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updated: 8/3/2014 10:20 PM

Not all escapist fare is for kids

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  • Peter Weller starred in the original "RoboCop" in 1987, directed by Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven.

    Peter Weller starred in the original "RoboCop" in 1987, directed by Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven.
    Associated Press

  • Video: "Black Book" trailer


Thanks to Harry Potter, "Lord of the Rings" and Hollywood's insistence that no big-budget movie be rated R, imaginative fantasy and sci-fi films have become synonymous with kiddie fare -- or, at the very least, kid-friendly fare.

So theatergoers this week get a PG-13 remake of "RoboCop." It could be an entertaining romp, but its gory, vulgar, R-rated predecessor was so much more than that.

Released in 1987, the original "RoboCop" made Dutch director Paul Verhoeven a hot commodity in America. It took a premise irresistible to young fanboys -- a cyborg police officer (Peter Weller) cleans up the streets of futuristic Detroit and fights a hulking robotic villain -- and pumped it full of social commentary, sick humor and buckets upon buckets of blood. Some think of it as total trash, others as a subversive classic. (Why can't it be both?)

The original "RoboCop" has recently been reissued on Blu-ray with remastered picture and sound, and a wealth of special features, both new and old. (And it's cheap, too -- most retailers have it for less than $10.) It's also available on vudu, Amazon Instant Video and other digital on-demand services. How can you pass up the chance to see Red Foreman from "That '70s Show" (Kurtwood Smith) as the vilest villain this side of Hannibal Lecter?

In the 10 years after "RoboCop," Verhoeven raised eyebrows with four more decidedly adult features, beginning with 1990's "Total Recall", starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a construction worker who gets more than he bargained for after visiting a company that offers virtual vacations implanted in the mind. He winds up on a Martian colony where he acts as savior for the mutated natives, including a nearly unrecognizable Dean Norris, aka Hank Schrader of "Breaking Bad." (Norris: "You got a lot of nerve showing your face around here." Arnold: "Look who's talking!")

Next, Verhoeven went from sci-fi fantasy to completely different kinds of fantasies in "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls," an infamous duo of erotically charged films. One made a superstar out of Sharon Stone, the other all but killed the career of erstwhile "Saved By the Bell" star Elizabeth Berkley.

After the spectacular failure of the NC-17 rated "Showgirls," Verhoeven went back to what made him famous in 1997 with my favorite of his films, "Starship Troopers." The very liberal adaptation of Robert Heinlein's iconic novel re-imagines the tale of intergalactic soldiers as a fascistic fairy tale. The polished, too-pretty cast (Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer) makes perfect sense in the film's opening act, which runs through a checklist of teen-movie clichés. Then the bugs attack, and those white teeth and perfect coiffs are mangled by ugly, 20-foot-tall arachnids.

The film walks a line between ultraviolence and ultra-absurdity, and Verhoeven pulls it off. It's hard to dislike a movie that features veteran character actor Michael Ironside chewing the scenery as a squadron leader, and the absurd sight of Neil Patrick Harris -- still carrying the burden of Doogie Howser in 1997 -- as a military scientist wearing a get-up right out of the Third Reich.

Speaking of Nazis (yikes, what a segueway), Verhoeven went back to his roots in 2006 with the Dutch film "Black Book," a multilingual period piece about a Jewish singer who curries favor with high-ranking Nazi officials and works as a spy for the Dutch resistance. Carice van Houten, who now turns heads as Melisandre the red witch on "Game of Thrones," gives an incredibly daring performance as a woman who will do anything to avenge her family.

Unfortunately, Netflix is not streaming any films from Verhoeven's intriguing resume, which also includes the Rutger Hauer medieval fantasy "Flesh + Blood" and an invisible Kevin Bacon in "Hollow Man." But "Black Book" and "Starship Troopers" are worth a spot in your DVD queue -- for starters.

Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald copy editor and a tireless consumer of pop culture. He'd buy that for a dollar! You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.

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