The least believable part of the RoboCop remake, released over the weekend, is Detroit.
The once-booming Michigan city is seriously run down these days and disorganized to a fare-the-well. Government records are awful. Computer systems have degraded to uselessness. One reason bankruptcy was delayed for so long is that it was extremely difficult with all the paperwork chaos to add up how much the city owed creditors for the courts to bankrupt that debt. The sum is at least $20 billion.
And yet here you have the rebuilt Alex Murphy, nicknamed RoboCop, accessing the city’s well-coordinated databases and abundant, functioning cameras with ease, filtering this info through his computer-enhanced brain, and riding off on his sleek motorcycle to give criminals a cybernetic beat down. He does so in a city that doesn’t look all that run down.
Most of the movie was shot in and around Toronto, Canada, with only a few highly selective exterior shots in Detroit, which explains a lot. The antics of Toronto mayor Rob Ford are much more survivable to a city’s health and infrastructure than the toxic politics and corruption of a string of Detroit mayors from Jerome Cavanaugh to Coleman Young to Kwame Kilpatrick.
Kevin Williamson, author of the pamphlet “What Doomed Detroit,” spells out what decades of overtaxation, over-unionization, lawlessness and corruption have done to a once great city. A federal bailout would be pointless, Williamson wrote, “because there is, practically speaking, nothing left to save.
“One third of the city’s land is vacant or derelict. Half its streetlights have been rendered inoperable by thieves stripping the copper wiring. It has more than 120,000 vacant homes and empty lots. It is closing its schools and police stations and discontinuing some public transportation, in part because it cannot afford to operate the busses and in part because the drivers are too afraid to drive them on the city’s lawless streets.”
Detroit’s “real unemployment rate,” Williamson explained, is in the ballpark of 50 percent. The city’s murder rate is approximately “11 times that of New York City.” The median value of Detroit houses is $9,000. No that wasn’t a typo.
The movie is set slightly in the future. It would be possible to envision a scenario where a post-bankruptcy Detroit booms again, but RoboCop doesn’t bother to go there. Instead it sets most of the action in Toronto, calls it Detroit and only occasionally nods to Detroit’s high crime and incredible dysfunction.
Canada’s massive film subsidies likely played some role in the location. So did the fact that shooting on location in the actual Detroit can be a problem. “When the Cold War classic Red Dawn was remade in 2012,” wrote Williamson, “the producers saved themselves some of the cost of creating a post-apocalyptic United States by filming in Detroit.”
However, there was a snag: “filming had to be stopped when councilwoman JoAnn Watson, in a car with municipal plates, parked in the middle of a scene and refused to leave.”
It is not hard to imagine future advances in technology that will allow scientists to rebuild a bomb victim as more machine than man, and perhaps have him patrol the streets — if cop had been his occupation before the blast.
But to imagine such a man could save Detroit from itself? Well, that really does stretch our suspension of disbelief so far that it snaps.