-Twin Peaks Ray Wise, as a crime-gang heavy, looks like a hatchet-faced walking mannequin. Kurtwood Smith is still cashing syndication checks as the dad from That 70s Show, but as malevolent kingpin Clarence Boddicker, he managed to transform himself into a pure human glower. Police sergeant Robert DoQui has a mustache that looks like it's been fashioned from solid tungsten. None of these actors have to do any serious emoting, but Verhoeven uses them as marvels of design.
Verhoeven also pushes the violence way beyond where anyone might reasonably expect it to go. Boddicker's gang don't just gangland-execute Weller's Officer Murphy; they cackle away while blowing chunks of meat off of him, reducing his arm to a bloody stump and then making crying-baby noises at him. Much later, gang member Emil doesn't just get hit by a car; he gets rammed into a giant vat of toxic waste (helpfully labeled "toxic waste"), turns into a melt-faced mutant monster, and then gets hit by a car, his body literally exploding into goo. RoboCop doesn't just stop a rape attempt; he shoots the rapist in the dick. On a typical workday—practically as part of a montage—our hero also has to face off with a disgruntled city councilman who's about to execute the city's mayor; he calmly punches the bureaucrat-turned-terrorist out a window and, in the very next scene, meets an adoring mob of elementary schoolers.
RoboCop is as much a black comedy as it is an action movie, and its best comedy moments aren't in the interstitial TV clips (though those are great) or in its square-jawed parody of back-room politics, but in the way it nudges every action scene further than it needs to go. Verhoeven finds a way to make arterial blood-spurts work as slapstick. There's plenty of satirical stuff in the movie that still stings uncomfortably hard: It initially seems like it's going to play on '80s right-wing urban-decay fantasies the way something like Death Wish 3 did, but the gibbering mass-murderers all have corporate bosses, and the suits only want to clean up Detroit so that they can build expensive luxury houses. When a company functionary dies spectacularly mid-meeting, his superiors don't waste a second in fuming about what this will do to their bottom line. When a crook asks a corporate vice president whether he has access to military weapons, that vice president says, "We practically are the military."
There is so much to love about RoboCop. There's the way the movie builds a believable-enough heightened-reality future-world in just over 90 minutes. There's the way every scene seems to have a line of dialog that's fun to quote: "That's life in the big city." "Bitches, leave." There's the better-than-anything-we-have-today makeup-effects work, the propulsive pace, the great dreamlike stop-motion animation on the ED-209. But that scene of the conquering-killer robot policeman greeting the kids is, at least as of this past viewing, the thing that sticks with me the most. Because those kids were real! I was one of them! I had the lunchbox and everything! Verhoeven made a heavy and hopeless parody of everything the collective American psyche loves, and then he convinced the collective American psyche to love that thing. He hit all the great '80s-action-movie marks—RoboCop walks away from an explosion and everything—but he does it while visibly sneering at us. And we don't care.
Before last year's RoboCop remake came out, there was some nerd hand-wringing about whether the movie would be able to stay true to the original's acidic themes. It turned out pretty decent, though, at least as thoroughly unnecessary remakes go: Jose Padilha, the Brazilian director who'd made the Elite Squad movies, took a respectable shot at staying satirical and topical, and he included a few good action scenes, even if the expanded role for Murphy's family was absolute bullshit. But even if Padilha had blown it completely, it would've been fine. People have been misinterpreting RoboCop since the moment the movie came out and started making money. There were two sequels, one divertingly nasty and one absolutely useless. There were a couple of TV series. There were two kids' cartoons based on this movie. Someone thought it would be a good idea to put this character on a lunchbox, and someone else saw fit to buy it for me. If that doesn't prove Verhoeven's point, I don't know what would.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Blood and Bone | Man of Tai Chi | Bloodsport | Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone | Fearless | Red Dawn| Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master