Directed by Fred Dekker, 1993.
Starring John Robert Burke, Nancy Allen, John Castle, Jill Hennessy, Remy Ryan, CCH Pounder, Rip Torn, Mako.
Cybernetic patrolman Alex Murphy – known as RoboCop – is called into action when over-bearing corporation OCP attempt to force Detroit residents from their homes in the name of redevelopment. As RoboCop joins a group of underground rebels, OCP call in a ninja android to take care of him…
FEW FAMOUS FRANCHISES have tumbled downhill as quickly as RoboCop. A blast of anarchic absurdity combined with humanistic sci-fi and brutal action, the 1987 original was a classic that introduced Hollywood’s first successful original superhero; a combo of Judge Dredd’s uber-authoritarian policing and Iron Man’s tragic rebirth through technology. The nasty 1990 sequel repeated the graphic violence without the irony or humanity, and stands to this day as one of the most callous and nihilistic mainstream pictures ever released. Within four years, Robo was no longer stomping mechanically around cinema screens but rather a feeble and forgettable TV show that was cancelled after one series.
Which leaves RoboCop 3, very much the transition between the sickening second movie and the kid-friendly televised outing. It ditches the cynicism, tones down the black humour and reduces the once blood-splattered action to A-Team style set-pieces where bullets never seem to hit anyone; ED-209, the first movie’s gleefully OTT murder machine, pops up for a cameo but doesn’t hurt a fly. The mercenary street thugs and drug-addled lunatics that provided villainy (and the body count) in previous movies are largely absent, replaced by anodyne foot soldiers in riot gear; and led by the type of smarmy, upper-class English scoundrel that only exists in American action movies (John Castle’s McDaggett).
What once felt dangerous and vibrant now feels harmless and impassive. Whilst the second movie did go too far, by stripping the series of its family unfriendly elements almost nothing of value remains. RoboCop himself, with little of the poignancy or subversive humour, is no longer a fascist Frankenstein’s monster, but a lumbering, child-friendly robot, as edgy as C-3PO and no way near as entertaining. John Robert Burke, replacing Peter Weller, gets the mechanised movements down, but has little opportunity to suggest anything going on beneath the helmet. Best bud Lewis (Allen), previously a punky rebel – and one of the oft-overlooked female action heroes – is reduced to being a victim and waiting to be saved by the silver centurion.
RoboCop himself is no longer a fascist Frankenstein’s monster, but a lumbering, child-friendly robot
Lewis’ role as anchor to Murphy’s humanity is instead shared by Nikko (Ryan) – the sort of computer whizkid cliché who can do seemingly anything with a few taps of the keyboard – and Doctor Lazarus (Hennessy), a disgruntled OCP technician who refuses to further inhibit Murphy’s actions. Deliberately thin, generic characters are a hallmark of the series and all part of the joke, but here the tongue-in-cheek aspect is missing; Nikko adopting RoboCop as a kind of father figure should be a wonderfully ludicrous moment but instead cements his evolution from bad guy exterminator to cuddly protector.
The original movie was a laser-sighted parody of big business in the 80s – the callous corporate culture and mindless, obscene consumerism – and RoboCop 3 takes a few worthy jabs in this department. The highlight is an animated action figure commercial which not only has the audacity to present Detroit’s rehabilitation officers as role models, but in its portrayal of the ludicrously violent and heavy-handed Captain Rehab as heroic, understands the satirical essence of RoboCop himself better than the rest of the movie.
The death of the yuppie was announced by Time magazine in 1991 – the year this movie was produced – and co-incidence or serendipity, their reduced powers and influence here is noticeable; whereas the first film filled expansive boardrooms full of indistinguishable power-suited gits, here they are but an endangered handful sitting around a table with empty chairs – their numbers declining all the time, as one of the film’s few blackly comic gags illustrates. OCP (led by Rip Torn’s enjoyably loud and clueless CEO) is turned on by society, the police, RoboCop himself and even eventually McDaggett, and by the end even their monolithic glass tower has been blown apart.
Don’t look to the action sequences for any sustained excitement though; from routine car chases to bloodless shoot-outs, every set piece is lacklustre and hindered by the desire not to offend. It looks like a TV movie, with little of the scale or spectacle required for a big screen blockbuster.
RoboCop’s limitations as an action hero are exposed here; he walks around slowly and shoots a gun. Apart from his ability to sustain intense damage, he is logically less effective than any human police officer with a bullet proof vest. The misjudged climactic confrontation with android ninjas makes this explicit, as they constantly bounce around, flip over his head and knock him down, and Murphy can do little but endure it until he happens to land near a gun, or gets a little help from his friends.
Both RoboCop 2 and 3 are based on scripts by legendary comic scribe Frank Miller, although altered so much that he became disillusioned with movie making and wouldn’t return until 2005’s Sin City. It’s a real shame as Miller’s classic Batman opus, The Dark Knight Returns, shares so many characteristics with the original RoboCop that he really should be a perfect writer for the series. Happily, his original concepts for the two movies were printed in a comicbook adaption in 2003 – and his four-issue RoboCop versus The Terminator series exhibits all the imagination and thrills that the big screen sequels lack.
As it stands, RoboCop 3 disappoints. The potency and spirit of the original is all but gone, taking the character down a PG cul-de-sac he was never created for. The irony of a fiercely controversial and anti-corporate creation being neutered and repackaged as sanitized family entertainment though – that’s somehow perfect.
Review by The Wizard of Is