Robocop 2 (1990)
Dir. Irvin Kershner
Scr. Frank Miller, Walon Green (Characters by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner)
Yes – that’s right; “Robocop 2“.
Wait. Come back. Let me explain.
In the 2 years I’ve been writing these “1990”-columns every now and then, so far I’ve been focusing on original movies – not sequels. But…there is no escaping in aknowledging, that one of the aspects of that particular year is that several high-profile sequels DID come out then. Let’s look at the list; “Die Hard 2″, “Predator 2”, “The Godfather part III”, “Back to the Future part III”, “Gremlins 2”, “The Exorcist III”, “Young Guns II”, “Child’s Play 2”, “Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III”, “Troll 2“… just to name a few. In my filmgoing years, I never experienced that kind of a barrage of sequels before. Surely that was a Sign of Things to Come, if there ever was one.
But – the one I’m here to talk about today is Irvin Kershner‘s “Robocop 2“. And why it deserves a much better rep than it has. Or “had” – as while it’s reception at the time it came out was pretty abysmal, I’ve seen the opinion slowly change in the recent years. Maybe due to the fact that all things “Robocop”-related that came out after this have been pretty much an absolute trainwreck? But that’s another story.
So – the original “Robocop” came out in 1987, receiving much critical acclaim and good box office. Naturally Orion Pictures wanted more of that. The first logical step was to approach director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner. Verhoeven – while believed to just be unwilling to make sequels, period – was not opposed to the idea. What he WAS opposed to, was the fast-tracking of it. He stated that he would only be doing something that was “original and innovative” and done with care – and time. Neumeier and Miner had produced some semblance of an outline for a sequel, depicting Murphy/Robocop getting destroyed at the very beginning and then resurrected 25 years later – when things have gone even further into shit. In the end, Verhoeven took on the directing gig of “Total Recall” instead and Neumeier/Miner passed the project for other reasons (something to do with a writer’s strike), so Orion was now without a director AND a script.
Enter comic-book writer/artist Frank Miller, who was wanting to take a stab at motion pictures after working in the comics. Also, enter director Tim Hunter (“River’s Edge”, “Twin Peaks”). So – Miller and Hunter start on with the writing & pre-production of the movie. And here’s where the stuff of legends begins, as Miller produces draft after draft and while the producers are loving the story, it becomes clear it is unfilmable. So begins an endless amount of cutting things out, scaling things down, delay delay delay… Miller is sort of pushed to the side (Miller DID keep coming to the set even if he didn’t have to and ended up playing a bit-part as a chemist working for Tom Noonan’s villain. He also agreed to join “Robocop 3” on the basis of getting some of his discarded ideas used there, but it didn’t happen. He later said publicly that the “Robocop 2-3 experience put him off movies for ten years”. He DID make his original ‘Robocop 2’ script into a comic book later, but that got a fairly lukewarm response) and veteran screenwriter Walon Green (“The Wild Bunch”, “The Sorcerer”, “Hill Street Blues”) is brought in to retool the story – and would stay on through the production. In the end, Hunter has had enough with the constant changes and quits under that Good Old “creative differences”-tag, so the project is once again without a director. After a few other offers, enter Irvin Kershner, veteran filmmaker/scholar and the director of “The Eyes of Laura Mars“, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Never Say Never Again“.
So – with a script, an on-set writer, an unquestionably skilled director, returning stars Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy plus some supporting cast as well as the whole special effects-department from the first film (Rob Bottin, Phil Tippett, Peter Kuran), in 1989 “Robocop 2” began filming in Houston. Yes – Houston; even though all the events in the “Robocop“-films are supposed to take place in Detroit, the first movie was shot in Dallas and partially in Pittsburgh, the second one in Houston and the third…well – who gives a shit about “Robocop 3” anyways. But apparently in the late 80’s-early 90’s, Detroit was just not a suitable location for a film set into a dystopian future world. Oh, the irony…(we’ll get back to that)
The movie is set about one year after the events of the first film. It cold opens with that “MagnaVolt” commercial – featuring the great John Glover (“Gremlins 2″, “Smallville”) as the suitably sleazy salesperson – and then cuts to the Mediabreak, where we are put up to date with the current events in Detroit; OCP (Omni Consumer Products – the Evil corporation) owns the Police Force and has cut their salaries and taken away their pensions, so the Police are on strike. The ED 209-droids are still not working properly, even if they are being assigned for law enforcement in major cities. A new designer-drug called Nuke is taking over the streets and the leader of the Nuke Cult, Cain (Tom Noonan) is leaving video messages to the media. You know – it’s interesting watching these Mediabreak-sections now, as back in the day these were certainly meant as overblown media-satire. But when you look at the state the news reporting is in nowadays, they were actually pretty prophetic.
