RoboCop 2 (1990) -**½
Nobody pondering the question in the late 1980’s (when pondering it might have served some practical purpose) could be faulted for concluding that Frank Miller would be the perfect writer for a sequel to RoboCop. On the most basic level, it could be argued that a controversial movie requires a controversial sequel, and that a writer from inside the movie industry in those days might be too thoroughly conditioned against controversy to provide a suitable script. If screenplays were to be solicited from outsiders, then a comic book writer like Miller could have an advantage over a prose author, because writing for comics has certain essential features in common with writing for the screen. Comics and film alike are primarily visual media, and in both cases, what is written is merely the blueprint for the final product. But more to the point, Miller was then best known for The Dark Knight Returns, his four-part graphic novel imagining the end of Batman’s crime-fighting career in a dystopian exaggeration of 1980’s America, to which the original RoboCop bears a striking resemblance. The satirical approaches of the two works are all but indistinguishable, although Verhoeven and Miller took on slightly different sets of targets. Both make extensive use of television news broadcasts and their attendant man-in-the-street interviews to set the context for the main action. Their plotlines even hit a few of the same beats, like a woman putting herself forward as sidekick for the hero just in time to get him to relative safety after a brutal mauling from a physically superior opponent, or the hero eventually turning against the corrupt authorities whose outside-the-system servant he had originally been. There was one major problem, though, however good the fit might initially have appeared. Frank Miller was just then beginning a stylistic transformation that would leave him a ludicrous funhouse parody of his former self, and the screenplay he handed in was both utterly deranged and seemingly impossible to contain within the limits of a single feature film. Walon Green was hired to rework it (‘cause nothing says “quality” like “from the writer of Solarbabies…”), and to all appearances, he considered it his mandate to preserve the script’s Frank Miller flavor by replacing its more hypertrophic elements with plot points and characters cribbed directly from The Dark Knight Returns. The execution in the completed film, however, comes closer to that comic’s belated and staggeringly wrong-headed sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Back.
Omni Consumer Products continues its colossal mismanagement of Detroit’s partially privatized police department. This time, OCP has sought to economize by canceling all the cops’ pensions and cutting their salaries by 40% across the board. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a city-wide police strike, which has led in turn to an explosion of crime in the already lawless section of Old Detroit served by the Metro West police precinct. But as one band of miscreants are about to find out, there’s still one cop on duty in Metro West— and since that one cop is RoboCop (Peter Weller again), that’s plenty enough to fuck them sideways. Cue pathetically one-sided ass-whipping of a shootout.
The police strike couldn’t have come at a worse time for the city, which is laboring under a new drug epidemic. The chemical is called “nuke” on the streets, and it supposed to be the most addictive narcotic ever developed. It’s also the focus of some sort of cult led by a self-proclaimed prophet called Cain (Tom Noonan, from Manhunter and Eight Legged Freaks), but the cult aspect of Cain’s organization never really comes into focus. For all practical purposes, he’s just a drug lord who occasionally makes speeches cribbed from Jim Jones. He also likes to send the TV news tapes of himself sitting in the shadows, promising to kill the fool Batman and proclaiming that Gotham belongs… No, wait. That’s what the leader of the Mutants says on the tapes he sends to the TV news. Not that it really matters, though, since Cain is basically the same character, only not as buff. Anyway, those hoodlums we just saw RoboCop take down were nukeheads, and a tip he extracts from the one he leaves alive leads him to the secret warehouse where an army of immigrant Chinese women toil away, packaging the drug for distribution by Cain and his followers. Most of those followers are gun-goons who do not survive RoboCop’s raid on the packing plant, but Cain also has the expected femme fatale sidekick (her name is Angie, and she’s played by Galyn Görg, of America 3000 and The Malibu Bikini Shop) and a somewhat less expected junior high psychopath (called Hob, and played by Gabriel Damon) on the payroll. Cain, Angie, and Hob all get away, not least because RoboCop’s programming forbids him to fire on a child.
