Favorite screenplays: Robocop part 4
I did something of a disservice to Murphy when I said he gave up his protagonist status at the beginning of Act II of Robocop. What happens is something a little more subtle. Lots of superheroes undergo a transformation at the end of the first act of their origin stories, but few completely forget their previous identity. What happens to Murphy is that he falls into a kind of slumber, and in that slumber he dreams of being the kind of cop he’s always wanted to be: strong, resourceful, unfailingly just, and wicked cool. He wants to be TJ Lazer, essentially, he wants to be a TV cop, and Morton’s Robocop program gives him the chance to do that. The price he pays is his identity as Murphy, good husband and father. This is, the screenplay suggests, the bargain we all make when dealing with a corporate oligarchy: we gain a smidgen of that corporation’s power, but we give up our total identities as individuals in return. At the supply side, we become product, at the demand side we become consumers.
So Robocop, who is still Robocop at this moment and not yet Murphy again (his struggle to reclaim his identity will take the rest of the narrative), has had a dream of his past life (his real life is now a dream that interrupts his present dream life of being Robocop – shades of Total Recall) and he lurches out into the night to seek justice for the wrongs done to him.
It doesn’t take him long! Right off the bat, he finds Emile, one of Boddicker’s gang, holding up a gas station. (The gas station attendant is a college student studying geometry, which shows how highly science is valued in this society.) Because of the phrases Robocop uses, Emile realizes he is Murphy. (Lewis made the same deduction from an earlier line – it’s kind of telling that, just like on TV, the characters of Robocop are identified by catchphrases – Robocop might as well say “I’ll buy that for a dollar!”) It’s a rare flaw in the screenplay that Robocop heads out into the night to find the people who killed him, and then finds one immediately – by coincidence, but Emile’s recognizing of Murphy shakes Robocop to his core – he wasn’t actually expecting to find Emile. The dream he had, apparently, he treated as a dream, something to be discounted upon waking.
Robocop, disturbed by his encounter with Emile, takes his recorded memory of the incident to the police data center and quickly identifies Emile as a member of Boddicker’s gang, and Boddicker as the murderer of Murphy. (It gives me no pleasure to find that, after he murdered Murphy, Boddicker immediately went out and murdered me as well.) He, and we, also find out the rest of Murphy’s name (Alex J., matching him to Boddicker, who is Clarence J., and Lazer, who is T.J.) and address (Primrose Lane, which is where the family lived on Father Knows Best, the most idyllic of 1950s situation comedies, where there was no problem a wise patriarch couldn’t solve in 20 minutes.)
Robocop drives out to the house he lived in as Murphy, and we finally experience that family life he took for granted up to the moment of his death. It’s all gone now, the house is on the market (and not selling – houses owned by dead cops must not be in demand) and his wife and son are nowhere in evidence. It has, apparently, taken quite a while for Murphy to be transformed into Robocop. As he moves through the empty house (which has, apparently, suffered a fire at some point) he re-lives key family scenes, all tender to the point of being sentimental. He becomes increasingly angry, but at whom is he angry? He reins in his rage until the automated realtor suggests “Why not make me an offer?” an inversion, of course, of “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” at which point he lashes out and destroys the monitor. He recognizes that he’s been caught up in a capitalist intrigue, he’s a pawn in OCP’s game, and he’s not going to play superhero any more.
He locates Leon Nash, another of Boddicker’s goons, while Bob Morton celebrates his advancement at OCP by doing coke with a couple of cheap floozies (whom he characterizes as “intelligent women” because they flatter his self-image). As he discusses intricacies of thought while snorting coke of the breasts of one of his dates, his doorbell rings, chiming the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, an homage to A Clockwork Orange. At the door is this movie’s version of Clockwork‘s Alex, Boddicker himself, violently re-asserting himself into the narrative. Boddicker is there as an employee of Dick Jones, who apparently has been in league with Boddicker from the beginning. Jones has sent Boddicker to kill Morton, removing him from the OCP chain of command. It’s too bad that Boddicker hasn’t found out that Murphy is Robocop yet: the irony of him killing the cop who made Morton’s reputation might have killed him.
Boddicker kills Morton and heads over to a cocaine factory to buy more product. Why the cocaine producer, Sal, doesn’t control his own distribution is beyond me, but that’s his business. Boddicker wants Sal to offer him a discount, to boost his (Boddicker’s) profits. I’ll admit, I’m a little confused about Jones’s relationship with Boddicker – if a senior officer at OCP is going to work with a gangster, why not also work with the cocaine producer? Is Boddicker bargaining with Sal on Jones’s behalf? If so, why? Is Jones also in the cocaine-selling business? If so, why hasn’t he bought Sal’s operation and vertically integrated? OCP runs the police force, he could have Sal’s operation seized and turned over to him. From the way Boddicker dickers, it seems like his deal with Jones is something quite loose, that Jones has merely promised Boddicker the run of Old Detroit’s criminal underworld in exchange for services rendered, but Boddicker has to figure out how to run it himself. It doesn’t seem that Jones okays (or finances) bank-robbing and drug-dealing, just he uses Boddicker as a means to his end of deploying the ED-209. Boddicker is a useful psychopath and, as I’ve noted before, a darker version of Jones himself.
In any case, the negotiations between Boddicker and Sal break down when Robocop literally bashes down the door looking for Boddicker. He kills a dozen or so goons, including all of Boddicker’s men, then arrests Boddicker. It’s touching how Robocop reads Boddicker his Miranda rights while throwing him through plate-glass windows, but Boddicker waives his right to remain silent and immediately gives up Dick Jones as his employer. When he has Boddicker in his grip, Boddicker reminds him that, as a cop, he cannot murder a man merely for the sake of revenge. What he means is that he’s protected by Jones, but what Robocop hears is “No, there are rules, and I promised my son.”
So, in the course of one night, Murphy finds Emile, who leads him to Nash, who leads him to Boddicker, who leads him to Jones. Robocop heads to OCP HQ to arrest Jones, but Jones has his own weapon: Directive 4, which prevents him from arresting senior OCP officers. His HUD indicates this dilemma with the phrase “PRODUCT MALFUNCTION.” “We can’t very well have our products turning against us, can we?” gloats the corporate overlord.
To finish Robocop off, Jones brings in the famous ED-209. ED-209 does a great job of trashing Robocop, but also pretty much destroys the whole floor of the OCP HQ. How Jones is going to explain that in the morning is beyond me, but the efficiency of his product cannot be denied: the ED-209 can demolish, punch, smash, squish and pulverize. It can do anything except, of course, walk down stairs, a great, great joke that proves that Robocop is a geek movie written by movie geeks.
Robocop escapes the ED-209 only to find himself in the OCP parking structure surrounded by his fellow cops, who, under orders from Jones, proceed to shoot the crap out of him. He barely escapes, aided by Lewis, the one person in the world who knows the man he once was, his link to the past.