The RoboCop movie franchise crashes and burns with one of the most disappointing third films in history.
Who made it?: Fred Dekker (Director/Co-Writer), Frank Miller (Co-Writer), Patrick Crowley (Producer), Orion Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Robert John Burke, Nancy Allen, Rip Torn, Jill Hennessy, John Castle, Mako, Stephen Root.
Tagline: “He’s back to lay down the law.”
IMDb rating: 3.9/10.
The RoboCop franchise started out life as a bastion of hardcore, adult science fiction; a cyberpunk wonder that truly wallowed in its graphic excesses. Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original is still a masterpiece of the genre, and I’ll even defend Irvin Kershner’s compromised sequel RoboCop 2 (1990). Many disliked the first follow-up’s mean-spirited nature and somewhat directionless plot, but I happen to appreciate its gutsy aims and peerless stop-motion effects. It also retained Verhoeven’s over-wrought satire, extreme gore, and Peter Weller in the title role. Part three really can’t say the same.
Justifiably maligned, Fred Dekker’s RoboCop 3 is the definitive example of what happens when you take a distinctly R-rated saga and remove its edges for a family audience. Orion Pictures – who went bankrupt some time before 3‘s delayed release – clearly recognised that RoboCop was a character easily embraced by children and sought to make this entry as bankable as possible. Sure, the toys were selling well and there was even a Saturday morning cartoon, but the gamble didn’t pay-off. For anyone weaned on the extremely graphic first two, the punch-pulling third film will seem like a gigantic cop-out, while kids not old enough to have seen the prior chapters will surely be non-plussed. RoboCop 3 is a complete fucking disaster… but then I don’t entirely hate it either.
Some time after the events of RoboCop 2, the awful OCP Corporation is still making life difficult for the citizens of Old Detroit. Their efforts to build the dreamlike Delta City on its ashes are now led by a nameless CEO (played to the hilt by Rip Torn) and the ever-loyal Johnson (Felton Perry). The plan includes forcibly moving people out of their homes, and OCP recruit the fascistic Rehabs to do the dirty work. This naturally doesn’t sit well with the deceased Alex Murphy (Robert John Burke), who is now more than comfortable in his resurrected role as RoboCop. There will be no crises of identity here! It isn’t long before he’s abandoning the OCP-owned police and joining forces with rebels intent on saving their homes and bringing the evil corporation down…
As you’re no doubt already aware, the problems with RoboCop 3 are legion. The substantially lighter tone is established right off the bat with the series’ customary mock commercial. Here, it’s for the planned Delta City, a sickly-sweet and toothless attempt at humour that ends with the ironic slogan “For Our Children.” For our children, you say? It’s almost like they’re admitting they’ve sold out in the first fucking scene. This isn’t helped by the fact that our main focal point in the early goings is a young moppet named Nikko (Remy Ryan), a pre-teen girl with a Felicity Smoake level of computer sophistication. Seriously… we’re not ten-minutes in before she manages to reprogram an ED-209 with a laptop (those poor suckers can never catch a break). The presence of a cloying child is hardly surprising given the change in tone, but Kershner managed to include a sprog as a secondary antagonist in the last movie, and I didn’t wanna gouge my eyes out whenever the git was onscreen.
The adult characters don’t necessarily fare any better. As Robo techie Dr. Lazarus, Crossing Jordan‘s Jill Hennessy does the best she can with woeful dialogue and a lack of any real plot, but her beauty goes a long way to making her scenes pleasant enough (seriously, you might actually want to watch Crossing Jordan). There’s also the dependable CCH Pounder in a rare instance of over-acting as resistance leader Bertha, and even Stephen Root as your standard-issue double-crosser. Stealing the show for pure cheese, however, is a suitably slimy John Castle as Rehab commander Paul “You stupid slag!” McDaggett. They were clearly banking on a British actor to work Hans Gruber wonders, but it just wasn’t to be.
Oh, and Nancy Allen returns to reprise her role as Murphy’s partner, Anne Lewis, but the resultant performance is so lifeless that you can almost see her working out how to spend the money. You certainly don’t have a reason to care for her when Lewis goes the way of Dick Jones.
Surprisingly, Dekker isn’t the worst offender here as his visuals are lavish enough for a visibily downgraded $22 million budget. The director previously made the well-respected cult films Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad, and RoboCop 3 certainly has competence on a technical level. It just so happens that Dekker has no real feel for action sequences, and when your set-piece highlight is the Future of Law Enforcement chasing down a perp in a pimpmobile, you know you’ve hit rock-bottom. I’ll at least give the guy this – Robo’s toyetic use of a jetpack is certainly not as horrendous as some would attest and the effects are almost acceptable for a movie that was actually shot in 1991.
So, is there anything I like here? I’m gonna surprise many by highlighting some things RoboCop 3 gets right. First of all, you can’t argue the score’s impact. The legendary Basil Poledouris returns to the series after skipping number two, and it’s so comforting to have the signature theme back in full-force. This is a solid soundtrack that builds on the 1987 compositions and gives the movie more sweep than it would have possessed otherwise.
I also happen to like some of the narrative choices. The idea of Delta City has been a phantom menace ever since the first film, not to mention the grim fate of everyone living in Old Detroit, so it was only right for returning co-writer Frank Miller (yes, that Frank Miller) to base the entire plot around its construction. There’s also the intriguing but sketchy subplot involving OCP’s dealings with a Japanese conglomerate, who seek to protect their interests by deploying cybernetic “ninjas” to take Murphy down (yeah, Miller definitely worked on this). You could argue that the execution of these elements is all wrong, of course, but it does lead to one truly fantastic moment when the stalwart Sergeant Reed (Robert DoQui), sick of OCP’s crap, hands over his badge and promptly leads a walk-out of the entire precinct. For one shining moment, everything comes together and you realise how good this story could have been in the right hands.
Burke also gets a pass from me in the title role. He had a Herculean task taking over from Weller, but due to a resemblance to the actor and a clear sincerity in his performance, he comes away with his dignity just about intact. Could anyone else have done much better when spouting these lines in that costume?
RoboCop 3 remains a stinking pile of missed opportunity, but there’s also the slight inkling that, had they included the overt satire and graphic violence, it would be more easily embraced. In fact, it just about passes the test as an enjoyably awful movie you can laugh at with friends and a bottle of Jim Beam. It isn’t as nauseatingly incompetent as something like A Good Day to Die Hard, but as the conclusion to one of the boldest and most daring sci-fi brands in history, it’s hardly surprising that RoboCop 3 failed to recoup its production budget and effectively killed the golden goose.
Part man. Part machine. All flop.
A scene in search of a better movie.
- Filmed in Atlanta, most of the abandoned buildings seen in the film were slated for demolition to make way for facilities for the 1996 Olympics.
- The RoboCop suit worn in the movie was originally built for RoboCop 2. Since Robert John Burke is taller than Peter Weller, he complained that wearing it was painful after a short time.
Nancy Allen, Robert DoQui, Felton Perry, Mario Machado (Casey Wong), and Angie Bolling (Murphy’s wife) are the only actors to appear in all three RoboCop movies.
Shane Black, who plays Donnelly, was once director Fred Dekker’s roommate. He also co-wrote Dekker’s Monster Squad.