Robocop Trilogy Review

It’s a long way from Paul Verhoeven’s witty, adult SF-thriller Robocop to the would-be family entertainment sludge of Robocop 3. Indeed, they share so little in common that it’s hard to accept that they’re in the same series. Then, to confuse matters, in the middle we get Irvin Kershner’s deeply strange Robocop 2, one of the nastiest, most negative and brutal mainstream films ever made. By placing the three films together, MGM’s Robocop Trilogy offers, presumably inadvertently, a fascinating glimpse into the way that Hollywood can take something good and run it into the ground with a finesse that would command your respect if you weren’t too distracted by the complete mess that results. The three films are vastly different in tone and quality and only the first has any real claim to classic status. But Robocop is such an iconic character that he somehow brings a certain unity to three disparate works.

Robocop 9/10

Paul Verhoeven’s early films are so deliciously amoral and playful that it was something of a surprise to see him helming an American SF blockbuster. But the film that resulted is something of a triumph for individual vision over the pressures of special effects technology. Robocop is funny, politically on-the-ball, exciting, violent and often surprisingly touching. It combines state of the art effects work with Verhoeven’s black sense of humour in a way which he later refined in Total Recall and, at its most extreme, Starship Troopers. Personally, I still think it’s his best movie.

The place is Detroit, the time is the near future. A huge corporation, Omni Consumer Products, has taken over the police force and is forcing major cut backs on the increasingly harassed officers. Faced with a potentially disastrous strike and ever-rising crime, OCP develop ED-209, a huge policing robot that proves lethally unreliable. Amidst the chaos which develops after ED-209’s demonstration, an ambitious young executive reveals his own plan for the future of law enforcement – Robocop. A mix of man and machine, Robocop has titanium armour, unlimited firepower and is conditioned to fulfil three primary directives – uphold the law, serve the public trust and protect the innocent - and a mysterious fourth, known only to the highest levels of OCP. When Murphy (Weller), a brave young cop, is critically wounded in the line of duty by a career criminal named Clarence Boddiker (Smith), his body is chosen to be the organic basis of Robocop. Initially, the project works perfectly but gradually, the human core inside the machine begins to question his existence and experience flashbacks to his own murder. Soon, Robocop is seeking revenge, a quest which will prove to have unsuspected links to the top brass of OCP.

The plot has links to classic horror stories such as “Frankenstein” and the stuff about prime directives comes straight from Isaac Asimov. But what gives it a kick is the socio-political satire which keeps bubbling up and subverts the relatively familiar storyline. OCP are the type of company that thrived in Reagan’s America – unethical, ruthlessly capitalist, endemically corrupt - with the slight concession that they’re headed by a seemingly benevolent Old Man (O’Herlihy). But the decline of inner-city areas, the Industrial-Military complex, the deliberate creation of economically defunct war-zone ghettos, the hegemony of profit over humanitarianism, the rampant privatisation.... all of these are with us right now, even more than they were in 1987. There’s even more obvious satire in the frequent media breaks, which satirise militarism, SDI and the lunacy of photo opportunity government. It’s easy to enjoy the fake adverts for “Nuke Em”, a game for all the family, but you might bear in mind that console games have far outstripped that in the intervening 17 years for sheer tastelessness.

Into this setting, full of political savvy, Verhoeven places his fast-moving, relentless action movie. It’s made with sleek confidence and it possesses a comic-strip energy that is neither self-conscious (as in, say, Batman And Robin) nor simplistic. The vividness of the best graphic novels is combined with a sure feel for storytelling so that you’re kept off-balance and wondering what’s going to be thrown at you next. The violence is pretty nasty and unremitting but in this extended cut, it’s so ludicrously overblown that it becomes absurd. So, the hapless executive at OCP is shot many more times by ED-209 and we get an almost balletic display of blood and entrails as his chest is torn apart. Verhoeven’s use of violence is very clever though. He can use it for absurd effects – as in the later disintegration of the criminal who has an unfortunate encounter with toxic waste – but he can also use it to shock and disturb. When Murphy is killed by Clarence and his gang, seeing his arm blown off gives the scene extra punch and serves to increase our empathy with the hero. It’s not a gloating shot and it’s held for a second at most, but it makes the point eloquently. It’s all in tone and timing, two things at which Verhoeven excels.

