Detroit is on the brink of collapse, overwhelmed with crime and lack of resources. They give the mega-corporation Omni Consumer Projects control over the police department. Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), the president of OCP, demonstrates his new prototype, the ED-209, a robot designed to replace a police officer. It goes wrong and an executive is riddled with bullets. Junior executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) then has a chance to introduce his own project, Robocop.
Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is transferred to the beseiged Metro West Precinct. With his partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), he pursues gang boss Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang: Emil Antonowsky (Paul McCrane), Leon Nash (Ray Wise), Joe Cox (Jesse D. Goins), and Steve Minh (Calvin Jung). They capture and torture Murphy and then kill him, but Morton has him converted to Robocop—a powerful cyborg with no memory of his former life. His prime directives are the serve the public, protect the innocent, uphold the law, and a fourth classified directive.
He is extremely efficient against crime. Anne Lewis believes he is her former partner Murphy. He has nightmares of his death. He looks up Murphy’s records, visits his old home, and begins to remember things. At OCP. Dick Jones gets Boddicker to murder Robocop, who tracks down the Boddicker gang and attacks Boddicker, who admits working for Jones. He tries to arrest Jones, but directive four prevents him from arresting an OCP executive. Jones sends an ED-209 against him and the entire police force goes after him as well, on OCP’s orders. Lewis helps Robocop escape and repair himself.
The police force goes on strike, angered by underfunding and short staffing, and Detroit becomes lawless. Riots break out. Jones sends the Boddicker gang after Robocop in his hiding place. Robocop confronts Jones at OCP Tower during a board meeting. Jones is fired from OCP, and Robocop can shoot him. He gives his name as Murphy.
The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven, once he understood that it was satire. It was written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. The former came up with the idea while working on Blade Runner—what if instead of humans chasing robots, it was the other way around? Jon Davison produced for Orion Pictures. It was outlandishly violent for satirical purposes, and many complained. But it was a surprise financial success and received an Oscar and many Saturn Awards. There were sequels, comic books, TV shows, video games, and toys. Producer John Davison was the voice of ED-209. The producers worried that the real police would be offended, but they loved it.
Much of the violence and redemption and the struggle to stay human arise from Verhoeven’s memories of growing up in the Nazi-controlled Netherlands. Despite the horrific violence, the point is the humanity of Murphy that survives not only his death but his transformation into a machine. The satire is often right on point. When TV news is used for satirical purposes in a movie, its inanity is grossly overblown, but a few years later, the real news seems just as pointless and shallow and inane. 26 years after the movie was made, Detroit went bankrupt. Peter Weller didn’t fit in the police car with his costume on, so he just wore the top of it and sat in the car in his underwear. He lost three pounds a day wearing it, until they installed an air-conditioner. A criminal running from the police hid in a theater showing Robocop and the perp got so involved in the movie that he didn’t notice the police sneaking the rest of the audience out of the theater.
The ED-209 was based on the design of a Bell Helicopter and toys based on a 1980s Anime series. “Serve the public trust” came from a fortune cookie. Ronnie Cox always portrayed a nice guy; after this, he jumped at the chance to play another sleazeball heavy in Verhoeven’s Total Recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger was too big to fit in the Robocop costume and was also happy to appear in Total Recall. The real paramedics used made up their own dialogue. For a few years after the movie, a Detroit radio station did the traffic reports in a voice like Robocop’s. The gunshot sound-effects were later used in Die Hard.
The scientists are named for US presidents and the cops for serial killers. There is a nude co-op shower scene, but it was cut short and later inspired the major scene in Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.