Saturday, November 04, 2023

30 Years Ago: RoboCop 3

RoboCop 3 (1993) is the weakest entry in the sturdy sci-fi film franchise, and that tally includes the 2014 reboot.

It’s not so much that RoboCop 3 features an underwhelming story, but rather that the narrative is vetted in a flat, colorless manner, with no flair or humor whatsoever. RoboCop/Murphy undergoes some major life events here -- including the tragic, unjust the loss of the only human who has consistently stood by him -- but there’s not a moment in the whole picture that feels important, or emotionally powerful. The few jokes featured in the film fall flat too, or are poorly executed.

And even the social critique is less prominent and less pointed than it ought to be. This Fred Dekker-helmed sequel is positively toothless, and that’s something you could never say about Verhoeven’s original, or even the controversial Kershner follow-up.

Perhaps most disappointingly, a rampant form of “kiddie-fication” has seeped into this the formerly adult franchise. The first and second RoboCops were violent, adult satires, but RoboCop 3 is abundantly kid-friendly -- and bloodless -- to its own detriment.  A major character in the tale is a little orphaned girl who saves RoboCop, and the whole subplot is underwhelming.

RoboCop 3 is only 104 minutes long, but it seems to go on forever, without anything truly interesting or original occurring.

“Driving people out of their homes is no job for a police officer.”

OCP (Omni Consumer Products) struggles under new management, and has been bought out by the Japanese company, Kanemitsu. The corporation's only chance of survival is the long-delayed Delta City; a new metropolis to rise from the ashes of crime-ridden Old Detroit.

OCP has hired mercenaries and organized them as an outfit called “Rehabilitation Services” to clean out the last vestiges of Old Detroit, particularly an area known as Cadillac Heights. There, an armed resistance has sprung up among the people.

When RoboCop (Burke) and Officer Lewis (Allen) join the ranks of the resistance, Kanetmitsu sends robo-ninjas called “Otomo” to assassinate the cyborg.  Meanwhile, Lewis is killed in cold blood by McDaggett (John Castle), leader of Rehabilitation Services.

Badly wounded, RoboCop is nursed back to health by his friend, Dr. Lazarus (Jill Hennessy), and by a computer-minded orphan, Nikki (Remy Ryan).  

Once back to full strength, RoboCop utilizes a jet-pack to take the fight to OCP…

“Stay here. Fight for your home. There is no silver lining.”

The first thing to note about RoboCop 3, perhaps, is that some of the franchise's most important cast members have left the building. 

Peter Weller is gone as Alex Murphy, replaced by the satisfactory-but-not-particularly-memorable Robert Burke. And Dan O’Herlihy -- who played OCP’s Old Man so effectively -- is also gone. Nancy Allen is back as Officer Lewis, but her character is killed off relatively early in the proceedings. 

So RoboCop 3 feels a bit like going back to your family home only to learn that everyone you love has moved out. This helps to create the impression that the franchise has been downgraded from top-of-the-line to run-of-the-mill.

Certainly, budget is a problem too. RoboCop 3 is a catastrophic step down in terms of spectacle from the previous two entries.  

In RoboCop, for example, our hero went up against the amazing (and funny) ED 209.  

In RoboCop 2, Cain was also a memorable leviathan, a true menace in his giant metal armor (and Nazi-styled helmet).  

Here, RoboCop goes up against...a team of identical Ninja warriors (who happen to be cyborgs or humanoid robots).  It saves money, I suppose, to have the same actor play multiple humanoid bots.

But the cost of that "savings" is significant. 

There’s just no one here in terms of villainy who successfully holds the screen when RoboCop is missing.  

Rip Torn’s OCP CEO is a silly, inconsequential knock-off of The Old Man, and Bradley Whitford’s Fleck is a poor copy of Miguel Ferrer’s Bob Morton. Even McDaggett, the leader of the Rehabs, feels like a by-the-numbers villain all the way. Why is he evil? Why does he take such glee in killing and evicting people?  He's a sneering two-dimensional villain, but no more than that.

The sequel does introduce a unique menace...briefly. At one point, Lewis and some other Detroit officers are surrounded by freaky gang members called "Splatterpunks." After the punks are introduced (and dispatched by RoboCop), they are hardly examined by the screenplay at all, except as back-up soldiers for OCP when the cops go rogue.

Who are these guys? Why do they dress like this?  Why are the cops terrified of them?

RoboCop 3 has no answers for you.

More genuinely disappointing than any of these lapses or deficits, however, is the fact that the balance of the RoboCop world has shifted in a way that diminishes the special nature of that world.

Specifically, OCP has always sat in the cat-bird seat because of the (fictional) culture’s exaggerated adherence to capitalism. And OCP has had the media in its back pocket too. Meanwhile, the people -- going up against such corporate interests -- simply can’t fight back. In some sense, OCP is unbeatable because it is part of the Establishment. The whole system is revealed as corrupt because OCP is untouchable.

