If you think the notion of rebooting RoboCop is sacrilegious, you probably haven’t seen RoboCop 3. Released in 1993 – six years after Paul Verhoeven’s classic original, and three years after Irvin Kershner’s headache-inducing second film – RoboCop 3 saw the franchise head down an ill-advised PG-13 route.
Critically panned and ignored at the box office, RoboCop 3 effectively killed the series, leaving it in a dormant state for almost 20 years. As is often the case with franchise-strangling sequels – see also Jaws: The Revenge and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace – RoboCop 3 has acquired a weird sort of legendary status, in that it’s often talked about but seldom viewed.
With this in mind, we’ve girded our loins, knocked back a few gins, and put our RoboCop 3 DVD in the player. It may be a difficult film to love but, as this list hopes to point out, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few noteworthy things to say about this oft-maligned sequel…
Some familiar faces return
For at least a couple of minutes, RoboCop 3 doesn’t seem all that bad. Once again, Omni Consumer Products (or OCP to its friends) is bent on levelling Old Detroit, and wants to build a shiny new Delta City in its place. A glossy, 50s-style commercial sells us the corporate dream, before reality cuts in – OCP’s using a new force called the Urban Rehabilitators to chase the poor residents of Cadillac Heights out of their homes.
As this grey-suited army move in, we’re introduced to Nikko (Remy Ryan), who’s one of those preteen computer geniuses that always used to turn up in 80s and 90s movies. If that horrible little child murderer in RoboCop 2 (Hob, played by Gabriel Damon) was inspired by 90s star Macaulay Culkin, Nikko appears to be modelled on the precocious kid out of Curly Sue. At any rate, when Nikko’s parents are killed by OCP’s forces, Nikko’s taken in by a group of resistance fighters who aim to stop the corporation from demolishing Cadillac Heights, and briefly become her surrogate family.
While all this is going on, director Fred Dekker (Night Of The Creeps, The Monster Squad) introduces a few familiar faces to reassure us that yes, we are watching a RoboCop movie. First, comedian Bixby “I’d buy that for a dollar!” Snyder appears on a TV screen to wheel out his old catchphrase, along with Media Break news anchor Casey Wong. Then Felton Perry shows up as Donald Johnson, one of the corporate types who’s been haunting the boardrooms of OCP since 1987. He’s now Vice President, and spends much of the film standing around and not blinking.
Then there’s Robert DoQui, who returns as the heroically noisy Sgt Warren Reed, a senior law enforcer who’s never met a situation he can’t yell his way out of. Finally, we have Nancy Allen, who’s back as Anne Lewis – RoboCop’s loyal partner and frantic chewer of bubblegum. There’s even a cameo appearance for ED-209, the mighty yet faintly comic attack robot introduced in the first film. Briefly seen guarding OCP headquarters, ED’s reprogrammed by Nikko, turning him into a friendly droid that is “As loyal as a puppy”.
These familiar faces are a reassuring sight, since one character is peculiarly absent for the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film: Robo himself.
RoboCop has a strange mouth
To the rousing march of Basil Poledouris’ music, RoboCop finally makes his grand entrance during a shoot-out between Anne Lewis and a drug-crazed gang. Before Robo even gets out of his car, it’s clear that this isn’t the same figure of law enforcement we’re familiar with.
First, he wastes time by driving up to the roof of a car park and then zooming off the top of it. Crashing to the ground, wrecking his car and presumably damaging himself in the process, Robo then proceeds to shoot at everything except the bad guys. Because RoboCop 3 is now a family movie, our hero no longer shoots directly at criminals; he shoots around them, A-Team style, and then either arrests them or let them run off screaming into the night.
It’s also immediately noticeable that actor Robert John Burke isn’t as good at pretending to be a robot as Peter Weller, who vacated the Robo role to star in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch instead. Where Weller’s movements were staccato yet rhythmic and oddly natural, Burke sort of jerks into different positions, as though he’s been poked with a sharp stick or had his bottom pinched.
What’s even more distracting is that, for some reason, he over-enunciates every line he’s given. If you can imagine someone exaggerating their mouth movements to enable you to be able to read their lips more easily in a noisy situation, it’s rather like that.
Or maybe like watching a horse chewing a polo mint.
