KOOL KAT OF THE WEEK: Grateful for “HATEFUL”: Actor Michael Madsen Bends Our Ear about Steve McQueen, James Bond, HAWAII FIVE-O, Vintage Muscle Cars, Lee Marvin, Matt Helm, Roger Corman, and How He Saddled Up for Quentin Tarantino’s New Western, THE HATEFUL EIGHT

Posted on: Dec 22nd, 2015 By:
Michael Madsen. Photo credit: Isaac Alvarez. Weinstein Co. Used with permission.

Michael Madsen. Photo credit: Isaac Alvarez. Weinstein Co. Used with permission.

By Gregory Nicoll
Contributing Writer

“I don’t always play bad guys,” observes Michael Madsen, his voice as raspy and powerful as a Harley-Davidson’s exhaust pipe, “but for some reason when I do, it gets more attention than when I play somebody who doesn’t have a gun.”

Even without a firearm in his hand, the burly 6’ 2” actor radiates an onscreen menace so palpable it inspires nightmares. His breakthrough role was playing Mister Blonde in Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), for which he tortured a policeman with a razor and gasoline in one of the most disturbing sequences of ’90s cinema. But despite equally convincing performances in high-profile good-guy parts – such as the loving dad in FREE WILLY (1993), the action hero in SPECIES (1995), and a stoic lawman in WYATT EARP (1994) – Madsen still finds himself cast more often on the dark side, with unforgettable bad-guy turns in KILL BILL (2003/2004), HELL RIDE (2008), DONNIE BRASCO (1997) and THE GETAWAY (1994) His latest movie is Tarantino’s much-anticipated new western, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, which opens on Christmas day in an extended limited-release 70mm Ultra-Panavision “Roadshow” presentation with a overture and an intermission (Regal Atlantic Station 18), with a wide release starting Dec. 30 (Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, etc.).

We spoke with Michael Madsen by phone from his seaside California home.

ATLRetro: Let’s hear about THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Sure hope you’re not weary of talking about it.

Michael Madsen: Not really! It’s hard to get weary of Tarantino, who’s such a force to be reckoned with. This is the third time he’s reached out to me with, “Let’s get on the bus.” Only in this case it’s, “Let’s get on the horses!”

So, this is a western about characters who all get stranded together after their stagecoach is re-routed?

It’s pretty hard to put a lid on what it is, but it’s about a bunch of eight people who’ve got an agenda, an agenda that’s pretty complicated. The script was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever read. I guess it’s somewhere between THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967). 

Hateful-Eight-posterIs there any previous classic western movie to which it could easily be compared?

Well, maybe ONE-EYED JACKS (1967), which is probably the greatest western I’ve ever seen. It’s the only picture Marlon Brando ever directed, taking over from Stanley Kubrick. I just love it. ONE-EYED JACKS is about everything. There’s nothing that it isn’t about. There are so many themes in there, it’s mind-boggling. It’s one of Marlon’s finest. Him and Karl Malden are so wonderful together, it’s just unbelievable.

Karl Malden was fabulous in just about everything, from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) to NEVADA SMITH (1966).

That was with Steve McQueen. What a power he was on the screen!  [Quoting NEVADA SMITH] “You haven’t got the guts!” Yeah, he’s shot in the kneecaps and it’s pretty horrendous, but, wow…

When I first moved to Malibu, I lived right next door to Steve McQueen. Steve was one of those guys who came along at time when the movie industry – when Sam Peckinpah and John Sturges and Norman Jewison were making films. Those kind of directors, they don’t really exist anymore. They were as much responsible for Steve’s success as he was himself, the combination of him, a personality like that, put together with those kinda directors. Steve was one of a kind and he made some – well, I like THE GETAWAY (1972). To me, that’s the quintessential Steve McQueen movie. I got to be in the remake of it, which was great, but I would have preferred to play Doc McCoy [McQueen’s role]. Alec [Baldwin] did a good job, but I think I coulda pulled that off.

The character of Doc in the original Jim Thompson novel THE GETAWAY has much more of an edge to him than in the films.

