February 11, 2014

Movie Review: RoboCop 2 (1990)

In 1987 the first RoboCop proved to be a financial success. The film finished in the top twenty box office performers of the year and took in more than $53 million dollars. With its initial success (partnered with aftermarket rental success, promoted by a meeting between the titular hero and former President Richard Nixon), it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that a sequel would be ordered. That sequel, the aptly titled RoboCop 2, arrived in June of 1990, where it, too, was a box office success, although at a slightly smaller total (coming in around $45 million for its run). While the box office seemed to be built in, the bigger question would be about how it would match the original.

At the time of its release, the first RoboCop appears to have had mixed reviews. I guess it was just ahead of its time. Look at how well the film was aged and how well regarded it is these days. Sometimes movies can only be judged after the passage of time, initial worth cannot always be ascertained immediately. Anyway, the sequel arrived and while it is somewhat entertaining, it fails to live up to the level of its predecessor. It feels more like an also-ran, riding the coattails of the original rather than pushing forward into new ground on its own.

The film was directed by Irvin Kershner, who was immortalized a decade prior for his work on The Empire Strikes Back. This would also be the last film he directed, only directing an episode of SeaQuest 2032 before passing in 2010. The original's director, Paul Verhoeven, was approached, but he was already committed to Total Recall at the time. It is probably for the best, that movie proved to be another memorable science fiction actioner that has stood the test of time. Writing duties were handled by Frank Miller (300, Sin City) and Walon Green (The Wild Bunch, Solarbabies). The story went through a number of permutations as Miller's original version was deemed unfilmable. Years later that tale would be released as a comic book series, where it received mixed reviews (I have not read that version).

When the first RoboCop movie ended, our hero was still ready to fight crime with his partner, Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen), Clarence Boddicker was dead, and the ED-209 was defeated. As the sequel opens up, it appears that Detroit is worse off than when we left it. OCP is not helping matters much, since taking over the police department they have canceled the pensions and cut salaries and the police are on strike. The city is defaulting on what it owes OCP, and OCP is happy to allow it to happen so they can take control of the property and government and rebuild it as they see fit. On top of that there is a new drug on the streets, Nuke.

The plot of this sequel follows two tracks which do not converge until the climax. On one side you have OCP seeking to take over the city, while also developing another RoboCop design. On the other side you have RoboCop seeking to stop Nuke and its primary distributor, Cain (Tom Noonan).

As RoboCop tracks down Cain, it does not end well. Cain's goons overwhelm our hero and they literally cut him to pieces and leave him on the Police precinct's doorstep. This leads to an overzealous OCP psychologist to try and make RoboCop friendlier and kinder, while having a secondary affect of effectively neutering his ability to fight crime. Fortunately, he is able to overcome and head back to Cain's. It is this second encounter that brings the two sides of the story closer together.

OCP, in looking for a subject for their RoboCop 2 project are looking at incarcerated felons, that is, until Cain lands in their lap. So, it is deemed a good idea to take Cain and his maniacal, drug influenced mind and stick it inside of a heavily weaponized robot body. What's the worse that could happen?

Well, as you can guess, it all culminates in a showdown between OCP's champion du jour, RoboCain, and our hero, RoboCop. All of Detroit, it would seem, hangs in the balance. It is a big firefight as the finish approaches. Can you guess what happens? Probably.

RoboCop 2 is mediocre at best. It is a perfectly watchable action movie in the traditions of the 1980s. Yes, I know it came out in 1990, but it still feels very 80s. It has some action, some violence, a passing anti-drug message, but as a followup for the soon to be classic it follows up, well, it falls pretty far short of the mark. It seems to take the blueprint of the first movie and make it simpler. It feels lazy by comparison.

This movie does revisit the thread of is it Murphy or not. There is that personal struggle inside of RoboCop about any humanity remaining inside him. Unfortunately, it is reduced to computer programming and fails to have much of an impact. There is the odd element of the kid protoge who takes over the drug business. There is also the questionable choice of using a really bad guy's brain in a killing robot, considering the failures in prior designs shown in the movie.

The satire and social commentary that helped to push the original to the heights it reaches is stripped away. What remains is an empty shell that is easy to watch but hard to actually care for. Go ahead, watch these two films back to back and tell me I am wrong. Everything just fails when placed against the original. It is amazing it is as watchable as it is. It is just a series of missed opportunities. It is silly where it should be satirical, bland where it should be exciting. Yes, I can think of many worse films, but it is a little hard to let this one off the hook knowing what it had done earlier.

This would prove to be the last time Peter Weller would put on the suit, despite there being another sequel and a television mini series. It has been reported that he often complained about the suit and having to perform long shoots in it. Still, there is no one better suited than him for these roles. He is able to exude a certain level of humanity in a character whose face is only half seen and is required to perform rather robotically. Nancy Allen is fine as Lewis, but has little to do through large chunks of the film. The mayor is a parody of himself, and the kid villain is just a bit much. Tom Noonan is a fine villain, but pales next to Kurtwood Smith's Boddicker from the first film.

Yes, it did well at the box office, but it is hardly a worthwhile successor to the original and time has pretty much said the same. Sure, it can be watched and enjoyed, but rarely will you want to choose this one over the original classic. I will say, it does have some nice stop motion effects work.

Mildly Recommended.

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Vic Lana said...

Very honest and fair review of a mediocre film. Had this been the first one, maybe we would have thought differently.

Dell said...

I'm always alone on this, but I really like this movie. I won't say it's as good as the original, I'm not crazy. Still, I enjoy it quite a bit. I thought the satire and skewering of certain aspects of pop culture were well done. Plus, it was ultra-violent. The stuff with the kid is a bit much, but doesn't sink it, for me. Even though I like it better than you, this is still a very well thought out review. Nice work.

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