RoboCop 2 (1990) or The Agony and The Ecstasy of Sequels

Robo 2

I saw the RoboCop reboot twice in theaters. The only things I remember are that Michael Keaton is the best thing in it and the silver suit, though we only see it briefly, looks boss.

That movie cost $130 million to make, I saw it twice more than your average moviegoer and all I can remember a year after is that a good actor was good in it and a half-assed reference to the original movie was neat.

Welcome to Hollywood, circa 2015.

Would you like to guess what the original 1987 RoboCop cost?

Go ahead. I’ll wait. Get a calculator or something. Ready? Alrighty.

$13 million.

One-tenth the budget of its reboot.  And people are still talking about the original.

Joel Kinnaman
How did this end up looking clunkier?

That’s the power of originality and creativity.  On paper, the very concept of RoboCop should be nothing more than a random entry on one of those 5,000-movies-in-one DVD sets you can find on the floor of any given Wal-Mart aisle.

But the filmmakers actually, you know, tried.  They wanted to make the movie worth something instead of an empty piece of pop corn schlock.  Clearly they succeeded and RoboCop still stands as the only movie in the Criterion Collection featuring a scene where a cyborg shoots a rapist in the penis.

So before we explore RoboCop 2, which is really why we’re here, let’s recap the original for anyone just walking in.

RoboCop is about a robot cop. Alright moving on.

Just kidding. Here we go.

Seen here in less, uh, robotic days.
Seen here in less, uh, robotic days.

Alex Murphy was a good cop and family man. Until he gets transferred to the worst precinct in town and gets brutally gunned down his first day on the job.

Missing rather significant chunks of his body and, well, a pulse, he becomes the test subject for the RoboCop program.  Only his internal organs and face are spared. When he wakes up, he’s the nigh-indestructible cyborg known only as RoboCop.

The rest of the movie is a darkly satirical bloodbath as RoboCop struggles to find his lost humanity and end the man who took it away to begin with.

Like I said, it sounds like some b-movie slop.  But it’s not.

According to director Paul Verhoeven, it’s actually a Christ story.

His explanation is that Murphy is a man betrayed by his closest allies, the police department, because one of their higher-ups is in league with the drug dealer who killed him.  He’s then resurrected and has to confront his betrayers and ultimately “save” the world of OCP, the movie’s sinister conglomerate corporation and owner of the police force.

robocop-water
Pictured: subtlety

Whether or not you buy all that is really up to you, but what I’m saying is that the movie is a whole lot more than an ultraviolent sci-fi action picture.

And it made about four times its budget. Which could only mean one thing – RoboCop would return, whether the filmmakers wanted him to or not.

Director Paul Verhoeven was interested in handling the sequel but told Orion Pictures that they needed time to come up with the proper story.

Box office dollars wait for no man, so the producers forged ahead without Verhoeven.  He went on to direct Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. That film would carry Verhoeven’s knack for violent satire in a sci-fi package. In fact, it ended up getting released the same summer as RoboCop 2.

RoboCop 2 grossed around $45 million.

Total Recall around $260 million.

This is what audiences really wanted.
This is what audiences really wanted.

Maybe they should’ve waited.

One of the original writers, Edward Neumeier, worked up a draft for RoboCop 2 but was foiled by a writer’s strike.  Once the strike was lifted, the producers decided to bring in fresh talent.  Neumeier’s concept was reworked into episodes of the 1994 RoboCop live-action TV series.

Frank Miller seemed to be a savvy choice.  The already legendary comic book artist and writer was riding high on the critical and commercial success of his two latest graphic novels, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, both released in 1986.

He knew how to find the real drama in what some would consider outlandish characters – superheroes.  And he was no stranger to satire and darkness.

They even let him stretch his acting ability to play a character named Frank.
They even let him stretch his acting ability to play a character named Frank.

Despite his success, there was one aspiration that eluded him – writing a screenplay.  RoboCop 2 offered him that chance.

Unfortunately, what he turned in to the producers was totally unusable.  While Miller would return to write a draft for RoboCop 3, that too wouldn’t be his true vision for the character. That would have to wait until 2003 when his RoboCop screenplays were adapted into the comic book series Frank Miller’s RoboCop.  Looking at that series, it’s pretty plain to see just why his scripts weren’t usable.

I still don't get why the producers couldn't use this.
Now imagine this with real people.  Yup.

But I digress. Walon Green was brought on to salvage what he could and make a more practical screenplay.  Whether you know it or not, you’ve almost assuredly seen some of his work.  His written for just about every major cop show to air, including N.Y.P.D. Blue, Law & Order and Hill Street Blues.  Most recently he acted as showrunner for the eighth and ninth seasons of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

So who would helm this ever-riskier sequel?  A man accustomed to risky sequels.

That's Kershner on the right.
That’s Kershner on the right.

Irvin Kershner is the quintessential journeyman director.  To provide a quick lesson, a journeyman director (or writer, producer, etc.) has no affiliation with a single studio and isn’t directly connected to any big franchises.  They just move from picture to picture, taking whatever job strikes their fancy.  And Kershner had racked up a few big jobs.