He also works very well with the actors. Robocop is unusual for the genre in that both heroes and villains are very well characterised. Peter Weller’s slightly reserved charm is ideal for Murphy in the first half hour and his ability with mime and body language is perfect for Robocop. The conflict within Robocop is a familiar one – half man, half machine – but the point isn’t laboured and the scene where he visits his old house and is assailed by memories of his family is very poignant. Nancy Allen, as Robocop’s partner Lewis, is also memorable; a very strong woman from a director who has usually managed to bring us interesting female characters. It’s certainly her best performance this side of Blow Out. The bad guys are also memorable. Ronny Cox is ideal as the slimy, infuriatingly smug Dick Jones and it’s this role which re-launched his career as a heavy. Kurtwood Smith, an actor who hasn’t done much of interest in recent years, makes the most of Boddiker, one of the most literate and intellectually able villains of the era – the kind of psychopath whose intelligence makes him all the more coldly sadistic.

It goes without saying that the effects, largely courtesy of Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett, are awesomely impressive. No CGI was used in the film, something which adds an extra layer of physical realism, and the limited use of stop-motion animation is painstakingly convincing. Verhoeven relishes the chance to realise big-scale scenes of pyrotechnic mayhem and the frequent bloodletting is occasionally hard to watch. But the human side of the story is never quite forgotten. Ed Neumeier and Michael Miller have provided a script which is always willing to go down a byway for a nice character moment and their dialogue is often very witty. In Murphy/Robocop they have created an ideal fusion between man and machine and this streamlined, perfectly paced film is all the better for it. If The Terminator is the very best SF-Action movie of all time – and I think it is – then Robocop is certainly not far behind.

Robocop 2 5/10

To say that Robocop 2 is a mess would be a vast understatement. It’s a calamity of a film which explodes in all directions and never begins to work on any level – not as an action film, not as a human drama and most certainly not as a social satire. Yet it’s an interesting calamity, a mistake which is genuinely fascinating, not least as a snapshot of the time in which it was made, when action films – from Die Hard 2 to Total Recall - were vying for how many corpses they could leave by the closing credits.

The film takes place shortly after the end of the original. Robocop and his partner Lewis are still on the force but social problems have not improved and the police are now on strike. The underworld of Detroit is in thrall to a drug called Nuke, which is distributed by a vicious gang led by religious nutter Cain (Noonan). OCP is still run by The Old Man but he has undergone a radical character change. Instead of being a wise, avuncular friend of humanity he is a grasping bastard, just as cynical as Dick Jones and even more ruthless. Eager to pension off Robocop, who is just too darned good to be a useful corporate weapon, OCP are developing Robocop 2, a considerably nastier, more efficient killing machine. With the assistance of the devious Juliette Faxx (Bauer), the company manage to corner Robocop and render him impotent. But Robocop 2 needs a human core to function and what better human for a killing machine than the psychotic Cain...

Robocop 2 is a film that is bursting with ideas, probably thanks to the original story by comic book legend Frank Miller, the man who turned Batman into the Dark Knight. It’s packed with potentially fascinating insights into a society dependent on drugs, on corporate corruption, on the need that a society may have for criminals in order to function effectively, on the purpose of policing.... Yet, frustratingly, none of these are ever followed up. The minute an interesting sub-plot is explored – as in the reprogramming of Robocop into a caring, sharing new man who lectures delinquent kids on the dangers of swearing – it’s dropped. In that instance, Robocop suddenly seems to overcome his new programming for no reason other than the requirements of the story. Early suggestions about Robocop/Murphy and his emotional inner life are intriguing but dropped after the first twenty minutes. Even Tom Noonan’s amusing madman Cain - “Jesus had days like this; hounded, attacked” – seems to disappear into the melee of sound and fury. Ultimately, all we’re left with are a series of increasingly violent action set-pieces, strung together by a minimum of plot.

