Monday, March 18, 2013

The "Terrible" Twos: RoboCop 2

Sequels often get a bad rap. Sometimes, they deserve it. Other times, they may be worth the watch. Having to follow up after a successful film is no easy task. And so, we're here to take a look at movies that were made to do exactly that. Which ones will prove worthy successors, and which will earn the not-so-coveted title of "terrible"?

The Film: RoboCop 2 (1990)

The "Guilty" Parties: Irvin Kershner (director), Frank Miller & Walon Green (screenplay), Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Belinda Bauer, Tom Noonan, Gabriel Damon, Dan O'Herlihy (actors)

The Original's Overview: In the crime-ridden Detroit of the near future, police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is brutally murdered by a group of thugs, only to be revived by the insidious mega-corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) as RoboCop: a cyborg law enforcer. His memories of his past life wiped away, RoboCop helps to stave off the city's criminal element, but soon begins to remember the man he once was and sets out to reclaim his humanity while also seeking revenge on his murderers.

The Sequel's Synopsis: RoboCop is back on duty, now on the warpath against a dangerous designer drug called "Nuke", which is being pushed by a messianic cult figure known as Cain (Tom Noonan). Meanwhile, OCP is trying to replicate their success with the RoboCop program with no luck. Enter the brash and unconventional Dr. Juliette Faxx (Belinda Bauer) who wants to use criminals instead of police officers as the test subjects. And after Cain is heavily wounded by RoboCop, she may have found her perfect candidate...

The Lowdown: It's very hard to argue that RoboCop isn't one of the best efforts to come out of 1980's American cinema (a decade drenched in genre goodness). It's a perfect balance of surface enjoyment (explosions! robots! Kurtwood Smith!), smart social commentary and a truly moving story about what it means to be human. Unfortunately, Paul Verhoeven's American film debut was a property that seemed tailor-made to be sequelized. The toy potentials alone made that clear. It also didn't hurt that the film was well-received both critically and financially. A sequel was set in stone.

And so was spawned RoboCop 2. If you knew nothing about the film other than the major names attached to it, you would be filled with the possibility of seeing something truly great. You have Irvin Kershner in the director's chair (RoboCop 2 would be the final feature he directed), the man who directed The Empire Strikes Back, which is unarguably one of the greatest sequels of all time. On the script side of things, you have radical comic book writer/artist Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns and eventually Sin City) making his screen debut along with a co-writing credit by Walon Green (author of classic films like Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and William Friedkin's Sorcerer). Add together the fact that all the surviving principal actors from the first film were returning and it would seem like the stars would align for a near-perfect sequel.

How can you possibly mess THIS up?

The film starts with a brief news report that sets up two of our storylines right away: cult leader Cain is taking over the streets with a new drug called Nuke, while OCP is forcing the police into a strike by cutting their wages, which in turn is leaving the city in chaos. Considering that this tactic was being employed near the end of the first film, this is a good place for the story to go. However, all the Nuke stuff feels like intense fallout from the Nancy Reagan "Say No to Drugs" era. Coming from Frank Miller, you'd expect this to be parody in the extreme, but it all comes off as woefully earnest throughout the course of the film. Peter Weller even did a PSA as RoboCop for the Boys and Girls Club that reworks a line from the movie into being anti-drugs:

After showing an assault on a weapons vendor, the movie reintroduces us to RoboCop (looking repaired and re-masked since last we saw him) as he foils the bad guys and demands to know where Nuke is being processed. Once he finds the place, we get a good little shoot-out with plenty of squib action to satisfy those film fans who still love old school practical effects. There's even a fun gag where Robo uses his targeting computer to ricochet a bullet off a wall and into the unlucky brain of some goon holding a baby hostage. But, the first mistake of the movie is also introduced in this sequence: A fruity little gangster kid named Hob (who we will rip into later. ...That sounds very, very wrong). When Robo goes to target him, he's unable to fire, leading to Hob's hilariously delivered line, "Can't shoot a kid, can you, fucker?" He then shoots Robo in the head (with a gun ten times too big for a youngling to ever fire), which causes Robo to have flashbacks of his son.

While Hob's character will prove to be the movie's first mistake, this moment and the sequence following it will showcase how the story of RoboCop 2 begins to dismantle itself. The ending of the original film is perfect: RoboCop kills the main villain, and responds to the question, "What's your name?" by simply replying, "Murphy," and cracking a small smile. Roll credits. It solidifies his journey back to becoming human again in such a profound yet understated way. RoboCop 2 seems to suggest that this affirmation of humanity never occurred. Robo has apparently been stalking his former wife in between films, and this is making the OCP brass mighty pissed. They make him state (on film, for legal purposes I guess) that he is not a human, but just a machine. Then, they parade in his wife just so he can blow her off and tell her that her husband is dead. This scene not only undercuts the arc of the first film, but also feels wholly unnecessary since we had just the right amount of narrative closure with Murphy's wife previously. The film never needed to mention her or his past life. He could have just gone on being what he always was: a good police officer. It doesn't help that the movie never returns to her character after this scene. A strange wrap-up to something we didn't need wrapped up.

