RoboCop 2 (1990)

Robocop is undeniably one of the quintessential 80s films, a cinematic classic that stands not only as a timelessly enjoyable piece of sci-fi/action but a timely critique of the culture from which it emerged. Though it was only the second American feature from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, he’d already gotten his thumb firmly on the pulse of a nation bursting at the seams with prosperity whilst simultaneously ridden with crime, a glitzy age whose neon aesthetics hid an underbelly of dank corruption and crippling selfishness. With its’ intersection of drug lords and evil businessmen, love/hate relationship with technology, pulsing discos and intrusive commercials, Robocop got the darker aspects of the 80s, in a way that other similarly executed films were able to wrap themselves around the era’s virtues. It was then, perhaps, to be expected that—however inappropriate thematically—the film would eventually spawn a franchise. What better fate to befall a satire of the consumerist Regan age than for it to be diluted, genericized and mass marketed? It’s easy to forget, though, in the face of dozens of cartoons, action figures, comic books, and showdowns with The Terminator (no, seriously) that the film’s first sequel—Robocop 2, out now on Blu-Ray from Shout Factory—is in many ways a worthy successor to the original. Though far from the artistic masterpiece of its progenitor, Robocop 2 is able to effectively replicate two aspects of the first movie’s success: It’s timely, and it’s damn fun.

Though it would hurt many sequels, Robocop 2 succeeds initially by not straying too far from the template set by the original. Murphy (Peter Weller, reprising his role) may start this movie as a cyborg law-enforcement officer, but other than being spared a rehashing of his origin story, much the same territory is covered: Detroit is beset by a crime wave of epic proportions, the police are powerless to stop it, and shadowy businessmen and bureaucrats are colluding to allow the city to destroy itself to make way for an ostensibly brighter, safer, future development known as Delta City. Clarence Boddicker may be dead but he’s been replaced by Cain (Tom Noonan), a slightly less hair trigger, more intellectual drug lord who pushes a narcotic called Nuke that’s even more euphoric—and addictive—than any substance known to man. As the city teeters on the brink of total chaos, Nuke floods the streets, and Robocop finds himself reeled in by community outreach initiatives, he and his partner Anne (a returning Nancy Allen) must find a way to break through the red tape and kill their way to freedom.

At the time Robocop 2 came out, it must have been either an epic disappointment or a roaring enjoyment, depending on the audience perspective. Love it or hate it, Robocop 2 is the sort of movie its’ predecessor would’ve lampooned. Much of the satire appears to be gone, replaced by gunfights, explosions, and car chases all for their own sake, without any of the accompanying social commentary. Despite its’ R rating, it was almost advertised as a family sci-fi romp, including an appearance by Robocop himself on WCW pay-per-view to have him rescue perennial babyface Sting from the Four Horsemen. That said, taken simply as an action movie, Robocop 2 is pretty enjoyable. Director Irvin Kershner had already demonstrated his sci-fi action chops with The Empire Strikes Back, and he replicates that success here, delivering a bright, energetic, cyberpunk shoot-em-up. Downtown Houston is an acceptable, if not quite futuristic substitute for Dallas as Old Detroit, and Kershner puts her local landmarks to good use, including turning the mammoth George R. Brown convention center into a character itself for a particularly over-the-top set piece. Tom Noonan, as always, makes an impressive villain, though he doesn’t get enough screentime and only two (admittedly spooky) monologues to let us know what he’s all about; the film really could’ve done with either more Cain or better use of what’s there. The design for Robocop2 (the film’s ultimate villain, whose appearance turns the title into a clever play on words) is both cool and creepy, and its’ final showdown with our hero makes for some good last-act bombast.

Taken as a standalone film, the movie’s only two flaws (though they are glaring) are its’ inconsistent tone and its’ running time. The original Robocop is a master class in gallows humor; Robocop 2, however, veers dangerously close into Joel-Schumacher-Batman territory, with cartoony sound effects and comedy so broad it sometimes stretches credulity; the opening sequence, in which a Dick Tracy gallery of cons beat, rob, cajole, and flee from one another is virtually a live-action Tex Avery cartoon. Meanwhile, the movie itself is bloated with a series of subplots that are introduced and then resolved in what could be a series of short films unto themselves. Robocop wants to reunite with his ex-wife; Robocop is reprogrammed by a focus group; they’re fun vignettes on their own, but woven into the larger story they only serve to distract from the main plot and pad the film out to a bloated two hours.