Well, I teased Alec constantly during the making of that thing. Every single time we were on the set and he was doing something, I’d go, “You remember the way Steve was standing?” or, “You remember the way Steve was holding the gun?” or “When you look around the corner, you remember how Steve did it?” and he’d go [imitating Baldwin’s voice], “Madsen! Shut up, Madsen! You’re driving me crazy.” It was really funny. I teased him quite a bit, but he had a good sense of humor about it. At the end of the film he actually bought and gave me the Smith & Wesson handgun that I used in the movie.

Speaking of firearms, will we be seeing much of the trademark Tarantino gunplay violence in HATEFUL EIGHT?

Oh, sure. Of course. Wouldn’t be the same without it.

Michael Madsen in HATEFUL EIGHT. Weinstein Co. Used with permission.

Michael Madsen in HATEFUL EIGHT. Weinstein Co. Used with permission.

Last year Tarantino was furious when his HATEFUL EIGHT script got leaked online, and you were one of the few insiders who’d been given a copy.

People actually thought it was me! I was in Italy at the time. My buddy and I were on an elevator, this was about 2 :00 in the morning and we’d just got back to the hotel, and he was looking at his phone, and all of sudden he goes, “Oh my god!” And I go, “What is it?” And he goes, “Oh, Michael, oh my god, somebody leaked out Quentin’s script and he’s all pissed off, and he says he only gave it to three people, and it wasn’t Tim [Roth].” And I was, like, “Holy shit, man, it sounds like I’m a suspect!” So I called him the next day and I said, “Quentin, man, say something to somebody, because obviously it wasn’t me.” And he started laughing actually. He thought it was funny that this had so quickly been heard about as far away as Italy, that the very next day it was worldwide news.

Not much later you participated in a staged public reading of the HATEFUL EIGHT script. Was Tarantino directing you live on stage?

Oh, he sure was, he had on a black cowboy hat and was coming over to the actors and giving them direction, right in front of everybody. Quentin read all the stage directions aloud. He had a coffee pot for a prop, and I had a bandana for my prop. It was a fascinating night. I’ve never done anything like that.

Did you rehearse for this?

Yeah, we rehearsed for three days before the show, and once in the afternoon right before the show. It was a lot of hustling around to get everybody together, but to have the whole cast together in one room and start reading through this thing, and putting it up on its feet, and to know now that we’re actually gonna go and film it later, it was a great, great, great kind of boost for me.

How did it feel to have that immediate feedback from the audience? People must have been laughing, reacting in various ways…

Well, everybody was very, very respectful. That’s what I remember. I’d seen everybody coming in, because I was in the back as the theater started to fill up, and I’d been looking out the windows in the front of the building, and everybody was all dressed up! It was really kind of an evening with all the girls all dolled up and guys dressed up. Nobody was allowed to bring their phone inside or have any kind of recording devices.

I heard that you don’t carry a cell phone. Is that still true?

I don’t like them, put it that way. I didn’t even get an iPad till about six months ago. I just really didn’t get the point of it. I would see people on their phones in the car, on their phone constantly, and when I had one myself it seemed like I became so dependent on it. I started wondering why does everyone need it so badly when no-one ever had it before, and back then everyone got along fine. Was it really that important to talk to somebody if you can call ‘em an hour later? But I have five kids, and I gotta have a phone,  but I frequently don’t charge it up and “accidentally” leave it somewhere, and I try really hard not to become obsessed with it.  I heard that Christopher Walken doesn’t have a cell phone, and he’s my hero; and if he honestly doesn’t – or if he’s just saying that to sound cool – I don’t know, but I’m hoping he really doesn’t have one.

Michael Madsen. Photo credit: Isaac Alvarez. Weinstein Co. Used with permission.

Michael Madsen. Photo credit: Isaac Alvarez. Weinstein Co. Used with permission.

Speaking of contemporary actors, you recently worked with Danny Trejo on a film called HOPE LOST. What was that like?

