Tuesday, March 10, 2015

MOVIES THAT MAY NOT HAVE SUCKED: “Robocop 2” (1990)

It may not have been the hyper-violent, anti-consumerist classic the first film was, but it most certainly doesn’t deserve it’s lackluster reputation, either. 


As we are all aware of, “Robocop” isn’t just one of the greatest action movies ever made, it’s also the greatest anti-capitalist screed of all-time. But the film isn’t just amazing because of its critique of the free market, it’s also an utterly exceptional criticism of the totality of American culture. Within the toxic waste-soaked bad guys and baby food target practice and scenes of Red Foreman getting his jugular sliced open with a robotic phallus, there’s a greater commentary on U.S. media than in “Network” and more profound insight into the ills of privatization than anything penned by leftist dinks like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn.

It was simply preposterous to think that ANY sequel to the film could replicate the smashing success of the original, especially without director Paul Verhoeven at the helm. Still, the formula for a decent follow-up was already there -- all you need is blood, guts, a whole lot of bullets, a metric ton of wry commentary on United States sociopolitics and at least one scene of stop-motion animation cyborgs slaying an entire board room meeting and we are all set. Sure, we may not have ended up with an “Aliens” or “Spider-Man 2” type-flick that surpassed the original, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t have gotten our hands on a way above average, as-good-as-they-could-have-made-it sequel a’la the second “Rocky” and “Halloween” films.

While “Robocop 2” is not a film without its fair share of faults and flaws, at the end of the day, I think it’s a fairly underrated little movie, and had it been a stand-alone flick sans the “Robocop” albatross, we’d probably be looking back on it as an unsung mini-classic from the early 1990s.

Structurally, the overall vibe of the film follows the original quite closely. As they were at the end of the first movie, the Detroit police department are on strike and OCP is moving in on purchasing the city. With the gang responsible for Alex Murphy’s death now all deader than Elvis, Robocop finds himself staring down a different kind of war, this time against the manufacturers of a highly potent, society-eroding street drug called Nuke. (Not to be confused with the ill-advised children's film "Nukie," of course.)

The main bad guy this time around is a weird clan of criminals consisting of Cain, a hippie-dippie cult-leader who likes to slice open the chest cavities of cops, his Rae Dawn Chong-flavored moll and an 11-year-old kid in a business suit who likes to swear a lot. While hot on their trail, Robocop seems to experience pangs for his past life, at one point driving by his wife’s house to just stare at his son like some kind of metalloid creeper.

The suits at Omni Consumer Products are as unscrupulous as ever, hard at work on a replacement Robocop unit -- if only the could find the perfect central nervous system to plunk down inside the gears and wires of the Iron Man suit. After Robocop is effectively “stripped” by the bad guys -- ingeniously, they capture him with a giant magnetic and jackhammer his limbs off -- he’s reprogrammed to think and act like a complete and total jack-ass, giving hammy lectures to juvenile delinquents and choosing to shut off overflowing fire hydrants while meth runners have tank battles in the middle of a playground. Eventually, he decides to fry himself all over again, and this time, all of his prime directives are wiped clean so now he’s a revenge seeking mother-fucker unhindered by all of that nonsense about not killing people.

After Cain is apprehended, he’s selected to be the grey matter for the “Robocop 2” prototype. Apparently, the suits at OCP figured a drug-addicted mass killer would be easier to control SINCE he’s a substance abuser, which makes me really, really glad the guys at Enron and Lehman Brothers never got into the private security business. In a money laundering deal gone bad between Cain’s surviving cronies and the nearly bankrupt (both financially and morally) Detroit City Council, OCP sends “Robocop 2” in to kill half the cast, including the film’s middle-school antagonist. With Detroit defaulting on a loan, OCP unveils its model for Delta City, complete with a guest appearance by, you guessed it, the same drug-addicted psycho-killer mech from earlier. Unsurprisingly, the robotic abomination goes plum crazy, and its up to the original Robo to save the Motor City from destruction -- and cue our twenty-minute-long cyborg kung-fu paint-the-town-red apocalypse-bonanza, complete with an up-close scene of Peter Weller smashing a dude’s exposed brains into a pothole twice.

Yeah, yeah, the movie doesn’t have the charm of the original, and while its violence is just a smidge toned down from the original, I still reckon this is a mighty damn fine example of good, old-fashioned degenerate Hollywood filmmaking. Yeah, there are some pathos thrown in there, but audiences heading into a movie called “Robocop 2” want action, action and more action, not drawn out, lingering shots of a dude dressed up like a washing machine looking wistful up against a rain-slicked window seal.

