"RoboCop" was a great idea whose idea came and went. The first movie was creative, humorous, insightful, and satiric, besides being plenty exciting. From then on, however, it was all downhill, as the two sequels took the series to lower and lower depths. MGM's new, three-DVD package appropriately bundles the original "RoboCop" with a number of extras, leaving movies two and three to suffer a deserved fate on discs that offer virtually nothing.
"This is Media Break. You give us three minutes, and we'll give you the world." It's that kind of hyperbole sets the sardonic tone for this sometimes funny, sometimes cheeky, sometimes touching, often stirring, and always imaginative 1987 sci-fi/fantasy thriller. The movie not only gives us a healthy dose of "Terminator" type special-effects heroics, it pokes fun at corporate America, the media, inner-city violence, consumerism, and the government's attempts to control people's lives and maintain order at any cost.
Director Paul Verhoeven ("Total Recall," "Basic Instinct," "Starship Troopers," "Showgirls") situates the story in a near-future Detroit (but filmed in Dallas) that has been overrun by criminals and in the process turned over to a private company, the OCP (Omni Consumer Products), for policing. The company figures if it can sell products, it can govern a city, too. Besides, it sees profit in the bargain. The company is run by two figures, the Old Man (Dan O'Herlihy) and his second-in-command, Senior President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox). Both guys are sneaky fellows who are only out for themselves.
Meanwhile, a coldhearted flunky of the company, Morton (Miguel Ferrer), is almost as bad as the criminals the company is trying to contain. Morton is in charge of the RoboCop program, which is competing with Jones's Enforcement Droid for top billing in the city patrolling department, and when Jones's ED-209 goes haywire, Morton steps in with his star.
What's RoboCop, for the half dozen readers worldwide who have never seen the movie before? He's part human and part robot, a "six million-dollar man" of technological marvels. He's the remains of a policeman, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who was blown away by the city's unofficial crime boss, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang. Having been pronounced dead, Murphy is transformed into a cyborg, a person dependent on mechanical and electronic devices for his survival. RoboCop has the brain and some of the body tissue of Murphy and the computer, armor, and weaponry of a machine.
RoboCop also has the fleeting memories of who he was, which sets the movie apart from so many mindless action yarns that only concentrate on blood and guts. Not only is the "RoboCop" movie a revenge picture (because Murphy remembers who killed him), it's a poignant story of lost humanity, ironic, really, since Robo is one of the few humane characters in the film.
RoboCop's prime directives play an important function in all three movies in the series: (1) Serve the public trust, (2) protect the innocent, and (3) uphold the law. However, there's a fourth directive hidden away in his circuitry that provides the plot with new directions as things unfold.
The other major figure in the film is Murphy's new partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), a tough cop but a sensitive human being. She is the only one in the story who suspects that Murphy may be more than a machine, that he may have a soul behind his impenetrable helmet and breastplate.
Verhoeven's concept of RoboCop owes a good deal to "The Terminator," which came out a few years earlier, and Weller's acting and voice even look and sound a bit like Arnold's. None of which lessens our appreciation of the movie one bit. In this Director's Extended Cut, a couple of minutes are added to the original film, changing its rating from R to Unrated, apparently because of further violence, and some scenes are, indeed, plenty violent, especially Murphy's initial death and the whole final sequence.
Despite his being hidden behind a ton of makeup, Weller makes a convincing and sympathetic hero, cyborg or not; the villains are properly evil and coldhearted; and the story line's pacing is fast and furious. Figure in the satiric touches, like continual TV news commentaries on goofy things happening in the world and an ED-209 accidentally blasting away a OCP executive, and you get a most-entertaining action flick.
Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O'Herlihy, Felton Perry, and Robert DoQui are back in this 1990 sequel as RoboCop, Lewis, the Old Man, company flunky Johnson, and Police Sgt. Warren Reed. But director Verhoeven abandoned ship, replaced by Irvin Kershner, who had done so well with "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Never Say Never Again" (1983). What's more, the new film was cowritten by Frank Miller, who had previously excelled in the world of dark comics like "Daredevil" and "Batman."
Unfortunately, nobody and nothing could help this dismal follow-up. Death, drugs, and destruction are the order of the day as the film forsakes most of its progenitor's lighthearted yet moving emotional appeal and replaces it with gunfire, car chases, and explosions.
There is some momentary hope at the beginning of the film that maybe this would be a psychological exploration of the inner RoboCop as Murphy regains even more of his memories and has to decide if he's man or machine. But that moment is short-lived, and the film soon degenerates into a grim drug war between Robo and a cult-fanatic heavy named Cain (Tom Noonan).
What with police strikes, nefarious corporate types, an unruly citizenry, and some of the worst lawbreakers in screen history, things get pretty harsh. No time for humor or human relationships here. The plot rambles on for almost an hour and half of mayhem and killing, getting old in a hurry. There is no attempt at the wit or credibility we saw in the original "RoboCop," and like Rocky, Robo has to be knocked around until he's on his last legs before he is allowed to prevail.
Did I say grim? Everybody in this film is no good but Murphy and Lewis. And I found it most distasteful that many of the film's dastardly scoundrels are children! Maybe the director and/or writers thought it was funny having a team of little leaguers beating up a store owner and looting his shop or having a thirteen-year old using words so foul they'd make a sailor blush. I didn't find it funny in the least. I just wondered what kind of parents would allow their son to mouth such language in an R-rated film he wasn't even old enough to watch, and I wondered if some parents would do anything for money and their kid's fifteen minutes of fame. It was these kinds of distractions that kept me from enjoying even a small portion of the show.
