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Thursday, May 25, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: RoboCop: Dark Justice (2001)

At some point in the early 2000s, I was exploring the new video store that opened up in my home town. Sitting on the new releases shelves was a quartet of titles that intrigued me. There were, seemingly, four brand new “RoboCop” movies. I guess I wasn't interested enough to actually rent them though. Years later, I would discover just what the hell these movies were. Following the collapse of Orion, the “RoboCop” rights would end up with Fireworks Entertainment, a Canadian television company. A decade after producing the forgotten “RoboCop: The Series,” Fireworks' right to the series were about to expire. Hoping to squeeze a little more blood from that stone, they produced a four-part television mini-series entitled “RoboCop: Prime Directives.” Each episode was feature length and released individually in the States. The first of which was “Dark Justice.”

“Prime Directives” seems to treat the previous “RoboCop” sequels in broad strokes. OCP is still in business, which would seem to contradict “RoboCop 3.” Yet the Cadillac Heights slums so pivotal to that film are also referenced. Either way, the mini-series is set a decade after RoboCop first came online. OCP is suffering corporate re-shuffling and, once again, nearing bankruptcy. Meanwhile, RoboCop is dealing with a new dangerous breed of criminals and feeling obsolete. A vigilante calling himself Bone Machine is killing bad guys. RoboCop hunting the killer brings him to John Cable. Cable was Alex Murphy's partner but he has no idea that Murphy is now RoboCop. Soon, the two come into conflict.

All of “Prime Directives” was directed by Julian Grant. Grant previously directed “Electra,” an erotic thriller starring Shannon Tweed, and “Airborne,” a low budget action flick starring Steve Guttenberg. Grant insisted “Prime Directives” would be more faithful to Paul Verhoeven's original than the sequels were. Well, “Dark Justice” does lean heavily on a condescending television news program. Which is a decent attempt at replicating the original's satire. Don't expect any ultra-violence though. The action is pretty anemic. There's only two real action scenes. RoboCop fights some mad bombers in the beginning and Bone Machine in the last act. During the former, he spends most of the fight knocked out on the floor. During the latter, he fidgets around in a dark warehouse. Not exactly the most impressive action sequences.

The underwhelming action is a symptom of “RoboCop: Prime Directive's” primary problem. It's so cheap, you guys. OCP head quarters is primarily composed of a series of board rooms and overly dark offices. The police station seems to have one office and a hallway. RoboCop spends most of his time sitting in that fancy chair that monitors his computer systems. There's a long – way too long – scene devoted to two OCP executives talking in an elevator. As I said, the big finale takes place in a shadowy warehouse. Which is the favored location of many low budget action flicks. Bone Machine's equipment is composed of cheesy looking machine guns and a goofy skull mask. The producers clearly didn't have much money to work with.

There's another indication of “Dark Justice's” minuscule budget. Much of the episode is devoted to a lengthy flashback. To Alex Murphy and John Cable's days as partners, before Murphy transferred to the Old Detroit station. In other words, there are long scenes that are less “Robo” and more plain “Cop.” (Even these scenes are very cheap, as a dog is played entirely by off-screen sound effects.) Yet “Dark Justice” is mildly interesting as a prequel to “RoboCop.” After all, we've never seen much of Alex Murphy's time before becoming RoboCop. Murphy and Cable uncover a cannibalistic serial killer. Murphy is reluctant to use deadly force, showing his clear morals. These flashbacks mostly set up a scenario during the climax. But, on their own, this does shed some light on an underexplored area of the franchise's history.

“Prime Directives” first tried to lure back Richard Eden, the actor who starred in “RoboCop: The Series.” When that didn't work out, they got Page Fletcher. Fletcher might be recognized for his starring role on eighties horror anthology show, “The Hitchhiker.” (Coincidentally, Paul Verhoeven directed an episode of “The Hitchhiker,” giving Fletcher a vague connection to the original film.) Page does okay in the part. As RoboCop, he sports an oddly robotic voice. His performance isn't as disciplined as Peter Weller, lacking the trademark stiff movements. However, I do like the tired quality Fletcher brings to the part. This is an exhausted RoboCop, worn down by years of misuse, wondering what purpose his life now has.

“Dark Justice” is obviously meant to set-up further adventures. There's a number of plot points left unexplored. Such as Murphy's now adult son working for OCP, totally unaware of what became of his father. Or Damian, a sneaky OCP executive creating a sinister computer program named SAINT. These scenes often distract from “Dark Justice's” primary plot, the conflict between RoboCop and Cable, and the hunt for Bone Machine. As a stand alone film, “Dark Justice” is mildly distracting but a little too cheap to be truly effective. Hopefully “Prime Directives” will get better as it goes on. [5/10]

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