robocop paul verhoeven
ROBOCOP, director Paul Verhoeven, on set, 1987. (c)Orion Pictures

If Paul Verhoeven has taught moviemakers anything during his time spent directing blockbusters, it’s that action and violence can be as meaningful as they are lean and mean.

In RoboCop – Exploring an Action Masterpiece,” video essayist Rossatron explains: “RoboCop is heavy on action, but it always feels there for a specific reason.” What that reason is varies throughout the film, ranging from social commentary, to satire, to punctuation between beats in the narrative progression of Alex Murphy’s (Peter Weller) journey from slain police officer to the titular resurrected RoboCop. But one thing’s for sure: As the video says, “This isn’t a mindless one-man army film, but a film about a weapon—one that is discovering where it came from and what it is, made in a decade so obsessed with the glamorization of the military and so affected by Cold War thinking. [It’s] a film about the militarization of a police force as the foundation of a new utopia, and the ghost in the shell and dangerous glitches of the new technology that is needed to make that feel so prescient and important.”

Rossatron points to a major contrast between Verhoeven’s RoboCop and the 2014 remake of the original film: “What Verhoeven brings to the action is clarity. Everything is well covered and the editing is in support of what is happening on screen. In the remake, RoboCop pretty much just shoots anywhere, and we see robots getting shot. We don’t establish where they are, instead only seeing what has been shot after Robo has fired. We always follow the gun, the firing and then the aftermath. However, in the original RoboCop, we almost always get one shot of a criminal aiming first, before seeing RoboCop fire. That one extra shot each time adds so much: We get a sense of geography and direction, and of course, tension.”

Also read: How Paul Verhoeven Lucked Into That RoboCop Walking-on-Water Scene

“Good old, shaky-cam-free action films” like RoboCop, Rossatron argues, also heighten audiences’ sense of space in each bullet-ridden sequence. “Thank God for the 180 degree line,” he adds. “Everything happens on one plane. It can be so helpful in a gunfight to keep the audience’s understanding of what is happening clear. If a bad guy shoots to the right, RoboCop shoots to the left. If that plane changes, we cut to a wider shot, or an exaggerated movement to show the change in direction. Simple.”

These basic formal techniques, coupled with the director’s tongue-in-cheek perspective on American culture’s celebration of consumerism, corporatism and carnal violence imbues what might typically be construed as silly, high-concept fare with meaty subtext and even philosophical wisdom. Watch the video, then ask yourself: How can you make your action feature’s concept and execution actually mean something? MM

Main image: Paul Verhoeven on the set of RoboCop.