I’m not real fond of that title but, uh, it was shot in Rome and it’s basically about girls sold into the sex trade. The movie is a little rough, not for everyone. When you’re working on lower budget things, sometimes you have a bit more control over dialogue and scenes. In the original script I did some terrible things and got killed, but I didn’t end up doing that. My character lives, and I actually walk away from a bad situation at the end. Danny’s such a great actor and wonderful presence on screen. You walk the streets of Rome with Danny, and people come out of the restaurants shouting, “Machete! Machete!” Pretty funny. He’s Machete, no doubt about it. He’s got that mug!

I always wanted to see you cast as James Bond’s CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter, in the 007 series. That unfortunately didn’t happen, but you did get that nice supporting bit in DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002).

I loved working on that! Pierce Brosnan was a friend of mine and he lived right down the street from me, and that’s how that kinda happened. I went and I met [007 film producer] Barbara Broccoli, and they wanted to find a spot for me, and I did that one. I would have come back, I would have loved to. Judi Dench was such a great pleasure to work with. Having a Bond film as a credit is pretty cool. I’d like to do a few more.

You did an episode of HAWAII FIVE-O in 2014 which was notable because you were a bad guy who turned out to be a good guy.

What happened was, I’d heard there was some interest in having me on the show, and I was a huge, huge fan of the old show [the original HAWAII FIVE-O series which ran from 1968 to 1980]. That music, that opening title sequence is so bitchin’ and I remember watching that show most of my life, and just thought it was super cool. You can’t touch that thing. When they were interested in me, it was like a boyhood dream to be on HAWAII FIVE-O, but when they started calling me to do it, I said, “You know what, man, I’m not gonna come on the damn thing if you’re gonna kill me. There has to be something else. I’m gonna come in and get thrown down the steps by Scott Caan and then at the end get killed in a shoot-out. Please, please come up with something better for me.” And so, it really wasn’t until six months later after that conversation that they actually called me to do the show, and obviously when I read the script, the ending was the wonderful thing about it. You realize that this guy wasn’t such a bad person, and there’s this huge redemption, and that’s why I did it.  I’ve never seen the episode; I was out of the country when it aired. I got a lot of compliments from my family about it.

hell-ride-movie-poster-2008-1020412950You were crammed into the tiny backseat of that Chevy Camaro for much of the time.

Being trapped in a car with Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan is an interesting experience. Both of those guys are good actors and I had fun with them, but if they’re not complaining about being stuck in Hawaii, all they do is talk about cigars all day.

They complain about being in Hawaii?

These two guys, you gotta understand, were in their fourth season, and after that many episodes I would imagine that sooner or later it might start to get to you. I saw Scotty in the parking lot in the early, early morning on my first day, and I said,”Hey man, where’s a good place to eat?” And he goes, “L.A.!” [laughs]

Hey, you know who directed that episode? Peter Weller, ROBOCOP (1987)! Peter’s a really intelligent guy, and I really enjoyed working with him. He really gave me a wide berth, let me come in and do my thing. He understands the actor’s dilemma, and he’s very, very methodical in his direction of exactly how he wants certain things. I was lucky to have him there because I wanted that thing to matter, I wanted that to be a good episode, I was thrilled to be on it, and to have him direct it made it just that much better.

I’m betting that you personally own some cars that are cooler than Danno’s Camaro.

Well, over the years I certainly have had some interesting vehicles. I entertained my boyhood fantasies after I started making some money as an actor. I got a ’57 Chevy small block and put dual quads on the damn thing. I had a Stingray with a big block four-speed. I went through a couple of Plymouth Roadrunners and even a Superbird. The thing is, you get these cars that you’ve always dreamed about having, and you end up with flat tires and dead batteries. You can’t really drive them that much, and you have to keep them somewhere, and it ends up being an expense that doesn’t make sense, especially if you have children. A lot of my toys are gone. I let most of them go. The last one I had was a ’67 GTO; that was really pretty cool. I bought it from the original owner. I got a couple motorcycles and I still have my Jaguar, but I’ve recently – funny you should say – I’ve recently started to get that feeling again. Wouldn’t be nice to have a nice 427 Chevelle downstairs? Nice fuckin’ four-speed convertible. I was even thinkin’ of getting something for my son, something we can build together.

