*** (A must-see)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner

With Peter Weller, Ronny Cox, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy, Kurtwood Smith, and Miguel Ferrer.

Tone is one of the most elusive qualities a filmmaker can bring to a picture. You only have to look at a few of this summer’s releases–whether the egregious Harry and the Hendersons or the disappointing Innerspace–to see how fatal a lack of directorial voice can be. Harry is all over the place, with wild shifts in mood that, because director William Grace didn’t establish any stance toward the material, are forced and arbitrary. With Innerspace, the normally expressive Joe Dante has deliberately repressed his own well-known personality in subservience to mediocre material, producing a big scoop of plain vanilla.

Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven is not the type to suffer from such lack of presence. Although he did make one relatively soft-spoken war movie on the Dutch underground (Soldier of Orange), his efforts more typically reach a pitch of emotional hysteria in the first or second reel, and try to maintain it for the duration. Spetters had all the elements of a typical coming-of-age story built around a trio of Dutch teenagers involved in motocross racing. Not content with such routine stuff, however, Verhoeven tossed in a crippling accident, religious revivalism, ruthless exploitation, and homosexual rape to liven things up. The Fourth Man, the story of a novelist’s visit to a small town for a lecture, opened with hung-over, sexual-religious hysteria and went on to hallucinatory excess culminating with the writer about to caress a vision of a naked man nailed to a cross.

In fact, Verhoeven’s excesses are more than stylistic choice; excess has become a theme with him. So at first he seems an unlikely choice to helm a Hollywood science-fiction project. After all, though it can sometimes seem outrageous with its optical tricks and special effects, sci-fi is the genre that really plays it the safest. Its reliance on carefully repeated plot structures and archetypal (to the point of stereotype now) characters is, as Spaceballs inadvertently indicates, really beyond parody. Briefly put, a young hero, brave but untried, encounters an apparently omnipotent evil force. Unable to fight it, he comes in contact with a wise teacher who gives him special powers that he uses to defeat some of the evil force’s minions. However, as he comes closer to the core of evil, he must rely more and more on his own inherent essence and, in doing so, triumphs over the bad guys.

This was already pretty stale stuff when Star Wars used it ten years ago. George Lucas himself can’t decide where he got it, variously ascribing it to Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and the theories of mythologist Joseph Campbell. But at any rate, whatever vitality may have been present at first has been replaced by an ever-increasing and tedious self-consciousness.

So along come Verhoeven and RoboCop, a fast-paced and hilarious postindustrial satire of the heroic quest that sends up the courageous notions of science fiction yet still manages to deliver the thrills the genre demands. Verhoeven does have the advantage of a clever script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner that has a deadly view of the ineluctable shabbiness of the future. Everything is cheapened and debased, from television news (“Give us three minutes and we’ll give you the world”), hosted by Entertainment Tonight’s Leeza Gibbons, to law enforcement. In the crumbling “Old Detroit” of the near future, the police department has been privatized, sold by the city to Security Concepts, Inc., a subsidiary of OmniConsumer Products (OCP). In this deteriorating world, two battles are raging. The bloodier one is on the streets, where the embattled police, scurrying about in battered compacts with the encumbrances of protective shielding, shoot it out with heavily armed criminals.

At least as deadly, however, is the cutthroat competition that takes place within the soaring spires of OCP’s corporate headquarters. There the spoils involve huge government contracts for law-enforcement robots. The main development project is run by the firm’s powerful vice president, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), a pitiless competitor and the victor of numerous corporate intrigues. His main rival is an ambitious young executive, Morton (Miguel Ferrer), who has used the resources from another project to develop a cheaper, more efficient alternative. His chance comes during a board meeting when Jones unveils his creation–a huge, evil-looking contraption. Unfortunately, during the demonstration, the machine malfunctions and kills one of the executives. Morton takes advantage of the chairman’s displeasure (“I’m very disappointed, Dick”), to Jones’s chagrin (“So what if it doesn’t work, we could make a fortune in spare parts”), and proposes his alternative: a unique cyborg, half man, half machine.

Morton needs a dead cop for his experiment, and it’s not long before he gets one. Murphy (Peter Weller) is a brash young cop whose excitement about being a policeman comes through in such childish ways as twirling his gun cowboy-style. He and his partner end up chasing a gang through a warehouse, and when Murphy is cornered alone, the crooks brutally shoot off various limbs before their evil boss, Clarence (Kurtwood Smith), shoots Murphy rather graphically in the head.