Now we move on to OCP headquarters, where the mayor of Detroit is meeting with the Old Man (Dan O'Herlihy reprising his role from the original, and still proving as charmingly wicked as ever). It turns out OCP has deliberately undermined the city's credit so that they can purchase Detroit wholesale in order to implement the Delta City idea from the original film. If this had been OCP's only motivation throughout the film, this storyline may have had some meat to it, but it serves only to move other characters (the mayor and the gang villains) into position for some set-pieces down the road. Instead, OCP is also trying to develop another RoboCop (given the acceptably silly moniker of... you guessed it, RoboCop 2) for reasons that are never really made clear within the context of the movie's world. The real reason is so that our hero will have a big baddie to fight when the picture's climax comes around. We do get a darkly comic segment showcasing the failed experiments killing themselves, which are stop-motion animated by one of the great effects wizards, Phil Tippett, who provided the stop-motion effects for ED-209 in RoboCop. All of his effects in RoboCop 2 (especially the final battle) are top-notch and have gloriously withstood the test of time.

"Do you wanna ROBO-PARTY?!?!?"
Now we meet a new character, corrupt cop Duffy, who is supplying Hob with information in exchange for cash and (surprise!) feeding his Nuke addiction. Robo and partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) track them both down to a video arcade, which gives us one of our first groan-inducing lines (Robo asks the kids, "Isn't this a school night?" and is immediately pelted with food and garbage). This is the first inkling that the kid demographic was actually being factored into the making of this movie, and it's a poor decision. Of course kids loved RoboCop, but that doesn't mean they should be weaved into the sequel. And the way they are represented is in this video arcade scene, a bit where a little league baseball team robs a store, and Hob. Hob is played by Gabriel Damon (also known for being in one of the worst Star Trek: TNG episodes) and it always feels bad to dig into child actors, but he is just silly. They try to sell him as a bad guy (even becoming the leader of the gang once Cain is killed) with no redeeming qualities other than being a kid who is in way over his head. Then, when he is actually shot to death near the film's end, he has a "touching" death scene where RoboCop holds his hand as he enters the void. ...What? Why am I supposed to care about this character who has been nothing but shitty the entire movie? He uses peoples' Nuke addiction to get what he wants out of them, and we never learn anything about who he was before he got into the crime business. For a movie that seems to want to get the kids involved in the actual plot, RoboCop 2 does so in the worst ways possible.

After Robo squeezes Duffy for some info (he does actually squeeze Duffy's nose at one point, after knocking him into a few arcade cabinets), he goes to Cain's factory hideout. There are a couple of weird bits of set dressing (a picture of Mother Teresa and... is that the corpse of Elvis?), but it looks like a generic warehouse from any other movie. After a brief exchange between Robo and Cain, the bad guys get the drop on our hero and end up completely dismantling him. This is where the movie goes into nosedive. Not only is our titular character side-lined for a big chunk of the second act, but this is when we realize that RoboCop 2 has no real main character. There are bits with Cain and his gang and Dr. Juliette Faxx (Belinda Bauer), the woman heading up the RoboCop 2 project, but nothing that gives Murphy (or anyone else for that matter) a real arc for us to focus on. Things seem to get back on track when Robo is repaired, but it turns out that Dr. Faxx has sabotaged him by uploading hundreds of new directives written by a focus group including parents, environmentalists and other bleeding hearts. This would seem to be a comment on the detractors of the previous film ("Why can't he do something nice? Why does he have to solve everything with violence?" are two lines spoken by the committee that seem to echo the writers' feelings towards the negative image cultivated by the first movie) and while it's good for a quick jab at the real world, it makes Robo into a happy-go-lucky nice guy that keeps him side-lined for even longer. It doesn't end up being funny like the filmmakers probably intended. It just helps to drag the movie out.

High concept humor at its finest.
Then, Robo just randomly decides to go electrocute himself after one of his scientists buddies says that might help clear out all the new directives. It does, and now, he has nothing holding him back. He has regained his free will. Maybe he'll go after that wife we saw earlier? NOPE! Time to go find Cain and get another action scene in! Cain is meeting with Frank the scientist (Frank Miller in a thankless cameo) and going over some new types of Nuke, when Robo and the cops show up and bust things all to hell. It's worth noting that Tom Noonan does an amiable job as Cain, with what little time he's given on screen. The scene where he tries out a new type of Nuke and comments on how to improve the mixture while feeling the drug's effects is probably the best few seconds he gets in the whole movie. We never get to really know anything about Cain, except that he is a bad guy leader and has a slight messiah complex. There needed to be one scene with just him, establishing who he is and why he is so invested in Nuke on not just a financial level, but a spiritual one as well. He's described as a cultl leader, but you never get that sense. He seems like just another drug dealer who is getting high on his own supply.

