Corporate Wars, Creative Disputes & Kindergarten Crime Sprees: Robocop 2 is as Mad As You Remember
History tells us that sequels are rarely an easy prospect. From a marketing perspective they are, particularly if an original movie caught fire, a follow-up rushed into production to meet the demands of audiences clamouring for more, but audiences and studios expect very different things. Executives are only concerned with the moolah and the prospect of further instalments, with merchandise and videogame tie-ins, with cutting costs and maximising profits. Audiences demand even more bang for their buck, are only concerned with the creative aspects, the majority already suspicious as sequels rarely live up to such lofty expectations. They crave more of the same yet something rewardingly different, an extension of the original narrative that somehow dodges the inherent hazards of sequelitis. Ultimately, pleasing one party often means alienating the other.
Things are a little different in the 21st century, an era in which sequels, trilogies and whole cinematic universes are planned in advance, when franchises are mapped out long beforehand, everything micromanaged within an inch of its life. It’s also much easier since the majority of modern franchises are based on existing properties: typically comic book adaptations or reboots of 20th century movies. With so many existing properties put through the commercial wringer, audiences have grown somewhat tired with Hollywood’s unyielding modus for replication. Reboots, in particular, have raised the ire of movie fans, the majority designed to simply slash advertising and marketing expenditure with no real concern for the creative side of things. All reboots aren’t bad ― some are brilliant ― but most are average to unwatchable and, more pertinently, downright pointless, particularly 2014’s Robocop, of which Roger Ebert would write, “To say there’s no reason for this movie to exist would be to both tell a lie and try to obfuscate a sad truth.” That’s about it in a microcosm.
Back in the 1980s, not everything was so preordained. Sure, it was the decade of the numbered sequel, derivative slasher phenomenon Friday the 13th spawning seven before the decade was up, but fewer properties were planned as a franchise, including Friday the 13th itself. Some of the decade’s most popular and creatively satisfying films were originally made as standalone features: Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, The Fly, Back to the Future, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard… the list goes on. Those films were brought back based on box office returns, others finding success on the booming home video market. Fewer still forged iconic characters who inspired franchises with seemingly unending lifespans: The Terminator, Predator, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and, back in 1987, Dutch arthouse director Paul Verhoeven’s first punt at mega bucks Hollywood stardom Robocop.
Despite headlining only one film during the 1980s, few characters are as emblematic of the decade as Peter Weller’s Rob Bottin designed cybernetic organism Robocop, not just aesthetically and thematically, but sociopolitically. Robocop was an ultra-violent affair of dripping flesh, hardcore drug abuse and attempted rape that inevitably ran into trouble with the censors, depicting a dystopian future in which gang violence and corrupt corporations attacked civil liberties, a thinly-veiled dig at the Reagan Administration’s privatisation revolution, hypocritical War on Drugs and a prison construction boom that saw millions of minority addicts incarcerated on small possession charges. Murphy’s Robocop, stripped of freewill and programmed to uphold the law, was prohibited from tackling corruption, becoming a vigilante symbol for personal freedoms. It’s credit to Verhoeven that the movie was passed mostly uncut, the director’s cyberpunk approach to violence and deft, tongue-in-cheek style making the film’s excessive gore more palatable. But most of all it was his ability to clearly delineate the heroes and villains, offsetting the violence with a morality tale that overcame the often relentless nihilism of a society without conscience.
Verhoeven’s hyperbolic approach also made the prospect of a worthy sequel a rather daunting one. If the typical modus for action sequels is ‘bigger is better’, how do you top something as extravagantly overblown and satirically astute as Robocop, a film with very little expectation that took everyone by surprise? Even worse, by the time Robocop 2 made it into theatres, Murphy’s mechanical vigilante was a cultural marketing phenomenon who already had his own arcade game, a Robocop animated series and a volume of comics shipped just in time to coincide with the film’s release. The original movie was by no means aimed at children, but one look at Robo’s shiny metal armour was all it took for inquisitive eyes to brighten. It didn’t matter that the little tykes in question weren’t technically allowed to see the movie. They already had the cap-firing Robocop toy range and were probably mutilating plastic men in a dark corner somewhere. Murphy’s straight-talking law enforcer had transcended the realms of adult entertainment. Orion, a production company who were famously hands-off and trusting of those responsible for production, surely had a choice to make in terms of their key demographic.
Ellen Murphy: Alex? Don’t you know me? Don’t you remember me? Alex, it doesn’t matter what they’ve done to you. I…
RoboCop: [leans forward] Touch me.