What’s amazing, though, and what really makes Robocop 2 worth a second look, is how well its’ matured with age. Note that I said an apparent absence of social commentary. Though audiences had no way of knowing it at the time, Robocop 2 is perhaps the most perfect bridge between the 80s and the 90s we could’ve gotten. It’s now a part of Hollywood lore that the film we got was a watered-down version of a story by Frank Miller, and it would appear that he foresaw the cultural milieu of the coming decade just as astutely as Verhoeven assessed the 80s. The war on drugs may have been borne of the 80s, but it was the 90s that saw it take over virtually all aspects of popular culture. From those warnings on arcade games to even preachier “very special episodes” than Diff’rent Strokes could have ever hoped to give us (anyone else remember the episode of Dinosaurs that called out the trend?), the 90s took Reagan’s dream of a drug-free America and turned it into a piece of the fabric of popular culture. So too do drugs take a front seat in Robocop 2. While the cocaine epidemic was a subplot in the original, here, Cain (who himself is a creepy foreshadowing of David Koresh) and his Nuke take the forefront in Robocop 2; tellingly, the narcotic at the heart of the film is a designer drug, prefiguring the rise of club drugs in the 90s. In the original Dick Jones always had a tight leash on Clarence Boddicker, and the resultant crime wave was never anything more than a finely-honed tool of corporate machination; here, the executives are out of their depth. Tellingly, while the final confrontation in the original was between Jones and Murphy, here it’s Murphy vs. Cain, who’s literally hijacked corporate America’s plans to satisfy his own needs.

Similarly, we see Robocop crippled in his mission to rut out crime when his programming is made subject to the whims of a focus group. In addition to predicting the rise of focus-group oriented marketing and decision making in the 90s, the group (some of whom explicitly identify themselves as parents) not only plays homage to the 80s’ “think of the children” reactionary censorship campaigns but is also eerily prescient of the coming of 90s PC culture, lampooning a social movement still in its’ infancy.  The result is Robocop being turned into a living version of every 90s PSA and after-school special ever produced (“Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue,” anyone?). Indeed, a clip of Robocop opening fire on a man for smoking was even used as an anti-smoking PSA in the 90s (what is it about the Robocop franchise that makes it game for such oblivious parody?). It’s a nice bit of social satire not just for that but because it so perfectly sums up LA’s own struggles to strike a chord between the sort of militant policing that led to the Rodney King Riots and the community outreach model deemed too soft and ineffective to properly combat crime. Taken in this light, the movie takes on much of its’ predecessor’s dark tongue-in-cheek tone when Robocop electrocutes himself in order to override his own programming so that he can stop doing so many public appearances and start killing more people.

Perhaps nowhere is the cinematic transition between the two decades more beautifully realized in the character of Hob, though. A demonic child who acts as Cain’s right-hand-man, the boy is shown to be even more sadistic than his boss, with the implication that he might just grow up to be Satan himself if he’s allowed to make it past puberty. Played with a surprisingly mature, understated sleaziness by thirteen-year-old Gabriel Damon, he’s a middle ground between the depiction of real children in real danger in films such as The Goonies and Gremlins, and the endless parade of cloyingly perfect, untouchable 90s tots. Without spoiling too much for newcomers, Hob does things—and has things done to him—that would’ve never flown in the 90s. His presence in Robocop 2—coupled with the cartoon humor and wacky ethos— is a sort of last hurrah to the anything-can-happen ethos of 80s films, while simultaneously prefiguring the tendency of 90s directors to water-down their product while doling out kiddie sidekicks.

Thankfully, Shout Factory seems to feel very much the same way, and in credence to the film’s newfound relevance has packed the Blu-Ray with a plethora of new extras meant to enhance a second-look viewing of the film. There are two brand-new commentaries, one with author/CG supervisor Paul M. Sammon (the brilliant mind behind the Splatterpunks anthologies), and another with Gary Smart, Chris Griffiths, and Eastwood Allen. The featurettes include a broad making-of; a look at the special effects; an interview with James Belohovek (who fabricated the armor for the film); and an interview with comic book writer Steven Grant about the process of adapting Miller's story to the screen. Perhaps the coolest extra is "OCP Declassified," a treasure-trove of behind-the-sceneces videos, which includes a look at the making of several deleted scenes.

With the 90s coming back into vogue, it’s perhaps as good a time as any to take a look at what really made them tick; and while it may have come at the outset of the decade, Robocop 2 is a beautiful template for much of what followed.

Preston Fassel