Robocop (Director Edition) Review

The Film

It's an easy trap to fall into and one that many films do. The choice of director on the basis of a safe pair of hands can suck the life out of a novel project - please witness Gore Verbinski's dull career of promising ideas. Even films which are clearly B-pictures or not blessed with great scripts can fall into this trap when directors are hired that can hold a project together rather than ones who can take it to a much better place. This could have been the case with Robocop as all the usual names passed on a cheesy script with a corny title but the producer ended up offering the project to Dutch arthouse director Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven, after the same doubts as others, seized the chance to make this bubblegum movie outrageous and intelligent, and in the process of doing so he issued his calling card to Hollywood.

Verhoeven made this bullish satire of capitalism so in your face that the viewer was forced to laugh or be appalled by what they saw. What he created was a film which should be required viewing for any director starting a comic book or sci-fi project because the film is so well realised in terms of look and feel, benefitting from a rare unity of effects, acting, and intelligence. Robocop transcended being merely a competent B-movie because Verhoeven took things which eat at our society's conscience and represent our greatest fears, and he gave us a vigilante solution - that we could tool up our human selves with machinery and mechanise right and wrong. Playing on some of the worst of the viewer's instincts, Robocop encourages the audience to forget justice for blood lust. Once the audience finds itself cheering the violence, the director has succeeded in revealing to them their own brutality and, by implication, their own sick world.
Being in the hands of an unreliable man like Verhoeven is the real draw of the film - heroes will be destroyed and villains will have fun, and moral superiority will be lost along the way. This tone is set from the very start as no sooner have we met lovely family man and honest cop, Murphy, than we are watching his carcass being blown to bits by wise-cracking criminals. When he is re-tooled for the benefit of free-enterprise and keeping police wages down, he is a mechanical marvel who simplfies dilemmas with extreme force and precision. He shoots potential rapists in the groin and his straightforward success leads to predictions of the end of crime. But then it all goes wrong when he discovers his humanity and uses his powers to hunt down the men who killed him. He discovers that they are simple agents of the profit motive like himself, and he learns that should he uphold the law he can also destroy himself.
Verhoeven concludes proceedings with a newly humanised vigilante who has risen from the grave and now walks on water, a modern gun-toting ironic messiah. Along the way, a blockbuster audience has been subject to a satire on the mind bending dumbness of the media, a dystopia where the human is crowded out by profit, and they have been forced to face their own capacity for violence. That these high concepts sit so well in such a commercial movie is truly distinctive. This thematic intelligence is supported by fine acting from a good cast with Weller outstanding in his robotics and his insinuations of humanity, and Ronny Cox and Kurtwood Smith are excellent as the two unacceptable faces of capitalism.

For a film that was largely greenlighted as a cash-in on Terminator, Robocop could have been a throwaway venture but it out-strips any blockbuster film from the 1980's in terms of quality and impact. Verhoeven would rival his achievements here in the similarly witty Total Recall, but the quality of the acting as well as the intelligence of the work make Robocop his finest American movie.

The Discs

This R3 release is similar to the recent R1 20th anniversary edition containing the same new extras and a transfer that is largely the same. The packaging is less grand with a robust cardboard dustsleeve and gatefold enclosure instead of the metal box of the R1 release. Transfer wise, the discs look similar to the previous Criterion release with some extra clean up taking place. The unrated version of the film is basically the same transfer as the theatrical cut with the restored scenes looking faded and less impressive - the image below is an example of the change in quality.

Skin tones are quite warm and the image has a high contrast look to it, but the transfer is sharp, clean and detailed overall, and given the plethora of releases of this film any further improvements in quality are marginal with this edition. The film is in original aspect ratio, although I understand the director prefers the 1.66:1 ratio. The two English surround tracks are well constructed and the new DTS track is especially welcome and preferable to the 5.1 mix. The sound is mixed well across the speakers, unsurprisingly as the film was recorded in surround, and there is a pleasing clean quality to the reproduction of effects and voices. The DTS has plenty of drive in the action sequences and the martial music, and it seems more powerful than the 5.1 mix whilst being just as imperfection free. There is no inclusion of the original 4.0 track like on the R1 set.

This collection brings together previous extras available with other releases and three new featurettes. The majority of the extras are the same as the R2 release that Colin reviewed here, and there is little to say that is new to his review about them other than the commentary is very interesting with Verhoeven adding some nuggets about the film's politics and his Christ metaphors - "Robocop is an American Christ" who won't "arrest you but kill you". There are in fact six photo galleries concentrating on the film's design, the special effects, the director, behind the scenes, the cast and the ED209 robot. The new featurettes are Villains of old Detroit, Special effects and Robocop:Creating a Legend. The Villains featurette joins most of the cast in interviews with the atmosphere on this film being described as like a "summer camp". Ronny Cox talks about enjoying being a baddie for a change, and Kurtwood Smith and Miguel Ferrer discuss being cast in the film and Verhoeven discusses how Smith's character was modelled on Heinrich Himmler. The Special Effects featurette looks at the use of matte painting to create the setting of the film with locations in Dallas modified to become Detroit. We also have the model effects explained and the use of stop motion animation in Robocop detailed. Finally, Robocop: Creating a Legend spends time on how Peter Weller came to the film and how he prepared for the film with a mime coach and his very method way of acting - cast and crew had to call him Murphy when the film started.

All in all, a tremendous haul of extras and my only suggestion for more would have been an interview with the director about some of the deeper ideas he had for the film. My only real beef with this release is the irritating anti-piracy messages and MGM intros which delay getting to the main menu for ages - I know illegal downloading is a bad thing but if there is one thing that would encourage people to stop making their own discs then I think it is removing long intros to the main feature.


These days, it's hard to see Robocop getting made by a more cautious and unironic Hollywood. It is the gem of Verhoeven's American films and a witty and acerbic take on a society where the profit motive dehumanises all. This R3 set is nearly identical to the R1 release but marginally cheaper.

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