Okay— forget what I said (and what Walon Green said, for that matter) about there not being any regular cops on duty at Metro West. In fact, it turns out that there are a considerable number of scabs on the force. Those who remember his attitude toward striking in the previous movie will not be surprised to see that Sergeant Reed (still Robert DoQui) is among them, but I would have thought that Anne Lewis (still Nancy Allen, albeit with a more feminine— and markedly less flattering— hairstyle) would have fewer qualms about taking an adversarial approach to OCP after what she saw the last time around. For our present purposes, however, the non-striking cop who deserves the largest share of our attention is Officer Duffy (Stephen Lee, from Dolls and The Pit and the Pendulum). This is because Duffy is both a nuke freak and on the take from Cain. When RoboCop goes out hunting for Hob (bringing Lewis along so as to be in a more credible position to do something about him should the hunt prove successful), he finds Duffy at the boy’s arcade headquarters, trading information about the night’s police beat dispositions for a pack of nuke ampules and a big wad of cash. Hob gets away once again, but Duffy does not. Then as soon as the dirty cop posts his bail, he gets picked up and tortured to death by Cain’s agents, on the assumption that he must have rolled over on them while he was in custody. So actually I guess Duffy wasn’t all that important after all. Sorry.
Cain and his men assumed correctly, as it happens. Now armed with the location of Cain’s nuke factory, RoboCop attempts to duplicate his raid on Clarence Boddicker’s cocaine plant in the last film. It doesn’t go quite as well. Cain and the gang are ready for him, and after immobilizing him with a giant electromagnet (somebody should tell Miller and/or Green that titanium— which is what RoboCop’s body is made of, remember— is not magnetically reactive), they spend the rest of the day figuring out how to take him apart with a pneumatic drill and a concrete saw. Then they dump the pieces at Metro West as a calling card. Oddly, the OCP representative (Eve of Destruction’s Jeff McCarthy) who’s been hanging around the precinct lately doesn’t seem too interested in getting his company’s highest-profile product back into service.
Eviscerating the police department smack in the middle of a drug-fueled crime wave, leaving their own purely in-house law-enforcement operative to rust in the Metro West basement— it sure does sound like those OCP fuckers are up to something, doesn’t it? Well, do you remember that Delta City plan from the last movie? The one that involved knocking down Old Detroit and rebuilding from the ground up? Although nobody uses the name this time around, it would appear that Delta City is now shovel-ready— or at least it would be if OCP had control of the land. The details don’t make a lot of sense, but the company CEO (Dan O’Herlihy again) has deliberately engineered the city’s crime crisis in the hope of making the Detroit municipal government default on its next $37 million payment for OCP’s law-enforcement services. OCP’s contract with the city stipulates that in the event of default, the company has a lien on all municipal assets, and the plan is to use that leverage to privatize literally the entire city as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Omni Consumer Products. The mayor (Willard Pugh, from Progeny and The Hills Have Eyes, Part 2) naturally raises a fuss as soon as he figures out what OCP is up to, but his own signature is right there on the papers making the takeover possible. As for RoboCop, he’s proven himself just a little too self-willed to be reliable by OCP’s standards. Donald Johnson (Felton Perry, of Night Call Nurses and Relentless 3, returning to claim a much bigger share of the screen time than he had in RoboCop), the current number-two man at OCP, has been overseeing a project to replace him with an improved RoboCop 2, but Johnson’s unit hasn’t been making much headway. The prototypes keep going insane, you see, and destroying themselves after brief homicidal rampages around the laboratory. There’s someone else in the company who thinks she knows what Johnson’s been doing wrong, however. Her name is Dr. Juliette Faxx (Belinda Bauer, from Servants of Twilight and The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire), and she’s a psychologist with another division. The way she tells it, the problem is Johnson’s assumption that he needs to use another police officer as a starting point. What he should be looking for is somebody who will appreciate the power that being resurrected as a nearly indestructible cyborg will entail— and so what if that almost necessarily means recruiting among severely warped personalities like death row inmates or patients at hospitals for the criminally insane? Faxx will be happy to take over the project if the boss likes her idea, and while that work progresses, the original RoboCop can be brought back online with a new set of directives designed to make him tractable once again. You see where this is going, right? Who, of all the people we’ve seen in this movie, might be so monumentally fucked up that they wouldn’t mind being turned into a hulking death robot? And who, of all the people in this movie, are the writers likely to mistake for the most thematically fitting opponent for RoboCop, since it’s obviously too much to ask that they’ll be savvy enough to give the head of OCP the job himself?
