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RoboCop: Retrospective – Part 2: Officer Down

Read Part 1 here.


RoboCop 3 (1993)

By the early 1990s, Orion was in a genuinely precarious financial position. Even the noteworthy success of Dances With Wolves, which earned almost 20 times its budget and did gangbusters at the Academy Awards, was insufficient in providing the studio room to breath. While RoboCop 2 had failed to capture the imagination of critics and audiences alike, in addition to failing to capture dollars bills out of their pocket books, the powers that were nevertheless believed in the franchise as a possible source of revenue to keep them afloat. However, something more was needed. It was deemed that that something could come in the form of a wider audience net. Obviously, the hard R rating of the first two pictures prevented the youth from attending screenings. As such, RoboCop 3 would be a PG-13 venture in the hopes of luring in youngsters that had grown fond of the character despite that they probably shouldn’t have been watching the films anyhow.

Directed and written by Fred Dekker, RoboCop 3 sees the Motor City under the threat of massive gentrification. OCP, now led by a new CEO (Rip Torn), dispatches its newly established Urban Rehabilitators, a paramilitary force employed to displace the poor, homeless, and squatters while the corporation prepares the construction of high-tech, fanciful neighborhoods for the wealthy. The Rehabilitators are commanded by McDaggert (John Castle), who advertises his unit as a force for good by facilitating the reorganization of the lower clases into society, but don’t tell young Nikko (Remy Ryan) that. The film opens with the Rehabilitators destroying her family’s apartment building. In the commotion, Nikko is separated from her parents but is quickly rescued by some reasonably friendly resistance fighters (C.C.H. Pounder, Stanley Anderson, Stephen Root). Meanwhile, RoboCop (Robert Burke) and officer Lewis (Nancy Allen, bless her heart) are contending with the Splatter Punks gang for the streets of Old Detroit, but the fight takes on new dimensions when tragedy befalls the police force and the Rehabilitators and Splatter Punks unite.

If RoboCop 2’s status in the eyes of fans is less than enviable, the third picture’s disrepute is legendary. Shunned upon its release and to this day, Fred Dekker’s career as a director took the worst hit imaginable. Case in point: apart from a few episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise, his next directorial effort is next year’s The Predator (2018). Talk about being stuck in director’s jail. It recouped barely half its production budget, much to Orion’s dismay, with the studio itself finally sinking for good only a few years later. So what issues cripple RoboCop 3?

Much ink has been spilled on the subject, but not all accounts can be fully trusted, particularly in the age of massive social media platforms where people are hastily swept up in what can be described as the ‘consensus’. Decrying Fred Dekker’s outing as a travesty or as just plain garbage is not the least bit taxing of one’s critical faculties. Revisiting the film recently for the purpose of this retrospective, it is actually quite striking how the film has the basis of what could have been a well told, decently engaging story about urban upheaval and resistance told through the eyes of a child. The fact the Nikko is a RoboCop fan herself (a Robo doll stands proudly on a drawer desk in her bedroom at the movie’s start) is another meta, neat twist that actually plays into the fact that by the early 1990s, kids were taking a liking to the franchise despite the hard R restrictions. Gentrification is a nasty subject, a depressing socio-economic reality far too many people in wealthy nations are condemned to through. There’s potential there for a good story, especially one in which RoboCop partakes, fighting against his own 4th Prime Directive that prohibits him from harming OCP members, of which the Urban Rehabilitators are. What’s more, there is a Japanese samurai cyborg named Otomo (Bruce Locke) that looks awesome and hunts down the protagonist and the resistance fighters.