The man directed The Empire Strikes Back. That’s all I need to say.  But I’ll add that he also directed Never Say Never Again, Sean Connery’s last ride as James Bond.

Kershner knows how to slip into the style of a series and do it well. He certainly does it in RoboCop 2. 

So let’s jump into the story and just why I wrote this whole article in the first place.

Commercials.  We open on another round of satirical ads that are almost as good as the ones in the original. We see how desensitized everyone is in this world and also get a peek at our villain, Cain, played to greasy perfection by Tom Noonan. He’s a druglord/leader of a cult based around the latest narcotic – Nuke.

From the flash of TV to the squalor of Old Detroit. A seemingly helpful stranger mugs a helpless old woman then gets his eye kicked in by prostitutes, who mug him in turn.

I have to hand it to them; that’s the most efficient way to remind everyone just how horrifying this universe is.

A bunch of thugs storm a gun shop, kill the owner and try to make off with his inventory.  Until a police cruiser comes drifting down the street.

That's how you enter a scene.
That’s how you enter a movie.

A particularly ruthless goon blows the cop car sky-high. Twice.

Satisfied, they go back to loading up their loot.

Until the door of the cop car squeals open and a stainless-steel leg steps out.

RoboCop has returned.

And he’s waging a war on drugs.

It’s a viciously 80’s movie that happened to slip into 1990.

Unlike the rather streamlined original, RoboCop 2 is a mass of subplots. Omni Consumer Products, the company that owns the police among other public works, wants to bulldoze Old Detroit and build Delta City, an OCP-owned utopia, on its ashes. To do this, they cut police pay so that they’ll strike, causing the crime rate to explode. Cain is trying to make Nuke the biggest drug to ever hit the streets. OCP scientists are trying to build a new, better, mass-producible RoboCop to replace the old one.  One of these scientists wants to use a drug-addled criminal to form the human basis for a second RoboCop. Once Cain dies, she rallies to put him in the next RoboCop suit and keep him obedient by giving him controlled amounts of Nuke.

Cain, pictured here doing drugs.
Cain, pictured here doing drugs.

You notice any characters not really involved in those subplots?

RoboCop, maybe?

The filmmakers seem to have realized too late that RoboCop’s arc was perfectly wrapped up in the closing seconds of the original. So what do they do with him?

They put him through the same paces again.

Gone is the less-synthesized voice we heard by the end of Verhoeven’s film. He’s more robot than man again.  They even make him face his grieving wife and tell her that he’s just a monument to her dead husband.  He has to regain his humanity. Again.

By the end he’s more Murphy than Robo and does battle with Robo-Cain, saving the day and Old Detroit yet again.

So what did moviegoers think?

Not much, turns out.

Dramatic re-enactment of how critics felt about this film.
Dramatic re-enactment of how critics felt about this film.

As I said before, it grossed around $45 million. That’s not too shabby. The original pulled in about $53 million. Not far off, especially in a time when sequels traditionally didn’t do as well as their predecessors.

The problem becomes plain when you compare that the original was made for $13 million and the sequel for $35 million.

Ouch.  It didn’t lose money but it certainly didn’t make much. Fascinatingly it made enough for Orion Pictures to shove RoboCop 3 into preproduction, but that’s another story for another post.

What did the critics think?

Janet Maslin of The New York Times speaks for the majority:

“The difference between RoboCop and its sequel… is the difference between an idea and an afterthought.”

They didn’t like it, is what I’m trying to get across. They didn’t like it at all.

Rotten Tomatoes’ (in)famous “Tomatometer” scoring system isn’t perfect, but it should give you an idea of the response between this movie and its predecessor.

88% of critics who reviewed RoboCop liked it.  32% of critics who reviewed RoboCop 2 liked it.

It did very much mark the decline of the franchise. The third feature made even less of an impact. The various TV series found some success but didn’t do much to step out of the shadow of the looming original.

Not even a jetpack could save Robocop 3.
Not even a jetpack could save Robocop 3.

For some reason I’ve always turned to RoboCop 2 if I want to just throw one on to watch.  I love the original, avoid the third like an alimony lawyer, but the second has always mystified me.

Watching it again I think I figured out why. If not, boy did I just waste your time.

RoboCop 2 is every bit as clever and sharp as its predecessor and is a statement about the necessary dumbing down and ramping up of sequels, including itself.

Let’s take a closer look.

Most of Robo’s characterization ironically comes from scenes he’s not even in.

One of the movie’s most interesting and original conceits is the attempt to build a better RoboCop.  He’s always been the prototype. Surely they can do better.

But they can’t.

It goes great. Honest.
It goes great. Honest.

In a darkly hilarious sequence, OCP scientists show the Old Man, the company head chair, their work on the RoboCop 2 program.  Millions of dollars of research and development has only yielded two further RoboCops. And both immediately kill themselves from the pain and anguish of no longer being human.

The Old Man tries to pull the plug on the whole operation. He wanted a new, cheap, flashy model he could make money off of. But nothing is working and nobody knows why.

Why did Murphy work as RoboCop?

We’re told it’s his sense of duty and aversion to suicide. Fair enough, but there has to be more to it than that.

