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1987's RoboCop is the best science fiction film of the 1980s, a stunning action movie and a sharp social satire. Writer Ed Neumeier's acidic takedown of the greedy, war-on-drugs Reagan years is still 100% accurate. Neumeier, director Paul Verhoeven and producer Jon Davison chose to make RoboCop exceedingly violent, which dampened its box office take: If the story of police officer Murphy were a PG-13 instead of a rather hard "R", a younger audience could have flocked to the show. But I'll take the hard-edged adult political satire any day.
About ten years later the same production team made Starship Troopers, an equally brilliant (and courageous) critique of modern militarism as seen through a future where the entire planet has been united under a corporate state and is actively conquering other solar systems. Troopers' mixed messages were widely misunderstood, but in the post-9/11 world its reputation has been almost entirely redeemed. A similar rebirth hasn't come to pass for the first RoboCop sequel, RoboCop 2, which missed the mark despite a satiric script that now seems like a blueprint for America's future. Compared to the pabulum that now passes for "thinking" sci-fi, this show pushes its dangerous ideas to their logical extremes.
Instead of giving Orion Pictures more of the same, only different, Ed Neumeier's unfilmed sequel script jumped ahead to the future for a sort of "robot politics to come" show that would require the depiction of an entire future society. When Orion nixed that option, producer Davison obtained a violent, serviceable script from comic book & graphic novel star writer Frank Miller that pushed the original's corporate depredations a few notches further into privatization outrage. The script also showcased a new robot monster that would give special effects wizard Phil Tippet free rein to run wild with stop-motion effects. Finding an appropriate director proved to be a major problem; I recall Alex Cox being attached to the show for quite a while. The show finally settled on Irvin Kershner, the former director of sensitive dramatic films (The Luck of Ginger Coffey, Loving) who had scored by directing a much more high-profile sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.
RoboCop 2 sees Omni Consumer Products, headed by The Old Man (Dan O'Herlihy, returning) closing in on a much bigger corporate takeover deal: rather than going for Detroit's police department, they've signed the foolish Mayor Kuzak (Willard Pugh) to a security contract that almost guarantees that the city will default, at which point OCP will own everything -- and "take Detroit private." As part of this scheme The Old Man's mistress Dr. Juliette Fax begins searching for a human subject to "volunteer" to let their brain be used in a Mark II cyborg, to be called RoboCop 2. The still-effective first model Robocop (Peter Weller) is now considered a liability, especially because his human identity as officer Murphy keeps reasserting itself. The Old Man's ruthless lawyers Holzgang and Donald Johnson (Jeff McCarthy & Felton Perry) entreat Robo to lie to his "widow" Ellen Murphy (Angie Bolling) that he is no longer her husband but an unfeeling cyborg. 4
RoboCop goes after the crime kingpin Cain (Tom Noonan), a venal visionary whose new designer drug Nuke has taken the country by storm. Trapped by Cain's minions (including 12 year-old mob enforcer Hob (Gabriel Damon), Robo is cut into pieces and dumped on a precinct doorstep. When OCP reassembles Robo the devious Dr. Fax turns him into an ineffective public relations moron by pumping his program with hundreds of conflicting, PC-ridden Prime Directives. Robo fries those circuits with high-voltage electricity, freeing him for the first time to act totally on his own volition. Raiding a Nuke warehouse, RoboCop faces off with Cain, who ends up in the hospital. Dr. Fax then decides that Cain has exactly the psychopathic personality profile needed for RoboCop 2 -- and his addiction to Nuke will make him easy to control. Cain's brain re-awakens in the twelve-foot chrome steel monster, outfitted with mechanical claws and a left arm that carries an aviation-grade machine gun cannon. The Old Man sends Robo 2 out to insure that Mayor Kuzak doesn't raise the cash needed to keep Detroit in public hands. Little does OCP realize that Cain isn't exactly thrilled to be transformed into a metallic Golem: the monster cyborg has its own violent agenda.
As a production RoboCop 2 is a quite a show. Made just a few seasons before Spielberg's game-changing Jurassic Park, it is the last major organic stop-motion giant monster epic. The team of animators working under Phil Tippet, combined with animation effects by Peter Kuran, futuristic matte shots by Rocco Gioffre, and Rob Bottin's improved Robo suit effects. Peter Weller has much more freedom of movement, although he still cannot enter or exit a car. 1 The movie is packed with violent action, from a trio of 'failed' Robo 2 prototypes to a final fifteen minute rampage wherein RoboCop 2 slaughters perhaps 100 innocent bystanders. The name of the game with RoboCop was always violent overkill, but in this sequel the repetitive mayhem never seems to stop. Robo 2 really needs a large truck to follow him around, to carry all the ammo he must be expending.
