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Friday, May 19, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: RoboCop 2 (1990)

With the commercial success of the original “RoboCop,” a franchise had been launched. This was fitting, as “RoboCop” was basically a superhero movie before such things were in vogue. Despite seemingly being ready made for sequels, “RoboCop 2” went through some speed bumps. Paul Verhoeven was approached to direct but turned the project down, feeling like Orion just wanted to cash in on the first's success. Ed Neumier and Michael Miller's sequel idea was well received but they ultimately left the project due to a writer's strike. Instead, Irvin “The Empire Strikes Back” Kershner was brought in to direct, while comic auteur Frank Miller provided the script. Miller's script was heavily altered by Kershner and the producers, displeasing both Peter Weller and Nancy Allen. The resulting film made money but satisfied few fans.

It's not surprising to read that “RoboCop 2's” screenplay was needlessly shuffled around. The finished film features a weirdly convoluted plot, that is both overwritten and underwritten. It involves a mostly needless subplot about Detroit going bankrupt and the mayor's desperate attempts to keep OCP from buying out the city. This jives badly with an imbecilic attempt by OCP to recreate RoboCop and the main plot, about the cyborg hero fighting an insane drug dealer/cult leader named Cain. These plot lines eventually come together in an exceedingly messy fashion, leading to a last act that is heavy on the action but short on dramatic satisfaction.

Another big problem with “RoboCop2 “ is how it handles Alex Murphy's character arc. The first film ended with the robotic cop regaining his humanity. The sequel could have explored what happened next. Would Murphy try to get his old life back? Part two addresses these questions in a half-hearted fashion. RoboCop is still working for OCP, which seems an unlikely conclusion. He is stalking his wife, driving by her house during the day. This leads to an encounter in the police department between RoboCop and the woman that was his wife. With encouragement from OCP professionals, he tells her to go away, that her husband is dead. And that's the last we hear of that subplot. Instead of building on the original's character development, the sequel intentionally tosses it out.

“RoboCop 2” does explore the conflict between Murphy's human soul and his robotic programming... But in the most awkward fashion possible. After his emotions making him difficult to control – and the bad guys chop him up – RoboCop's three prime directives get expanded to hundreds, many of them conflicting. This leads to fitfully entertaining scenes of RoboCop acting very strangely, weakly disciplining children, reading Miranda Rights to a corpse, and shooting a cigarette out of a smoker's mouth. These moments are funny, and sold well by a typically compelling Peter Weller. There's some decent jabs here at moral guardians who want the hyperviolent RoboCop to be a kid-friendly superhero. Yet the humor ends up meshing roughly with the rest of the film. The sequel's humor, in general, is overdone. Its attempts to copy the original's satirical commercials hit certain notes way too hard.

Being a product of the early nineties, the overblown sequel to the eighties, “RoboCop 2” has to try and top the original. Since it was too dumb to truly top the original's pathos or satire, “RoboCop 2” placates itself by ramping the action up. Some of the action scenes are, admittedly, pretty damn cool. After gunning his way through the bad guys' drug lab, RoboCop chases after Cain on a motorcycle. He gets skidded across a brick wall and eventually plays chicken with the large truck. That stuff is neat. Yet “RoboCop 2's” desire to outgun the original results in violence that is often overly mean-spirited. There's just as much gore but part two lacks Paul Verhoeven's love of theatrical bloodshed. Instead, Kershner's action scenes degrade into RoboCop firing his gun and bad guys bloodily falling down. It's blunt and not nearly as much fun.

“RoboCop 2” pretends to be faithful to the original's social commentary. Yet its basic plot line boils down to that most empty of late eighties/early nineties platitudes. RoboCop says Just Say No. It's no coincidence that the movie's fictional drug, “Nuke,” has the same number of syllables and the same hard k sound as “crack.” Instead of making a point about the impact a society destroying drug had on inner cities, “RoboCop 2” plays anti-drug hysteria totally straight. Nuke is the worst drug ever. It's super addictive and its high is similar to religious awe. The drug turns users into hyper-violent acolytes. RoboCop and all the other cops are disgusted by the mere presence of Nuke. The sequel is attempting to address a serious social woe but approaches the topic with all the subtly of ED-209.

Another thing I dislike about “RoboCop 2” is how it turns OCP's Old Man into a major villain. The original gave the impression that Dan O'Herlihy's executive was at least less evil than his underlings. Part two reveals that the Old Man is even more calculating, cynical, and decadent than Dick Jones. O'Herlihy's performance is entertaining, if nothing else. Nancy Allen is mostly going through the motion, the script not giving Anne Lewis much to do. Delinda Bauer is likably sleazy as the psychologist that chooses Cain to be OCP's next murderborg, even if the character is so dumbly written. There was no topping Kurtwood Smith's Clarence Boddicker but “RoboCop 2” does have a pretty great bad guy. Tom Noonan brings all of his boundless nervous energy to Cain, a totally committed villain whose creepy God complex is only topped by his dependence on Nuke.

In fact, Cain is probably the best thing about “RoboCop 2.” The movie's last act is an orgy of destruction that lacks much meaning. Even from a plot perspective, it's a shaggy mess. However, the giant murderous cyborg is pretty damn cool. Code-named RoboCop 2 – which is a clever way to get the sequel's title actually in the movie – Cain's robo-body is brought to life via more of Phil Tippet's ingenious stop motion. The machine is all snapping claws and blazing chain guns. Despite his bulky size, he quickly navigates elevator shafts and auditorium halls. Tippet even incorporates some humor. When the Old Man foolishly holds up a canister of the drug Cain is dependent on, the robot hungerily snaps his claws. That's just one example of the character and personality Tippet brings to the massive kill-bot.

“RoboCop 2's” score isn't even as good as the original. Instead of reprising Basil Poledouris' brilliant score, Leonard Rosenman started from scratch. His heroic theme is alright but employing a choir, chanting “RoboCop!,” was probably a step too far. “RoboCop 2” is clearly a compromised affair. The script is disorganized. The tone is all over the place. The sequel lacks the original's heart. It does feature some cool action and creature work. Weller and Noonan's performances are worth seeing. Yet “RoboCop 2” is largely lackluster, failing to live up to the majesty of the first film. It's exactly what Paul Verhoeven feared it would be: a quickie cash-in. [6/10]

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