Instead of studying Murphy to find out just what makes him so efficient, they focus test him into oblivion.  Some want him doing PSAs against gun violence and not using a gun at all. They ultimately reprogram him with a list of extra directives to make him docile, less human.  He has to lecture people on smoking, make decisions only after gathering a consensus and avoid violence at any cost.

They ruin RoboCop. He’s absolutely useless.

Lewis, on the left.
Lewis, on the left.

His partner, Anne Lewis (played wonderfully throughout the series by Nancy Allen), seems to be the only who noticing how differently he’s acting and how pointless they’ve rendered him.

But what of the RoboCop program?

They ultimately settle on Cain, the drug dealer du jour.  They throw his brain and spinal column into a hulking, absurdly well-armed robotic suit and call it a day.  He’s shinier, deadlier and cooler.

But he’s corrupt to the core and goes rogue.  In his public unveiling, RoboCop arrives and the two have a battle for the ages.

Guess who wins?

Of course it’s RoboCop with a little help from Lewis.

Omni Consumer Products, OCP for short, is Orion Pictures. And nobody in the company knew why the hell RoboCop worked.

They just knew to they wanted to make the sequel flashier and bigger. Like Robo-Cain.

The personification of heavy metal.
The personification of heavy metal.

Any attempts to build a better machine failed. The RoboCop 2.0s offed themselves.  They couldn’t handle the strain like Murphy could.

And why not?

Because RoboCop only works because of its humanity, not in spite of it.

But you can’t composite that into a shot. You can’t dub that in post-production. You have to put time in to figure it out. And Orion didn’t.

They focus-tested RoboCop to pieces but couldn’t figure out what works so they just reprogrammed him to do the same thing again.

OCP turned him back into a robot, just like Orion did.  They even had him ripped apart (a bit less graphically this time) again like in the original.

Lewis notices how dumb he is, just like we do. He’s used for slapstick for a dismaying portion of the movie.

Early on, we watch RoboCop remember and long for his past. Just like we do.  When he tells his wife that he is nothing but a machine, that’s the studio telling the audience to just accept it.

The plot literally dictates that RoboCop fights RoboCop 2. That’s almost poetry.

The most badass poetry ever.
The most badass poetry ever.

And he defeats RoboCop 2 with help from Lewis, the audience surrogate, and proves himself superior. The reason the movie works is the sheer power of the character and his actor, Peter Weller.

RoboCop 2 works despite the producers not knowing why RoboCop worked and it’s because it’s a hollow, flashy sequel about hollow, flashy sequels.

There is no roadmap for sequels. I defy you to name five sequels that match the quality of their originals.

How about three?

There you go.

We want sequels because we want to see characters again or a world again or a certain sort of story again.

But that’s inherently impossible.

The reason anyone wants a sequel is because they like the movie before it. But if you give them the same movie again, they’ll be disappointed. But if you change too much, it’s too different. They won’t like it.

This is the agony and the ecstasy of sequels. We want more, but we don’t really know what.

RoboCop 2 manages to be more of the same, with satirical commercials, ultraviolence, RoboCop finding his humanity and robot-on-robot action, while also mocking its laziness and the people pushing it.

He gets a bigger gun at the end, too.
He gets a bigger gun at the end, too.

Because of that, it’s a paradox to watch. It’s satisfying because what it copies from the original is still excellent. And the Robo fight at the end is phenomenal, especially thanks Phil Tippet’s top-notch stop-motion work. But the movie’s also frustrating because it is recycled.

It’s just not as good as the original.  It’s just as sharply satirical, but because it’s shrewdly saying how stupid sequels are while being a stupid sequel, it takes more effort to enjoy.

Now like any analysis I provide, I admit that this could all be nonsense.   I believe it and wanted to hash this out.

But I have some evidence that I think may lend some credence to this idea.

Murphy isn’t the only character that changes drastically from the original.

Dan O’Herlihy plays the Old Man, reprising his role from the original.  But something’s off.

In the original, the Old Man was the benevolent humanitarian in a room full of corporate suits and bean counters.  When one of his underlings proved corrupt, he had him fired on the spot.  We liked him. He gave us hope that OCP was just a misguided company and not a cruel machination.

Though he generally looks disgruntled in both.
Though he generally looks disgruntled in both.

In the sequel, he’s evil.  Straight-up.  At least evil by movie standards, meaning he’s really, really greedy.  He blackmails the mayor of Detroit and forces police to strike so the crime rate rises.  He wants to see Robocop put out to pasture in favor of a sleeker, cheaper, mass-produced model.

When RoboCain guns down an auditorium-full of people, the Old Man demands the best spin doctors get on it to fix the damage.

He’s the corporate brass at Orion.

In the original, he was nurturing and ultimately altruistic. He wants RoboCop to succeed even though he doesn’t have much understanding of him.

Then he was successful. And now he wants to replace him with a quick, cheap moneymaker. All he managed to do was make a loud mess that cost more than expected and at the end of the day there was only one thing left standing, left untarnished –

RoboCop.

Also this is in the movie:

Robo 2 - 4

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