Jonathan White’s review published on Letterboxd:
After watching Jose Padilha’s remake of the Verhoeven classic recently, I was hungry for a rewatch of the real thing. I must say I enjoyed the original concepts that Padilha was trying to advance, but, either through studio meddling or Padilha’s ambitions to make a ‘family friendly ‘version, the film overall was just not that enjoyable.
Verhoeven has a gift. This particular gift is presenting an ultraviolent actioner with just the right mix of satire, sardonic humor, social commentary, and bloody mayhem. Other directors, like Cameron with his Terminator series and Luc Besson with The Fifth Element, have come close to the style, but haven’t quite achieved the same flavour. Verhoven spares no blood splats and hides his social commentary in plain sight. He also has a perfect sense of flow and arc. He neither numbs your mind with a barrage of endless action and quick cuts like so many modern action pictures, nor does it drop you out of the rhythm with needless set pieces or exposition. It just goes full on and knows when to take the occasional breath.
As the opening scenes unfolded, my grin just grew wider and wider. Verhoeven rolls out the Goodies and Baddies. The Goodies …police partners Murphy and Lewis, and their tough but fair Sergeant Reed are drawn broadly, but without saccharine, maudlin righteousness, or even jaded sardonicism. They are just, well, plain good. Believably good, but in that inexplicable unbelievable way. You see Murphy’s gunslinger twirl. You know Verhoeven is pulling your chain, but you’re willing to be pulled. It’s easy to accept the invitation to dance.
It’s the Baddies, though, where the film really shines. I always keep forgetting about Miguel Ferrier and Ray Wise, two of my Twin Peaks favourites, as the OCP up and comer and the Crime Gang henchmen. Ferrier is so unabashedly good at this type of role. A weasely prick that all but the most adroit would be wise to steer a broad course around. Wise, with great experience gained from the master of twisted, is the ultimate no holds barred psychopath. Twin Peaks fans will know of what I speak. It’s Ronny Cox as the scheming second in command of Omni Consumer Products, a man fixated with running his re-created world with his ED209 military robots ( even if they don’t work ), and opportunistic crime boss Boddicker, played with the ultimate of sardonic malevolence by Kurtwood Smith that are the real stars of the show. The ultimate over the top representation of scheming corruption and power; yet again, not so over the top that it drifts into comic book ‘arch enemy’ territory. It’s just perfectly delicious badness.
Once the story gets rolling, there really isn’t too much more complication than throwing good against evil. The pacing is perfect, the wit continuous but underplayed, and the action irresistible. Almost like hypnosis, Verhoeven knows how to entertain, but yet subliminally slip in his message. My friends and I, back in the day, inexplicably started playing our own variant of Risk, calling it Nuclear Risk.
Verhoven keeps emotional clutter well out of the way. Something Padilha ( whether his fault, or studio pressure ) just couldn’t do. No romantic involvement between Murphy and Lewis; no mawkish family reunion. I think this may well have been a jab at the studios and action genera itself; look, this can be done you boneheads!
The practical effects; Peter Weller actually wearing his Robocop skin, and developing a style and motion to impress his cyberneticness; the Ray Harryhausenesque stop motion animation of the ED209, enhances the particular feel of the film in a way that modern CGI simply couldn’t.
While Robocop delivers a satisfying, crowd pleasing, ending, it’s the scene just before where Murphy and Lewis are trapped and injured after the final battle with the Boddicker and company, that sends shivers down my spine. Murphy assures Lewis that ‘they can fix us’.
After all these years, and all these rewatches, it remains a masterpiece.