If "RoboCop 2" was not a great sequel, 1993's "RoboCop 3" is even worse. Peter Weller bailed on this one, as did director Kershner and practically everyone else but Nancy Allen, Felton Perry, and Robert DoQui. Murphy is this time played by Weller look-alike Robert Burke, the director is Fred Dekker ("Night of the Creeps," "The Monster Squad"), and the rating is PG-13. The movie itself is terrible.
The usually dependable Rip Torn plays the new CEO of the Omni Corporation, and John Castle plays the new villain, Paul McDaggett. Castle's character is, in fact, the best part of the picture, a totally icy Incident Commander at OCP's Rehabilitation Concepts Division, a corps organized to roust Detroit's citizens from a rundown neighborhood that the company wants to demolish in order to make room for its own city. McDaggett's glacial coolness is more convincingly menacing than either of the head baddies in the first two films. But it's too little to save an otherwise dismal picture.
All of the humanity of the first movie and what little there was in the second movie are drained from "RoboCop 3." The pacing is dreadful, as Robo doesn't even make an appearance for the first twenty minutes, and the music is not just forgettable but downright annoying. Detroit is more shockingly corrupt than ever before from its government to its police to its crooks, perverts, and psycho punks; and as if to make up for its lack of creativity, the movie is filled with more shooting, killing, chasing, and blowing stuff up than ever. Even the special effects look cheaper this time around.
The story's premise is that the city's residents are finally putting up a resistance to the evil OCP, and urban guerillas are fighting the big corporation with RoboCop on their side. OCP is now owned by a Japanese conglomerate, which sends in a robot of its own, Otomo (Bruce Locke), a sort of RoboNinja with a sword. It all gets more than a little silly yet without a shred of humor. RoboCop himself, in the person of Robert Burke, is more vulnerable than he was previously, but that is actually to be expected given that he must by formula keep getting beaten to death before rebounding. He also appears a mite stupider as well. Not a pretty sight.
Moreover, "RoboCop 3" tries to be more manipulative than its predecessors, hoping to win our affections by making us tear up or cheer at prescribed moments. It's much too transparent to work. True, this one is a good deal less bloody than the first two movies, but it's much more unoriginal, too. Let's face it: Repeating the same fights and the same chases in movie after movie gets seriously dull seriously fast.
All three movies are transferred to disc near their original aspect ratios, here rendered at about 1.74:1 anamorphic widescreen. "RoboCop," despite a reasonably high bit rate, shows a small degree of grain in its best scenes but otherwise delivers a well-defined picture, with colors deep and solid. "RoboCop 2" and "RoboCop 3" deliver marginally better screen images in slightly cleaner, more sparkling colors. Understand, too, that throughout these films a common gimmick is to show television footage of simulated news broadcasts and commercials, which are intentionally grainy and blurred.
As the movies get newer they display more and better DD 5.1 rear-channel information, a shame really because it means the best movie gets the comparatively worst picture and sound. Oh, well. It really isn't that bad, in any case. Ricochetting bullets and multiple explosions are the most likely noises one will hear in the surrounds, as well as some occasional musical ambiance reinforcement. The audio quality of "RoboCop" appeared to my ears a tad harder than that of its sequels, but it's of little consequence. As long as the low end and dynamics are up to the job of reproducing the sounds of things blowing up, and the sonics are, indeed, mostly up to par, I'm sure audiences will be happy. Myself, I could have used a bit more deep bass, but I'm fussy, and, besides, the sound is good enough not to quibble.
Disc one is the only one to discuss in terms of bonus materials. It contains the widescreen presentation of "RoboCop"; a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles. In addition, it contains an audio commentary with director Paul Verhoeven, writer Edward Neumeir, and executive producer Jon Davison; three featurettes: "Flesh & Steel: The Making of RoboCop" (2001, thirty-six minutes), "Shooting RoboCop" (eight minutes), and "Making RoboCop" (eight minutes); a storyboard, with commentary by animator Phil Tippett; four deleted scenes; a photo gallery; two theatrical trailers, one pan-and-scan, one widescreen; a TV spot; and sixteen scene selections.
Discs two and three contain the widescreen presentations of "RoboCop 2" and "RoboCop 3"; Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks; English and French spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; sixteen scene selections; and pan-and-scan theatrical trailers. All three discs are housed in an awkward, fold-out-in-all-directions container that fits into a slipcase. If you're good at folding maps, you'll do fine with the packaging. An eight-page informational booklet insert completes the set.
Of the three "RoboCop" movies collected here, only the first one stands as a genuine classic, a unique blend of violence, humor, poignancy, and imagination. From then on it was all violence for the sake of violence, with little of the wit or charm of the original. My individual ratings for the three movies would be an 8/10 for "RoboCop," a 5/10 for "RoboCop 2," and a 4/10 for "RoboCop 3," with my final Film Rating below a composite score for all three films.
Think of the "RoboCop Trilogy" this way: You're really buying the first "RoboCop" flick for a price no higher than Criterion asks for their single disc edition of the movie, and you're getting the other two films thrown in for free. If that doesn't suit you, MGM has also made the three films available separately.
Incidentally, all of MGM's promotional materials spell the original movie title "Robocop," with a small "c," but in the movie's opening credits the title displays a distinctly capital "C" in the lettering. Thus, the proper title ought to be "RoboCop." Yeah, well, I can see you care.
"RoboCop," yes. "RoboCop 2 and 3," ergh.