Are you a liquor guy or a beer guy?

I’m not any one thing.  I think drinking is one of those things that requires moderation.  I like to have some wine with dinner, but I’m not like a big drinker. If I’m flying on a plane, I’ll have a Jack and Coke. If I’m out with my wife and I don’t have to drive anywhere, I’ll have a martini. If I’m with my sons watching a game, I’ll drink a beer. But I’m not…

You’re not Charles Bukowski or anything.

Jesus, no!

Reservoir_dogs_ver1Or Lee Marvin.

[Laughs] You know, I’m very fond of Lee Marvin. That fuckin’ guy, he had such a – you look at CAT BALLOU (1965) or POINT BLANK (1967) – he really, really had a tremendous screen presence, and whenever you read a little bio of him, they have to throw in that last little line about him being a heavy drinker. You kinda wonder, is it really necessary to highlight that particular part of his personality? Most of the guys from that era were drinkers. Look at Dean Martin in the Matt Helm movies – he was hammered, and you can tell when you watch the movie! All of those guys were drinkers back then, and nobody thought there was anything wrong with it.

You have over a hundred screen credits. If you could pick three that you feel were unjustifiably overlooked, and get them re-appraised, which movies would they be?

I did a boxing picture called STRENGTH AND HONOUR (2010), playing an Irish-American prizefighter, probably one of the better pictures I’ve ever done, and it never got a proper release. It was actually finished at the same time as Mickey Rourke’s huge comeback, THE WRESTLER (2008).  I spoke to the director and he told me about trying to get it a second life, and how some investors convinced him he should re-release it in 3D. I was speechless! I hung up on him.

In addition, I did a cop picture called VICE (2008) which was shot by Andrzej Sekula, who was the director of photography on RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION (1994). I rewrote the beginning and the ending, and then I got Darryl Hannah into it and had a lot to do with the whole production. It’s a slow, quiet film but it’s about redemption, and I dedicated it to Chris Penn [Madsen’s RESERVOIR DOGS co-star] because he had passed away when I was making it.

And HELL RIDE! That came out on DVD, and people didn’t really know what it was. Now it’s become kind of a cult thing. The plot doesn’t make any sense, but it’s fun to watch. Those are three of them, right off the top of my head.

I know that you own your character’s motorcycle from HELL RIDE. Did you keep anything else? Do you have, say, the Zippo lighter from RESERVOIR DOGS?

As a matter of fact, Quentin has that. He has the razor, too. It’s the exact same razor that Uma Thurman uses in KILL BILL, when she’s buried alive. Mister Blonde’s razor! Quentin’s real good about keeping stuff. I’ve got a lot of clothes. I have Mister Blonde’s suit.

Tarantino must have been a big fan of John Dahl’s KILL ME AGAIN (1989)an earlier film where you tie somebody up and get rough with them.

There’s a strange story. Originally I remembered him telling me that that’s where he got the idea for me to be Mister Blonde, but I did a cable talk show many years ago and said that, and later when I ran into him he told me that was not why he’d cast me as Mister Blonde. KILL ME AGAIN was a good movie, but nobody saw it. John Dahl, man, John Dahl in his glory. Whatever happened to John Dahl? He’s vanished. I was supposed to do RED ROCK WEST (1993) with him, and then he opted for Nick Cage, and that’s where my relationship with John went south!

There was once talk of you and John Travolta reprising your roles from RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION in a prequel, in which your characters were brothers.

The Vega brothers! Well, you know John and I are not kids any more. I was at the Cannes Film Festival recently, hanging around with Quentin, when I finally met John. Now that the two of us have been standing together in the same room with Quentin, I think the idea became a little more interesting, more timely. I don’t think it would necessarily be a prequel, but I do think him and me together in some capacity, in a reminder of the other two pictures, is a lot more possible now. It would be nice, wouldn’t it? But you’ll have to ask Quentin about that.

One final question: Have you thought about doing any directing?