Frank Miller's script intensifies the macabre aspects of the first movie. The young Hob is forced to watch a criminal doctor as he slices open a crooked cop strapped to a hospital gurney. The 'organ harvest' team that extracts Cain's brain (still attached to his eyes and spinal cord) saws through Cain's skull with sickening machine noises, while the head surgeon laments that his latest affair has become hospital gossip.
The cynicism continues with the examination of Omni Consumer Products' new schemes. Instead of a dog-eat-dog executive rivalry, here we have the arrogant OCP shysters intimidating the rank & file police, treating RoboCop as merchandise instead of a human being, and pulling off a criminal conspiracy to seize control of Detroit. The OCP plan is essentially the corporate dream of privatization: turn all citizens into 'subscribers', with unelected, dictatorial private enterprise in control. Dan O'Herlihy's Old Man has a photo-op picture of Ronald Reagan on his desk. He doesn't care who lives or dies as long as his corporate goals are achieved. His best dialogue line, after witnessing the ending slaughter, is to order an underling to "Assemble the best spin team we have." But RoboCop 2's most iconic line, as the two cyborgs prepare to do futuristic knock-down drag 'em out combat (exactly what we came to see) has The Old Man shouting at the top of his lungs, "BEHAVE YOURSELVES!"
Unfortunately, RoboCop 2 didn't go over well with audiences. Its Media Breaks and faux commercials are just as elaborate as those in the first film, but they aren't as funny. The human element has been grievously short-changed, with Nancy Allen's cop sidekick Anne Lewis mostly along for the ride. In the first film, even sensitive viewers were moved by the beautifully handled flashback scenes with Officer Murphy and his wife. After she's sent away crying in act one of RoboCop 2 nothing particularly compelling or novel remains of Murphy's personal dilemma. The Prime Objectives processor overload makes for some reasonably sound (but mostly cruel and unpleasant) cynical jokes, but it robs Robo of his dignity. And most of the big conclusion only sees Robo absorbing and dishing out abuse. 2
Finally, too many scenes simply don't make their intended impact. For no particular reason, Willard Pugh's Mayor Kuzak is practically a 1930s-style "darkie" stereotype slur. More damaging is Irvin Kershner and cameraman Mark Irwin's blocking, camera angles and general stylistics, which can't hold a candle to the precise, graphic novel- inspired visuals of the first film. Robo often looks like a guy striding around in a costume, whereas the careful angles of the original convinced us that he was an unstoppable juggernaut. Standard coverage makes many scenes look ordinary. When the film's violence kicks in, the movie is less futuristic-exotic than annoyingly repetitive. After the first 20 people being mercilessly machine-gunned, the gross-out bullet effects lose their shock value. Just the same, the bulk of the film's stop-motion effects sequences, presumably directed from storyboards, take the 'giant metal robot' mayhem to giddy extremes, and elicit the grandeur and power of classic Harryhausen and O'Brien. The imposing Robo-Cain monster looks like an armored mass of pistons and rotary-mounted weaponry, with a Nazi helmet for a head.
Cain's tour of his portable Nuke lab shows that he's operating as a capitalist in the most basic sense, developing products for a waiting customer base. RoboCop pushed corporate culture to its logical extreme (murder), but RoboCop 2 erases the distinctions between corporate America and organized crime.
The film proposes an erotic meeting of flesh and metal when Robo-Caine greets his former mistress Angie (Galyn Görg). The queasy implication, at least for a moment, is that she's going to have sexual relations with one of the cyborg's enormous steel claws.
The sight of the under-aged gangster Hob bleeding atop a pile of money, playing an "Is this the end of Rico?" scene, is strangely disturbing. For 1990, this was a dangerous but illuminating image -- the war on drugs will turn children into materialistic killers, not unlike the child soldiers in Africa and Central America. 3
The gala introduction and reveal of RoboCop 2 is done in King Kong- like grand style. Instead of being infuriated by the sight of Fay Wray, Robo-Cain goes nuts when he sees The Old Man brandishing a canister of Nuke. Engorging the drug, Robo-Cain has his own Bigger than Life attack of megalomania, and sets out to destroy everything he sees. The movie seems to be nobody's idea of a success, but like other Jon Davison productions it contains a wealth of politically daring ideas.
Perhaps the most marvelous idea in the gala presentation is having Robo 2 seize his own remote control, to arm his mini-gun weapon. The whole central irony of Colossus, The Forbin Project is contained in one smooth gesture. (only in HD do we finally see the little "armed" LED light come on.)