These action sequences are often very well staged and there’s a great extended chase sequence in the middle of the film which any action movie would be proud of. But it becomes very obvious that Kershner, for whatever reason, has decided to emphasise the sadism in a manner which is initially shocking but eventually numbing. Every death seems to be lingered on in an uncomfortably voyeuristic fashion and the gory details soon make you feel a little nauseous. You could argue that this is responsible filmmaking – making violence seem horrible – but Kershner falls into the old trap of showing us endless violence in order to convince us that violence is a bad thing. Verhoeven’s film gave the brutality an exaggerated kick which made it simultaneously horrible and absurdly funny. The violence in Robocop 2 is just horrible and eventually wears you down, so the lengthy final battle between the two Robocops is simply too much. It seems ironic that the co-writer of the film was Walon Green, who wrote The Wild Bunch, a film which made violence hurt the viewer emotionally by emphasising the sense of loss and pain.

Kershner isn't a bad director generally speaking, although his reputation is largely based on a few good small movies in the 1960s and 1970s - particularly the fantastic Loving - and on his having directed the best of the Star Wars movies. But this is an anonymous movie, the work of a competent hack who isn't really interested in what he's doing. All that’s left are some good ideas and occasional moments of good comic timing, notably from O’Herlihy who has a grand old time playing a black-hearted villain. The character change of the Old Man is never explained but I suppose we could assume that his kindly persona in the first film was simply an act to ensure he held on to the company while getting rid of his rivals. Peter Weller does his best to keep Robocop interesting but he gets lost amidst the carnage and Nancy Allen barely registers at all. The effects throughout vary from good to mediocre with some particularly horrible blue screen work in places. Completely mediocre would also be a good description of Leonard Rosenman’s hysterical music score – complete with chorus – and the usually excellent Mark Irwin fails to bring much visual distinction to the film.

Robocop 3 1/10

This is probably going to be my shortest review for DVD Times. I like Fred Dekker’s earlier films - Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad – and any film which features the great Rip Torn can never be completely devoid of merit. The presence on the credits of Basil Poledouris as composer is also a step in the right direction. But otherwise,Robocop 3 is just a misbegotten disaster from start to finish, the kind of movie which makes you slap yourself in case you’re having a bad dream.

The film takes place sometime after the first sequel. OCP has been taken over by the Japanese who have rushed through a plan to build Delta City, the metropolitan steel idyll mooted in the first film. This involves kicking Detroit’s citizens out of their homes and has inevitably led to a backlash and the formation of a revolutionary movement. Into the middle of this civil strife comes Robocop (now played by Robert John Burke) – still accompanied by Lewis – and he has to decide whether to side with the corporate hoodlums and their private army, or the downtrodden people. Given that this film has a PG-13 rating and begins with a supposedly cute kid reprogramming ED-209 with her laptop, which side do you think he takes ?

There are many worse films than Robocop 3, at least on a formal level, but I can’t think of many which were so clearly doomed at conception. What appears to have happened is this. Robocop 2, which was a lot more expensive than the first movie, wasn’t nearly as big a hit as was expected and Orion had kittens. Plans for a follow-up were involved in various corporate problems and the eventual result was a typical compromise. On the one hand, we have a potentially impressive clash between Robocop and the might of a large mercenary army. On the other hand, we have some kind of god-awful kiddie film in which Robocop turns out to be all nice and cuddly and helps the poor homeless people to win out over the nasty men from OCP. Put the two together and you have a film which is the very definition of bland. I know I’ve laid into the first sequel for its constant violence but some of that cruelty might have livened up this movie which is so eager not to offend anyone that it doesn’t interest anyone either.