Anyway, Robo (I hesitate to call him Murphy since he doesn't seem to care too much about being human in this film) ends up heavily wounding Cain in a bit of vehicular stunt work that is pretty cool. Robo is on a motorcycle and Cain is in a truck and they play chicken, causing Robo to fling himself through the windshield, which makes Cain unable to see and ends up flipping over the truck. This leaves Cain at the mercy of Dr. Juliette Faxx, who volunteers him for the RoboCop 2 project, against his will. The pieces are now in place for our climactic showdown, but the movie still has to slog through a few more setups. Hob now has tons of cash and is blackmailing the mayor into going into business with him so that they can buy Detroit back from OCP. The Old Man catches wind of this and tells Faxx to get rid of the mayor and his criminal cohorts. Now, we get to see Cain as RoboCop 2, and even though the scenes with him aren't narratively satisfying, on a purely visual level, they are the best parts of the film. Phil Tippett's work is the standout performance of the film, and it makes me wish that RoboCop 2 would've popped up much earlier in... RoboCop 2. Ugh.

It's nice to see the brain from Blood Diner still getting work.
Well, after disposing of Hob and the rest of the gang, RoboCop 2 is showcased at an event for the press highlighting the upcoming Delta City project. And wouldn't you know it, the Old Man happens to wave around a big canister of Nuke right in front of everybody. Too bad that Cain/RoboCop 2 still craves the stuff and this sends him off the deep end. Luckily, Robo shows up and the two duke it out. There a few cartoony sound effects and some ridiculous physics at play, but the final fight is still fun to watch, if just from a technical standpoint. The shot of Cain/RoboCop 2 running up an elevator shaft like a cheetah is undeniably cool, and the way Robo dispatches him (jumping on his back and ripping out the brain-stem inside) is goopy enough to enjoy. After Cain's destruction, the denouement of the film is weak and lazy. All the blame is shifted onto Faxx and the Old Man drives away scot-free. Lewis laments this lack of justice, to which Robo replies, "Patience, Lewis. We're only human." Roll credits. There's no real impact from this final line and it only makes us realize that practically no one in the film had any kind of arc whatsoever. Robo is still the same as before and will probably be in the same place we found him at the beginning of this movie when the next one starts up.

There are other things working against the movie. Composer Basil Poledouris doesn't do the score, and the acting composer, Leonard Rosenman, just can't compare. He seems to riff a bit on Poledouris theme, but it never quite gels together. Plus, during the end credits, there is actually a chorus singing the words, "RoboCop!" It's kind of cheesily amusing. It also doesn't help that no one gives any kind of performance worth noting. The first film had everyone giving their A-game, turning in career best performances (I'm sorry, fans of That 70's Show, but Red Forman ain't got shit on Clarence Boddicker), but this film feels very by-the-numbers when it comes to acting. If there had been one truly outstanding part, maybe it would help the film float a little higher towards the surface.

One thing that is nice are the few commercial bits we get interspersed throughout the film. They capture the witty snark from the first film quite well, but that attitude and demeanor just doesn't spread throughout the whole picture.

I'd love to know as much about the behind-the-scenes story of RoboCop 2 as I could, because the end product on the screen feels like a compromised vision (I know Frank Miller's original screenplay was heavily re-written, much to his dismay). While there are small, shining moments of excitement and fun (the bit that opens the film is easily one of the best parts of the whole movie, boosted by a giddy appearance from seasoned character actor John Glover), they can't help elevate the aimlessness of the film's second act or the lack of a real main character. Even though RoboCop is one of my top five favorite films of all time, its sequel is a steep step down from its predecessor.

Worthy Successor, Valiant Misfire or Terrible Two?: While it does manage a spark or two of interest here and there, RoboCop 2 is a big disappointment. Even though there are tiny elements that I enjoy, the big picture just doesn't add up. Sorry, Murphy. Terrible Two

Did Things Get Better?: If you think this is bad, don't even go near the homogenized third film, also made by an awesome director, genre darling Fred Dekker of Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps fame. There were some live action TV shows and cartoons (can't comment on their narrative merits, but the production values look pretty meh) and an upcoming remake that can't possibly live up to the original. Just stick with the first one.

Coming Up Next: Jaws 2, or something you would like! Leave your comments below, or send me a Tweet @drewdietsch88 and I'll take it under consideration. I've got a big list of sequels I want to do, but I'm always looking for more!


  1. Spot on assessment. I'll take your word for the good bits; only saw Robocop 2 when it came out, have no desire to revisit it, so I only remember what a letdown it was. And, like you said, this from the dude who gave us the best sequel ever. Almost as big a disappointment as Metallica's Black Album after the mighty ...And Justice For All.

  2. Hey Hob was a cool kid and made the film interesting for a variety of viewers, its the sequel its supposed to be different, time for change the same old 80's grown up pop shit - Hob made robo 2 a good film, u dont know what ur talkin about m8.