RoboCop 3 (1991/1993) -**
And then things turned just flat-out stupid. Not that RoboCop 2 was exactly a work of genius, okay, but fandom had yet to imagine the depths to which the franchise-owners might sink when that first sequel made the rounds in 1990. Once again, though, Frank Miller was there to open our eyes to the possibilities. RoboCop flying? A plucky child-genius sidekick? Cyborg ninjas? A Japanese takeover rendering the evil Omni Consumer Products corporation even more diabolical? Miller’s RoboCop 3 script had all that and more, including some stuff that had been dropped from the preceding film on monetary grounds. It was a silly story even further removed from the biting satire of the original RoboCop, but that was just the beginning of what soon became a major fiasco. Although director Fred Dekker was enamored of Miller’s screenplay, the leadership at Orion Pictures had some changes they wanted made. They saw RoboCop as a sci-fi superhero, as a character whom they could market to children to create a Star Wars-like empire of licensed merchandising. They’d taken serious steps in that direction, too, commissioning a twelve-episode cartoon series for the Saturday morning schedule as early as 1988. That first attempt to kiddie-fy the property wasn’t altogether successful, but that was no reason not to try again. I mean, if John Rambo could sell action figures, accessories, and squirt guns shaped like antitank grenade launchers, then so could Patrolman Alex J. Murphy, Deceased. Consequently, Dekker was ordered to rework the script for a lighter, less nihilistic tone. This time, there’d be no drugs, no icky subplots about attractive female scientists having affairs with Dan O’Herlihy, and as few prostitutes as Miller’s hooker Tourette’s would allow. Nudity was forbidden, harsh language was scaled back significantly, and violence, though still pervasive, was scrubbed decorously clean of blood. Any but the vaguest social satire had to go, too, on the theory that the militarization of law enforcement, the privatization of public services, and the vulgarization of American culture were all over the heads of the new target audience.
Obviously this was a terrible idea, but you know how it goes when corporate boards of directors think they hear money talking. About the one form of self-sabotaging fuckery that wasn’t mandated by the folks in the corner offices was a catastrophic budget cut, but RoboCop 3 ended up looking like it suffered from one of those anyway, because it lost one of its stars and damn near lost a second. Peter Weller took the rather astonishing step of turning down a third go-round in the biggest role of his career in favor of making— get this— Naked Lunch with David Cronenberg. When your leading man tells you, “No, I’d rather give my time to a gross and confusing art movie about heroin addiction that we all know nobody’s going to see,” it’s clearly time to wipe the smudges off your glasses, and take another look at that writing on the wall. Meanwhile, Nancy Allen agreed to reprise the role of Anne Lewis only on the condition that she be killed off within the first half-hour. The Orion bosses were undeterred, of course— what does a feature-length toy commercial need with a capable, well-chosen cast, right? Maybe, but I’m thinking that bunch inherently lacks credibility when it comes to making sound business decisions. Like, I can’t help noticing that this thoroughly mercenary project coincided with such epic mismanagement throughout the company that Orion filed for bankruptcy before RoboCop 3’s scheduled release date. The movie wouldn’t be seen by the public until more than a year after its completion, at which point it was greeted by exactly the yawns of disdain that it deserved.
So as I’ve already mentioned in passing, Omni Consumer Products has been bought out by the even more nefarious Kanemitsu Corporation, and the eponymous Mr. Kanemitsu (Mako, from Rise: Blood Hunter and The Big Brawl) has replaced its old CEO with one more tractable and obsequious (Rip Torn, of The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Beastmaster). The new boss has determined that it’s time at last to get really, really serious about building Delta City, the futuristic metropolis with which OCP has been planning for two movies now to replace decaying and crime-ridden Old Detroit, but as always, the stumbling block is those tens of thousands of people who irksomely insist upon already living there. To get rid of them, OCP has put together an army of mercenaries led by Paul McDaggett (The Crucifer of Blood’s John Castle), whom I suspect we’re supposed to interpret as South African. Certainly McDaggett’s techniques would seem familiar to anybody who was ever on the sharp end of Apartheid, as we see when a platoon of his men tear through the apartment complex where a little girl named Nikko (Remy Ryan) lives with her mom (Jodi Long) and dad (Manhunter’s John Posey). Nikko gets separated from her parents while the mercenaries are herding their victims onto buses for relocation, and she is left behind in the rubble of her erstwhile home when the bus convoy rolls out. She gets taken in by Bertha Washington (CCH Pounder, from End of Days and Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight), the poor but feisty woman at the center of a nascent movement to take Old Detroit back from OCP and to let the company’s leadership know exactly where they can stuff their plans for Delta City.
Meanwhile, OCP’s Security Concepts division, now headed up by a weasel named Fleck (Bradley Whitford, of The Cabin in the Woods and Cloned), continues to have problems with RoboCop (Robert Burke, from Dust Devil and Thinner), once the firm’s most promising paramilitary technology demonstrator, but now an increasingly embarrassing white elephant. Ultimately, the issue is that somewhere deep down, beneath all the programming and behavioral directives, RoboCop is still Alex J. Murphy, the idealistic suburban policeman from whose corpse the cyborg was constructed. Fleck is no more able to “correct” that than any of his predecessors, and his top scientist, Dr. Marie Lazarus (Komodo’s Jill Hennessy), is disinclined to try.