It has ninjas in it
Possessed with the theory, perhaps, that all sequels can be made better by putting ninjas in them, RoboCop 3’s writers have added in no fewer than three sword-wielding shinobi warriors. OCP’s currently undergoing a merger with a Japanese company called the Kanemitsu Corporation, and it’s logical enough that, just as OCP were creating robot cowboys, the Japanese company makes its own robot ninjas, which look exactly like actor Bruce Locke.
To speed up the process of the Cadillac Heights takeover, three of these robot ninjas – called Otomos, which may be a nicely geeky reference to Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo – are despatched for Detroit.
As daft as robot ninjas in a RoboCop movie sounds, it’s a pity that they’re so tentatively employed; not only are there just three of them, but they’re also woefully under-equipped. They don’t carry ninja stars, or those cool sickle-type things with a chain attached. They don’t even appear or disappear in flashes of smoke. If you ask us, that’s a terrible missed opportunity.
The villain is hilarious
What RoboCop 3 lacks in ninja weaponry, it makes up for in its villainy. The movie’s most evil person is Urban Rehab commander Paul McDaggett, played by the incomparably posh British actor John Castle. He’s so posh, he refuses to call RoboCop by his proper name, and instead refers to him as “the robot cop”, with a beautifully rolled ‘R’.
In a moment of hand-rubbing villainy, McDaggett leads his army to a church where RoboCop, Lewis and a group of Cadillac Heights residents are holed up. When RoboCop refuses to surrender, McDaggett opens fire, killing Lewis in one of the movie’s few scenes of genuine “Aww, but I liked her” pathos.
Although you could never describe Castle’s performance as committed or even good (for much of the film, you can actually see the cheque being waved at him in the corner of the screen), he still inhabits the most entertaining character, and spits out some of his lines with gusto. In one great scene, McDaggett’s being driven away in a police van, with an angry RoboCop pursuing in a commandeered pimp’s car (complete with pink paintjob and sparkly lights around the windscreen).
Having shot at Robo’s car until the steering wheel’s practically the only thing left, McDaggett then makes good his escape in the most original way imaginable – he throws a fistful of dollar bills at a group of kids playing hockey in the street, which create a road block RoboCop’s programming won’t allow him to drive through.
Just to prove his villainy one final time, McDaggett even gets to shriek the politically incorrect line, “We’re dead you stupid slag!”
We were unable to find out whether this line was penned by Frank Miller or co-writer Fred Dekker.
Like such infamous films as Battlefield Earth and Jaws: The Revenge, the actors in RoboCop 3 all perform as though their families have been taken hostage. There’s much shouting and eye-rolling, and it’s one of those films where the child actor plays the only character who doesn’t appear to be dangerously unstable.
Rip Torn rants and raves sweatily as the new president of OCP. Stephen Root, a hard-working actor you may recognise from such films as Office Space, O Brother, Where Art Thou or Dodgeball, slices his ham thickly as a resistance fighter who’s secretly in league with McDaggett. Bradley Whitford (recently seen in The Cabin In The Woods) plays a particularly slimy OCP executive who gets to snarl the Mel Gibson-esque line, “You make him predictable, or you look for a new job, sweet cheeks.”
Although the original RoboCop was a black satire, something RoboCop 2 attempted to replicate with less success, RoboCop 3 is pure pantomime. Where the violence has been toned down to a distracting degree, the acting is extraordinarily excessive. Even poor old ED-209 over-emotes, with his cameo concluding with the robotic cry of “Eat lead, suckers!”
RoboCop doesn’t do very much
No longer allowed to gun down bad guys like the earlier, 18-rated movies, RoboCop’s essentially reduced to either being nice to people or getting knocked over. Shortly after the grand entrance mentioned earlier, he simply stands in front of a pair of evil punks and waits while they dowse him with petrol and set alight to it. He then spends the next few scenes covered in soot, like Wile-E-Coyote after an Acme bomb’s just gone off in his face.
Even in RoboCop’s first encounter with a robot ninja, in which he’s holding a gun and the ninja’s brandishing a sword, he finds himself hopelessly outclassed. In a sequence remarkably like a famous one in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Robo’s knocked over and has several of his limbs hacked off one by one.
Having been disabled for the umpteenth time, Robo spends a good section of the film lying on a bed while he’s repaired by the implausibly named Dr Marie Lazarus (Jill Hennessy). This affords him the time to give Nikko a gentle pat on the head, ruminate about the meaning of life and death (“If you remember them, they’re never really gone…”), and replay a few flashback sequences from the first film.