RoboCop -- a product of OCP -- fights crime, but, importantly, never takes down OCP, only its malfunctioning machines and law-breaking board room (ex)officers. The company survives and endures, and that’s a message about capitalism and its position of favor and entitlement in American society. 

In real life, look how well Big Business did after the taxpayers bailed it out in the Great Recession. A lot of regular folks lost their jobs, their savings, and their retirement accounts. But how many businessmen went to jail for gambling and losing that wealth?  How many huge companies went under?

In RoboCop 3, this view of unregulated business is undercut. Now OCP has an army in the streets and is literally waging war on the people.  The people have taken up arms and are fighting back.  These facts make the conflict very different in nature, and don't permit for the kind of biting satire we have seen before.  Suddenly, we’re in a much more traditional, non-satirical world, where OCP, the equivalent of the “Galactic Empire” can simply be guns (and a cyborg with a jet pack prototype). 

My point is that the government (in this fictional world) would never let OCP fall. It’s too big to fail. OCP would be propped up in some way by the taxpayers, and the media would be selling that idea morning, noon and night. But instead, OCP becomes just a paper tiger in the film, one to be knocked-down by freedom fighters in Detroit who are protecting their homes.

It doesn't ring true, based on the already-established RoboCop universe.

To its credit, RoboCop 3 clearly does anticipate a few aspects of the 21st century. First, it imagines that private mercenaries will be used in armed conflicts. In the Iraq War, we saw just that with Blackwater, for sure.  

And secondly, the film imagines the age of military equipment patrolling our streets; the idea of law enforcement as an army occupying American neighborhoods.

The idea was actually suggested in RoboCop (1987) when Dick Jones noted that OCP and the military were “practically” one in the same. That idea is developed here, in the 1993 sequel, and is indeed prophetic. But the point isn’t transmitted in any satirical or trenchant way.  

The media, similarly, is rendered toothless. The vapid anchor of Media Break actually walks off-set rather than believe that RoboCop is a criminal, thus totally undercutting the franchise’s criticism of the media as a tool of corporations.  

Why make a point about principled journalism here when previous movies went to great lengths to view corporate media as brown-nosing propaganda tools?

Alas, humor is pretty much absent from RoboCop 3, at least in any effective way. 

One visual gag involves RoboCop shooting an enemy’s gun repeatedly, so that the weapon bounces around in the air, like it has a life of its own. The moment looks so completely fake and unconvincing that there’s no opportunity for laughter, only derision.

Similarly, the stunt wherein Murphy rides his squad car off a parking garage roof and it lands perfectly parked in the middle of a gun battle, is edited poorly.  The angle of the car going off the roof, and the angle of the car at landing don’t fit together at all, thus acknowledging visually the physical impossibility of the stunt. When focusing on the physics, again, the desire to laugh is lost.

There are fewer funny “commercial breaks” in RoboCop 3 too, and these moments are missed. “Nuke Em” and “Magna Volt (Lethal Response)" revealed to audiences something about the larger culture, in the earlier films, in particular its sense of blood-lust.  RoboCop 3 gives us a propaganda commercial for Rehab action figures, transforming cold-hearted evictors into macho heroes. But the commercial just isn’t funny.

RoboCop 3 also makes one more unforgivable misstep. It takes away the gum-snapping, tough-talking Lewis, and replaces her, as RoboCop’s buddy, with a cute-as-a-button little orphan girl.  

It’s not a fair trade.  

RoboCop is not kid friendly, and that’s actually one of the points made in RoboCop 2.  Remember how Dr. Faxx attempted to transform our favorite cyborg into a cuddly friend of children?  RoboCop had to purge himself of that role; violently so.  

Here, however, it seems like Dr. Faxx is in charge of the movie itself, turning RoboCop into an acceptable role model, hero, and buddy.  

Why?  Was that really a story that needed to be told?

The kiddification is bad enough, but this is such a lousy story in which to lose Lewis.  What does she have on the line when she dies? Is her death meaningful? Does it add to the story, if only in terms of RoboCop's learning?  

Alas, it's difficult to answer in the affirmative.  Like every other moment in the film, Lewis's death plays as flat and unimportant.   

A beloved character dies and the film can't bother to get emotional about it.  Right there, on your screen, the movie just flat-lines.  

A deeply disappointing film, RoboCop 3 is too long and not nearly sharp enough to carry its franchise title. The next stop for the property was Canadian Television, and RoboCop: The Series (1994).

But honestly, RoboCop 3 feels like its half-way there already.  

Thirty years later, this is the worst, most unsatisfying entry in the entire line.

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