We first meet Robocop (Peter Weller) as he takes down a gang that’s robbing a gun store. He then questions one gang-member about the location of the facility Nuke is made in, and raids the said facility – with backup from Lewis (Nancy Allen). Unfortunately he gets distracted and Cain escapes with his closest aides. We are quickly informed, that while the first movie ended on something of a hurrah, with the whole “What’s your name?” – “Murphy“- exchange, things have gone a bit downhill; still trying to make sense of his past memories as deceased officer Alex Murphy, Robocop is…well, basically stalking his former wife and son, parking near their home every day. So the wife is in the process of suing OCP, but the case gets settled after Robocop accepts his fate and pretty much lies to her face of not knowing him and that his face was in fact made “to honor Alex Murphy“. That whole scene is a testament to the acting of Weller again, as he very subtly makes us care for this machine and the cascade of emotions he’s going through. Apparently Weller was not a big fan of the script, but he definitely does not resort to phoning in at any time during the movie. True Professional.
At OCP the head of the organization, the “Old Man” (Daniel O’Herlihy) and his closest aides are visited by the Mayor of Detroit (Willard Pugh) and his councilmen. Apparently the city owes OCP a huge chunk of money and can’t pay because they are nearly bankrupt (irony of ironies: this really happened in July of 2013 when the City of Detroit DID file for bankruptcy). The Mayor accuses OCP of deliberately causing the rise in crime because they have forced the Police on strike. Which they obviously ARE doing, but certainly not admitting it. And the Old Man says that since the city can’t pay it’s debt, by contract the OCP can foreclose the entire city property, and then demolish it from the way of their new Delta City (which was established in the first film). It’s an interesting character-shift for the Old Man-character from the first film to the second actually; in the first film he was portrayed as a somewhat sympathetic character, but in this movie he really comes across as a Major asshole – kinda reminding me of O’Herlihy’s villainous role in “Halloween III“. Meanwhile, the company is also trying to replicate the success of Robocop to poor results, as all the subsequent attempts to blend a police officer killed in the line of duty with a machine have ended up in disasters (que a very amusing montage of presentation-videos gone wrong; one of the designs presented is in fact an early concept for the look of Robocop in the first movie). An ambitious new teammember of the Security Concepts, Dr. Juliette Faxx (Belinda Bauer) says that Alex Murphy’s case was an “extremely lucky isolated incident, with just the right circumstances” and that perhaps they should not be looking at Police Officers for the next attempt. She gets the go-ahead to screen other possible candidates…
Robocop gets a tip from a dirty, Nuke-addicted Police officer on where Cain’s headquarters is located and moves in, without backup. He gets ambushed by Cain’s cult and is chained to a table and stripped apart. This is a pretty clever sequence that totally mirrors the Robocop POV-montage from the first film, except it’s now happening in reverse. They chuck the dismembered Robo on the sidewalk next to the Police station entrance. A sleazy OCP lawyer is basically saying that “Robocop is out of warranty” and is just about ready to scrap him, when Johnson (Felton Perry) warns that it might be a PR disaster for OCP, so Faxx gets to put him back together – only with some programming modifications. And I find this sequence, where the OCP committee throws out suggestions on how Robocop should be acting, absolutely hysterical. Now, I’m not sure whether this was intentional at the time or not, but when you get executives giving notes like “must he be so violent all the time?” and “can’t we have him relating to the kids more?“, it just makes me think that the whole thing is a subliminal jab at the clueless Hollywood studio executives and their way of making movies. Especially as the following film, “Robocop 3“, was neutered into a PG-13 lame-fest. So what follows after he gets all this crap dictated into his program is, Robocop gets basically turned into the most Politically Correct Mechanical Dork that ever patrolled the city streets. After the invention of DVD, the freeze-frame capability has given some people a chance to capture the list of directives that were visible on screen for a second, and there are some hilarious ones, like: “DIRECTIVE 247: Don’t run through puddles and splash pedestrians or other cars” and “DIRECTIVE 250: Don’t walk across a ballroom floor swinging your arms“. You can see the full list in the Imdb trivia page of the film.