The dissatisfaction over RoboCop’s un-machine-like behavior comes to its latest head when Bertha’s rebels break into an OCP armory, and a team of cops led by Murphy’s old partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen again), responds to the burglar alarm. (This, by the way, is also where Nikko first establishes her girl-genius bona fides by hacking the brain of the ED-209 enforcement droid guarding the armory, not merely neutralizing it, but turning it against the oncoming police.) The resulting chase leads rebels and cops alike into an especially lawless district controlled by the Splatterpunks street gang. Bertha and her people know the area, and are able to sneak past any serious trouble, but the police come under large-scale attack from the Splatterpunks. RoboCop, under orders to apprehend the rebels, goes to Lewis’s aid instead, but that isn’t the worst of it from Fleck’s perspective. The worst comes after RoboCop leads the police to shelter in an abandoned church that just happens to be one of the rebels’ hideouts. McDaggett knows about the base in question, and had it earmarked for immediate destruction. When the mercenaries arrive to carry out their orders, Fleck takes it as an opportunity to be rid of the increasingly nettlesome RoboCop, and directs them to proceed, Lewis and her men be damned. The next thing Fleck knows, Lewis is dead, and RoboCop is on a rampage of revenge that Sergeant Reed (still Robert DoQui) and the rest of the crew at the Metro West precinct have mixed emotions about trying to stop.
Inevitably, RoboCop soon falls in with Bertha’s rebels. Equally inevitably, Dr. Lazarus doesn’t have to be leaned on too hard before she defects, taking with her all the equipment necessary to keep the cyborg up and running, together with a few experimental upgrade packages conferring enhanced mobility and firepower. And of course there’s a traitor in the rebel ranks, in the form of Coontz (Stephen Root, from Red State and Monkey Shines), who conveniently even looks a little like Duffy, the treacherous cop in RoboCop 2. Obviously there’s a showdown on the way between the RoboCop-backed rebels and McDaggett, in which the regular police will be forced to choose a side. But what you might not see coming is Kanemitsu’s response to the situation in Detroit. When word of the brewing epic clusterfuck gets back to Tokyo, Kanemitsu dispatches Otomo (Bruce Locke, from Servants of Twilight and Ripper Man), a cyborg ninja faster and nimbler than Robocop (if perhaps a bit less sturdy), whose katana is capable of cutting through even Murphy’s Kevlar-laminated titanium hide.
RoboCop 3 was doomed from the get-go. Even the first sequel suffered from the fact that Murphy’s character arc was brought to a satisfactory conclusion in the original RoboCop, leaving nowhere much to go without revising the premise so radically as to court fan alienation. Part three naturally has it even worse as it plods over the same old territory yet again, disregarding all the plot and character development that ought to have occurred as a consequence of the preceding two films. We should be long finished with the issue of Murphy’s post-human identity, with the question of his status as product or person, with defining his place or lack thereof in OCP’s business plans going forward. We shouldn’t have to spend the first third of yet another movie waiting for RoboCop to relearn the same old lessons about the people who created him, nor should there be a question any longer about whether the cops at Metro West are really on the same side as their corporate paymasters. The one thing I can say in RoboCop 3’s defense here is that Miller and Dekker have at last moved the construction of Delta City forward, changing it from a vague background motivator for this or that plot point into an immediate threat to the people of Old Detroit.
Doomed or not, though, it didn’t have to be quite this bad. Some of the ideas in the script were worth pursuing, such as OCP completing the privatization of Detroit law enforcement by hiring McDaggett and his army, or the inexorable logic of an alliance between RoboCop and a citizens’ resistance movement dedicated to taking the city back from its corrupt corporate overseers. Dekker, meanwhile, displays much the same journeyman efficiency that he brought to Night of the Creeps. It takes more than journeyman efficiency to fill Paul Verhoeven’s biggest pair of shoes, however, and Dekker’s marching orders from the studio precluded him from exploring any of Miller’s better ideas in any way that would do them justice. That leaves only the goofy stuff, the childish stuff: the kid sidekick, the toy-selling weapons upgrades, the Warriors-inspired Splatterpunks, the bizarre combination of Japanophilia and Japanophobia, the car chase/gun battle scenes that play like a cross between “G.I. Joe” and Smokey and the Bandit III. And through it all, there’s the palpable absence of the RoboCop universe’s accustomed meanness. More than anything, RoboCop 3 takes one of the hardest, edgiest fictional worlds of the late 1980’s, and renders it safe. There’s a lot wrong with the movie across the board, but it’s that inches-thick layer of Nerf all over everything that I find truly unforgivable.
There’s one more thing I’d like to look at before I wrap this up, the biggest surprise that RoboCop 3 sprang on me. Although I realized going in that the replacement of Peter Weller by Robert Burke didn’t bode well for this movie, I was unprepared for just how much it suffered from the change. Weller has never really struck me as one of the greats. RoboCop, meanwhile, seems on his face like an inherently limiting role suited well enough to the abilities of inherently limited actors. I remember, though, that Verhoeven had been especially enthusiastic about getting Weller for the part back in ‘87 (which, incidentally, entailed outmaneuvering Dino De Laurentiis, who had offered Weller a small fortune to appear in King Kong Lives), and RoboCop 3 demonstrates by contrast the reasons why. It’s difficult to isolate where exactly Burke is coming up short. He’s plainly trying to copy Weller’s line delivery and physical mannerisms, but somehow it doesn’t work. His speech is maybe a shade too mechanical, and his body language is off in ways that I don’t think I can describe. Now to be fair, the latter problem probably isn’t entirely Burke’s fault. One place where Orion did cut budgetary corners on RoboCop 3 was the suit for the title character, which was simply the one from RoboCop 2 dusted off and maybe given a new coat of varnish. It sounds like a smart way to economize until you realize that Burke was taller than Weller by just enough to prevent the costume from fitting right. Apparently it was actually painful for Burke to wear for any length of time. It’s a case, though, where mitigating circumstances merely explain why something sucks, without doing much to counteract the suckage.