One figure stands as an icon of eighties-action-excess: former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold spent his cinematic career as a human war machine; he defied physics, moral composure and psychological damage while murdering hundreds of people in any given film. This de-sensitivity for the sanctity of human life made Arnold rich beyond calculation, while his unique presence and savvy in regard to choosing simple, easily translatable films made him an international icon.
In 1985, Arnold starred in Commando, a film wherein Arnold is neither a barbarian nor a robot, and a film that in theory takes place in the real world. As legend has it, the original script was about an ex-commando, who, when his family is kidnapped, is forced to aid a disposed dictator’s attempt to reclaim his throne. The protagonist in the original script was to be an older man who had gone to seed (a la Nick Nolte), and much of the drama concerned the older man’s doubts that he was still capable of action. When Arnold was cast in the film, things had to be changed.
A Schwarzenegger film has challenges. Arnold is a physical oddity, a human giant made entirely of muscle. Arnold has a very singular way of speaking. Director Mark L. Lester came up with two solutions to these two problems. To deal with Arnold’s speech patterns, Lester had Arnold’s dialogue limited to either tight expository sentences (“My daughter has been kidnapped!”) or pun heavy one liners (“My friend is dead tired!” [‘cuz he’s dead-get it?]). Realizing that behavior like this in a real-world environment would be disconcerting, the rest of the cast follows suit, saying eye-rolling, testosterone-inspired dialogue that would be intolerable in real life.
With the limitation of Arnold’s acting range dealt with, Lester, presumably feeling inspired, decided to approach Arnold’s physical uniqueness by turning the real world into Arnold’s fantasy reality, something I call The Schwarzaverse. In The Schwarzaverse, people can be machine gunned in an upper middle class cul-de-sac without alerting the police. A used car salesman can be murdered by ramming a floor-model sedan into the poor car dealer. This universe allows that an army surplus store would have a secret arsenal complete with rocket launchers, and a shopping mall enlists an armed police force to protect customers (though securing a mall does explain why the police are absent from most of the other scenes of urban mayhem).
This universe is a perfect fit for Arnold, as he spends the majority of the film’s running time doing things that human beings cannot possibly do. To wit, Arnold:
(a) jumps off a jumbo jet’s landing gear during take off
(b) rips a car seat out of the floorboard in one deft motion
(c) lifts a phone booth over his head.
(e) throws a pipe approximately ten inches in diameter through a man.
Even the “quiet moments” in Schwarzenegger’s life defy reality. Apparently, when not engaging in paramilitary mayhem, Arnold’s character, the impossibly named John Matrix, relaxes by cutting down redwoods with a chainsaw, teaching his daughter (a Who’s The Boss? era Alyssa Milano) karate, eating lunch in his mountain chalet and feeding deer by hand. It is one thing to make a character’s “action life” the stuff of impossible wish fulfillment, but when your protagonist is a human muscle cartoon, even moments of domestic bliss dance on the edge of grand guignol, as if at any time, John Matrix will go from eating a sandwich to tearing his shirt off and eviscerating interlopers with his bare hands.
Mark Lester created what would be the lynchpin in Schwarzenegger’s career: A world of nonsense where a gunfight, fistfight or explosion could happen at any moment— nay, are expected to happen at any moment. This world is necessary, for only in a world where credulity is pushed to the breaking point can a man like Arnold Schwarzenegger exist.
It is in this world where one can fully appreciate Mark Verhoeven’s 1987 science-fiction/action classic Robocop. Robocop has oft been hailed as a wonderful piece of satire, and rightly so. The film attacks American capitalism, media saturation, television news and paramilitary enthusiasm. It is rightly known for skewering the action film at every opportunity, but it also deconstructs the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle that Commando embodies.
On the surface, Robocop is about a police officer who is murdered, then resurrected as a cyborg bent on enforcing the law and doling vengeance upon the criminals who killed him. I would posit that it’s also a film about a normal man who enters the Schwarzaverse, and has to turn himself into Arnold Schwarzenegger to survive. Peter Weller’s Murphy enters Robocop in future Detroit’s police station; immediately his sergeant speaks to Murphy entirely in “grizzled old boss” cliché: “We work for a living down here!” His partner, the sassy, gum-chewing Lewis, is also introduced in the police station, using karate on a resisting suspect. I strongly suspect if one were to walk into a police station anywhere in America, at any given time, one would not see karate being performed. The rest of Murphy’s fellow officers are all testosterone-spouting tough guys, save Cecil, the Sarge’s stereotypical nerd assistant.
Human Murphy, in his fifteen minutes of screen time, thinks about what he’s going to say, attempts to be personable, and uses vocal fillers such as “well”, “um”, and “like”. He has a happy family, seemingly enjoys life and has a positive mental attitude. He’s a normal human being. Then he and Lewis get a police call to stop the villainous Clarence Boddicker and his gang, and we learn that the world of Robocop is a world of insanity. After a drive-by shoot out, Murphy finds Clarence’s hideout, and Clarence and his gang murder him in a very Schwarzenegger fashion: slowly shot to death, with each gory shotgun blast accompanied by a silly puns and hyena-like laughter: When Murphy gets his hand shot off, Clarence spouts “Well, give the man a hand!”
This death acts as a baptism, turning Murphy into Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s a foot taller with a body builder’s frame. His humanity is gone and his speech has changed into the robotic tones of Arnold. Instead of sheepishly talking about his son, the Arnold/Murphy hybrid speaks in curt, cut off sentences that have the air of the all-important action hero catchphrase. In fact, Robocop’s quotable phrases, such as “Thank you for your cooperation!” reveal that the seminal Arnold-quote, “I’ll be back!” is a sentence with no wit, import or gravitas. Robocop moves like Arnold, with a clunkiness that undermines purpose. Robocop defies what a human body can do (i.e. punch through walls), much like Arnold. The only difference is Robocop concedes the protagonist isn’t a human being.
Ultimately, Robocop learns of his own identity and attempts to recapture his humanity. He revisits his former home, now for sale, and a tsunami of memories overcome him. This causes Robocop to have an emotional outburst (via punching a television monitor), which the audience is led to believe represents Murphy’s realization of what he has lost.
I assert Murphy’s memories like his son playing with trucks while watching TV, his wife feigning anger only to shower him with love, the pose for a Halloween photograph— are all the stuff of cheap melodrama. Even the street he lived on, Primrose Lane, paints the broad-stroke version of domesticity soap-operas are too sophisticated to use. It’s not a feeling of loss Murphy is experiencing, but a feeling of disillusionment: Murphy, by becoming self-aware, has broken the fourth wall. He’s realized that even his treasured past is the stuff of hackneyed movie writing, bearing no more resemblance to reality than the lecherous sitcom character mugging his way through the Robocop TV landscape, shouting into the camera “I’d buy that for a dollar!”
From that point on, Robocop becomes “the driven Arnold”, exacting vengeance with a single-minded dedication. Or, Murphy realizes he exists in an option-less meta-world where he has no choice but to submit to being an action hero. Everything he does, the grand shoot-outs, being chased by the law, retraining before “the big showdown”, culminating in facing “the big boss” in a literal ivory tower (actually, it’s literally glass), seems to be a paint-by-numbers action script. With this in mind, notice how Robocop ultimately dispatches Clarence: He stabs the lunatic with the spike in his wrist; the spike Robocop last used to flip off a computer technician. Murphy’s vengeance isn’t upon the men who murdered him; it’s upon the screenwriter who turned his life into insanity. He’s not stabbing Clarence so much as he is giving the finger to Paul Verhoeven and Hollywood, saying “Fuck you for turning me into Commando!”