Ellen Murphy: [touches his lip] It’s cold.
Ultimately, the decision was made to further embrace the violence and satirical commentaries of the original Robocop. It wasn’t until 1993, years after the character’s commercial apotheosis, that Orion Pictures turned to youth-oriented silliness with the belated debacle that was Robocop 3. Fred Dekker’s threequel turned the character into a tepid superhero that relegated the franchise to TV land long before the medium embraced the artistic realms of a post-Sopranos landscape. Less than two years later Orion filed for bankruptcy, but they enjoyed a hell of a run, working with the likes of Woody Allen, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme and Oliver Stone during their 1978 to 1992 peak, even distributing four Academy Award winners in Amadeus, Platoon, Dances with Wolves, and The Silence of the Lambs.
Following the unexpected success of Robocop, Orion, who were going through something of a rough patch financially, were keen on delivering a sequel almost immediately, approaching original writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner all the way back in late ’87. The two would produce initial drafts of a script dubbed Robocop 2: Corporate Wars, which was much more in line with the original movie tonally, continuing what Neumeier described as, “a whimsical relationship with the audience. Sometimes a rather nasty relationship. Sometimes [one that’s] really out to just fuck the audience”.
The proposed screenplay begins with a full-throttle bank heist that sees Murphy’s cybernetic warrior put out of commission for a quarter of century — the antithesis to the film’s theatrical opening, which paints Robocop as an indestructible machine, not a fallible entity, the character emerging from the wreckage of a rocket explosion completely unscathed. Much like his audience, a revived Robo is faced with a radically altered civilization 25 years on, a world made-up of self-contained “plexes” and impoverished shantytowns, a gross financial disparity presided over by the US president. In a shrewd nod to the nation’s celebrity culture and corporate hegemony, the president is a former comedian and puppet for Ted Flicker, a corporate tyrant looking to privatise the government. The media is similarly lampooned as an outlet for control, pushing narratives and airing ceaseless commercials for mood-enhancing drugs, the era’s opinion-shaper a space-bred rapper named Moon Dog. It’s an interesting set-up, with a prescience that far outweighs the Robocop 2 that would ultimately make it into theatres, a film which instead focuses on drug addiction and gun crime, which though commercially relevant thanks to the emergence of gangster rap, was somewhat old hat by comparison ― though it did foreshadow the real-life bankruptcy of Detroit on July 18, 2013, almost a quarter of a century after its release.
On the subject of a project that ultimately fell through, Ed Neumeier would explain, “So [Orion] hired Michael Miner and myself] to write a script, but they really wanted what had taken a couple of years to become something… they wanted it in a few months. And we wrote a script and then we turned in the draft — which was a first draft and somewhat rough — and then the fairly big writers’ strike of 1987 or ’88 happened, and it was a big deal. It was the first time writers had literally walked out. It was five months. And we couldn’t write. We were a very high-profile writing team. And Orion got mad at us because we wouldn’t write. I’d just had a child born and I needed my health insurance, etc. And I also thought ‘Hey, come on. We’re not supposed to do this’. And so they got mad at us and decided to hire someone who I’d recommended for another project, a guy named Frank Miller.”
Interestingly, Robocop 2 almost didn’t happen, an example of just how different today’s industry approaches a successful property. Producer Jon Davison, who was cynical towards the whole sequel concept, preferring to create original characters rather than rehash past projects, didn’t want to do it. He was also keen on being a part of Warren Beatty’s upcoming Dick Tracy adaptation. When he did decide on Robocop 2, he struggled to find a director. First choice Verhoeven was already contracted to Arnie blockbuster Total Recall, which would become the Austrian megastar’s biggest box office hit pre Terminator 2: Judgement Day. After several directors, many of them troubled by the prospect of being able to follow Verhoeven’s original, turned down the project, the role initially went to Tim Hunter, whose much darker vision, one more suited to Neumeier and Miner’s ‘The Corporate Wars’, didn’t sit right with Miller’s more comedic approach.
American comic book writer Miller’s original screenplay for Robocop 2 was deemed “unfilmable” and subjected to so many rewrites 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 Robocop 2: 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 was no way that the now-defunct Orion pictures would have considered such an approach. It just wouldn’t have made sense from a marketing perspective.
