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Sir, I've never met anyone who wanted to be a robot.

Robocop 2
(1990)

(SPOILERS) The potential for a decent movie is lurking somewhere within Robocop 2’s torrid metallic shell. Cast aside the tone deaf visuals, the horrendous score from Leonard Rosenman (quite possibly the worst such to afflict a major motion picture outside of, well the ‘80s; and at least they aren’t accompanied by the unheavenly choral charge of “Robocop!”) and the unerring facility for unpleasantness, and there’s something in there, deep underneath.


Unfortunately, though, I suspect it was a doomed enterprise from the off. It falls apart through lacking the fundamental ingredients that make Robocop an abiding classic; an unwavering vision of what the picture is about. That sureness came through in the sharp satire of Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier’s screenplay, and was cemented by Paul Verhoeven’s pitch black sense of humour and muscular iconography. More fundamentally still, the first film, for all its broad strokes, prescribed a potent emotional through-line for its man-machine moral musings such that, once Murphy has decided who he is, the character has nowhere left to go.


The end of the original may be a little pat in that regard, but that’s essentially because it’s pushing its broad brush but finely honed comic book stylings as far as they can go, short of flipping into a heavyweight meditation on the self and its relationship to the material, and so irreparably throwing off the deceptively effortless balance. Verhoeven and his writers knew precisely how to get their points across through symbolism and allusion rather than hammering it out didactically. To their credit, Frank Miller and Walon Green (the latter rewrote Miller’s screenplay) attempt to evoke this aspect during the first half of Robocop 2, and several strong scenes result, but there’s a reluctance or inability to follow-through.


Holzgang: Are you human?
Murphy: No. I am a machine.

Murphy as stalker is quite a strong turn, and it leads to the well-observed exchange – as good as any in the first, aside from Jeff McCarthy’s OCP guy being a bit too uniformly oily – where Robocop is asked what he thinks he could offer his wife (a man without a body, without manhood), and nudged with the cruelty of making her suffer again (“She’s just started to accept the loss”), he must resign himself to forsaking that memory of another life. This leads to a potent scene where he chooses to be cruel to be kind (“They made this to honour him. Your husband is dead. I don’t know you”).


As it turns out, this is as engaged as the picture gets in exploring its hero (even if it is essentially a betrayal of where Murphy was left in the original), as it immediately falls back on a rehearsal of the torture of Murphy in the first. In and of itself this is another reasonably effective scene, as Robocop is dismembered, lubricant fluid squirted in his face as he screams in anguish, but by drawing such a parallel line to its predecessor, Kershner and co only mark out how deficient the villains are and diluted the concept has become.


Tom Noonan was phenomenal in Michael Mann’s Manhunter a few years earlier, but evil drug lord Cain is as uninspited and one-note as his generic bad guy in Last Action Hero. So much so that, when he becomes Robocop 2 (one wonders if they thought of the title twist before they thought of the plot; appearances suggest so), you scarcely notice his absence (all you do notice, more of which shortly, is that Robocop is up against a stop motion maquette for the big finale, no matter how proficiently individual moments of altercation are in terms of artistry). Cain is serviced with maybe one good line in the entire film (“Jesus had days like this”) and even that has the whiff of being sourced elsewhere.


The gang of Nuke-retailers are unpleasant without being memorable, which goes for much of what they get up to. One has the look of an Elvis impersonator, another is a generic girlfriend type (Galyn Görg), more than partial to Nuke, who has to play up the most clichéd addict behavior (just how Nuke is so great and what its effects are isn't very clear; all we’re told is that it's bad, and observe its appealingly tidy delivery system, injected into the neck. She is nevertheless granted one noteworthy scene, as she attempts to smooth the rage of the metallic monster her monstrous boyfriend has become, caressing its huge pincers before being crushed like a grapefruit.


The most remembered villain, though, is devil child Hob (Gabriel Damon), a choice that seems to be more about pushing taste boundaries than saying anything smart about the corruption of innocence. Damon’s performance is reasonable, but he’s forced into awkwardly constructed scenario of unconvincing tough kid scenes; this might work in a gritty, realist take, but not with the starchy, surface gloss on supply.