You know what? I just finished a Roger Corman picture called COBRAGATOR (2015). I love Roger! His movies are sci-fi pictures, and there is something about a Roger Corman film that’s different from the rest of that genre. Working for him is a pleasure, and I did get to do some directing in it, and I got a great deal of pleasure out of it. I realized that I’ve been wanting to direct forever, but nobody’s ever asked me to do it. The hard thing about it is you need that breakout, you need someone to actually say, “Okay, you get to direct this movie,” but if you haven’t ever done it before, there’s always that doubt. Can he really do it? Can he actually direct? Which, obviously, I could. I’d love to do that. I hope it’s in my future. I would like to do that a lot.    

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Space Invaders Hit Drive-Invasion 2013! The Starlight Drive-In Blasts Off With 1980s Sci-Fi Classics!

Posted on: Aug 29th, 2013 By:

The Starlight Drive-In presents Drive-Invasion 2013Starlight Drive-In; Sunday, Sep. 1; Gates open @ 10 a.m.; Admission $20 advance, $25 at door, children 3-9 $5; Advance tickets here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The Official World Famous Drive-Invasion is upon us, and there’s a whole slew of hot bands from Memphis garage-thud legends The Oblivians to the one and only  MAN… OR ASTRO-MAN? being cooked up at the Starlight Drive-In for all of y’all Drive-Invaders! But let’s not overlook the great movies that will hit the screen as soon as the sun goes down. This year, there’s an action-packed lineup of 1980s sci-fi flicks that run the spectrum from wild and wacky to dark and gritty.

THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION; Dir. W.D. Richter; Starring Peter WellerEllen Barkin and John Lithgow; Trailer here.

Let me tell you a secret.

You may not know this, but our planet was invaded by Red Lectroids from th dimension. This realm had been occupied by clandestine Red Lectroids since October 31, 1938, when Dr. Emilio Lizardo—having been possessed by their leader Lord John Whorfin—brought them to Earth. Specifically, to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. This was reported live as it happened by Orson Welles, but he was later pressured to claim that his broadcast was a work of fiction. From that day, they had been posing as humans and developing technology at Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems in order to take over this planet. Thankfully, we were protected by the Hong Kong Cavaliers under the leadership of physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, race car driver, rock star and comic book hero Buckaroo Banzai.

The efforts of Buckaroo Banzai and his crack team/backing band to our planet from the imminent threat of complete takeover by the Red Lectroids were documented by writer Earl Mac Rauch and director W.D. Richter in their 1984 docu-drama THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION. Rauch and Richter present the true-life tales of Banzai with the effortless charm and thrill-a-minute excitement of vehicles featuring pulp heroes like Doc Savage, or radio adventurers like Captain MidnightPeter Weller embodies the role of Banzai with a wry and drolly laconic air. Ellen Barkin is magnificently funny, smart and sexy as Penny Priddy, the twin sister of Banzai’s late wife. And John Lithgow is completely unhinged as Lizardo/Whorfin, sporting a wild red fright wig and speaking in a ridiculously over-the-top Italian accent. Supported by a stellar cast of veteran character actors (Clancy BrownJeff GoldblumChristopher LloydRobert ItoVincent Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya, among others), the film is nearly as wild, exciting, funny, fast and ridiculous as the real-life events they are based upon.

THE LAST STARFIGHTER; Dir. Nick Castle; Starring Lance GuestRobert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy; Trailer here.

THE LAST STARFIGHTER is essentially what every kid playing video games in the early 1980s dreamed would happen to them. Teenager Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a nowhere kid in a nowhere town, whose only real escape is in playing the Starfighter video game outside the diner where his mom works. One evening he manages to top the highest score on record, which gets the attention of the game’s inventor Centauri (Robert Preston). It’s revealed that Centauri is a disguised alien and that the game is a test to find people qualified to actually fight in an interstellar war between the Rylan Star League and the Ko-Dan Empire. And it’s up to Alex to save the Rylan home world and protect the universe from the Ko-Dan leader Xur.

