Action in Summer 1987: Robocop & Predator

A recent article on Ain’t It Cool News got me thinking about a couple of film gems from 1987 – “Predator” and “Robocop” – and the decline of 1980s-style R-rated action films (Cerny, 2012). The passing of that era was subtle and occurred for a number of reasons. It was not until “Die Hard 4” went for a PG-13 in 2007 that I realized just how much action films had changed over the past twenty years. The “Bad Boys” films come to mind as rare exceptions to that trend, but it has been nine years since “Bad Boys II.” Simply put, intelligent, entertaining R-rated action films are far and few between.

In the 1980s, such films were common and, in 1987, “Predator” came along as a unique film. To this day, it holds up much better than most of its action film contemporaries. My first brush with “Predator” came via a theatrical trailer that scared the crap out of me… scared me, but I still wanted to see it. When I finally did view it on video, I thought that it was great.

I’m not sure if I agree with the notion that Arnold Schwarzenegger shot to super-stardom by playing ‘vulnerable’ action heroes. He played likable heroes in his mid-80s-to-mid-90s prime, but they were always Superman-types. Mr. Schwarzenegger’s characters were not necessarily dumb, and his character of Butch in “Predator” proved that point. We cheered for Mr. Schwarzenegger in the same way that we cheered for Superman. Sure, he was going to get knocked down once in a while, but it was fun to see him work it all out in the end.

In retrospect, “Predator” was a rather-smallish jungle action film. So much of its magic relied on the audience fearing a creature that did not really appear until the very end.

Besides taking Mr. Schwarzenegger ‘s career to another level, the confidence “Predator” exuded made director John McTiernan an instant action guru. That Mr. McTiernan followed up “Predator” with “Die Hard,” and then “The Hunt for Red October” was simply staggering. That his career would fizzle out over the years that followed was equally staggering. Ironically, his decline was somewhat paired with Mr. Schwarzenegger, in that he later directed “Last Action Hero.” Mr. Schwarzenegger would briefly rebound from that dud with “True Lies,” while Mr. McTiernan still searches for his rebound film – give or take one’s opinion of “The Thomas Crown Affair” in 1999.

Generally, I would not pair “Predator” with “Robocop,” given how different the two films were. That said, it is crazy to think that they were both in theatres at roughly the same time in summer of 1987.

Of the pair, I’d argue “Robocop” has had the greater legacy within the film community. It was not until years later that I realized how much of a satire the film was meant to be. As a kid seeing “Robocop,” its ultra-violence disturbed me, but I still saw it as a straight action film.

I did pick up on some of the dramatic elements involving Robocop mourning his apparent ‘death’ and the disconnection with his family, but I really did not ‘get’ the intentions of crazy Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. At the time, I just thought that it had some really cool action and the cyborg bit with all of the guns was pretty cool too. In hindsight, I’m not sure how I managed to watch what was clearly an inappropriate film for a nine or ten year old child.

As an aside: The same sort of mis-understanding of Mr. Verhoeven happened a few years later when he re-teamed with “Robocop” writer Ed Neumeier on “Starship Troopers” – although that film was nowhere near as successful. I was underwhelmed by “Starship Troopers” during the theatrical release, but sort of understood it more after listening to Mr. Verhoeven’s DVD commentary, in which he talked at length about the satirical nature of the film. I then understood what he was trying to do with “Starship Troopers,” but I still did not think that he was successful.

Essentially, Mr. Verhoeven and Mr. Neumeier tried to re-capture that “Robocop” magic on “Starship Troopers,” but it did not work. That said, I really wish that he had not chosen a well-regarded science fiction novel – stripped it of an iconic central element (the ‘power armor’) – and then used it as the basis for that satire. The resulting direct-to-video sequels and video games sort of screwed up what could have otherwise been a very interesting franchise…. but I digress.

As another aside: kudos to Rob Bottin for doing the practical suit effects in “Robocop. Mr. Bottin had quite the hot hand in geek films, having come off his work in “The Thing” a few years earlier

It is a bit over-the-top to suggest that we’re now living in the future that Robocop predicted, but it is pretty startling to consider how much of that “Robocop” universe was borrowed heavily from the world envisioned in Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns.”

I’d forgotten about Mr. Miller writing “Robocop 2” and “Robocop 3.” He was re-written in both cases, although the contention that the re-writes destroyed a brilliant original version by Mr. Mille remained debateable. Some have contended that they simply salvaged whatever mess Mr. Miller had created. Having not read either of Mr. Miller’s original scripts, I can not say for sure. At the time, apparently his first draft was considered ‘un-filmable’ and I’ve seen references to it having been inappropriately long. The producers ended up pulling chunks out of it for later use in “Robocop 3.”

Fans of Mr. Miller did get a sense for his original plans when Avatar Press did a nine-issue comic book adaptation in 2003… it got very negative reviews, with Entertainment Weekly giving it a “D” (Tucker, 2003).

That said, “Robocop 2” was a big deal heading into the summer of 1990. Besides Mr. Miller being involved, the film was directed by “Empire Strikes Back” director Irvin Kershner and co-written by Walon Green – writer of “The Wild Bunch.” How could that have not been at least somewhat good?

In hindsight, of course, it seems kind of ridiculous that they made a sequel to “Robocop.”

I was in the middle of my comic book collecting prime that summer and it seemed as thougggh comics were taking over the world. Mr. Miller appeared to be making in-roads into Hollywood, Rob Liefeld starred in a Spike Lee-directed Levi’s commercial, and the rest of what would become the Image Comics gang was about to change the comics industry (Lee, 1990). When I finally got to see “Robocop 2,” it was sort of like having the air let out of a balloon. I assumed at the time that Mr. Miller’s surely-brilliant work had somehow been tainted by Hollywood. With “Robocop 2” doing modest business, the third film was barely released in 1993 amid the fallout of Orion Pictures’ bankruptcy in late-1991.

It was not until years later that I’d realize that Mr. Miller has a little of the crazy in him. Arguably, he was in a rough patch in his career during that late-1980s/early-1990 period. He soon after left Hollywood behind for over a decade and the sour taste of his initial experience in L.A. during his “Robocop 2” time would lay the foundation for his rebound with the comic book version of “Sin City” in the 1990s.


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D.S. Christensen
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