There’s the occasional glimmer of purpose amid the grimness, as Hob is forced to watch when rotten cop Duffy (Stephen Lee) is split open with a surgeon’s scalpel (a scene even more gratuitous in the original cut, unsurprisingly), but since this is the baseline in the picture’s non-existent struggle with taste, it’s really rather by-the-by (we, the audience are repulsed, so no wonder the demon spawn is too). It’s also a bit rich that Hob is allowed to revert to a little boy lost for his death scene, after a movie’s worth of thorough malevolence, since he as far from earned our sympathies. If it’s misjudged, like so much here, Weller plays Murphy the compassionate hero with subtlety (“Lie still”).


Murphy: Bad language makes for bad feelings.

But by that point we’ve been all over Detroit trying to find a fit for the post-acceptance-of-his-lot Murphy. First he has reverted from the final shot of the original, unable to adjust, and he’s pursuing his wife. Then he gets torn apart, and reprogrammed, in what amounts to a slapstick episode that has its sort-of appeal, but is another leering shift in tone; Murphy ministrating to a corpse, lecturing a wayward scout troop and, in a moment made for the trailer (and which was also used as a general ad on the subject in cinemas) thanking a citizen for not smoking after putting bullet holes in the wall surrounding him.


In some respects, this is pure filler material, a tactic to delay the main event, but it’s much more interesting than that main event, even if it’s completely undisciplined in approach. The content varies from the gleefully absurd, throwing open suggestions for his modification to focus groups (“If he just talked things out with people, instead of firing that big gun of his”), to Weller’s staccato of delivery eccentric dialogue, recalling great practitioners like Shatner and McGoohan (“I’m touched”), at least when it doesn’t tip into the outright daft (“It’s the thought that counts” he affirms, after waxing lyrical about the lovely moon during daylight).


The humour is much, much cruder than in the first film, bordering on ineptly-judged parody, and this can be seen in news summaries, the adverts, and the performances. It’s nice to have John Glover show up in the ad for Magnavolt (the lethal auto theft deterrent), but Sun Block 5000 (“Caution: Frequent Use Will Cause Skin Cancer”) is evidence of a screenplay aiming squarely for crude gags rather than with any intent on satire.


Likewise, Cain’s desire to make a success of Nuke (“Made in America. We’re going to make that mean something again”) has a kind of warped resonance, coming as the picture does in the wake of Michael Moore’s dissection of the disintegration of Flint, Michigan’s manufacturing base in Roger and Me. And the depiction of the unstoppable corporation, never short of a scapegoat to ensure it survives any setbacks and lives to fight another day (“Sir, whether it exists or not, I know I can find it”, advises Johnson of finding evidence on Dr Faxx). 


Balance that against the toe-curling, goofball portrayal of the mayor by Willard E Pugh, as if he’s just been fired from I’m Gonna Git You Sucka for being too unsubtle (but even this caricature masks a decent idea, a mayor overseeing a bankrupt Detroit, that actually happened 23 years later).


Old Man: It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you, Robocop 2.

It’s no different with the new Robocop. The programme is backed up by a sound central premise, that it is Murphy’s code, his sense of duty, that enabled him to survive the loss of the physical, stripped of body, which has led other offices to go mad or become suicidal. But the execution is strictly slapstick, with silly designs and deaths of prototypes played strictly for laughs.


It’s a deranged and drastic leap too, that OCP would go straight to the criminal fraternity for new test subjects. Indeed, the whole Cain-as-Robocop 2 is an ungainly mess, lurching from B-movie brains in tanks (with eyeballs) to his instantaneous (not just gradual) unmanageability; it speaks to the undifferentiated construction of the picture as a whole. Where the original had a finesse borne of its director’s wit and verve, this is crass, clumsy.


Such is the design of Robocop 2. Robocop had a highly memorable supporting bot, superbly visualised (ED209). This construction is entirely indistinct, presumably based on what would work best work for the purposes of rigorous stop motion. And the virtual Cain face that pops up on a monitor screen only serves to underline a junk idea, fashioned as junk spectacle.