This is a lot of action, and Verhoeven gets through it fast and funny. Murphy’s death, though, is what sets the satirical wheels really spinning. Up till then, the irony more or less hugs the periphery: the TV news travesties, the corporate control of public services (there’s also a plan to buy and redevelop all of Detroit), even Nancy Allen’s butch female supercop, Lewis. But as Clarence’s fateful bullet pierces Murphy’s skull, Verhoeven switches to Murphy’s view of descending darkness. Then, suddenly he sees light again, as if he were looking at a giant TV screen. Only he’s inside the screen, being rebuilt into RoboCop at one of OCP’s labs. The clean-hearted, but inadequate young cop is sheathed in a chitinous carapace of armor, outfitted with laser weapons–the requisite, medieval armature of all sci-fi heroes–and given proper moral instruction. Only instead of the goopy “May the Force be with you,” he gets “You’re going to be a bad motherfucker,” from a leering Morton.

Murphy, of course, is still half human, and though he’s been outfitted with a program to guide him–complete with a mysterious command marked “classified”–his old human side comes bubbling up through his machine consciousness. When he visits his old home, memories of his wife and child pop up like tapes on a VCR. The human is always at war with the machine, in Verhoeven’s drama, a battle fought almost entirely in point-of-view shots. And as the human begins to win out, RoboCop begins to look more human, ultimately removing his metallic headgear to reveal the residual human head, a face surrounded by electronic apparatus. And though the electronic gobbledygook is at first spectacular help to RoboCop in cleaning up the city’s mean streets, and even in tracking down his “murderers,” it’s the crippled cop who finally has to tangle with the ultimate perpetrator, Jones, the executive who lurks behind the movie’s all-embracing criminal conspiracy.

Most of the action not only has climaxes but punch lines too. RoboCop’s displays of awesome force are invariably accompanied by law-enforcement banalities (“You’ve suffered a trauma, madam, let me call a rape crisis center”) and even the most grandiose of the action scenes (and they are all notably well executed; this is an exciting movie on top of everything else) has threads of perverse humor running through it (during one battle, a bad guy crashes his car into a tank of toxic waste and, without taking time out from the action at large, Verhoeven details his gradual sloppy disintegration).

But the movie’s general narrative thrust doesn’t much deviate from the usual platitudinous march of sci-fi. The emergence of Murphy’s human side from RoboCop’s circuitry is only momentarily sad; it’s also clearly written to be cathartic, and thus, as far as the audience is concerned, disposable. Yeah, it’s sad, but he gets over it, and the end result is he’s an even more dangerous and exciting character than ever before.

This is where Verhoeven’s campy tone comes in. The supporting cast is enormously talented, but the performances come in all shadings. Clarence, the head of the street gang, is a sadist, no doubt, but a rather quiet and thoughtful one, especially compared to the corporate crooks. Jones, Morton, and even the chairman are all gloaters, conspiratorial whisperers, and gleeful killers. Even the “good,” or less evil, of them, are snakes; their ultimate goal, after all, is to make the public pay for safety.

At first, given Peter Weller’s lack of breadth, it may seem that RoboCop is a mere reduction of Murphy’s character–mechanized but otherwise neutral. But with a clever use of camera placement on Verhoeven’s part, it’s clear that Murphy is, regardless of the heroic nature of the outcome, the recipient of a bad deal. When RoboCop makes its first appearances outside the lab, Verhoeven switches between close-ups of the gizmo’s detail, and shady long shots that emphasize in abstractions of form and light the power, the function, of the automaton. But as Murphy begins to stir within the shell, Verhoeven switches to quieter, more broadly lit master shots. At one point the mechanical Murphy, his helmet off, his wired face a mask of weary pain, sits in the ruins of an abandoned factory, looking like the ultimate modern victim. He’s the human tooled for work, the demands of his job–arresting bad guys–reducing his humanity and his efficiency robbing him of companionship.

Not that Verhoeven gets maudlin about it. As Murphy sulks in the factory like some galvanized version of The Thinker, he looks more ridiculous than forlorn and more pathetic than sad; kind of like a seduced and abandoned Frankenstein monster. Unlike that creature, however, Murphy, at least in Verhoeven’s hands, seems to be asking for his fate with his gum-chewing, gun-toting bravado. After Murphy becomes RoboCop, Verhoeven uses a close-up to show him twirling his gun just like Murphy used to do. It’s an important plot point–provoking his old partner’s suspicions–but Verhoeven lets other such moments pass without much emphasis. It’s almost as though he’s saying: OK, wise guy, you wanna be a hero, be my guest. Rescue damsels, lock up bad guys, but don’t for a moment think there’s a romantic modern way to do it.