I remember at the time that this section of the movie was extremely scrutinized by critics, some saying that their precious Robocop got turned into a “stupid, joking Freddy Krueger-clone“. Personally I don’t feel that way at all. I just find the whole thing absolutely hilarious. And I got a big laugh as I was doing my research that the scene where Robo scares a guy out of smoking with a few well-placed warning shots, was actually licensed by some non-smoking movie theaters (yes – there really was smoking in movie theaters once upon a time – think about that, folks!) as an ad at the time. Anyways, the Spirit of Alex Murphy still lives on under all that junk code, and after giving himself a “hard reset” via (literally) handshaking an electrical transformer, Robo is pissed. He gets the striking officers on his side and the whole squad drives back to Cain’s headquarters to get rid of the Nuke cult for good. In the ensuing firefight Caine’s group gets scattered and after a chase, Robo crashes a motorcycle head-first into Cain’s van, gravely injuring Cain in the progress. The motorcycle chase is a nice way to show more mobility in the robo-suit – it’s a well-known fact that in the first film Weller really couldn’t walk stairs or sit down or get in/out of a car while wearing the entire suit; he had to be filmed from the waist up only.
In her Mad Scientist-logic, Faxx determines that Cain would be the prefect candidate for Robocop 2 – with him being a Nuke-addict, it would be easy to control him, et cetera, so she pulls him off life support and has his brain transplanted into the robot. As OCP becomes aware that Cain’s former associates are going to provide the Mayor the sufficient funds to get back the control of his city, the first field-test of Robocop 2 is to interrupt this money exchange and leave no one alive. The mayor barely manages to escape. One of Cain’s associates, Hob (a 13-year old Gabriel Damon), lives just long enough to inform Robocop that Cain is still very much alive in the giant weaponized android that’s designed to be Robo’s replacement. So the movie ends at the new OCP skyscraper where both Robocop 2 and the Delta City are presented to the public, but Cain gets crazy as he sights a tube of Nuke and proceeds to massacre most of the guards and reporters and Robocop battles him in, over and under the building…
All right, let’s get to the reasons why “Robocop 2” deserves more credit than it has, and why I like it so much. First off: it’s not a perfect movie, by any means. It’s not like the first movie – nor should it be. While it had satirical elements in it’s script for sure, Paul Verhoeven shot the original as a very much grounded, serious, edgy piece of work. On the other hand, “Robocop 2” really pushes the satire and the silliness to the surface, while not copping out on the violence either; in fact – this may actually be more violent than the first (like it’s predecessor, this one had a tough time with the MPAA and had to seriously tone down some scenes so it wouldn’t get the ‘X’-rating. I mean – they KILL the kid, for chrissakes! Granted, he was a villain, was selling drugs and machine-gunning down a bunch of cops, but would they get away with that in this day and age? Absolutely goddamn not), if that’s possible. Granted, Irvin Kershner does not necessarily have a real visible directing style per se, he clearly knows what he’s doing even if he was summoned for the movie at the 11th hour. The man was teaching at a film school after all! Also, working with a Cronenberg-regular cinematographer Mark Irwin, he makes this sequel much more colorful than the steely gray/muted toned first film (there are actually some shots in the beginning of the film, featuring some neon-colored graffiti that make me think Joel Schumacher must’ve taken a page out of this lighting-book for his “Batman” films). If I had to try and put it in words, I’d say that while the first “Robocop” was a more of a psychological drama with heavy science fiction-elements in it (or a Christ-metaphor as Verhoeven calls it!), this second movie is more something of a bastard drive-in B-movie cousin of it. It becomes very clear very fast, that “Robocop 2″ has it’s roots deep in the style of the B-science fiction-films beginning in the 50’s, all the way up to the Toho giant monster-movies.