I’m gonna die. You know what that’s like, don’t you? It really sucks.Hob
Eleven weeks before shooting was set to commence, Davison replaced Miller with a filmmaker who seemed absolutely perfect for such a tricky project: Irvin Kirschner. Kirchner, who hadn’t directed a film since 1983’s Bond anomaly Never Say Never Again, was the man who’d been handed the responsibility of following up one of the most successful, best-loved sequels of all time back in 1980, arguably the finest instalment of a cinematic universe with its own gravitational field. Not only did Kirschner live up to Star Wars: A New Hope with the much darker and emotionally engaging The Empire Strikes Back, he directed one of the few sequels that audiences felt surpassed the original, so much that it would become the benchmark for sequel-making going forward. Due to the state of the script so close to deadline, Kirschner and Miller were forced to make alterations during filming, ditching Walon Green’s additional scenes. It was messy to say the least.
Tonally, Kershner’s sequel does stay loyal to Verhoeven’s original to a certain extent, delivering a heady brew of violence and humour that’s even more extreme, but misses in its failure to maintain a suitable balance. In pure sequel fashion, the movie presents us with an Omni Consumer Products that is even more insatiable, characters who are even more heartless and lacking in basic humanity. It also delivers the kind of full-on social satire that pulls out your brain, fries it in a pan and stamps it with a sticker that reads Well Done. Embrace it for what it is and it’s an awful lot of fun, a rare slice of action absurdity that features memorable comic book characters, crude speculative observations and the kind of farcical developments that fans of action movie kitsch will drool over, but it lacks the dead-on social commentary and emotional moral core of its predecessor. The violence and humour are more disparate than harmonious.
In the ultimate irony, Kershner turns to arguably the character’s biggest demographic in his attempts to up the ante and outdo the original, making them central to the film’s comically sadistic tone. Robocop 2 features some memorable villains in its own right, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone as wretchedly supercilious as Ronny Cox’s Senior President Dick Jones, as inherently sadistic as Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker, as suitably slimy as Miguel Ferrer’s Bob Morton or as insouciantly vicious as Paul McCrane’s Emil, all of whom benefitting from Neumeier and Miner’s superior screenplay. So where does one turn when aiming to top a society in which melting bodies, systematic mutilations and decoy buddies flying out of vans are everyday occurrences? Why kids, of course.
Robocop 2 is a truly nasty affair at times, a tone intrinsic to its nihilistic concept. 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, forging a truly fearsome character. Noonan would have fit the original Robocop‘s savage landscape like a ten foot line of Bolivian marching powder, which might just be the perfect metaphor for the sequel as a whole.
Robocop 2 is relentlessly, some would say irresistibly violent, with kitsch moments of melodrama and in-your-face comedy that continually make light of that fact. For Noonan’s gang and the corporate shills at the heart of Detroit’s total dissolution it works a treat, but the film fails to deliver where it counts. Robocop 2‘s biggest flaw is its handling of the Robocop character, which is just incredible given his popularity and importance to Orion going forward. Surprisingly, you see precious little of him during the film’s chaotic 117-minute running time.
A loose circuit or two has turned Murphy into a veritable stalker, leading to a senseless search for former wife, Ellen, who would surely be better off moving on having already endured so much emotional hardship. This doesn’t sit well with OCP after Ellen 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 eventually plays up to the corporation’s rebuttal of his humanity, sparing his teenage son a lifetime of psychological hardship in the process, but for a while Murphy’s stalker tendencies are a little on the icky side. Neumeier and Miner’s creation was a man of integrity. Here, the character’s actions can be downright pitiable. At one point he even sucks on his wife’s finger like a helpless baby suckling on a pacifier.
It’s a clunky, wacky, downright indigestible sub-narrative that would probably look out of place in the pages of a comic book, just one uncomfortable spike in a screenplay that often lacks cohesion. Weller has all the right moves (just look at his successor’s difficulties in Robocop 3), but an off-colour screenplay is enough to zap any character’s credibility, and Murphy’s second bout of emotional redemption just doesn’t fit with the overall tone, nor does the fact that, despite the film’s excessive gore and 18 certificate, Murphy’s once markedly human creation is already treading superhero territory by the film’s end. It’s like Orion couldn’t quite decide on their demographic, the film landing somewhere between a Saturday morning cartoon and an unconscionable bloodbath. In terms of the film’s central narrative, Robocop is very much on the fringes, appearing like a character who’s stumbled onto a Marvel crossover he isn’t central to, but for pure, fun-filled carnage Kirschner’s sequel is hard to dislike. As well as featuring some priceless special effects courtesy of Jurassic Park‘s Phil Tippett and the groundbreaking Tippett Studios, it’s delightfully self-aware and far from dumb.
