It’s time for me to tackle the popular trio of Robocop movies.
Robocop 2 (1990)
Robocop 3 (1993)
This first film in the Robocop franchise is actually the last one I ever watched. I had seen Robocop 3 which was just so terrible (as will be discussed later) that it just spoiled me on ever wanting to bother with this series. On top of this there was a terrible Robocop 3 PC game that made me hate the cyborg even more. Later, when I start to research different directors and the film’s they did, I learned the Robocop‘s director, Paul Verhoven, was also responsible for Basic Instinct and Showgirls which made me even less interested in seeing Robocop. I really wish I had given the movie a fair chance before passing so much judgement against it because it really isn’t that bad of a movie.
The future of Detroit – well the 1987 point-of-view about what the future of Detroit would be – is a crime ridden dystopia run by a merciless corporation. Not too far from being accurate as the city still has the highest crime rate in the United States – more than twice the national average and 1 in 16 people being the victim of a violent crime. All throughout movies in the 80s you would have a brief montage of cliche scenes to show how bad the crime was in Detroit (or any other city for that matter) with people just being randomly attacked and/or raped, possibly be even murdered. There would be no provocation, just innocent people attacked to show “hey, crime is BAD there.” Robocop is endlessly guilty of this trite crime imagery. I used to think that things like this were an over-exaggeration but apparently Detroit really is like that. In the future of Robocop, however, there is a massive MegaCorporation named Omni Consumer Products which owns most of the city including the police department. Of course this international company seems to only ever do things based in Detroit and the rest of the whole world or OCP’s business empire is hardly mentioned.
An effort is being made to clean up the slum known as “Old Detroit” in order to create the new utopian “Delta City.” To ensure law and order, OCP vice president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) has developed the Enforcement Droid-209 – known as ED-209 for short. Unfortunately, the Ed-209 has some problems and brutally guns down an OCP board member. Dick Jones’ idea is scrapped and the other idea for a Robocop comes from young businessman Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer). Wow. I just used “young” and “Miguel Ferrer” in the same sentence; 1987 was a lot farther back than I remember it being. Anyway, we have a new police officer who happens to join Detroit Metro at this time, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller). First day on this new beat and Murphy is brutally gunned down and murdered by psychopathic criminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang of gun toting ruffians. Murphy isn’t completely dead, however, and is selected to be the human component for the new Robocop based upon his strong sense of duty and dedication to law and order. With his memory erased and his face and a few chunks of brain transplanted into a new cyborg body – Robocop is ready to law down the law in Detroit.
The film actually strikes a great balance between being a fun action film as well as providing a layered story with plenty of social commentary. The screenplay had been initially turned down by every director in Hollywood until Paul Verhoven got ahold of it. Initially he tossed the script away after reading the first few pages and assumed that it would be just another dumb action movie. His wife picked up the screenplay however and read it through to the end and presented it back to her husband, convincing him that it was a story layered with many satirical and allegorical elements. This is all that Verhoven needed to know before jumping on board to direct. He does a great job of staying true to the satire – including plenty of television commercials throughout that not only build the dystopian Detroit the film takes place in but also provide a not-too-subtle statement about society. It actually makes a great double-bill with another Verhoven-helmed dystopian film, Total Recall.
Watching the film it is very easy to see why the sequels were doomed to critical failure. Robocop is rather character-driven story about Alex Murphy. His wiped memories start to come back and he is more than just a machine – there is still some humanity in him. There are several sequences dealing with the grief of having lost his family, anger at having been murdered and a lot his motivation comes from revenge rather than a sense of duty. The character arc is completed during the telling of the story – there really is no open ending. Making sequels to this weakens what was a good story and instead makes this just a generic origin story for a superhero franchise. Ultimately Robocop is best viewed on its own – with no foreknowledge or anticipation of the sequels.
I have also recently discovered that a remake for Robocop is in the works with an estimated release sometime in 2013 (most likely the summer). At the time of writing this it is to be directed Jose Padhila and feature Joel Kinnamen in the titular role. I am not familiar at all with either of these two gentleman’s previous work so I have no idea what to expect from this movie. However, being that it is a remake of a relatively vital part of 1980s pop culture, that expectation is rather low.
This hallow film is nothing more than the further adventures of a Super Cop. The satire is still here but either it’s not as critical or just ridiculously humor and void of any social insightfulness (save for one moment that is pretty much underutilized). The characters are all still around but they have no real “character” and serve only to speak lines and shoot guns. The plot is ridiculously contrived and lacking any kind of depth. That being said, however, Robocop 2 succeeds in being a mostly fun action film. It does the job it set out to accomplish which was to entertain. Frank Miller – of comic book fame – wrote the screenplay and he certainly does deserve some credit not only for realizing this was just a movie for people to have fun with but for fleshing out this dystopian Detroit a lot more.
