ROBOCOP 2: ODE TO THE SATIRIC, BOMBASTIC SEQUEL

Film sequels exist primarily to make money. As much as cinephiles worship The Godfather Part II, it wasn’t a logical progression Francis Ford Coppola envisioned after filming wrapped on The Godfather; it was Paramount, the studio that financed the film (and butted heads with Coppola frequently over creative control). They desired another go-around with the Corleone family in order to maximize profits, but luckily for cinephiles and the studio, Coppola succeeded in creating a magnificent film and another box office success. Film sequels have existed since the beginning of the medium: The Fall of a Nation (1916), directed by Thomas Dixon, Jr. was a sequel to D. W. Griffith’s controversial-yet-profitable The Birth of a Nation from the previous year (it also founded the idea that sequels seldom feature the return of the director of the first film). After the sequel heyday of the 1930s-’40s, in which RKO and Universal unleashed their cinematic monsters in a series of increasingly-poor sequels, Hollywood abandoned the practice mostly until the 1960s when a British secret agent electrified the big screen in Dr. No (and yes, there are many pundits who argue that the James Bond films aren’t “true” sequels, as they rarely observed continuity or employed the same filmmaker, but this isn’t an essay on “What’s In a Sequel?”). Sequels became fashionable again in the 1970s with the success of Planet of the Apes and The Godfather. While the latter was the rare instance of a filmmaker returning (with more creative control than ever) and an increased budget, the Planet of the Apes films were demonstrative of Hollywood wringing a clever one-off film into a series of films with both reduced budgets and vision. Sequels are emblematic of the film industry’s attempts to balance art and commerce, with the latter winning most of the time—how else does one explain the number of Friday the 13th sequels? We don’t expect sequels to be very good, but some of us want to be entertained well enough to justify going to the theater (yes, there are the slavish completists, those hard-working apologists who create feeble excuses to justify the existence of the entire Police Academy or Airbud franchises—pity the deluded creatures!). In 1987, when the ludicrously-titled RoboCop became a modest sleeper success, financially-troubled Orion Pictures greenlit a sequel immediately, foregoing any consideration of artistic merit—they needed cash pronto! Producer Jon Davison started pre-production on RoboCop 2, and the unconventional choice of director fell to Tim Hunter, whose recent drama, River’s Edge, had been well received by critics. The speed of pre-production led to Hunter quitting and veteran director Irvin Kershner stepping in as his replacement. Though it was a craven cash-in, RoboCop 2 is a marvelous mashup of violence and satire, a silly but rewarding pastiche of commercialism and bold creative choices.

In a near-future Detroit, set shortly after the events of the first film, the police force are on strike, causing a huge spike in crime in an already-crime-infested city. OCP is planning a hostile takeover of the city to build its Delta City mega-project, as the municipal government is unable to make repayments from a sizeable loan provided by the company. Cyborg police officer Alex J. Murphy and his partner, Anne Lewis, are among the few cops who have refused to strike, focusing their attentions on Crime boss Cain, the developer of a cheap and highly-addictive new drug, Nuke. Meanwhile, OCP’s plans to launch a second RoboCop program have failed, as it appears the first was a fortunate accident. When Murphy is lured into a trap by Cain, he’s rebuilt, but at a cost: a scrupulous OCP psychologist, Dr. Fax, reprograms him with hundreds of directives, neutering his effectiveness, so her plans for a second RoboCop come to fruition. When Cain is nearly killed in a police chase by Murphy, Fax shuts off his life support system to use his brain for the new RoboCop, a murderous machine manipulated by Nuke. Can Murphy and Lewis stop Cain’s RoboCop 2.0 and save the city from foreclosure?

RoboCop, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is a dark science fiction film replete with shocking violence and sharp social satire. The film depicts a futuristic Detroit that wrestles with crime and corporate interests, as megacorporation OCP runs the city’s police force. Inspired by kitschy ’70s sci-fi TV show The Six Million Dollar Man (cyborg Steve Austin runs so fast, he’s depicted in slow motion with groovy sound effects) and comic book hero Iron Man, the titular character is part man (upstanding cop Alex J. Murphy) and part machine (and “all cop”, as the film poster announced). The film appeals to action fans (those bloody squibs were really pronounced as RoboCop made each shot count when shooting criminals) and science fiction fans (He’s a cyborg! There’s a big robot in ED-209!), and its cynical-yet-prescient view that corporations were more powerful than municipal governments is well executed. RoboCop 2 continues to offer fans of the first film more of everything: Murphy’s struggle between his humanity and his machine body, dark humor, satire, and an increase in violent action. When it arrived in theaters in the summer of 1990, critics and audiences were horrified by the result, criticizing it harshly for its violence and use of a foul-mouthed 12-year-old drug dealer/protégé as an antagonist (“Can’t shoot a kid, can you, fucker!”). By giving audiences a sequel with amplified elements that made the first film successful, the filmmakers found themselves in familiar territory: a film sequel that no longer has the novelty of the original.  However, though I don’t think RoboCop 2 is equal to its progenitor, I do feel it’s a worthy sequel that at least attempts to provide audiences with a memorable cinematic adrenaline rush—what more does one want in a sci-fi action film?