One brilliant design detail -- who thought of this? -- is having vehicle license plates display not numbers but bar codes, presumably readable by scanners in squad cars.
Peter Weller's final line "We're only Human" falls entirely flat, especially when we're primed for Robo to reassert his identity in more than just a throwaway line reading. With his programming erased Robo should now be simply "Murphy", but he instead seems a less interesting generic crime fighter.
Three years later, the financially stricken Orion put out a second sequel, a budget conscious, kid-safe concoction. I never was able to sit through it, so if it becomes a brilliant work of art in the last act, somebody let me know. The RoboCop franchise has morphed from a hard- R to a TV show to a cartoon for kids. I wonder what happens when seven year-old Bobby pulls out one of the original two movies and discovers the original Robo agenda of radical Urban Overkill.
MGM / Fox's Blu-ray of RoboCop 2 is a beauty. In the rich contrast range and added resolution of HD we see more gradation in the film's overall gray-blue color scheme; we can now admire Robo's improved paint job. The film's superb special effects are a real study for stop-motion fans, as the technique was never better utilized. The cyborgs battle in large sets, presumably rear-projected; the improved techniques show up best in shots like an angle on the full figure Anne Lewis holding up a Nuke canister to Robo-Caine. The image quality is so good that the 'Dynamation Sandwich' is all but undetectable. Is it possible that shots like this were composited with a different technique?
The remarkable music score by Leonard Rosenman comes through strongly on the DTS Master Audio track. The exciting music often steers RoboCop 2's unsteady tone (unfunny comedy, mean-spirited cyncism, violent overkill) back into line. Rosenman's main theme sounds like a militaristic take on 'big city' dynamics, and its quieter moments deliver the human element that most of the rest of the movie lacks.
The presentation contains no extras. Language options for French and Spanish are included in the disc's audio tracks and subtitles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
RoboCop 2 Blu-ray rates:
1. Phil Tippet's large animation crew includes many stop-motion specialists whose art form, given a ten-year renaissance after Star Wars, would again go into decline with the advent of CGI effects. Most adjusted to the shift, in some cases leveraging their refined animation experience to become expert CGI animators. Some notable names in Tippet's 'robot monster crew': Harry Walton, Don Waller, Mark Sullivan, Tom St. Amand, Eric Leighton, Peter Kleinow, Paul Gentry, Rick Fichter, Randy Dutra, Jim Aupperle.
2. Several odd things happen in RoboCop 2 that make me wonder if they were meant to be subliminal or had explanations that got lost in the rush of filming. During the big fight, Robo sustains a big "S"- shaped welding burn on his helmet-like head, right across his vision plate. It's literally the "Mark of Cain". Six years later in Starship Troopers Denise Richards receives a similar scar across an eyebrow after a space battle.
Not "meaningful", but fun to look for: When Dr. Fax searches a computer database for potential brain donors, the photos of hardened criminals are the film's crewmembers, including producer Davison and effects man Tippett. And the scroll-downs of Robo Prime Directives in the programming scene include plenty of in-jokes, most notably the instruction to "Avoid Orion Meetings".
3. In one scene the adolescent gangster Hob takes a pot-shot at Robo, grazing his head and giving the cyborg a momentary malfunction. Jon Davison spent quite a bit of time with the (no other word fits) Hollywood censors fighting to keep RoboCop 2 true to its violent intentions. He also had to clear the film's trailer, which included a shot of Hob with his gun. The MPAA said no-no: You can't show a kid with a gun. Rational arguments were useless against their dictates. It mattered not that a couple of years before, the Orion trailer for the cop movie Colors showed plenty of under-aged kids holding and firing machine guns. The censors insisted that each film had to be considered separately: filmmakers are accountable to them, not the other way around. In Hollywood movie advertising of 1990, black and Mexican-American kids could be portrayed as vicious killers, but not white kids.
By the same token the trailer shots of the "dismantled" Robo prompted another brilliant MPAA judgment call. They decided that Robo with his helmet on is a machine, so you can show him being shot, electrocuted, and chopped into pieces. With the helmet off, the censors consider Robo to be a man, so more discretion is required. The censors are essentially as depraved as the hero of Luis Buñuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de La Cruz, in which a psycho dismembers a mannequin in place of his girlfriend. The transgressive sadism remains intact.
4. I always thought that this scene should come later in the picture, when Robo has his "own mind" back again. Besides allowing the sequel to maintain the tension of Robo's wife holding out hope for his return (thereby sustaining at least one "human interest" thread), it would show Robo-Murphy making a more pointedly conscious choice to set her free, so he can pursue his destiny as an asexual cyborg.
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T'was Ever Thus.