Direction wise… well… it’s directed by Irvin Kershner who seems to have had an innate talent for copying others. Robocop 2 is one of several sequels Kershner directed; other being The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of a Man Called Horse. In addition to this he’s also responsible for helming the illegitimate and non-canonical James Bond film Never Say Never Again. Kershner was excellent at making pitch perfect copies of the style of the director that came before him. Visually this is on par with, if not a little better, than it’s predecessor. If there’s one thing Robocop 2 does well it’s that it succeeds at looking like a Paul Verhoven movie inasmuch the same way that The Empire Strikes Back looked and felt like a film directed by George Lucas. This is not to invalidate the late Kershner’s work – one of the most important things about making a sequel is making it a believable sequel that follows the same look and feel of the original while still telling a new story to please fans. This is something that consistently he consistently excelled at. He was not a wholly original director but was still a vital person in his trade none-the-less.
Like any blockbuster sequel the story of Robocop 2 sets out to be more fantastic and grander than its predecessor. Very little is done to cover the characters or world established in the previous movie. In fact our opening sequences are simply Robocop taking care of criminals with very little establishment of who Robocop/Alex Murphy is. The movie actually shows a lot of promise in exploring different aspects of Robocop’s character, like how he reacts to a child criminal. Gabriel Damon, who was a popular enough child actor in the 90s before fading into obscurity, plays Hob, a drug dealing child who eventually takes over the crime empire of his mentor. Since Robocop is unable to take any violent action against a child, Hob exploits this character trait to full effect. This does have potential to explore a lot of depth in Robocop but is quickly abandoned. What could be an good character-driven moral about the man in the machine quickly just turns into the novelty of having child villain.
What’s more is that instead of staying true to the character and nature of Robocop, this sequel acts like a late season episode of any given television show and decides to humorously skew the character the audience has grown fond of. In a half-hearted attempt at satire a committee of OCP staff members decides to that Robocop’s three directives need to be updated “for a more modern time.” His three directives are simply:
- DIRECTIVE 1 – Serve the Public Trust
- DIRECTIVE 2 – Protect the Innocent
- DIRECTIVE 3 – Uphold the law
There is a “classified” 4th directive that makes Robocop incapable of taking action against senior members of OCP staff but that’s only a plot point in the first film and receives a barely cursory mention in Robcop 3 – in this film it isn’t even acknowledged. However, this committee makes an endless list of directives for Robocop whch include:
- DIRECTIVE 233 – Restrain hostile feelings
- DIRECTIVE 236 – Promote Pro-social values
- DIRECTIVE 243 – Pool opinions before expressing youself
- DIRECTIVE 247 – Don’t rush through puddles and splash pedestrians or other cars
- DIRECTIVE 250 – Don’t walk across a ballroom floor swinging your arms
- DIRECTIVE 261 – Talk things out
- DIRECTIVE 262 – Avoid Orion meetings
- DIRECTIVE 266 – Smile
- DIRECTIVE 278 – Avoid non-violent solutions
All of these lead to a confsued and basically useless Robocop. Yes it provides some satire – but it’s so obvious in its intent that it’s borders on being insulting. Ultimately this is just a painfully long and utterly pointless wandering away from the plot of the film. There is even a moment during this mess of a subplot where Robocop is reading the Miranda rights to a corpse – it’s fucking embarrassing to see the movie sink this low this fast. Though there is a bit of subtle humor in directive 262 – Avoid Orion meetings. This is just a little in-joke with the production staff as Orion was the production company behind Robocop 2.
What actually keeps the story interesting is the main plotline about a psychopathic drug dealer named Cain (Tom Noonan) – those few times that the film feels it needs to get back to this story. Robocop eventually catches up to and destroys Cain – leaving the young Hob to run that empire of crime. OCP decided to use Cain as the human subject for their Robocop 2 – which is a terribly contrived idea and even the film’s logic behind this is damningly stupid. This leads to a final battle between Robocop and Robocop 2 in which Robocop wins. Putting the two films side-by-side in the same match up, Robocop would still come out on top of Robocop 2. The film is fun enough – but spends too much time veering off into pointless subplots and skewing with the characters for no reason other than laughs and padding. This film does the franchise no real favors and has aged horribly.
Good GOD is this movie a piece of utter shit. Even Peter Weller passed on reprising his role as the eponymous cyborg – leaving the role to whatever half-decent Peter Weller impersonator they could find. This certainly explains why there are no more scenes of Robocop with his helmet removed in this film as well as why the character of Alex Murphy is completely gone as the film focuses on creating Robocop as a machine with a faint, barely noticeable, touch of humanity. Nancy Allen reprised her role as Officer Lewis with the agreement that her character would be killed off early into the film – even she didn’t want to bother with this shit for very long. What I consider to be the worst thing about this movie is that Frank Miller’s script actually shows some potential to make a thrilling conclusion to what’s become a developing meta-story arc through these films but instead just shits itself and then lies down to wallow in its own stinking mess. It’s quite sad to see Robocop 3 during the moments where it actually pretends to take itself seriously as a real movie. This thing is just a fucking train wreck.
