Clash of the (Robo)Titans
Paul Verhoeven is a tough act to follow. Although many of his films have had sequels or remakes (both theatrical and direct-to-video) none of them have really been able to match the power and aesthetics of his original works. Every sci-fi geek enjoys the bombast and sardonic humor of Starship Troopers but very few have anything good to say about its sequels. Hollow Man was mediocre, but Hollow Man 2 was way worse. And is there anyone that would honestly say the Total Recall reboot was anywhere near as good as the 1990 original? No way.
Of course, the very first film from Verhoeven to receive a sequel was RoboCop. That film -- an action-spectacular, a scathing take-down of consumer culture, and a Jesus allegory all mixed into one -- is a bona fide classic of the genre. It still holds up today, not just in spite of but because of its violence and gore. Verhoeven is a master at giving us what we wanted to see and then making us squirm because of it. You want sex and violence? Okay, but you also have to think long and hard about what all that sex and violence really means. Verhoeven pulls off that feat with RoboCop and its spectacular. It's sequel, RoboCop 2, not so much.
The movie picks up soon after the events of the original RoboCop. The cops are on strike because OCP is continuing to put the vice on their budgets, underpaying the cops and refusing to let up. This is all part of a bigger play OCP is making to wrest control of government properties out from under the Detroit mayor. They loaned a bunch of money to Detroit, in part for the RoboCop initiative, and now the Detroit government can't pay (since people won't pay their taxes if the cops aren't out making the streets safe). OCP, in effect, made their own feedback loop on the government, causing a Catch-22 the mayor can't hope to defeat.
In the midst of this, RoboCop (Peter Weller) is out there, basically the only one patrolling the streets alongside his partner, Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). They are on the trail of a new drug lord, Cain (Tom Noonan), who has been spreading a nasty drug around on the streets: Nuke. A cult-like figure, Cain has a group of followers that go out and run the streets for him while he spreads his words and gets more followers of Nuke. He's powerful, evil... and he just might be the perfect person to stitch into armor for the RoboCop 2 initiative. OCP wants a new cop on the streets, one they can control, and if they have their way, Cain might just be the evil bastard they turn into their ultimate soldier. One thing to expect: RoboCop against RoboCop for the fate of Detroit.
Generally, with sequels, the tried and true formula is to take what worked in the first film and do it again, only bigger. You had one drug dealer in the first film. Why not another, but with an even more addictive drug? You had one RoboCop, so why not two in the second. The film even goes out of its way to call the new cyborg "RoboCop 2" just to hang a hat on it. This films knows what was expected of it to cross the minimum bar for a sequel and it delivered at least on that front. More violence, more bombast, more RoboCops.
Where the film, directed by Irvin Kershner and written by Frank Miller and Walon Green, fails is in matching the magic of the original movie. That film very clearly had its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. It wanted to act as a scathing take-down of, well, everything. Capitalism, corporate culture, yuppies, consumerism, action violence. It had its targets set and it wanted you to think. This film, though, just knows, "hey, shooting and killing is fun," and while it delivers the violence it doesn't challenge the viewers at all. It's a shallower, empty experience. But then, it was written by Frank Miller.
It's a pity because the original script for the sequel was called RoboCop: The Corporate Wars, and it was a very different, and much darker, story. That one had all the anti-consumerist and ant-corporate concepts you'd expect from a sequel to the original RoboCop, but Orion pictures hated it. RoboCop had become big money after his film's release, and there was even a Saturday Morning Cartoon with the character. They couldn't make another, even darker film. You had to think of the kiddies.
You can tell there was a lot of executive meddling on this film. That's not just for its adjusted tone, or its weaker story in general. There's a scene in the film where the OCP executives, given the chance to reprogram RoboCop, put a bunch of new initiatives in his head. Be a role model, talk things out, don't be so violent, speak on the environment. All of that, and move, is shoved into our hero, and it reads like a list of items the Orion executives wanted for their suddenly family-friendly cyborg hero. That's the one time the film finds any kind of scathing brilliance, the moment where it comes close to matching the tone of the first film... and then it's hand-waved away very quickly.
In general, the film is just louder and dumber than the first movie. It opens with a few scenes of character development for Alex Murphy (aka RoboCop), but then that plot line is dropped in the first ten minutes. Cain is given basically no development and, aside from eventually being the body tossed into RoboCop 2, has no real connection to the main story of OCP vs. Detroit. Hell, all the executives at OCP have been rewritten to be darker, dumber, and far more villainous. Anything resembling real character development is thrown by the way side entirely.
But then, so is logic. If you listen to the plot of RoboCop 2, it doesn't really make any sense. OCP loaned Detroit a lot of money, we assume for RoboCop, but where that money went and what it was used for is never explained. The strike by the cops is engineered by OCP so that Detroit can't pay their bills, except taxes aren't just gathered spontaneously. Businesses have to pay them or liens are applied. Money has to come in to Detroit, payments would get made. And if Detroit couldn't pay their bills, the U.S. government would step in long before OCP could ever get their hands on government property. There isn't enough development of the story to show all the logical steps it would take for OCP's plan to come to fruition.
And even if OCP did get that land, what could they do with it. The mayor in the film says OCP will bulldoze communities and evict people out of their homes, but that doesn't make sense. Most residences aren't government-owned. And it's not like OCP is going to become the government because that would require all kinds of new laws and regulations going into place. Not of it really works, at all, once you even pause for a second and think about it. It's a dumb plan, written by dumb screenwriters (yes, Frank Miller, that means you), and it just doesn't work.
The one thing that does work: Peter Weller as Murphy / RoboCop. He has this character nailed down, and he's great in the role. As bad as this film is, Weller makes his scenes watchable, and he's thankfully in most of the movie. Everyone around him -- with the exception of Nancy Allen, who is good but barely in the film -- is overacting to a high degree. They're acting for the cheap seats while Weller is putting in a controlled and human performance. Weller is this film, just like he was in the first movie, but here he has to carry it while Verhoeven was working with him to make the first film fantastic.
RoboCop 2 is exactly what you expect from a rushed-to-production sequel. It's big, it's dumb, and it lacks the magic of the first film. And yet it still somehow is better than the third film in the series.