Looking back at RoboCop 2

Widely regarded as an inferior sequel, RoboCop 2 has flashes of brilliance and lapses of logic. Andrew takes a look back...

There’s something noble about RoboCop 2. It’s one of those failures that piques enough of my interest with its insanity, stupidity and unusual, deranged choices to keep me coming back to it long after everyone else has departed.  

Sure, you remember little snippets: the wonderful stop motion fight at the end that brings a warm feeling when you realise that someone had to physically manipulate a tiny Robo-model 24 times to make a second of brain-crushing action. The announcement film featuring all the doomed-to-fail versions of RoboCop 2 – especially the one prototype that pulls off its helmet and screams before crashing face-first into the ground (I’m cracking up just thinking about it) – and the ultra-gory surgery scenes that had me turning my head as a child. 

While the moments like those stick in my mind, what makes me even consider watching it again is the persistent question that haunts movies like this: what if?

RoboCop 2 appeared in 1990, three years after its genre-defining predecessor, and was directed by Irwin Kershner. No stranger to crafting sequels with daunting expectations, Kershner was handed the unenviable task of directing the sequel to another beloved sci-fi classic, The Empire Strikes Back. That fact alone earns him enough respect to come out of this debacle largely unscathed.

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True, there are some questionable shot choices, and as a director Kershner’s a largely anonymous presence, where a stronger personality would have invested fully in the mayhem or tried to tone it down.  No, the bigger disappointment comes in the form of comic book legend Frank Miller, who not only wrote the screenplay but also appeared in the film as ‘Frank the Chemist’.  

As lore goes, Miller’s initial draft was deemed ‘unfilmable’ by Orion Pictures, who then brought in Walon Green, the writer of The Wild Bunch – which is like firing Quentin Tarantino for his penchant for violence and hiring Sam Peckinpah instead.

If you were a betting man and knew the trio’s work well, you’d be right in thinking that the resulting collaboration should have contained enough ultra-violence and some well thought-out character moments to make it worth watching.  

Well, there are some moments like that, but there are a lot more like this:

SuperCop

What happened between the end of the first movie  and the start of the second to make RoboCop such an unstoppable force? True, he’s dismembered in a degree of martyrdom that almost makes the previous movie’s allegory seem subtle, but in terms of his strength, he’s become a superhero.

Take his first appearance. Now, givem that in the first film he found himself heavily injured by around 20 officers armed with automatic weapons when he was cornered in a car park, the prospect of him facing down three criminals, all heavily armed from a raid on a gun shop, should be enough to make him think twice about brazenly driving his car towards them.

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The fact that he both takes a full volley of automatic fire, a rocket launcher blast and an RPG assault and still manages to step out of the flaming wreckage of his police car to recreate the poster from the first movie almost makes abandoning the human element for schlock worth it.

Cain

Tom Noonan’s Cain, RoboCop 2′s antagonist with God delusions, is both the public face and manufacturer of the film’s placeholder drug, Nuke. In the only moment approaching a subtle dig at contemporary society, Cain, who has just murdered an anti-Nuke spokesman, is interviewed on the evening news where he is described as a Nuke figurehead.

If the development of drugs such as cocaine and heroin have taught us anything, it’s that no one person can ever really have a stranglehold on supply. It’s not uncommon in dramas to see turf wars raging with drugs and drug money as the two main catalysts. In RoboCop 2 however, the opposite is true.

All crime is directly linked back to Nuke, with the supply chain never really called into question or challenged by any other gang. There’s never a moment where one of the girls working in the supply chain puts a pack in her purse or a rival attempts a raid on his supply. Detroit really is Cain’s town.

The only crime in the film that isn’t related back to Nuke is the robbery on the gun store that kicks off the movie (well, that and Robo-stalking, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

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Now, you could argue that, like the first movie, this is broad-stroke satire – Cain is nothing more than the CEO of Nuke Enterprises and that, thanks to his capacity for violence, there’s never been a hostile takeover of his business. But apart from a brief scene where he suggests going mainstream to his gang members (while meeting with Frank the chemist), the movie never makes this explicit.

Let’s go go back to crime for a moment. In the first movie, where RoboCop takes to the streets on his first night out, every last one of the crimes he intervenes in are, broadly speaking, little barbs at 1980s living.

It’s an effective montage, not just because of the violence that Detroit inflicts on itself, but for the retribution inflicted by RoboCop: in the deterrent, you see the cause.

Now look at RoboCop 2, where nearly every crime is drug-related, where Cain is king and RoboCop is superhuman: everything feels forced and cartoonlike.

Scab

With OCP manufacturing a police strike in old Detroit, the city only has RoboCop and his nearly forgotten partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) to patrol its different beats.

Only there doesn’t seem to be that much crime. Apart from the extended sequence at the beginning where people will literally lie, cheat and steal to get some Nuke, crime largely takes a back seat when it doesn’t involve RoboCop and Cain.