OCP has been bought out by a Japanese robotics company called the Kanemitsu Corporation. This is actually a bit analogous to what was going on in the real world in the early 90s as it seemed that Japanese companies were buying up all the companies in the United States. Instead of treating this with any sense of satire, however, Robocop 3 just has a sad and almost offensive stereotype of a Japanese company headed, appropriately enough, by a stereotypical caricature of an Asian businessman – played by Mako of all people. OCP is now headed by a new CEO who doesn’t even have a name – seriously even the credits call this character (whose played by the talented Rip Torn by the way) as “The CEO.” In order to save themselves from the edge of bankruptcy. It’s time for OCP to finally act on their plans to construct Delta City – an idea that has been discussed through the previous two films. Robocop 2 intimated that this plan would include the forcible removal of thousands of people from their homes in order to construct this utopian dream. Now that has become a reality for the citizens of this corporate dystopia as a Rehab force under the command of Col. McDagget (John Castle) round up the wayward citizens and bus them away to rehabilitation camps. The idea actually has potential for social commentary about the heartless behavior of American businesses, potential to create commentary about East Meets West business relations, and potential for epic storytelling by creating a climax that promises to bring the whole series full circle. Unfortunately this movie fails to do any of those.
As if the PG13 rating wasn’t enough of a red flag that Robocop 3 had completely lost direction – the film opens with a little girl who is apparently a mathematical genius. What contrived shit is this? She loses her parents when the Rehab troopers purge their ghetto and is adopted by a resistance group. Robocop eventually gets into the fight and joins these rebels, befriending this innocent kid in the process. This film’s attempts to connect with a younger audience are BAD! VERY BAD! First off, it weakens any attempt this has to remain with the same kind of overall feel of the previous films. Second, it takes what could be a fun story and dumbs it down to a moron’s level of intellect just so “the kids can understand it.” I can sort of understand the logic behind attempting to lure in a younger audience as an attempt to make more money off the franchise. However, Robocop 3 was a terrible critical and financial flop. That logic really didn’t work out to well for you – did it Robocop 3? The fact that this didn’t even get back half its budget killed the franchise. Sure there were some aborted attempts at a TV series and writer Frank Miller managed to get some success with Robocop comics, but this hammy and unentertaining movie ran what could have been a successful franchise directly into a brick wall, suffering such mortal damage that it would never recover from. The embarrassing failure of film making that is of Robocop 3 is legendary. Take any popular film franchise for instance and look at their final death throe. Leprachaun in the Hood, Jason X, Beverly Hills Cop 3, Batman & Robin. Those were all series that were falling out of favor and then died with no dignity in their awful final installments. Still, not as bad as Robocop 3 which had some honest potential and then was just obliterated by its producers.
This movie got A LOT of hype in 1993. There were a few video games based around it – for NES, Super NES, Sega Genesis and PC. I’ve played the NES and Super NES games which were bad. They weren’t the shit of legends and they’ll probably never end up on any “Worst Games of All Time” lists – their problems were the same as most movie-licensed games that flooded the market at that time – uninspired and generic gameplay. The PC game however – oh that piece of shit made me RAGE! That fucking game was designed in a hurry by people who either simply did not give a shit or had no clue what a video game was. My money is on both. This game had a driving mode that was designed without anyway to stop your vehicle and such rigid controls that it was mostly just driving off road until you crashed into a badly rendered 3D building. Then there was a FPS shooter mode with no strafing and just one weapon where just one hit from ANYTHING killed you. For fuck’s sake – your supposed to be a powerful cyborg cop but any random streetpunk can kill him with a punch? Finally there was the flying mode which had decent enough controls. Although you flew around shooting at fighter jets with one pistol. It took a million hits to kill these planes which wasn’t too bad since none of these fighter jets bothered to attack the flying man with a pistol. However, there was no goal – it was just flying around and shooting at peaceful planes that floated motionless in the sky until you happened to get bored and crash into a building on purpose. It’s been almost 20 years and I’m still bitter over that game.
Trailers and other publicity for this movie played up the fact that not only does Robocop fight crazy samurai robots (that were actually pretty stupid), he also gets a jetpack! Yeah, this movie was reaching pretty far with THAT kind of shit. However, when this movie came out I was 13 – I was part of that target audience the producers were trying or so hard to grab. I got pulled into this hype, buying the shitty games and mindlessly forking over my allowance to watch this crap. I didn’t know any better – but I learned. However, that lesson about doubting the hype of a film didn’t come then. While I was disappointed with the movie at 13 – I didn’t learn this vital lesson until I was 15 and was thrown out of a movie theater for angrily demanding my money back after Judge Dredd.
So I suppose that does it for the Robocop movies. The first one’s a classic, the second one is still fun despite its dated cliches, and the third one is just plain garbage. I do plan on checking out at least the TV miniseries that was made in 2000 as it does come to me positively recommended – though I am still tedious because of how bad of a taste Robocop 3 has still left in my mouth. Still, the character is an iconic piece of 1980s pop culture and will forever be remembered as so.