Is it possible to compare a film that aims to educate viewers, to make them think about something in a new way, or to somehow change they way they perceive the world with a film whose goal is to do nothing more than blow things up real good? Can these two very different types of films exist on the same continuum? The answer to both those questions is “almost certainly,” but that doesn’t really get at the main question which probably ought to ask not if they can be compared but if they should be compared. There the waters get slightly more murky, and the question becomes one that you can see written about in many a Ph.D. dissertation. In this review, I will proceed from the assumption that the two types of films exist in different worlds and be ignoring the socially uplifting films entirely.
The issue is not that the RoboCop trilogy doesn’t attempt to impart moral lessons, they are in fact all very moralistic. The issue is much more that while they provide a funhouse mirror look at our society, the goal is less to have us question the world in which we live and the path down which we are heading than it is to hear a lot of four letter worlds, toss in the occasional scantily (or not) clad woman, and see people get shot. Unfortunately for the films, while the first succeeds very well at its goals, the second and third entries are found increasingly more wanting.
Imagine it – it is Detroit in the near future and the financial problems that have plagued the city have only gotten worse, leading to the point when an evil corporation, OCP, led by their CEO, The Old Man (Daniel O’Herlihy), has entered into a contract with the city to run the police force. As all evil corporations do, OCP is looking to increase efficiencies, cut costs, and maybe snag a military contract or two. To that end, a VP, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), has created ED-209, a robot with substantial weaponry that has military- and police-based applications. It doesn’t work, and an up-and-coming executive, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), puts forth a different plan – to create a cyborg who can do the same thing. Morton calls his idea the RoboCop program and all they need to put it into play is a nearly dead police officer.
Enter fresh-faced Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who, on his first day in a new precinct, manages to run afoul of Old Detroit crime lord Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Sure Boddicker and his band of goons blow off Murphy’s hand, then arm, and shoot him in the head, but Murphy lives anyway and OCP turns him into their RoboCop.
The film then progresses in a pretty straightforward fashion – RoboCop struggles as Murphy’s personality comes more to the fore, people at OCP are angry at the cops and each other, and RoboCop takes out the baddies no matter whether they wear a suit and tie or something more gangster-y.
This is not high art. What it is though is a whole lot of fun. Directed Paul Verhoeven, the first RoboCop movie doesn’t break any new ground, rather choosing to crush the existing ground into rubble. The film does have Verhoeven’s oft-used trope of looking at society via television and TV commercials, something that the two other films would repeat, but that really is as close as it gets to any sort of social commentary. It is, unquestionably a social commentary, but it isn’t a terribly deep one and that aspect never really comes to the fore. The film succeeds not based on its social commentary nor its dystopian future, but because it is fun to watch stuff get blown up and to see RoboCop get his revenge.
Arriving on the scene three years after the original (and directed by Irvin Kershner this time), the second RoboCop works less well because it fails to tread any ground the original did not. The screenplay by Frank Miller and Walon Green (Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner wrote the original) feels less like a polished final draft than a whole bunch of different possible first drafts stuck together. There are a multitude of storylines that are picked up and abandoned just as quickly with seemingly no point to them whatsoever – some don’t even result in gunplay or other violence.
RoboCop 2 still sees RoboCop (Peter Weller again) struggling with his past life, still sees OCP as an evil corporation trying to take over Detroit, and still sees that city as crime-filled as it was before our cyborg hero appeared. Now the main issue in terms of crime seems to be a drug called Nuke. The manufacture and distribution of the drug is being masterminded by the would-be prophet Cain (Tom Noonan) and his helpers who aim to… well, sell drugs and thereby transform the world. The rest of the main story, and it really only is the main story because the climactic scenes deal with it, finds RoboCop taking on his would-be replacement, RoboCop 2 (because to make money OCP needs to be able to duplicate the success of the original). However, the fight – and almost all the fights in the film – feel more than a little ho-hum. They lack the spark and emotional sense of the original because there it feels as though RoboCop has less to fight for this time out.
If the second film feels ho-hum, the third is just plain bad. This one directed by Fred Dekker, who, with Frank Miller wrote the screenplay, finds RoboCop taking on OCP once more. No, really, it’s same villain again. But, and I can’t imagine that this wasn’t part of the pitch for the film, the evil American corporation (being run by Rip Torn now that The Old Man is gone) has been taken over by an evil Japanese one. So, what you get in this first RoboCop film that isn’t rated R (although the cut of the original being released here is unrated the film was R, and nearly X, when released in the theaters) is a little Japan-bashing thrown in for good measure. The absolute worst part of this wholly unnecessary angle to the film is that the evil Japanese corporation’s plans are to take over Detroit and build a brand new city, Delta City, which was exactly what OCP wanted to do in the first two movies.
What this last film doesn’t have, besides a lot of cursing and tons of blood – there’s some blood but with a PG-13 they couldn’t go all-out – is Peter Weller. Weller doesn’t don the cyborg suit for third outing, instead handing it off to Robert Burke who plays the role just as robotically as Weller ever did. Nancy Allen, who plays RoboCop’s partner in the first two movies does return for this one, although her part is relatively minimal. As with the other films in the series, the supporting cast does have a lot of faces one will recognize – CCH Pounder, Jill Hennessy, Stephen Root, Jeff Garlin, and Bradley Whitford all appear – but rather than anyone in the audience focusing on the cast, they’ll simply be wondering why the film was made at all. Somehow RoboCop 3 is even more formulaic than the first two and with those two succeeding at least in part based on the blood, guts, and language, why the decision was made to tone things down here is unclear.
Although the films do trend downwards in terms of quality from the first to third, the visual elements in the Blu-ray release of the trilogy actually get better as it goes along. There are some shots in the first film which appear as though they have been worked on for the purpose of highlighting the Blu-ray’s improved picture quality, too many scenes – and too many single shots within some scenes – look bad. It isn’t a matter of dirt and/or scratches – there the picture is good – but the grain and noise changes dramatically from scene-to-scene and sometimes shot-to-shot and the definition is never what one would hope. The good scenes do manage to look pretty good, but the bad ones look wretched. RoboCop 2 suffers this problem far less than the original and certainly has increased definition in some scenes – Weller’s face in close-up when the RoboCop headpiece is off really looks quite excellent. The trend continues in RoboCop 3 which has the most consistent look of any of the movies. To some extent, the discrepancy in the visuals in the first film may stem from the fact that the original has had a prior, unspectacular, Blu-ray release and nothing was done to fix that less-than-great job here (this is the first time that the other two movies have been put on Blu-ray). The trilogy is more consistent in terms of its audio, each film sporting a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. As one would hope from a film series which focuses so heavily on destruction, the surrounds are well used as is the bass. There are definitely moments when you will think that Detroit is in fact blowing up all around you.
At its best, the RoboCop trilogy is all about violence and destruction, reveling in the mayhem and making things fun by preying on our baser instincts. At its worst, the trilogy is almost blasé about the destruction, making it feel as though they’re blowing things up or shooting people because they have to and not because they want to. With hardly any special features to speak of – there are some trailers included – that same blasé sense is present in this release. The trilogy, it seems, has hit Blu-ray because the first movie did and the other are now expected to as well, not because anyone’s heart was really in it. Aiming low isn’t bad as long as one hits the mark, but that doesn’t happen as consistently in the RoboCop trilogy as it ought.