Despite its legitimate potential, RoboCop 3 unfortunately fails at leaving a lasting impression.  Many bemoan that fact that Fred Dekker (working off a treatment from Frank Miller) had one of the protagonist’s be a pre-teen, computer-wiz girl, but Remy Ryan is rather solid in the role of Nikko. The issue is that about halfway through, the film doesn’t know what to do with her anymore, and she is consequentially reduced to a smaller role. In fact, the movie is abundant with decent-to-good ideas, but precious few of them bear fruit. Otomo is a great idea, but the orgasmic potential of having a robo-samurai combat the resistance fighters and RoboCop himself never materializes. Dekker has gone on record for saying he had big ideas for Otomo, but budget restraints limited what he could do with the character. The Splatter Punks are another concept befitting of a RoboCop movie, yet they only appear briefly at the start and again at the end for a final showdown between the Rehabilitators and striking Detroit police force, led by sergeant Reed (Robert DoQui, who put in good work in all three films).

Virtually no discussion about the third entry can go without mentioning Peter Weller’s absence, officer Lewis’ death, and the PG-13 rating.  While Weller’s presence is missed, lambasting Robert Burke is a fool’s errand. He does exactly what was asked of him and does so competently enough. He’s no Weller, but nor is he a poor replacement. Lewis’s death is another matter altogether. Her offing comes across as a cheap tactic to tug at fans’ heartstrings. Make no mistake, it is sad to see Nancy Allen leave the film barely halfway through, but not because the circumstances under which it happens are intelligent or well written. Lastly, while it is incredibly tempting to go against the grain by arguing that the tamer rating does not affect proceedings, the reality is that the film does lack ‘oomph’. When graphic violence can erupt at any given moment and in any way possible, the viewer remains on edge. Not so in this case, which ends up handicapping the picture’s ambition to offer satisfying thrills. RoboCop 2 was dumb, but it offered genuine surprises through its violent intentions.  

In both the Scream Factory blu-ray supplements and Calum Waddel’s RoboCop: The Definitive History (Titan Books, 2014), Fred Dekker is very, very frank about his disappointing efforts, admitting that if any one person is to blame for the limp final product, it’s him. While admirable, it still means RoboCop 3 is a bit of a bore.

la-et-mn-robocop-remake-movie-reviews-critics-20140211RoboCop (2014)

Rumors about a new RoboCop film had been floating around for a few years already by the time MGM officially announced production in 2012. At one point Darren Aronofsky was attached to direct, although one has to start wondering why major studios keep bringing him to their offices to discuss major franchise-related projects (Batman, Wolverine, RoboCop) given that he never stays long enough to actually direct them. Continuing the unfortunate trend of RoboCop films being produced by a studio handicapped by financial challenges, MGM had only recently crawled its way out of bankruptcy, but could not actually release the films it made, hence a partnership with Columbia Pictures. Luckily, finding the talent the concoct the reboot led to some interesting results, most notably with screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Milner returning to the fold for the first time since the original film (their story idea for RoboCop 2 never got off the ground), and Brazilian director José Padilha, fresh off two major hits in his home country: Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.

Set in the near future, viewers are informed through a popular right-wing, political talk show hosted by Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) that the world is benefitting from protection and safety via American-made military robotics, but not Americans themselves. Much hoopla is transpiring in the senate to repel an act that prohibits robots from patrolling the streets on home soil. Makers OCP and its CEO Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton) are dreaming of wooing the American public and the senate with something the people can truly get behind and relate to on some level, like a human inside a machine. Enter Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), currently investigating a gun smuggling ring that may in fact suggest corruption within the force itself. When his nose takes him too close, his car is hijacked one night, erupting in a ball of fire right in his face, scarring Murphy for life. OCP scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) and his team are tasked by Sellers to reconstruct Murphy as a machine, but that ends up being the easy part. The real challenge is how to control Murphy’s mind: allow him to be human, or program his brain like a computer? For that matter, can they fully control his mind and will?

RoboCop was a tough sell in 2014. As is often the case regarding sequels, remakes and reboots, fans of the original are often quick to defend what they hold dear and decry the new studio output (although simple logic quickly reveals how silly that behavior is. The existence of a sequel, remake or reboot does not nullify that of the original: it’s still there for all to enjoy). Segments of the fanbase of Paul Verheoven’s iconic 1987 effort were certainly out in full swing, eviscerating Padilha’s picture. Were they unjust towards the new film? Should it have made more money than it did (242$ million is nothing to sneeze at, but that was against a production budget of about $100 million, excluding marketing costs). As is so often the case, the truth lies in the equally fascinating and for some infuriating concept of ambiguity.