Gabriel Damon is a blast as Noonan’s peewee sidekick, Hob, a remorseless, foul-mouthed hoodlum with designs on taking over his boss’ business. His character, a kind of X-rated Bugsy Malone villain, is played to the absolute hilt and may come across as far-fetched, but with kids aged between 14 and 24 constituting the bulk of rival street gangs the Crips and the Bloods by 1980, if anything it’s a tongue-in-cheek indictment of a very serious, widely overlooked reality. Weirdly, Hob is one of the movie’s main antagonists, a kind of quasi-protagonist if you’re watching this film for its delicious comic overtones, and if a young me is anything to go by, a sure-fire hit with watching tykes the world over. One particularly priceless scene sees the Mayor of Detroit cutting a furtive deal with Hob, giving him permission to flood the streets with Nuke in return for clearing the city’s debts. Despite its lack of harmony, some of the film’s standalone moments are a joy to behold. This is gallows humour at its most jarringly flippant.
Particularly amusing are Robocop 2‘s unconscionable TV commercials, which lampoon everything from America’s obsession with home security, the harsh mistress that is the career workplace, technology and self-improvement. If Verhoeven’s satirical treat placed modern corporate America under a magnifying glass, then its successor reaches for the ant-scorching microscope, all of it delivered with ironic, dystopian good cheer. Once such scene introduces us to the Magnavolt, a Bond-like contraption that fries potential car thieves with fatal volts of electricity. “No embarrassing alarm noise, no need to worry the police, and it won’t even run down your battery” a smiling suit proclaims. All you have to do is remove the body and dump it unceremoniously on the sidewalk. All in a day’s work it seems. Another such ad sticks it to the all-powerful pharmaceutical industry and the transparent small print openly declared during their truly terrifying ads. They say 20 seconds in the California sun is too much these days. Not to worry! All you need is a pint of Sunblock 5000 and you’re good for at least a couple of hours. Be warned, however: frequent use WILL cause skin cancer.
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 book 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. At one point he stumbles upon a coach-led, little league crime spree and is quickly dissed by a group of miniature ballers, leading the once-ruthless super-machine to deliver a wholesome morality speech of pussy-ass proportions.
Robocop: Waste makes haste, for time is fleeting. A rolling stone is worth two in the bush.
Kid: Go fuck a refrigerator, pecker neck!
With Robo off in la-la land, OCP’s search for the city’s second Robocop continues, a spate of half-dead police failing to live up to their predecessor having grown suicidal in their cybernetic forms (the film’s prototype test scene is just priceless). With no good guys left to turn to, ruthless psychologist Dr Juliette Faxx (Belinda Bauer) resorts to recruiting criminal subjects, eventually opting for deranged psychopath Cain, whose addiction and savage temperament inevitably lead to major problems. I mean, what did they think would happen?
As a legitimate sequel, Robocop 2 isn’t up to much. It lacks the depth and moral insight to do justice to such a unique and emblematic character, reducing Robocop to the sidelines for the most part, but as an exercise in overblown silliness it packs a Nuke-style punch. It may lack the refinement of Verhoeven’s violent masterpiece, proving an absolute mess at times, but some of its standalone ingredients are a pungent delight. If you can’t raise the occasional smile amid the carnage, you’re truly beyond hope.
Not so impressed were stars Weller and Nancy Allen (here returning as dependable partner Officer Anne Lewis), who along with Miller distanced themselves from the project following its release. It’s amazing that Weller agreed to return at all after his experience with the first movie, the character’s inhumanly awkward suit causing him all kinds of problems, though he would inevitably opt out of Robocop 3 owing to the direction of the first sequel. As for Allen, she simply didn’t get along with Kirschner, so much that she approached the next instalment with an icy sense of detachment, one of many reasons why that particular film fell flat creatively.
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. “Robocop 2 was the worst experience of my life,” Allen would recall. “Irvin Kershner didn’t like me, and he made that apparent, moment by moment, day by day. It was torture. He was awful. In my opinion we had a great script that he destroyed. Everything that was in the script that had humour or heart he pulled out. The only reason I did Robocop 3 was because the character had such a big fanbase and you feel sort of loyal to the character. I really feel bad for Fred Dekker in a way because I came onto the film after such a terrible experience on the second film and I was very guarded and really not looking forward to doing it.”
Though Robocop 2 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, Robocop 3 proving a huge commercial disaster three years later. At least they sold lots of toys.