RoboCop 2 opens with a darkly comical commercial, a hallmark of the first film, and a Media Break soundbite (showing how destructive Nuke has become that even the Surgeon General isn’t safe from a drug dealer’s reprisal, an eerie portend of things to come in countries with deep-seeded drug cartels) before quickly showing how devolved the City of Detroit has become without most of its police force (in the previous film, there was a brief mention that the police union was threatening to strike over labor issues with OCP). Leave it to Robo to maintain law and order while showing off his makeover—he’s now donning cerulean-blue armor, which Tim Gunn would approve wholeheartedly. Poor Murphy, however, still haunted by his old life, drives by his family’s house, so often that his wife is suing OCP for harassment. Murphy realizes that as RoboCop he can’t return to his old life, so he lies to his wife (in a sad exchange—if you don’t feel bad for Robo, you’re as cold as his flesh), telling her he isn’t her husband. Okay, scratch the “man” part—he’s all machine and all cop. Peter Weller does a very good job with this part of the script, and it’s a shame the filmmakers drop most of the inner conflict for the rest of the film, but, hey, there’s a drug kingpin and killer cyborg to contend with, so let’s cut him a break?

When searching for online reviews of RoboCop 2, one finds the term “mean spirited” used a lot. So what? Is that a crime? Not enough films are mean spirited, then or now. I remember the outcry in newspapers and Entertainment Tonight when the film came out: HOW COULD YOU HAVE A CHILD PLAY A DRUG DEALER? HOW DARE YOU!! SHAME!!! Much of novice screenwriter and Dark Knight Returns wordsmith Frank Miller’s script was rewritten by others, but he created the controversy with the drug-dealing adolescent, Hob (Is he an adolescent? He’s quite short and likes his ketchup, so the jury is still convening—and is that his first name or last?). Like the first film, RoboCop 2 is a satire, so it’s natural to have a drug kingpin/cult leader corrupt a kid like Hob, even forcing him to watch a grisly surgery/murder performed without anesthesia in a colorful way of ridding an unreliable informant. It’s gruesome, combining horror elements and satire: it’s an exaggeration of a world in which lawlessness and drug addiction have crippled a major American city. I don’t hang out with drug dealers, but I’m quite certain there have been dealers as young as Hob, sadly. My parents disapproved of me going to the arcade because “that’s where drug dealers hang out” — which Hob does. So my parents were right? Much of the film’s humor is darker than even Verhoeven conjured, so that’s dark shit. The surgery to remove Cain’s brain is particularly gruesome, made even more repulsive by the surgeon’s line, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m hungry,” as they crack open the skull—the Foley artists jacking up bone-crunching, tissue-ripping, and drilling sounds, drunk with their aural power. The Media Breaks are more dire: the Amazon is burning, but it’s treated like a lark, a momentary inconvenience (even without the ozone layer, Californians can still bathe in the sun, provided they slather Sunblock 5000 over their entire body). Dr. Fax uses special-interest groups to consult with Robo’s new directives, since Murphy hasn’t taken time out of crimefighting to speak out on the environment. Dr. Fax relishes her new role in selecting a candidate for the new RoboCop, as “psychotherapy is a slow and clumsy process” — in the near future, instant gratification is ideal, even for psychologists without ethical qualms. Cain’s lair showcases a tribute to the King, his skeleton and hair a shrine, and a picture of Oliver North (asks millennials today if they know who he is) hangs silently on a wall. Both the Old Man and Cain reference that they intend to make “Made in America mean something again” (inspiring a certain orange autocrat?), so similar are the ambitions of CEOs and drug kingpins in Detroit. A bankrupt Detroit in film predicted the bankrupt real Detroit of the late ’00s, so I don’t think the film is mean spirited at all:  Robo’s world is hell, so the humor would reflect it consequently.

