He Can Fly!
It is weird to think that somehow RoboCop, the lead character from a hyper-violent Paul Verhoeven movie, became a family-friendly hero. Okay, fair, so did a lot of other hyper-violent heroes in the 1980s, like Rambo, and Godzilla. Hell, even the Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesOriginally dreamed up as a parody of Marvel's Daredevil comics (going so far as to basically reproduce to opening shots of that comic's hero gaining his powers), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not only launched a sudden boom of anthropomorphic fighting animal comics but have, themselves, starred in multiple comics series, TV shows, and movies. started off way darker than where they ended up, starring in kids shows. Still, there's something so strange about RoboCop in particular, considering just how violent, how over the top and excessive that first movie truly was. That's part of what made it great, but it's weird to think of that character becoming a family-friendly hero.
And yet, one year after RoboCop hit theaters, an animated kids show went live in syndication. That's why there were jokes about trying to make RoboCop more kid friendly in RoboCop 2; the studio clearly knew kids were part of the audience. That film was still Rated R as someone on the production team was able to keep the violence in the first sequel. Still, the studio got their way eventually, as RoboCop 3 has had all its edges sanded off. What started as a hard R film lead to a PG-13 prequel that was clearly intended for everyone in the audience. And, man, it sucks.
The film opens not with RoboCop but with a kid, Nikko Halloran (Remy Ryan). Young Nikko lives in the Cadillac Heights section of Detroit, a part of the city set to be demolished just as soon as OCP evicts all the residents. Their enforcement team, the Rehabs, are depicted in the news as peacekeepers, but they use deadly force when the cameras aren't on. Nikko's parents are taken to a relocation camp when the Rehabs roll in, but Nikko gets lost and, eventually, is picked up by the resistance movement, led by Bertha (CCH Pounder). This group is dedicated to keeping Cadillac Heights out of the control of OCP.
Eventually we get around to RoboCop (now played by Robert Burke). RoboCop is on the street when the resistance hits the police impound, stealing a bunch of weaponry (with the help of tech genius, little Nikko). But when his partner, Lewis (Nancy Allen), comes under fire in another part of the city, RoboCop breaks off his pursuit to go aid her instead. This draws the ire of OCP who don't like RoboCop thinking for himself. They want a good soldier that will work with the Rehabs to reclaim the city. RoboCop has to decide who he wants to be. Does he work as a cop for OCP or is he there for the city. Clearly, we all know the decision he's going to make. He's going to go to war with OCP because he's that kind of hero.
There's a core idea in RoboCop 3 that could work. The original screenplay was written by Frank Miller and, just knowing that author, you have to assume he went in hard on a darker, more violent version of the story (this version was later adapted into the Boom comic RoboCop: The Last Stand, if you're interested in reading it). However, the studio demanded changes and they brought in another writer, Fred Dekker, to rewrite the screenplay. This version, Miller noted, ruined his idea and made something he wasn't proud of. And considering the quality of stories he's actually proud to claim, that should tell you just have mangled this final product really is.
But, as I said, there's a core idea that does work. RoboCop rejecting OCP and rewriting his own programming, taking up guns with the resistance to fight for Detroit is a legitimate solid idea for the character. It shows a continued growth path for the character, through his three movies, letting him continue to evolve both as the machine designed to save Detroit as well as as a cop, Office Murphy. If there's any part of the film that does work, it's RoboCop himself. His core plot line is solid and I could see a version of this working on screen with more emphasis on him and less emphasis on, well, everything else.
One of the big issues is the cute kid sidekick they give to our hero. Nikko is this tech genius little kid who stretches all the credibility of the movie. She's introduced doing calculus on her school laptop (bearing in mind, she's eight). Then she helps the resistance by hacking an ED-209 by plugging that same laptop into it and immediately changing its code. She does this time and again, effortlessly hacking tech that should not only be way above her but way above everyone. People bitch about the "This is Unix! I know this!" scene in Jurassic Park, but Nikko is easily 100 times worse. She makes the audience sad every time she's on screen.
The film also, for some reason, packs in ninja-robot-assassins. The assassins, Otomo (played by Bruce Locke), are sent by OCP's new foreign investor, the Kanemitsu Corporation, and their job is to find the resistance and stop them. This evolves into fighting RoboCop once he turns against OCP, and I can see the logic of this. Ninjas were cool with kids at the time (see again: the TMNT), and having RoboCop fight another robot is the tried and true way of test our hero in each of his movies. A ninja assassin probably seemed like a good idea to the suits. Only issue is he's a cartoony villain without any depth, and then each time he goes up against Robo he's easily defeated, time and again. It's laughably bad.
And, weirdly, the movie sidelines Lewis entirely. She's been a grounding anchor for Murphy through the films, keeping him connected to his humanity. And yet, here the film has her die off early on (spoilers for a 30 year old movie) and then really doesn't give him a replacement to care about. It's not the kid, Nikko, not really. Nor is it the doctor that works on him, Dr. Marie Lazarus (Jill Hennessy), although the film kind of tries to posit her in that role. It leaves RoboCop feeling kind of detached from his own film. There, but not really grounded to the action going on around him.
And, yes, the film does lack the violence and action we had come to expect from the series. There's plenty of shooting going on, but it all is very empty and bloodless, as you'd expect from a soft PG-13 film. This movie is completely defangs, softened and massaged until it feels as bland as any superhero movie of the era. It lacks the edge, the spark that made RoboCop interesting. This is absolutely a studio product, set up to sell toys (many of which are actually featured in the movie, making the flick it's own toy commercial). It's as capitalistic as it can be, far from the intent of the original film.
If there's any really bright spot, it's Robert Burke. Although it's sad that Peter Weller elected to not come back for this sequel, I can't really blame him for that (considering the final product). Still, Burke slipped into the armor and does a commendable job acting as the character that was defined, in this series by Weller. I don't think he's as good as Weller, sure, but considering he had to come into this fast-tracked film and quickly take over the part, he does well. Had there been further films in this series starring Burke, I think he really would have grown into the role quite well. We were thankfully spared that fate, as this movie is trash, but still. He was decent.
This movie is bad. It deserves all the ire that the fans throw at it because it really does gut the franchise completely. The second film wasn't Shakespeare, and it certainly didn't live up to the standards of the original, but RoboCop 3 is so much worse by just about every metric. If the studio had wanted to kill the franchise they couldn't have picked a better way to do it than this three-quel.