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There’s no sense of a city tearing itself apart, even when we get a scene where RoboCop and Lewis have to face down a Little League team of thieves – it’s an isolated incident with no connection to a greater threat.

That scene only serves to show how distracted this movie becomes when it gets an idea in its head – this time, it’s dealing with its own perception and the critical response to the first movie in the most petulant ‘have your cake and choke on it’ way.

The Little League idea itself isn’t a bad one – and it is mirrored in the character of Hob, a cold-blooded killer who’s also a child – but in that example, it’s not even vaguely playful.

Perhaps it’s because of Miller’s obvious Batman connection, but my mind goes back to the Knightfall series – where Batman, forced to deal with an onslaught of enemies both old and new, is pushed to his very limits as a crime fighter. Here, it doesn’t seem to matter that RoboCop is the only working cop in a crime-filled city.

Murphy

Perhaps the most egregious waste of potential in this movie is the way it fails to deal with RoboCop becoming Alex Murphy. 

The end of the previous movie left no one in any doubt that, as far as development of a cyborg crime prevention unit goes, it would be better to cultivate a strong personality type like Murphy in order to stand any chance of succeeding. Unfortunately, RoboCop 2 has no idea what to do with this new found humanity.  

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In an early scene, we see RoboCop plainly stalking his widowed wife – he flashes back to the life he once had with her, before their eyes meet and she runs away. It’s a great little moment that twists the classic horror movie staple of the monster fleeing from a compassionate human. 

What’s problematic is the next scene in a police lock up, where RoboCop is forced to listen to a bullish OCP executive telling him he is nothing more than a machine while his wife’s attorney listens patiently.

First, the terms of the legal action against OCP aren’t made clear: Just what is RoboCop being tried as? A human? A product?

If he’s being tried as a human, then why is the wife’s attorney letting the OCP executive convince RoboCop he’s a machine? That’s his entire case. He’s literally watching his fee blink dumbly at him!

The problem is that the wife’s attorney is given no expository dialogue. We have no idea if he’s just after a big cash settlement and therefore would like them to try him as a product and take the payoff, or that he genuinely believes that as a human under contract with OCP they are liable for his emotionally devastating actions.

The film can’t decide what society thinks of RoboCop so that when he turns his back on his wife, telling her he’s just a machine, there are no greater implications. She accepts his judgement, knowing that it’s a lie, and he chooses to never address his humanity again.

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In past interviews, Peter Weller has talked of his disappointment with the film, and how certain key scenes were removed from the final cut. I’d like to think that Murphy’s widow featured in some of those sadly discarded moments.

They saved Hitler’s brain

During the development of the unit known as RoboCop 2, the boffins at OCP find themselves trapped in a cycle of suicidal, homicidal test subjects who, as the movie puts it, can’t function once they’ve been stripped of their macho bodies.

This leads psychologist Dr Juliette Faxx to conclude that the only viable mind is one that can be controlled – leading her to take the already homicidal and Nuke-dependent brain of Cain and drop it into her armour-plated, walking death machine.

As fun and deranged as that sounds, her character is played completely straight. The movie tries to sell the idea that, because she is a beautiful woman, the flattered Old Man of OCP will allow her full control of the project, and that once that’s in place she’ll be allowed – with no arguments – to do a ‘save Hitler’s Brain’ move all of her own.

There’s even a moment where she leans into a monitor displaying the mugshot of a psycho-killer and says she has no idea what she is doing.  If Faxx had been an eye-swivelling maniac, then scenes like these would have been fun at  least, but again, the movie can’t decide what it wants to be – a cartoon or a cartoon with something to say.

RoboCop 2.0

RoboCop 2 understands implicitly that sequels need to escalate the elements that forced them into existence. If you like the violence of the first movie, then you’ll get more violence. If you liked the satire, well, we’ve got satire.

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So when it comes to technology, it’s not surprising that movie logic takes precedence. The development of technology in RoboCop 2 ignores the one blindingly obvious trait that made both OCP’s RoboCop project and the first movie so successful, and that’s Alex Murphy.

It’s not so much of a criticism but more of an observation, but if the only element that made RoboCop work was Alex Murphy’s personality, his sense of duty, why would you not try to replicate that, instead of making the classic design fault of layering idea on idea and masking the very thing that made the project successful in the first place?

Recreating the human mind in a computer may have been a sci-fi idea too far in the late 1980s, but it seems that now, with technology less focused on hardware and more on connectivity and software, it would have been interesting to see a RoboCop sequel that, like the first movie, placed equal value on the human as well as the spectacle.

Imagine a series of OCP droids all containing the personality of Alex Murphy, sent out to fight a drug war against Cain. What kind of dark secrets and damaged traits would have made it into those copies of Murphy’s consciousness? How much of the original person would have survived? And does that replication count as a personality?

Although full of great individual moments, RoboCop 2 never quite coheres into a satisfying, intelligent whole, and in spite of its flashes of brilliance, it’s difficult not to look back and wonder what might have been.