As far as STAR WARS rip-offs go, this has long been a favorite. It’s directed with brisk energy by Nick Castle (who played Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN!), and features a spectacular mix of practical special effects and early CGI. Lance Guest does a great job in the role of the film’s ersatz Luke Skywalker, convincingly frustrated by his surroundings and dreaming of something bigger. And he’s bolstered by great performances from Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy. It may be a slight movie, but it’s a lot of fun.

THE THING; Dir. John Carpenter; Starring Kurt RussellWilford Brimley and Keith David; Trailer here.

Something from another world has crash-landed in the Antarctic. Something that can mimic any living thing. It’s already wiped out a Norwegian research station. Now it is inside the neighboring American compound, and it could be taking the place of any person—or persons—there. Who can you trust, when anyone could be…the Thing?

Many people consider this one of the greatest remakes ever made. I am not one of those people. To me, this isn’t a remake at all; this is simply a second adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella WHO GOES THERE? The Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby 1951 film (there is disagreement over who actually directed) was a loose adaptation of Campbell’s story, jettisoning the entire “alien imitation and assimilation” aspect of the plot, and only focusing on the threat of an alien menacing an Arctic scientific outpost. While John Carpenter borrowed the title treatment from the Hawks/Nyby film, everything else is much more faithful to Campbell’s original tale.

Though it’s hard to find someone today who doesn’t love THE THING, this wasn’t the case in 1982. It received mixed-to-negative reviews upon release and was considered a flop, only barely breaking into the top 10 for three weeks and only taking in a third of its cost on its opening weekend. Critics and moviegoers seemed to prefer the “aliens are our best friends” approach of that year’s E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, which came out just two weeks prior to THE THING. And the special effects of Rob Bottin—now seen as a landmark exercise in visual effects—were largely seen as unnecessarily grotesque and gory at the time, overshadowing the onscreen suspense.

It’s amazing how wrong people can be.

In the years since, a much-needed reappraisal of the film has taken place. It’s now regarded as one of John Carpenter’s finest works, second only perhaps to HALLOWEEN. The ensemble performances are excellent across the board. Kurt Russell makes a believably reluctant hero, questioning everyone even as he questions himself. And each supporting actor—from Wilford Brimley to Keith David, from Donald Moffatt to Richard Masur, and on down the line—creates a unique and memorable take on their character. Bottin’s bravura special effects are shocking and surreal, heightening the alien nature of the transformations on display and providing a sense of “anything goes” unexpectedness to the proceedings. And John Carpenter proves himself a master of onscreen composition, creating gorgeous tableaux with every shot. He keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, but never rushes things. And he ramps up suspense at every turn, continually making you question every person on the screen before you. Add on one of Ennio Morricone’s best scores, and there’s little more one can ask for.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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30 Days of The Plaza, Day 26: Dead or Alive, You’re Coming With Me! ROBOCOP Rises Again at Splatter Cinema Sat. Sept. 8

Posted on: Sep 6th, 2012 By:

Splatter Cinema Presents ROBOCOP (1987); Dir: Paul Verhoeven; Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen and Dan O’Herlihy; Sat. Sept. 8; 9:30 PM; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Thomas Drake
Contributing Writer

Short: “I’ll buy that for a dollar.” “Dead or Alive, You’re coming With Me!”

Medium: Murphy (Peter Weller) is an old school cop who is part of a privatized police force in a decaying old Detroit. Detroit has been bought by the megaconglomerate, OCP, which plans to rebuild her in their shining image. Two competing robotics projects change Murphy’s life forever when the Ed-9000 project goes haywire and kills a major OCP exec, causing Project Robocop to initiate.  Murphy is fatally wounded in the line of duty, and since he is now an OCP employee, his corpse is OCP property as well. They turn him into a cyborg with three laws: “Serve the Public Trust”; “Protect the Innocent”; “Uphold the Law.”

Robocop is a hit with the locals and cleans up against the bad guys. However, the brain of Murphy begins having flashbacks of his former life.  Meanwhile, a vengeful OCP employee turns against Robocop to sabotoge the project and supplies street gangs with military weapons. Shenanigans.

