To celebrate the release of the dismal RoboCop (Padilha, 2014) on home media, June 3rd was declared “RoboCop Day” in the city of Detroit. While that movie wasn’t too impressive and had nothing on the original RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987), this does give us the perfect excuse to talk, and celebrate, all things RoboCop on a specific day each year.
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Released: 22 June 1990
Director: Irvin Kershner
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Budget: $20 to 30 million
Stars: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Tom Noonan, Belinda Bauer, Gabriel Damon, and Daniel O’Herlihy
Former police officer-turned-cyborg law enforcer RoboCop (Weller) becomes embroiled in a scheme by Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to bankrupt and take over the city. Faced with an identity crisis, and interference by psychologist Doctor Juliette Faxx (Bauer), RoboCop also comes into conflict with a vicious gang of drug dealers, led by zealot Cain (Noonan), who are spreading a highly addictive drug throughout the city.
In 1987, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner crafted a satirical take on 1980s commercialisation and media that director Paul Verhoeven turned into RoboCop. A modest hit, RoboCop was met with generally positive reviews and the studio urged Neumeier and Miner to pen a sequel. Unfortunately, mounting deadlines, a writer’s strike, and a breach of contract meant that their tentative plans to have RoboCop battle the complex, satirical politics of the future in RoboCop 2: The Corporate Wars never came to pass. Instead, writing duties passed to noted comic book writer Frank Miller; unfortunately, the gritty violence and scope of Miller’s script was deemed “unfilmable”, though he would cameo in the film and later turn his rejected ideas into a comic book. RoboCop 2’s production continued to be stressful; producer Jon Davison was already against the idea of sequels, and struggled to secure a director for the project since Verhoeven was busy making Total Recall (ibid, 1990). The studio announced a release date before the story was completed, resulting in a rushed filming schedule; even star Peter Weller was reluctant to return and critical of the script, but reportedly enjoyed the shoot and praised the director’s drive and enthusiasm.
Both special-effects guru Phil Tippett and suit designer Rob Bottin returned to work on the sequel; Bottin gave the suit a sleek new colour scheme and made it much easier to put on and take off, drastically reducing Weller’s time in the make-up chair. RoboCop’s cybernetic antagonist was brought to life using tried-and-tested special-effects techniques such as animatronics, miniatures, and painstaking stop-motion; RoboCain even exuded emotion thanks to a rudimentary computer-generated face. Despite RoboCop infamously making an appearance at World Championship Wrestling’s (WCW) Capital Combat pay-per-view to promote the film, RoboCop 2’s worldwide gross of $45.7 million was noticeably less than its predecessor, and the film was met with mixed reviews. While some praised its allusions to classic sci-fi and horror classics and (like myself) consider it an under-rated entry, critics bemoaned its redundant plot, excessiveness, and the depiction of a child as a violent drug lord. Still, we did get the aforementioned comic book detailed Miller’s rejected ideas, a videogame adaptation, and (eventually) a third film that was way, way worse in almost every aspect.
Picking up about a year after the first film, the first thing you might notice about RoboCop 2 is that RoboCop himself has taken a bit of a step back. In the first film, the bulk of the narrative was focused on RoboCop regaining his memories and his humanity, evolving from a preprogramed tool of the malevolent OCP and reclaiming his status as a free-thinking human. However, in RoboCop 2, much of his stoic, robotic demeanour has returned to the forefront; his partner and friend, officer Anne Lewis (Allen), still affectionately refers to him as “Murphy” and he continues to exhibit a modicum of personality in the way he confronts and addresses others, but it’s like he’s been factory reset to where he was about mid-way through RoboCop rather than being the confident, free-minded Murphy we saw at the conclusion of the last film. Haunted by Murphy’s feelings and memories, RoboCop has taken to passing by the home of his former wife and child, Ellen (Angie Bolling) and Jimmy (Clinton Austin Shirley), presumably out of the temptation to reveal himself to them, which results in Ellen being so emotionally tormented that she’s filing a lawsuit against OCP. Despite being fully accepted by Lewis, Sergeant Reed (Robert DoQui), and his fellow officers, all of whom treat him as Murphy reborn, OCP force (basically bullied) RoboCop into admitting that he’s unable to provide for his former family as a man and is “simply a machine”.
Clearly heartbroken at having to admit this, he’s left with no choice but to lie to Ellen in order to spare her further grief and get OCP lawyer Holzang (Jeff McCarthy) off his back yet, despite his continuing struggles with his humanity, RoboCop continues to maintain order on the streets practically single-handedly. With the majority of the city’s cops on strike, RoboCop, Lewis, and a handful of uniformed officers find themselves continuously outnumbered and outgunned out on the violent city streets. Much of the violence is attributed to the spread of a highly addictive drug known as Nuke, which is manufactured and spread by the messianic Cain and his devoted followers (whom he refers to as his “flock”). Rather than simply being a gang of thugs and street punks, Cain’s inner circle is more like a cult; they hang on Cain’s every word, revere him as a leader and a father-figure, and are absolutely hooked on the “paradise” offered by Nuke. Cain is an enigmatic and alluring figure with a twisted sense of patriotism who exudes a subtle menace and showcases a sadistic streak when he’s wronged by others. Although he’s generally far more hands-off compared to Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), he clearly takes a perverse pleasure in overseeing the torture, dismemberment, and punishment of his enemies and even forces Hob to observe this without filter. However, Cain gets a leg up on his predecessor when he’s subjected to the RoboCop 2 program after being critically injured by RoboCop. Although he doesn’t consent to this procedure, conniving psychologist Julia Faxx is completely on the money with her evaluation that Cain’s twisted mind makes him a perfect candidate to mentally survive the trauma of literally having his brain ripped from his body and placed into a massive mechanical, tank-like cybernetic body commonly dubbed “RoboCain”.
Indeed, RoboCop 2 has a stringent anti-drug message as the super addictive Nuke is so sought after that Cain and his lead scientist, Frank (Frank Miller), produce it in vast quantities. Interestingly, though, very little time is spent explaining what Nuke’s effects (or side-effects) are; Cain suffers some unsettling effects as a result of a mix-up in the ingredients of the “Blue Velvet” variant, and users are said suffer painful withdrawal symptoms but it doesn’t seem to cause hallucinations or manic episodes. Instead, Nuke seems to induce a state of euphoria that becomes incredibly addictive to the user and people are literally fighting each other in the streets to fund their habit. Not that I’m saying it isn’t dangerous, of course, but we’re never actually shown that it is inherently dangerous, and more time is spent establishing that there’s a far more tangible danger in Detroit thanks to the police strike. Despite their loyalty to their enthralling leader, Cain’s followers are quick to write him off after he’s put in the hospital thanks to the ambitions of Hob (Damon), a spiteful delinquent who is very much Cain’s second-in-command and quickly usurps Cain’s position as Detroit’s top drug lord. He blackmails and manipulates Cain’s devoted lover, Angie (Galyn Görg), into falling in line by threatening to cut off her Nuke supply and seeks to broker a deal with the desperate and bankrupt mayor, Marvin Kuzak (Willard E. Pugh), that will allow him and his gang to manufacture and distribute Nuke without fear of prosecution in return for paying off the city’s debts to OCP. Thanks to being a child, RoboCop is unable to act against Hob, allowing the vicious little brat to continually evade reprisals and he gleefully oversees RoboCop’s dismemberment after the gang subdue the cyborg cop at their hideout. However, Hob’s ambition leads to him being caught in the crossfire when Faxx sends RoboCain to assassinate Mayor Kuzak and Hob, Angie, and many of their cohorts are killed by their former leader. Despite all of the pain and trauma Hob caused RoboCop, Murphy comforts the boy in his final moments and is deeply affected by the misguided youth’s death as Hob is around the same age as his own son.
OCP remains a malicious and vindictive corporate entity but, this time around, the Old Man (O’Herlihy) has fully embraced his role as the head of a malevolent organisation; he’s more than happy to inform Mayor Kuzak that the city has defaulted on their contract and is eager to seize control of all of Detroit so that he can finally build Delta City on its ruins. To facilitate this, OCP continue to make life difficult for the city’s police; after numerous threats, the majority of the cops are on strike after having their pensions and salaries cut by their employers, causing chaos in the streets and leaving Detroit ripe for the picking. The Old Man is joined by Donald Johnson (Felton Perry) and Holzang, who advise and support his ambitious corporate takeover of the city, but has many of his decisions influenced by Faxx, who gets close to the Old Man (much to Johnson’s chagrin) and convinces him to screw around with RoboCop’s directives and programming to neuter his threat. When OCP’s efforts to replace RoboCop with a newer, more efficient model are met with constant failure, Faxx jumps in and suggests screening criminals rather than police officers as candidates for the RoboCop 2 program. While the Old Man is happy to keep RoboCop off the streets or otherwise disabled in order to push the city further into OCP’s hands, Faxx seems to get off on manipulating others and weaselling her way into a position of trust and power. While she’s largely successful and appears to have wooed the Old Man with her allure and impressed him with RoboCain’s slaughter of many of OCP’s opposition, her luck runs out by the end as Holzang and Johnson convince the Old Man to make Faxx a scapegoat for the death, destruction, and bad press caused by RoboCain’s rampage. However, little of RoboCop’s focus in the film is on confronting or opposing OCP; Holzang is continually dismissive of RoboCop’s humanity and he is solely concerned with the cost of repairing him and sorting out possible lawsuits caused by his actions, and Faxx is instrumental in screwing RoboCop up with over 250 contradictory directives, but RoboCop’s focus is squarely on Cain and the Nuke problem rather on exposing his creators as an unscrupulous corporate powerhouse concerned only with their own agenda rather than actually helping others.
RoboCop 2 does a decent job of replicating the dark satire of the original through its frequent cutaways to commercials and news program Media Break, which still casually comments on miserable local and worldwide news like it’s no big deal. Although Bixby Snyder (S.D. Nemeth) is sadly missing, the film opens with a particularly lethal solution to car theft, sells OCP Communications as the “only choice” to avoid office workers committing suicide over missed deadlines, and there’s an amusing commercial for “Sunblock 5000”, a product that protects against the destroyed ozone layer but causes skin cancer with frequent use! Although Basil Poledouris’ iconic RoboCop theme is absent, Leonard Rosenman’s new score isn’t anything to sniff at, punctuating RoboCop’s slick shooting and the film’s action sequences with a rousing, almost militaristic fanfare. One thing I do like about RoboCop 2 is how comfortable everyone is with RoboCop; he gets some odd looks of fear and awe from criminals, children, and everyday citizens, but he’s mostly just become a part of the city since the first film. All of his fellow officers refer to him as Murphy and he rallies them in an all-out assault on Cain’s main facility regardless of their money woes purely through the authority and respect his very being commands amongst them.
In many ways, RoboCop 2 retreads much of the same ground as the first film; RoboCop struggles with his memories of a life that, arguably, was never his to begin with and has taken to stalking Murphy’s wife and son since he can’t quite let go of the ghosts of his past. When out on duty, RoboCop is all business and his personal issues never impede his duties; he busts up a Nuke production factory, beats information out of crooked cop Duffy (Stephen Lee), and confronts Cain and his followers alone all because that’s what he’s duty-bound to do (and, arguably, because of his three prime directives). However, when at rest, he’s a broken, distracted, confused man-machine who desperately wants to rediscover the love and affection Murphy felt but can’t because he’s simply the leftover echo of Murphy’s life trapped in a largely cybernetic shell. After he’s brutalised by Cain’s men, RoboCop is once again left torn to shreds and barely clinging to life in a startling call-back to Murphy’s vile execution in the first film; this is the perfect opportunity for Faxx to step in and load a whole bunch of nonsense directives into RoboCop’s program based on “consumer feedback” that the cyborg cop is too violent. Interestingly, Johnson actively speaks out against this, and Faxx’s decision to search for potential RoboCop 2 candidates, but more because of the “corporate image problem” than any sense of duty towards Detroit’s safety. Although Murphy initially resists Faxx’s programming thanks to clinging to his former life, she’s able to bypass his opposition by spoon-feeding him instructions, resulting in a far more chirpy, affable version of the cyborg cop who’s more interested in pleasantries and the Miranda Rights than busting heads. This leads to a ludicrous detour from the main plot as RoboCop, now more inclined to speak out against smoking, bad language (which “makes for bad feelings”), and youth violence and delivering impassioned speeches rather than gunning down criminals with his Auto 9. This doesn’t last very long, however, as RoboCop uses the last vestiges of his free will to subject himself to a near-lethal dose of electricity to, once again, erase all of his directives and clear his head of Faxx’s interference.
Although RoboCop 2 doesn’t feature such brutal scenes as a man being shot to death by a group of thugs, it’s still gloriously violent and gory in its own right, just in a slightly different way; as such, blood squibs burst with entertaining frequency, it’s fun seeing RoboCop manhandle Duffy in the arcade, and it’s always a thrill to see Peter Weller moving like a slick, efficient machine during RoboCop’s firefights. One of the more alarming scenes in the film comes when RoboCop is subjected to a horrific dismantling by Cain’s cultists, who blast off his hand and then drill through his joints to leave him a mangled mess. As traumatic as this is for Murphy, though, it’s nothing compared to the poor souls selected to undergo the RoboCop 2 program prior to Cain, who are all driven to suicidal insanity by their experience, with one cop left little more than a screaming skull beneath a cybernetic helmet! One scene that always landed with me as a kid was the shot of Cain’s brain and eyeballs suspended in a jar of liquid prior to his transformation, and the casual way his doctor and Faxx handle the drug lord’s facial remains, making for a disturbing scene. Effects-wise, things have been vastly improved this time around; RoboCop’s suit looks better than ever thanks to a shining coat of chrome-blue paint, and seeing him rendered a twitching, quivering mess of wires and armour is particularly harrowing thanks to a highly detailed animatronic puppet. RoboCain is a vast improvement over his spiritual predecessor, the Enforcement Droid-209/ED-209 (which, sadly, is reduced to a mere blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo), being bigger, more versatile, and far more dangerous and capable. A huge, lumbering machine, RoboCain is brought to life through a combination of miniatures, stop-motion, and practical animatronics and, while some of the shot composition hasn’t aged too well, it’s pretty bloody glorious to see this hulking cyborg gun people down with its machine gun arm and crush skulls with its claw-like hands!
With OCP having all but eliminated their opposition and set to seize control over Detroit, manufacture more cyborg cops, and begin construction of Delta City, the climax naturally features a final confrontation between RoboCop and his would-be replacement. Unlike RoboCop, RoboCain doesn’t appear to retain very much of his humanity; after his transformation, Tom Noonan completely disappears from the film and is represented only by a 3D representation and his hulking robotic body, meaning RoboCain is a much more monstrous figure than Murphy and is motivated solely by his need to consume Nuke. Since RoboCain is bigger and far tougher than RoboCop, Murphy opts to bring a Cobra Assault Cannon with him to even the odds and take out some of Cain’s high-powered arsenal. Unlike the shambling ED-209, RoboCain features a massive machine gun arm (which doubles as an extendable battering ram), his own shoulder-mounted assault cannon, a laser cutter, and a number of claw-like appendages that allow him to scale walls, right himself when dropped, and afford him numerous options in combat. In comparison, RoboCop is as clunky as ever and is forced to rely more on his wiles than directly attacking RoboCain, since the former drug lord’s armour is much too tough to be damaged by RoboCop’s standard firearm or base strength. Thus, their battle sees them crashing through the floor, setting off gas lines, collapsing from a rooftop, and involves Lewis charging into RoboCain with an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), all of which barely fazes the enormous cyborg. However, RoboCain has one glaring weakness that RoboCop doesn’t share: his dependence on Nuke. RoboCop is able to use this addiction to distract his foe and rip through the plate armour on his back to wrench out Cain’s brain and smash it into mush, ending the would-be messiah’s threat once and for all and reclaiming his position as the city’s resident cyborg.
Even now, I genuinely feel lie RoboCop 2 is underserving of the dismissal it is often met with. While RoboCop might’ve been lightning in a bottle in many ways, I honestly think RoboCop 2 is a more than worthy follow-up as it does a decent job of replicating the mixture of satire, action, and metaphysical commentary of the original. While it’s admittedly disappointing that RoboCop’s character is walked back a bit and essentially undergoes exactly the same character arc (beginning as a stoic law enforcer, regaining his sense of self, and ridding himself of his directives) rather than starting off in the same place we left him, I found the further exploration of RoboCop’s humanity to be fascinating and heart-breaking. Here we have a cyborg police officer with the memories and feelings of a dead man, whom everyone treats as Murphy reborn, but the fundamental question of whether RoboCop actually is Murphy or if Murphy is just a ghost in the machine is endlessly intriguing to me and RoboCop 2 explores that in interesting ways. I also enjoyed RoboCop’s increased screen time, which made the film a bit more action-packed than the original, and the traumatic call-back to Murphy’s violent death in RoboCop’s dismantling, but what really impresses me about the film is the slugfest between RoboCop and his would-be successor. An under-rated triumph in practical effects filmmaking, an impressive mixture of animatronics, stop-motion, and traditional filmmaking techniques makes this sequence a thrilling and exciting climax and I am continually impressed with the RoboCain effects, which really up the ante as far as cyborg-on-cyborg action goes. For those who have slept on RoboCop 2, I definitely recommend looking at it again, as the Old Man would say, with “a fresh perspective” as it’s a more than worthy successor to the first film and, at the very least, isn’t handicapped by trying to appeal to a younger demographic like the third film.
Are you a fan of RoboCop 2? Would you agree that it’s under-rated or did it retread too much of the same ground for you? What did you think to RoboCop’s character arc, his struggles with his humanity, and the influx of crazy commands he receives? Did you enjoy seeing him tangle with a more competent cyborg opponent and what did you think to the effects this time around? Which RoboCop movie is your favourite? How are you celebrating RoboCop Day today? Whatever you think about RoboCop 2, feel free to drop your thoughts below or leave a comment on my social media.
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