Of course, the film isn’t in the same league as the first flick. That’s a given. That said, the film at least TRIES to be its own picture, even if some of the carry-over tricks from the first film -- the upbeat newscast pastiches and mocking television advertisements, primarily -- aren’t as whip-smart as in pelicula numero uno.

You really can’t talk about the movie without first talking about the script. The original screenplay was penned by Frank Miller -- who actually has a cameo in the film as Cain’s main drug chemist -- but apparently, it was a goddamn mess that didn’t work as a nine-part comic series, let alone a big budget feature film. So, veteran scriptwriter Walon Green was brought in by Orion to polish up Miller’s turd, and the end result -- in my humblest ‘o opinions -- ain’t bad at all. Virtually everybody who wasn’t in a body bag at the end of the first movie returned for this one, and the acting, I think, is pretty much on par with the first one.

Ultimately, I think the big problem with “Robocop 2” is the atmosphere. There was this sense of pained, pitiable stoicism that Murphy exhibited in the first film that we really don’t see in this picture, and that really detracts from its impact.

Overall, this just feels like a much cleaner, more sanitized film than the first movie. Everything is brighter and more vibrant, and the blood explosions are nowhere near as massive as they were the first go-around. The movie really doesn’t have that supreme gross-out moment like the part where Emil gets eviscerated on the hood of the SUX 9000, or even a stand-up-and-cheer communal bloodlust scene like when Dick Jones gets defenestrated. It’s not as cerebral and biting as the first film, but at the same time, it just doesn’t provide the same satisfying, extra-large bucket of popcorn movie-going experience, either.

As I was saying earlier, however, if you can manage to stop comparing every single frame of the film to the original, you come to appreciate “Robocop 2” for what it is and isn’t. OK, so it’s not the social satire masterpiece the first film was, but it’s not exactly a Joel Schumacher, light-and-fluffy bastardization, either. It’s certainly more comical than the original, but it definitely has its moments of bleakness -- I mean, shit, there’s a part where Robocop has to read the last rites to a junior high school kid bleeding to death, for crying aloud. Of course, it’s in the same movie which features a robot man smashing a dude’s head into a “Midnight Resistance” arcade machine, but I digress.

Some have argued that Cain and his posse aren’t as interesting as the clique of cretins in the first film. That, I agree with -- in hindsight, I really wished the filmmakers would have stuck to Miller’s original character, which was a religious fundamentalist psycho with a Jesus complex. Conversely, Peter Weller’s performance doesn’t have quite the emotional impact it did in part one, even if his performance here is much more varied. The OCP goons aren’t as engrossing, and the rest of the cast -- namely, Officer Lewis and the mayor -- just feel like they don’t have that much to do except gnaw on the scenery.

A lot of people took offense to the subplot about Robocop being reprogrammed to a PG-13-worthy pussified version of himself, but I thought it was nonetheless a nice dig at all of the executive meetings that surely had to have happened during pre-development. It’s clear that the suits at Orion wanted the sequel to be a little bit more kid-friendly than the first, but at the end of the day, they wisely decided to keep this one an R-rated bloodbath extravaganza.

The sociopolitical commentary isn’t as deftly handled this time around, but I actually kind of liked the subplot about OCP trying to force Detroit into a default -- a thematic made all the more hilarious when the city ACTUALLY did end up filing for bankruptcy a good 23 years down the road. Although I would have liked to have seen a more humanistic portrayal of the main character (the scene between Murphy and his wife, I thought, could have lent to some superb, above-the-grade-and-above-the-genre sequences,) the more grizzled, vigilante-esque version of Robo we get later on in the movie is pretty satisfying, too. I mean, the dude is willing to jack another guy’s motorcycle solely for the sake of running headlong into the windshield of the film’s primary bad guy -- had the producers of part 3 went with a similar hard-R bent, it probably would’ve turned into a similarly better-than-it-had-any-right-to be sequel.

Alas, I think it’s a solid little movie. It’s no “Hardware” or “The Running Man,” but for what it is, it’s quite respectable. It’s a fun, dumb, high-energy motion picture that’s long on style, short on substance and filled with unrepentant slam-bang-pow-wow school-shooter influencing mayhem -- in short, it’s precisely the kind of Bush the First-era, post Reaganomics cinematic madness that made the post Genesis, pre-SNES years such a wonderful time to be alive.

And as far as I am concerned? It’s far and away the best movie ever directed by Irvin Kershner, and it’s not even close…

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