Maximum Verbosity: When I try to explain the subgenre of cyberpunk to Slines, they look confused at the mention of  NEUROMANCER or SNOWCRASH.  Then I say ROBOCOP, and they usually get that. ROBOCOP was a pioneer of movies like it – a dark future where corporations ruled, near enough to feel familiar but far enough that they had the freedom to radically change society.  We do, in fact, have corporations buying up cities, influencing elections, and gaining a dominant hand in our daily lives.  We do, in fact, have anthro-modeled drones with guns being put together by the military to shoot people in war.  We do, in fact, have cyborgs with mind-linked artificial limbs; some of which are being developed for the military. We do, in fact, have privatized police forces.  We do, in fact, have “reality television” with interactive audience participation where they can indeed “buy that for a dollar.” In fact, we do have situations where corporations can require their citizens to sign away their basic rights that have been upheld by the federal courts. People like to talk about how prophetic BLADE RUNNER or MINORITY REPORT were about the direction things are going, but ROBOCOP is batting a much higher average.

Of course, the movie is not real life. Reality is much more nuanced and complicated; but at the same time, ROBOCOP is also very complicated and nuanced. On the basic surface, it’s just a standard action flick; bad guys wrong heroic cop; heroic cop fights them, gets the evidence and stops the bad guys. Sure, he’s a ROBOcop, but he’s still basically a cop. Indeed, ROBOCOP is basically just a cop movie; that’s the formula it follows.  In some ways you could ALMOST plug in bits of it (albiet badly) into most any cop movie and have it kind of work here. Eddie Murphy in armor anyone?

But beneath this surface, there is a complicated political statement being made about free enterprise vs the public good. It asks questions about what lines should be crossed? How far will we let corporations go?  Should we be allowed to sign away our rights?  Make no mistake, there is a thriving black market for organs, and there are many who are pushing to allow private citizens to sell their organs for a profit – living or dead.  Since corporations frequently take out life insurance policies on their employees, why not claim a profit on their organs if they die on the job?

The best manifestation of this lies in the media coverage and snarky commercials that weave between the major scenes. This is where the ROBO (sci fi) part of ROBOCOP really shines. You see the future (well…present now) of news. You see that the past is the present is the future in terms of how commercials work and what is sold. They set the tone of the action flick that makes it much more than an armored guy going around shooting people. Indeed, at its core, Robocop is really about what it means to be a human. Is it our memories? Murphy loses those at first, but they slowly come back. Is there a ghost in the machine? Is there a soul somewhere in our meat suit?  The movie struggles with these questions as Murphy watches his family from afar, cursed to only be able to watch his former family but unable to confront them based on the Frankenstein monster that he has become.

Peter Weller and Kurtwood Smith in ROBOCOP. Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures Corp. 1987

The play of the laws is also exceedingly well done and a fantastic nod to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Indeed, ROBOCOP, much like Asimovian robots, has a secret “zeroth” law, though these two are diametically opposed. Asimovian robots are compelled to serve humanity as a whole. OCP robots are compelled to serve their corporation executives at the exclusion of the innocent, the law or the public trust.

The contrast couldn’t be more clear.

Peter Weller’s performance as Murphy is fantastic. He sets the bar so high that I doubt the remake will really do the character justice by comparison. Equally impressive is the rather understated performance of his partner played by Nancy Allen. She doesn’t have much screen time, but she is the foil that encourages Murphy to see himself more as a man and less as just a machine. A bond forms between them, and she also gives the audience a connection to the character. As a sidekick she’s pretty damn impressive, especially compared to the abilities exhibited by Robocop himself. The entire cast does a fantastic job, but I’d like to make a special shout out to the crime boss played by Kurtwood Smith, who knocks it out of the park as a bad guy who is both a stereotype and an extremely complex character at the same time.  Smith has gone on to do some very impressive work since then.

As a side note, if you like to see bad guys turned to goo and properly punished for their arrogance – shot, stabbed, burned and maimed – this is a movie for you. Eighties movies were very good at this kind of thing, and ROBOCOP delivers it wholesale.  It is a movie that makes you think, makes you feel, and makes you cackle with glee at the destruction of evil. If you’re into that kind of thing

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