José Padilha’s venture into the Robo franchise is as bold as it occasionally boring, two adjectives that rarely appear in the same sentence to describe the very same thing. Whereas the original picture concentrated on a great many angles, from technology and the human mind melding, political satire, to action, the 2014 installment spends the overwhelming amount of its running time on Alex Murphy’s plight as a broken human whose capacity for reason and independence is at the beck and call of his corporate masters. It feels as though writers Numeier and Milner, having been awarded a second kick at the can, wrote a movie that grappled with the subject matter that interested them most of all about the first film. In that regard, their and director Padilha’s efforts are surprising effective. Murphy, when not being toyed with by Dr. Norton (at the behest of Raymond Sellars), experiences shock, emotional trauma, disappointment, and maybe even a bit of shame when revisiting his family for the first time (his wife played by the underutilized Abbie Cornish). The battle for Murphy’s mind, both between the protagonist and OCP and within the corporation itself, is generally well played because of the time and effort invested in making the drama worthwhile. A major studio backing a $100 million project predominantly interested in the drama of a man wrestling with his machine-like state is a brave decision. And yes, the black armor looks cool. Have at it, social media.

While the drama is all well and good, and while there are some moments of amusing satire courtesy of the fictitious Pat Novak show (Jackson is as humorously cantankerous as ever), unfortunately the action beats, on which the film was understandably sold on, do not live up to expectations. Odder still is the fact that José Padilha had made two impressive, gritty action dramas in Brazil, showcasing his skills at depicting what amounted to police urban warfare, very much what these films strive for. For RoboCop’s action scenes to therefore come out limping as they do is nothing but a disappointment. Perhaps the director’s unfamiliarity with computer generated imagery handicapped him. Perhaps he wasn’t interested in the action. Perhaps at the time he thought the action was great. Whatever the case, RoboCop fails to deliver the visceral thrills some of its predecessors had done with aplomb. A battle between the hero and no fewer than 3 ED-209’s in OCP’s lobby should be something memorable to behold, yet in this film the sequence is as forgettable as all the action that came before.

2014’s RoboCop is a film with ideas and its head in the right place, but forgets to indulge in some of the other elements that made so many people fall in love with the original, including the humor. A decent, if unbalanced effort.

Final programming

Unlike the other franchises tackled thus far in these retrospectives, Robocop is the only one for which it can be safely argued that the original is indeed the lone great entry. Some, like Robocop 2 and the 2014 remake, relished in one or two aspects from the original while forsaking too much of everything else. Another, Robocop 3, made a daring move to completely change the tone, only to hurt itself in the end. This speaks volumes about the character and concept of Robocop. Clearly he and his world are more difficult to write about and direct than some might assume. After all, no less than 3 teams have tried their hand since, yet none have come close. It also says a lot about the original and why it’s such a darling. The fact that it balances an ungodly number of thematic, tonal, and plot-based facets as smoothly as it does is a testament to the efforts of everyone involved, despite that most who worked on the project have admitted to it being a miserable experience at the time. Not many movies can do what 1987’s RoboCop does, or do it so well.

Does this mean the first movie was akin to capturing lighting in a bottle? Can it ever be replicated? For that matter, considering the 2014 endeavor’s lukewarm reception, will there be other attempts to replicate it? The answer to the latter question rests mostly in a studio’s belief in making money off of the brand name, meaning probably yes, although who knows when. The answer to the former…That’s a very tall order. While enthusiasm for the franchise rarely extends past the first film, revisiting them in order is nevertheless an interesting, worthwhile exercise, if mostly to see what certain filmmakers have tried to do with the character since, with varying degrees of success.

So please be a good citizen, remain polite, and give it a fair shake.

Thank you for your cooperation.

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