Thirteen years after the release of RoboCop 2, when Steven Grant and Juan Jose Ryp adapted Frank Miller’s original screenplay into comic book form, the resulting miniseries ran for nine issues. Although I know of no widely accepted conversion factor between story board pages (or, by analogy, comic book pages) and minutes of completed film, it seems obvious that Miller’s RoboCop 2 would have been an extremely long movie— possibly even somewhere in the three-hour range. Obviously, somebody had to cut that rambling story down to size, but Walon Green’s approach to the task was distinctly suboptimal. Instead of removing distracting subplots and streamlining the basic story structure, he mostly reapportioned the action among the principal characters while reducing the overall level of depth and detail. (He also replaced expensive things like heavily armed mercenary armies with cheaper alternatives, like a drug lord and his gang.) Green’s version is no less busy than Miller’s, but it rushes things to the extent that few elements of the circuitous plot ever receive a really satisfactory amount of attention. I’ve already mentioned Duffy’s underdeveloped role and the markedly un-cult-like “nuke cult,” but that’s just the beginning. Faxx’s attempt to neutralize RoboCop by burying his mind in new behavioral directives developed through meetings with a focus group of community activists is merely the setup for a few weak gags, and it ultimately has no more impact on the story than Duffy’s corruption. Even worse is the subplot concerning the family of Alex Murphy, the patrolman RoboCop had been in his human life. Granted, there were issues that needed to be addressed to which a brush with Murphy’s wife and son would be the most efficient lead-in. The first film ended with RoboCop attempting to reclaim at least some part of his human identity, and the obvious impossibility of that would have to loom large over any sequel. But what happens here (RoboCop stalks the Murphys until they file suit against Omni Consumer Products on terms that make precious little sense) raises so many issues of its own that it would take a whole movie to dispose of them all. Instead, though, the Murphy family subplot is put to bed before the end of the first act, never to be mentioned again.
Then there’s Dr. Faxx. Judging from the Frank Miller’s RoboCop comics, Faxx is the element of the original screenplay that changed the least in Green’s handling, and those who are acquainted with how Miller writes women will not need me to tell them why that’s a bad thing. Green did tone down the grotesque oversexualization, but not enough to eliminate the implied affair between Faxx and the head of OCP (who is easily 40 years her senior) or to keep her from developing an inexplicable fixation upon Cain. Nor did Green apparently feel any need to provide Faxx with a reason for her villainy. The one real improvement Green made was to ditch Miller’s idiotic notion that Faxx would install her own personality in RoboCop 2 after the defeat of the version animated by the old script’s Cain analogue.
Where RoboCop 2 goes most entertainingly wrong, though, is in its overall tone. Impossible though this may seem, this movie makes its predecessor look tasteful, subtle, and restrained. It’s here that RoboCop 2 most reminds me of The Dark Knight Strikes Back, for in each case, a comparison between the sequel and the original reveals that there really is such a thing as just enough excess. RoboCop 2 has a store being ransacked by a little league baseball team. It has a yuppie mugging an old bag lady, only to be mugged in turn (and to have the old lady’s valuables re-stolen) by a pair of hookers— one of whom stomps his eye out with her stiletto heel. It has Hob handing out ampules of nuke for free at an arcade, as if he were a character in The Cocaine Fiends. Those who remember the RoboCop “Thank you for not smoking” spot that they used to show in theaters during the early 90’s will take a ride down Déjà Vu Lane when they discover that it was lifted whole and unaltered from this movie. There’s even a baby caught in the middle of one of the shootouts. It’s dumb and absurd, and it gets to be infuriating if you think too hard about RoboCop while you’re watching, but it’s reasonably entertaining when taken on its own dubious merits. And if nothing else, RoboCop 2 has some great stop-motion animation once the titular super-cyborg enters the picture.