Like us, he’s probably reminiscing about the good old days, when Verhoeven was still calling the shots.
The teen scientist out of Frankenhooker’s in it
We promised we’d think of 10 remarkable things to say about RoboCop 3, and admittedly, we’re already running out. But here’s an interesting fact: the star of Frank Henenlotter’s cult horror classic, Frankenhooker, turns up in a brief cameo. Possibly wearing the same haircut he had as mad scientist Jeffrey Franken in that film, James Lorinz plays a rather rude young man whose car is totalled by Anne Lewis.
“I traded in an SUX for this!” Lorinz yells, alluding to the SUX 6000 advertised in the original RoboCop. After foolishly calling Lewis a “Dumb broad”, he’s shot in the chest by a gang member and dies. (If there’s one recurring gag in RoboCop 3, it’s that any man who utters a sexist slur of any kind is killed before the end credits.)
Well, we thought it was an interesting fact. Moving on…
It has a sewer scene
We have a pet theory that, sooner or later, all movie sequels end up in a sewer. We even wrote an article about this last year. And just as Alien Vs Predator: Requiem saw the continually worsening franchise head into a subterranean drainage system, so RoboCop 3 sees Robo head into a sewer for the first time.
When a film series is running out of ideas to explore, it seems that sewage networks are a handy fallback option for screenwriters everywhere. RoboCop 3 may lack the satire, brutal action, clever ad breaks (one brief commercial for Johnny Rehab action figures aside) or quotable lines of the first film, but it does have a scene in which Robo uses his heat-sensitive vision to stare at a pack of rats. Beat that, Ed Neumeier.
The food’s reasonably priced
Just $5.95 for New York strip steak with garden salad, baked potato and a buttered roll? Say what you will about the violence in future Detroit, that’s unbeatable value.
The moment we first set eyes on a gigantic jet pack sitting in the corner of an OCP armoury at the beginning of the movie, our hearts sank. And when freedom fighter Bertha (CCH Pounder, later of The Shield fame) said, “Let’s take it! It might be worth something,” our hearts sank a little further.
When, just before the start of the third act, Dr Lazarus stumbles on the same gigantic jet pack and enthuses, “Ooh, it’s a prototype for RoboCop’s flight suit. We never got a chance to test it”, we had to fight back our tears of indignation. Yes, RoboCop 3 sees Robo take to the skies for the first time, and after nearly 90 minutes of being shot, dismembered and kicked around, the metal hero starts buzzing around Detroit aerospace.
By this point, shouty Sgt Reed and his loyal cops have turned against OCP, and have joined in the fight against McDaggett’s Urban Rehab forces. With war raging in the streets, RoboCop soars overhead, and finally finds the marksmanship mojo that eluded him for much of the film. In a dervish of terrible special effects, a tank and several extras are blown up, and Robo flies off to OCP for a final confrontation with McDaggett and his cyborg ninjas.
If Orion Pictures and MGM were hoping to sell a few RoboCop toys with this third film (and the appearance of actual Robo toys early in the film, plus the inclusion of then-popular ninjas, implies that they were), then their plans backfired. But while RoboCop’s jet pack marks the moment where the franchise officially flew over the shark, it does appear to have inspired Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s comic book movie, Kick-Ass. RoboCop 3’s conclusion, which sees Robo shoot his way into the top floor of OCP headquarters, bears a remarkable resemblance to the ending of Kick-Ass – though ironically, Kick Ass’ ending is far more violent.
The ninja robots are tricked into decapitating each other, which in turn sets off their “Thermonuclear” self-destruct systems. With McDaggett incapacitated and screaming politically-incorrect abuse, Robo scoops up Nikko and Dr Lazarus and flies to safety, OCP exploding like the Death Star in his wake.
That explosion marked the tragic death of the franchise. But like Robo himself, the series has been brought back from the grave, and next year sees the release of the rebooted RoboCop. We’d be stunned if the new film can equal the brilliance of the 1987 original, but we can at least hope that it’ll be better than RoboCop 3.
As movies such as The Dark Knight have proved, you can get away with quite a lot of violence in a PG-13 movie these days, so that at least gives the Robo reboot the edge over the disappointingly tame 1993 sequel.
The first glimpses of the new RoboCop’s suit may have split opinion, but we can take comfort in the fact that it doesn’t appear to have any jet engines sticking out of it, and RoboCop doesn’t appear to be saddled with a precocious kid sidekick this time around, either. At least, not yet…
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