And this becomes very apparent in the scenes dealing with the titular Robocop 2. Now, it was interesting to read that in Frank Miller‘s early drafts, Caine was actually named “Kong”. If you take that information and then look at the final design of the robot, with it’s short legs, heavy torso and long arms, you can clearly see that it sort of resembles a gorilla. And when it gets crazy in the Delta City presentation and bashes down a few model-scyscrapers, you see it; this is a giant monster toppling down buildings. It’s about as subtle than a brick thrown through a window. Add to that the fact, that for most of the time the robot is portrayed via stop motion. I’ve said it time and time again: I love stop motion. And Phil Tippett is really one of the top men to do it (his patented style is actually called “go-motion”, as he manages to add some motion blur into it). Remember that shot in “Jurassic Park“, where there is a close-up of Velociraptors feet as it lands down on the floor and turns – and slowly taps it’s claws on the tiling? Tippett does that gag for the first time here, as we see the first glimpse of just Robo 2’s feet, when he jumps off a truck. In it’s core, this is a monster movie. And the final man-to-man – or I guess it’s machine-to-machine – battle is still entertaining as hell. Sure – to the audience used to all things CGI at this point it might seem a little bit hokey, but to a fan of all those old films this is like heroin. And let’s remember that this movie really is one of the last of it’s kind; the digital revolution was slowly happening and this and Verhoeven’s “Total Recall” (which came out the same year) were really the last of an ancient breed.
And even “Robocop 2” HAS some early examples of CGI, which can act as the star of the paragraph of some things in the movie that don’t quite gel with me. Was it really necessary to have a display embedded in Robocop 2’s head that shows a kinda Max Headroom-y CGI rendition of Cain’s face? Not really. I think it would’ve worked out better to just not have any human-like visage on that thing at all, until Robo rips his back plate open and pulls out the organic brain. But that’s just me. Another thing – and this is THE big one – that bothers me with the movie is the musical score by Leonard Rosenman, which – to put it kindly – is fucking atrocious. Now, I don’t know if Basil Poledouris passed on the project or was just too busy at the time (he was scoring “The Hunt for Red October” and “Quigley Down Under”), but to the end of times I don’t understand why Rosenman wouldn’t even bother to use the THEMES from the original film. You remember the “Robocop march” from the original, right? Sure you do – I bet you could hum that right now. Rosenman’s score to “Robocop 2” has no recognizable themes whatsoever (until the end credits, where he has a choir chant “Robo-cooooop!!!, Robo-coooooop!!!”) and pretty much resembles music that would be better suited for an episode of some 70’s television series, than a 1990 scifi-action movie. Honestly – if there is some frustrated DIY sound-designer who would be willing to do a fan-edit of this film and track Poledouris’ scores from the first and third movie over this, I’d be the first one in line to see that!
And considering the pretty high budget at the time ($35 million), it’s somewhat odd to see some clearly wobbly plywood sets on screen. But if you set your mind into that drive-in B-movie frame, I guess that aspect can just add to the experience.
So – “Robocop 2” opened in June of 1990 to scathing reviews and disappointing box office. I actually had to wait until the age of DVD to see it in it’s complete form, as it (as well as it’s predecessor) came out during the time the movie censorship in Finland was at it’s absolute peak of ridiculousness and it was of course cut to shreds (although the first time I saw the movie was actually on a Nth Generation VHS that had all sorts of Chinese subtitles burned in it – but it was still UNCUT). But since the first time I saw it on DVD, I’ve begun to appreciate it, in spite of some of it’s flaws. I love the old-school effects, I love the performances (especially Tom Noonan is an absolute delight as Cain, keeping a calm exterior while allowing some inspired moments of madness creep to the surface. When Robocop first infiltrates his lair and is caught, he utters the line “Jesus…had days like this” and I swear it sounds like a total ad-lib he threw in at the moment) and I love Peter Weller – the one true Robocop. This was the final time he played this role – and based on the quality of the subsequent film, he made the smart choice.
As a total sidenote; I find it amusing that both Cain and the Old Man – at different points of the film – wow to “make ‘Made in America’ mean something again“. If that’s not an unintentional prophecy of things to come, I don’t know what is.
Thank you for your cooperation. Good day.
Previous entries in the “Glorious year 1990” series: