“Isn’t this a school day?” -Robocop
It’s funny how the reception of Robocop has changed over the years. When Paul Verhoeven’s wacko sci-fi satire debuted in 1987, it was a mild hit backed by dumbstruck reviewers who were surprised by how clever the movie turned out. Then two sequels, several comic book runs, an animated series, a collection of TV movies and a dull live action series followed. Robocop became an inescapable pop culture icon, ranking right up there with the Terminator, the Predator, or Freddy Krueger as one of the most beloved genre movie headliners of the 80s n’ 90s. It was all essentially considered kids stuff and trash though. Then somewhere in the 2000s Paul Verhoeven was reclaimed by a new generation of critics and Robocop was quite rightly reframed as a genre movie masterpiece. Fair enough, it’s a real cake-and-eat-it-too flick that serves up both dumb ultra violent 80s genre entertainment, a parody of dumb ultra violent 80s entertainment, a satire of American political/capitalistic excess, and a gonzo art movie layered with symbolism.
The trouble is that once Robocop (1987) was finally enshrined as a legitimate cinematic classic, the sequels were dismissed as cash-in gutter trash. That’s not exactly fair. Sure, they don’t exactly capture the magical alchemy of high and low-brow thrills of Verhoeven’s finest hour. If the various documentaries and commentaries on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-rays for the Robocop sequels prove nothing else, it’s that both movies were definitely produced in a rush to meet Orion’s cashflow demand. However, both were produced by talented filmmaking teams who did the best they could under difficult circumstances. Robocop 2 (1990) and 3 (1993) are actually far better than you remember. Granted with the much loathed Robocop 3, that merely means it’s not one of the worst movies ever made. Robocop 2 on the other hand? It actually holds up pretty well.
Released three years after the original, Robocop 2 was sadly made without the guiding hand of director Paul Verhoeven or screenwriter Ed Neumeier. Producer Jon Davidson did return though, along with pretty much all of the cast and crew and he hired some worthy replacements. Then hot off of the success of The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller was hired to write the script and while he has endlessly complained about studio interference ever since (even publishing a comic book of his original draft that was somehow worse that this movie), his fingerprints are actually all over Robocop 2. The script attempts to revive the satirical tone and TV commercial interludes that made the original so memorable. Miller whips up some scathing critiques of corporate culture, toys with the crack epidemic, mocks political correctness, teases the concept of movie sequels, and tosses in about a dozen other ideas as well. If anything, the problem is that the Robocop 2 script is too overloaded with ideas and few are ever properly explored. The narrative is a bit of a mess and the jokes are never as clever as Miller and co. clearly thought they were. Yet, these criticisms can be laid on most of Miller’s comics written after Robocop 2 as well and the movie actually fits rather well into the golden decade of work that the comics guru produced before going insane somewhere in the early 90s.
Directing duties fell onto The Empire Strikes Back’s Irvin Kershner and along with cinematographer Mark Irwin (who shot most of Cronenberg’s movies up to The Fly), he created a vivid and exciting comic book aesthetic. Colours are bright, compositions are stylized, and the camera moves are always viscerally kinetic. Aside from a stumbling patch in the middle, Robocop 2 flies by as sheer nihilistic action entertainment with a tongue-in-cheek approach to ultra violence and satirical streak that works rather well (if anything the depiction of fantastical corporate fascism is only more effective now). Weller is as excellent as before and Tom Noonan is such an eccentrically fascinating presence that you barely ever notice that his cardboard villain has no character. The stop motion effects by Phil Tippett and his team represent the absolute peak their go-motion experiments, especially in the jaw-dropping final battle (and Rob Bottin’s make up effects are as remarkable as expected, with a blue tinted Robcop costume that tops his work in the original). Purely as action/spectacle delivery system, Robocop 2 might actually top the original. Sure, the script is a bit of a mess, but since it’s an insane Frank Miller mess directed in a satisfying comic book style, it’s still quite a bit of fun.
So while Robocop 2 is certainly flawed, it is a worthy follow up that does capture almost everything that made the original special. Its reputation should be far better despite an unfocused script and a few questionable casting choices. Sure, it’s no where near as good as Robocop, but it’s at least made by people who understand all of the various levels of appeal of Robocop and attempts to recreate the magic with a far slicker package. As for Robocop 3…well it’s still a failure. Just not as bad as you might remember. By the time the third movie rolled around, Robocop toys, comics, and a cartoon series were proving popular with kiddies. So Orion decided to aim PG-13 commercial appeal. That decision robs the threequel of so much of what made Robocop special. But at least cult writer/director Fred Dekker (Night Of The Creeps, The Monster Squad) was hired. Sure, it killed his career. But hey, he wasn’t a bad choice.