RoboCop 2 was also criticized for its violence, which was a contested issue in the early ’90s—threats from special-interest groups and even the FCC prompted filmmakers and TV producers to either push back or cower in defeat. I applaud director Kershner for increasing the violence to absurd levels: it’s a dizzying mix of comic-book energy and Looney Tunes violence, and it works well. If the hostile takeover of Detroit is an exaggeration of corporate citizenship then the violence ought to be exaggerated as well. Without police protection or hope, the criminals will loot, murder, and steal gleefully without reprisal, whether it’s for violent kicks or to score Nuke. Cain and his crew delight in tearing Robo apart, especially as Hob sprays him with his own servo-fluids (“How’s it taste?” Grow up, kid!), and drop him off at his police precinct like garbage, a mechanical Humpty Dumpty that OCP will have difficulty putting back together again. Cain’s retribution on corrupt office Duffy starts out as a grisly demise, but Kershner cuts to Cain forcing Hob’s head to witness the violence while only Duffy’s screams and nauseating bone-crunching sound effects can be heard. Having the newly-rebuilt Robo and Lewis contend with a Little league coach and his thieving players is funny yet violent; while Murphy talks it out with the trigger-happy coach, it’s Lewis who shoots him dead in frustration, as if his life is an afterthought (I love when she scolds Murphy: “Snap out of it! You’re reading MIRANDA to a corpse!”). The battle between RoboCops is also exaggerated intentionally: walls explode, bullets spray everywhere, private OCP security people (who wear not-so-subtle Nazi-like uniforms) and innocent bystanders are mowed down by RoboCop 2.0, so OCP’s Old Man feels compelled to step in: “Behave yourselves!” (aw, RoboCop 2.0 knows how to operate a remote control better than my dad). He’s not worried about the loss of life, but the optics of the situation and the value of OCP stock. Robo and the ill-conceived idea of putting a psychopath’s brain into a heavily-armed machine contribute to foiling the Old Man’s plan to “take Detroit private,” so an intervention is required — even if it’s impotent. The hyper-exaggerated violence is punctuated by Robo wrenching out Cain’s brain from RoboCop 2.0 and smashing it into gooey bits with his mechanical fist. Subtlety is for cowards!

Some critics and writers object to the Old Man being one of the villains in RoboCop 2, and I think they’re forgetting that he wasn’t the “sweet old man” Dick Jones described in the OCP executive men’s bathroom in the first film. The “Dick, I’m very disappointed!” Old Man of RoboCop is neither benevolent nor altruistic. He’s concerned about the bottom line and getting Delta City off the ground, and he’s happy that Robo works well enough to combat crime so that the project can move forward. In RoboCop 2, he’s just as opportunistic as ever, letting his ego get stroked by Dr. Fax, ignoring Johnson’s pleas, and letting her place Cain’s brain in a machine. He wants Old Detroit to crumble, people to displace, so that Delta City will live, no matter the cost. So, he’s the real villain—there’s even a red-white-and-black OCP-as-Nazi-Germany flag hanging in the front of the corporate headquarters! Duty To The Corporation is the fascism of Delta City.

RoboCop 2 is an example of a sequel that tries to outdo the original but doesn’t fully succeed. It can be applauded for making the attempt to outdo the violence and satire of its predecessor–too often sequels are dull retreads, lifeless vanity projects, or career revivals, so I’m happy that Irvin Kershner and crew created an uber-violent, bombastic sequel, carrying on the satiric imprint of Verhoeven’s RoboCop. Some will groan at Murphy’s personality crisis (an admittedly feeble attempt at squeezing jokes out of hundreds of OCP directives, which feels like it goes on longer than it does). Some will grimace at the cavalier attitudes towards drug addiction, forgetting again that it’s a satire. Hell, some will think I’m crazy for giving any prose love to a loud, crude action film, but I think there’s much to admire—all that’s missing is the soaring metal-clanging RoboCop theme from composer Basil Poledouris (I do appreciate Oscar-winning composer Leonard Rosenman’s attempt here—who would have added a choral group singing “ROBOCOP!” as the end credits roll?). RoboCop 2 is a victim of its time, when cinematic violence was criticized heavily, resulting in a lower-than-expected box office (as a result, the producers would go in the opposite direction with the kid-friendly, PG-13 RoboCop 3, which sat on the shelf for two years because of Orion’s worsening financial issues, and sealed the end of Robo’s cinematic adventures). However, it’s aged well in an era where too often corporations are mired in corruption and scandal, and where attention spans have been reduced greatly. Social media is our Nuke: cheap, abundant, and highly addictive—just ask the people who walk outdoors with their heads bowed to their smartphones in electronic communion. If I’m going to have my senses assaulted, I’d rather it be like RoboCop 2—like Alex J. Murphy, I’m only human.

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