The finale, because it’s so identifiably based around model work, fails to have much impact; you’re always aware the characters aren’t in the same frame as Robocop 2, or that it’s a model Murphy “interacting”. Added to which, there are no human stakes because the action has been reduced to a sub-Harryhausen fracas. We’ve already had signs of Murphy being equated with the superhero/comic book character he riffs on, but not in a good way; he gets to ride a robo-bike (he’s like Batman!), and next time it will be a jetpack. And, with a passion for deserted industrial sites that became a cliché in the space since the first film, it’s no wonder the writers introduced a Robocop stealth mode for the remake, since Murphy isn’t creeping up on anyone in that suit.


Kershner also fails to shoot that suit from the best angles, often unable to emphasise the character’s dynamism and rather emphasising how much of the first movie’s cool iconography was illusory (in particular, the penchant for having Robocop shoot in the opposite direction to the one he’s looking becomes annoying, not a signal of his skilz). 


Not helping matters is flat, bland cinematography, overlit like a ‘90s John Carpenter picture (aside from some early David Cronenbergs, Mark Irwin’s CV is less than impressive, increasingly tending to the comedy and TV movie arena), and this Detroit is a city only ever populated by a dozen or so extras. Lacking the grainy, gritty milieu of the original, Robocop 2 feels fabricated.


There are positives here, naturally. Belinda Bauer, despite lacking an even remotely convincing character (in terms of plausible scientific motivation, rather than her desire to get ahead), lends Dr Faxx an implacably self-assured quality. Felton Perry takes advantage of the absence of Miguel Ferrer, as Johnson moves more into the spotlight; his character is perhaps the most consistently written, both in his desire to climb the corporate ladder, and as a vague point of audience identification, purely by virtue of everyone else being even more ruthless, amoral, sociopathic.


Dan O’Herlihy continues to be reliable as the Old Man, and is rightly repositioned as calculating and ruthless (lest anyone thought the contemptible posturing of Ronny Cox’s Dick Jones in the original took the edge off him). The "Behave yourselves!" admonishment makes everyone look very silly, though. Nancy Allen, aside from getting an inappropriate hairdo ("Your hair looks lovely that way"), berating kids who have beaten up a shopkeeper as if they are simply naughty young scamps, and nearly being garrotted by the demon imp, is forgettable, so it’s no wonder she didn’t last long in the second sequel (she also asserted that Kershner took out all the intelligence and humour from the film, and hated working with him).


Robocop 2 went through a number of iterations before reaching the screen. Original writers Neumeier and Miner were first up, but their concept was unused (that of pushing Murphy 25 years into the future –  a little worrying, a bit too Highlander II – and was later used for the pilot of the Robocop TV series). Tim Hunter quit as director over Orion’s interference. Nils Gaup was also offered the gig, while Alan Moore turned down the chance to write. Frank Miller’s original screenplay eventually became a less than adulated comic book (Alex Cox was asked to direct this version, but didn’t like the politics; as he put it, “Unlike the original Robocop, which trod a path between right wing politics and left wing irony, Miller’s script was reactionary and obvious, pitting its robot police hero against homeless people. No wonder he is so popular with the Hollywood one percenters”).


But I doubt this particular franchise had anywhere left to go beyond the original, at least without a hand at the tiller every bit as clear of purpose as Verhoeven (that’s partly why the remake floundered). It’s in the DNA of the thing that it has to examine the man in the machine, so pared down, more generic, Dirty Harry, or TV cop show approaches don’t work (Weller, who is never less than commanding, knew this, saying the picture’s finale needed a moral angle, so it’s no wonder he opted out of 3). And neither does lip service to the satire. The movie didn’t perform especially well at the box office (in a crowded sequel summer), and Robocop 3 was mired in the demise of Orion. Alas, in terms of Kershner’s dalliances with sequels, Robocop 2 is more Never Say Never Again than The Empire Strikes Back.



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