At the turn of 1987, the MPAA and BBFC had quite a movie on their hands. Robocop was an ultra-violent affair of dripping flesh, hardcore drug abuse and attempted rape, which though extravagantly overblown was drenched in violence, cocaine and corporate corruption, the very cornerstones of Reagan’s America. The emergence of crack cocaine saw crime rates peak in the US during the 1980s, leading to Reagan’s infamous War on Drugs and record rates of incarceration, which had more than doubled since the 1960s. Most disconcerting was a scene in which the movie’s protagonist was systematically mutilated by a series of highly graphic shotgun blasts and the director’s overt ‘concentration on pain’. With the castration of the slasher genre still fresh in the memory following the ‘Video Nasty‘ scandal of the early-1980s, it seemed only inevitable that the movie would fail to avoid censorship damnation.
It is credit to director Paul Verhoeven that Robocop was passed almost uncut, his deft, tongue-in-cheek style turning the excessive gore comic book. But most of all it was his ability to clearly delineate the heroes and villains, offsetting the violence with a morality tale that overcomes the often relentless nihilism of a society without conscience. Though not in the same league as director Ivan Kershner’s most famous sequel The Empire Strikes Back, Robocop 2 stays loyal to the original in many ways but misses in its failure to maintain that balance. The movie is violent and satirical but lacks the charm and emotional moral core of its predecessor. All facets of the movie are extreme in their own right, but they fail to simmer into a suitable concoction: the wryness lacks subtlety, the violence is often needless and the social commentary borders on the condescending. It’s not surprising that Verhoeven, who would go on to direct Arnie smash Total Recall that same year, would quickly turn down the project.
Interestingly, American comic book writer Frank Miller’s original screenplay for Robocop 2 was deemed “unfilmable”, and was subjected to so many rewrites that it was almost unrecognisable before ultimately being handed over to Walon Green. Miller’s original script was the stuff of folklore until 2003 when Avatar Press finally dredged it from obscurity in the form of a comic book series titled Frank Miller’s Robocop. The series features many of the concepts prevalent in the film: Murphy’s battle with the remnants of his humanity, the technological meddling of Omni Consumer Products, and the emergence of a troublesome Robocop Mark II. The comics focus more on an ensemble of characters, giving almost equal billing to what would have been secondary characters in filmic terms, which is presumably why the studio were reluctant to run with Miller’s original screenplay. In 1990, Robocop was box office. There’s no way the now-defunct Orion pictures would have considered such an approach. It just wouldn’t have made sense from a marketing perspective.
By the time Robocop 2 finally made it into theatres, Murphy’s mechanical vigilante had become a wholly different entity. The original movie was by no means aimed at children, but one look at his shiny metal armour was all it took for inquisitive eyes to brighten, a fact that would lead to the youth-oriented debacle that was Robocop 3 as production company Orion Pictures got set for the scrapheap. Right or wrong, the character who had been savagely mutilated just a few years prior was fast given the cultural marketing treatment, but the commercial seeds had been sown long before. 1988 saw the release of both the Robocop animated series and arcade game, while a comic series was shipped just in time to coincide with the release of Robocop 2. It didn’t matter that the little tykes in question wouldn’t get to see the movie. They already had the cap-firing Robocop toy range, and were probably too busy mutilating plastic men in a dark corner. Murphy’s straight-talking law enforcer had transcended the realms of adult entertainment. Robocop’s gaudy design was too much of a visual draw for children to ignore.
Despite its deficiencies, as a slice of action absurdity Robocop 2 is a great deal of fun, turning to a very real social problem in its attempts to match the shock factor of its antecedent. Where does one turn when looking to outdo a fictional society where gas station explosions and melting bodies are everyday occurrences? How does one compete with the likes of Kurtwood Smith’s unconscionable scourge, Clarence J. Boddicker? The answer: why kids, of course! The irony of this is just astonishing, but with kids aged between 14 and 24 constituting the bulk of rival street gangs the Crips and the Bloods by 1980, Robocop 2 isn’t quite as far-fetched as some would have you believe.
In a society of widespread terrorism, killer security systems and 9-year-old drug lords, a Dystopian Detroit is in debt to Omni Consumer Products after senselessly spending millions on a series of malfunctioning ED-209 defence models. With the public sector bled dry, the police are on widespread strike as the entire community turns to mindless crime, fuelled by their addiction to Nuke — a cheap, designer drug mass-produced by New Cult leader Cain. Cain is played by perennial creep Tom Noonan, a wise choice considering some of his past performances, particularly as Manhunter‘s remorseless killing machine Francis ‘Tooth Fairy’ Dollarhyde, and he does an admiral job as the psycho-come-droid with a penchant for his own product, though the screenplay offers him far less than Robocop did his predecessor.
On the subject of Robocop, a loose circuit or two has turned him into a veritable stalker as he goes in search of wife Ellen, which doesn’t sit well with OCP after she files a lawsuit claiming the unlawful enslavement of her still-human husband. Probably realising that bedtime with a cybernetic organism would be just a little awkward, Robo plays up to the corporation’s rebuttal of his humanity, sparing his teenage son a lifetime of psychological hardship in the process. Weller has all the right moves (just look at his successor’s difficulties in Robocop 3), and his heart is in the role that made him, but a zany screenplay is enough to zap anyone’s credibility, and Murphy’s second bout of emotional redemption just doesn’t fit with the overall tone.
In the end, it’s better to just embrace the silliness and buckle-up for a delightfully violent affair that plays out like an edition of ultra-violent British comic Judge Dredd. Before that can happen, our marginalised rebel has to once again hit rock bottom, and creatively he’s in for a rather nasty fall. Stripped to pieces by the sadistic New Cult, Murphy is transformed into a bumbling buffoon after OCP refuse to pick up the multi-million dollar tab, wandering the streets and offering trite morality lessons to rampaging peewee criminals like Big Bird high on Valerian tea. With Robo off in la-la land, OCP’s search for the city’s second Robocop continues, and after a spate of half-dead police fail to live up to their predecessor, ruthless psychologist Dr Juliette Faxx (Bauer) resorts to recruiting criminal subjects, eventually opting for deranged psychopath Cain.
With nowhere else to turn, the Mayor of Detroit cuts a furtive deal with 9-year-old New Cult leader Hob (Damon), allowing him to flood the streets with Nuke in return for clearing the city’s debts, but OCP are intent on the city’s privatisation, sending Cain’s Nuke-addicted super machine on a path of wanton destruction. Unfortunately for them, Robocop manages to reverse the same highly-sophisticated reprogramming that baffled scientists by electrocuting himself with a 10,000 volt generator. With that kind of technical savvy, there can surely be only one winner.
Ironically, Robocop 2 was slammed by critics for not focusing enough on Robocop. It was also suggested that Murphy’s battle with his underlying human emotions was lost amidst the film’s almost ceaseless violence, a criticism which is absolutely on the money. Others praised it for its over the top satirical qualities and sociopolitical commentaries, which are easily the highlight of what is an admittedly bloated sequel that often lacks focus. Still, fans of bloodthirsty action will love this movie, which is often cute and far from dumb.
Stars Peter Weller and Nancy Allen were not so impressed, and along with Miller distanced themselves from the project following its release. Allen would even go on record as saying that Kershner robbed the original screenplay of both its humour and intelligence, and Weller was just as damning, claiming that the film lacked the spine and soul of Miller’s vision. Though the movie wasn’t a complete financial failure, managing a gross of $45,700,000 on an estimated $35,000,000 budget, it fared far worse than the studio expected following the success of Verhoeven’s iconic original. At least they sold lots of toys.