The two biggest hurdles that Dekker faced and was never able to over come were the budgetary limitations and kid friendly focus. The film never lives up to the slapstick bloodletting and robo-insanity of its predecessors and the tacked on child buddy of Robocop is even more irritating in practice than in theory. The script came from leftover ideas from Frank Miller’s work on Robocop 2 and the movie feels like a collection of abandoned subplots that never connect into a worthy plot. Worst of all Peter Weller didn’t return to the lead role and Robert John Burke’s impersonation is no substitute. So there are many major problems here and Robocop 3 is not a good movie. However, it’s not a total disaster. Within the tight budget, Dekker does manage to craft a stylish movie with the right comic book feel and a handful of satirical moments slip in (including a long awaited return of the “I’d buy that for a dollar” guy). The effects are decent, the supporting cast is strong (Rip Torn and Bradley Whitford would have been excellent evil execs in the previous flicks), and the movie is fun enough when taken on it’s own terms. This is likely the best possible budget conscience, kid-friendly, Peter Weller-less Robocop sequel that Fred Dekker possibly could have made. It’s a shame this one stopped his promising career just as he got started. He didn’t deserve that. The movie isn’t that bad, it just feels like a disaster when you compare this feature length action figure commercial to Verhoeven’s subversive sci-fi masterpiece or the underrated Robocop 2.
As expected, Shout! Factory did an amazing job polishing up the Robocop sequels for release. Robocop 2 in particular looks astounding in HD. The comic book visions that Kershner and Irwin whipped up pop with gorgeous colour, rich depth, and deep dark shadow. Even better, Phil Tippett’s stop motion effects looks absolutely incredible under HD scrutiny, likely topping what any CGI artist could manage in the best shots. The soundtrack is as loud and aggressive as this downright mean sci-fi action satire deserves. The Robocop 2 disc is honestly worth picking up for the restoration alone. Robocop 3 also looks and sounds better than ever before. A few action scenes live up to the Robocop 2 disc, but the budget limitations that Dekker faced make the effects look particularly dated in HD.
Beyond the technical upgrades, both of these discs are absolutely loaded with special features. Robocop 2 kicks off with two decent audio commentaries, one gleeful celebration from a trio of British Robocop superfans (who are currently producing a doc on the Robo-trilogy) that’s a blast and another by effects artist Paul M. Sammon that’s a bit more dry. The best material comes in the documentary section. Sammon pops up again to host a fantastic 30-minute documentary recalling the rushed production of the film filled with fantastic anecdotes. Everyone recalls an overly rushed shoot with constantly changing scripts (Tom Noonan and Nancy Allen were particularly frustrated by how their roles were slowly cut down to nothing). Yet, there’s a sense that despite all the problems, everyone was impressed that the movie that emerged turned out this well. Sammon also provides 45-minutes worth of VHS behind the scenes footage including welcome interviews with Weller, Kershner, and Davidson as well as oodles of behind the scenes footage that might be crude and unstructured, yet is undeniably fascinating.
Prop-maker James Behoveck gets his own 8-minute interview with some wonderful memories about working with Rob Bottin that just somehow feels like it should have been folded into the main doc. Best of all is an absolutely engrossing 30 minute exploration of the special effects that’s one of the best features I’ve ever seen on this era of mechanical and stop motion effects. Phil Tippett is particularly insightful looking back on the peak example of his go-motion effects work and the immense physical toil that the production took on him. Anyone fascinatednby practical effects or stop motion needs to watch it. Toss in a useless interview with a guy who adapted Frank Miller’s script into a comic (he essentially explains that he did that and nothing more), and some extensive still and trailer galleries and you have one heel of a disc. This is one of the most packed Blu-rays that Shout! has ever released and Robocop 2 is such an impressive old school production with such a strange production history that it’s richly deserved.
While Robocop 3 might be a far worse movie and the disc has far fewer features, it might actually be a far more entertaining Blu-ray to dig through. Shout! Factory have always been great at delivering uncomfortably honest special features since they have no connection to the original production and this one is a real treat. Fred Dekker is all over the disc and is admirably humble in his dismantling of all the mistakes he made (he’s certainly willing to defend his work, but is aware of what went wrong). Dekker’s feature length commentary honestly explains all of the limitations he faced and how he has been haunted by the career-crushing failure of the flick ever since. It’s disarmingly honest, but not as sad as it sounds. He’s clearly had decades to get over the bomb. Now he recognizes that it’s an interesting story to tell and does so remarkably candidly. The UK superfans pop up again for a far kinder track, which is hilarious to hear in contrast to Dekker’s comments.
There’s also a half hour documentary about the film featuring Dekker and his main collaborators (including Nancy Allen, who clearly enjoyed this production far more) that’s not quite as harsh on the movie as the director’s commentary, but definitely admits plenty of fault. It’s still a fantastic watch in a somewhat tragic, “best laid plans” kind of way. Tippet’s effects team pops up again, but since the production was nowhere near as ambitious, it’s shorter and less interesting. Next up comes character actor Felton Perry who talks about his experience in all three Robocop movies as the most successful corporate stooge in this fictional universe and that’s undeniably a treat for fans of the franchise. Finally the usual trailers and still galleries wrap things up with all the giddy promotional material for this infamous 90s failure. The story of how Robocop 3 went wrong is just as compelling as learning how Robocop 2 somehow went right.
Do these deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
So both discs are very much worth watching for longtime fans of Robocop and genre flicks in general. It’s a shame that Shout! weren’t able to toss in the original movie for a definitive box set, but the fact that they were willing to devote this much effort to two essentially forgotten sequels is a welcome treat for film nerds. No one else would have treated Robocop 2 and 3 with this level of respect and there’s a good chance that it will never happen again.