I don’t necessarily blame Fred Dekker for this calamity. His direction is never worse than competent and sometimes he brings across some arresting images. The night-time location photography is generally excellent as well. Frank Miller, who came up with both story and screenplay, deserves a larger share of the responsibility. But the real villain seems to be Patrick Crowley, the producer, who is quoted as saying, “What caught the public’s imagination, right from the start, was the man within the machine... Robocop’s change of heart drives the story forward...” Quite apart from the fact that the man within the machine was only one element of a very clever, multi-layered original film, the idea of Robocop having a “change of heart “ brings us into touchy-feely, Robin Williams, Bicentennial Man shite-fest territory. When you try to combine this with a plot that desperately incorporates airborne robots and Ninjas, you haven’t a hope in hell of producing anything coherent. The razor-sharp social satire of the first film, which still made an occasional appearance in the sequel, is diluted here into a kind of soggy liberalism where capitalism is automatically associated with bad and multi-racial couples with cute kids are always very much on the side of the angels. Like all the best satirical action movies, from The Dirty Dozen to Dirty Harry, Verhoeven’s original film can be read as either left-wing criticism of fascism or fascist propaganda – and is intentionally made that way. Robocop 3 has about as much satire or social relevance as an average episode of “Little House On The Prairie”.

I suppose if I had to find a reason to give the film one mark out of ten, it would be for Rip Torn, an actor who is always amusing and manages to make bad films seem more entertaining for as long as he’s on screen. In this one, you even get to hear him briefly speak Japanese. Otherwise, I suggest using this third disc in the trilogy set as an attractive hanging decoration.

The Discs

The Robocop Trilogy boxset is largely the same as the one released in the UK in early 2002. The main difference seems to be that the Robocop disc contains only the unrated extended cut of the film. This is an instant improvement as far as I’m concerned, because the seamless branching on the UK disc was anything but seamless when I tried to watch it.

Picture quality on the three discs is broadly uniform. Each film is presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The image quality is generally adequate and sometimes good. Artefacting isn’t a problem and the picture looks film-like without suffering from excessive texturing. But there is a large amount of noticeable edge-enhancement in places while the level of detail ranges from very good to inadequate. There’s a softness to parts of the first and third films which I found unsatisfactory. Overall, I thought that the second film looked the best of the three but it’s a close-run contest.

Each film has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 from the original Dolby Surround. I’m not a fan of remixes in general but going from Surround to 5.1 isn’t such a huge leap as some of the appalling mono to 5.1 remixes we’ve suffered recently, and the end result is quite pleasing. Each film contains some very effective use of the surround channels and some effective use of the sub, particularly during the numerous explosions. Dialogue is generally spatially placed and the music scores come across with a great deal of force. Despite the appalling nature of the film, the third movie sounded best to my ears with a very pleasing balance of dialogue, effects and music.

Most of the extras on the disc appear on the Robocop disc, which is a fully fledged Special Edition. The extras are the same as those on the UK R2 disc. The best feature is certainly the very lively audio commentary from Paul Verhoeven, Jon Davison, Michael Miller and Ed Neumeier. Each man gets time to contribute something interesting but Verhoeven is, as usual, the star of the track. As you’d expect, he frequently goes off on his own bizarre train of thought and it’s fun to hear the reactions of his colleagues, all of whom are far too normal to compete. There’s more Verhoeven in the three featurettes – “Flesh And Steel”, “Making Robocop” and “Shooting Robocop” – which last about an hour in total. He’s on good form here, wittering on about Satan killing Christ, and never using one sentence when he can use five. The first featurette is the most recent, produced in 2001, and the other two are both advertising material from 1987. However, for EPK fodder they are surprisingly inventive and well put together. You can watch these individually or watch them together as one long documentary, although the effect can be quite jarring when people seem to lose 14 years between the first and second halves.

In addition, we get four deleted scenes. None of these are what you’d call essential, although one of them offers some very pleasant gratuitous nudity. Again, you can watch these together or one by one. Finally, there’s a six minute storyboard sequence narrated by Phil Tippett, a photo gallery, two trailers and a TV spot.

The second and third films have no extras apart from their respective theatrical trailers.

Each film contains English, French and Spanish subtitles. No subtitles are provided for the extra features. The discs come with a mildly diverting booklet in one of those vaguely religious digipack affairs.

Robocop is a wonderful film and an essential purchase. The other two films are, respectively, an interesting mess and a waste of celluloid. It’s a shame that you can only get the extended version on R1 with its two sequels but the extra features make it well worth considering. If you’ve got the R2 box then you don’t really need to worry about this release, although the lack of ‘seamless branching’ made it more satisfactory for this viewer.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 13:06:05

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