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robocop2

After RoboCop (1987) became a box office hit and a bit of a pop culture phenomenon, it was only inevitable that we’d be graced with a sequel, sooner or later. Enter Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 (1990), a movie that manages to up the ante in every way possible, as befits pretty much any action/sci-fi sequel you might care to name. As the director behind such blockbusters as The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Never Say Never Again (1983), Kershner was a much different filmmaker than the scrappy, sardonic Paul Verhoeven and it shows: RoboCop 2 is a much goofier, sillier and more over-the-top film than its predecessor…not surprisingly, it’s also a whole lot of fun.

We’re now a few years past the original film and nothing seems to have really changed: OCP is still in charge of Detroit’s police department, who are still threatening to strike; Delta City is still on the horizon as the ultimate “beautification” project; the streets are still over-run with crime and marauding gangs; and Officer Murphy (Peter Weller), aka RoboCop, is still partnered up with Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen). The big issue this time around is the emergence of a lethal, ultra-addictive new street drug called Nuke: the drug is being pushed onto the streets in mass quantities by Cain (Tom Noonan), a religious fanatic/drug dealer/wannabe-messiah who holds the city in the grip of fear thanks to his numerous bombings and terrorist activities…think of Jim Jones and The Joker mashed into one roiling ball of lunacy and you’re in the right neighborhood.

Turns out that OCP engineered the Nuke epidemic and resulting crime wave as a way to stretch Detroit’s resources and force them to default on a huge loan: if the city misses a single payment, OCP gets to swoop in and take it all, free of charge. Bastards! They’re also developing a new type of cyborg, an “improved” version that OCP’s scientists have cleverly dubbed “RoboCop 2.” The only problem with the new cyborgs are that they’re a little…well, a little…glitchy: in a bravura moment, one prototype blithely guns down an entire room of onlookers while another one rips its one face off, screaming in (literal) blood terror. The problem, as any good Frankenstein could tell you, is the brain: the project’s head researcher, the sinister Dr. Faxx (Belinda Bauer), has yet to find a brain that can survive the automation process…but you better believe it’s not for lack of looking.

After RoboCop disobeys a direct order (thanks to more of those pesky residual memories of his), OCP decides to make him more “obedient”: Dr. Faxx inputs several dozen new directives into his hard-drive, changes which, effectively, turn RoboCop into a big weenie. Once the stoic face of criminal ass-kicking, RoboCop is now a grinning, puppy-hugging, rule-following, bureaucratic wuss: as can be expected, he’s also a much less effective police officer now that he’s pathologically “nice.” As Cain and his crazy gang ramp up their assault on the city, Officer Lewis and the rest of the force must, somehow, snap RoboCop back to his old self. At the same time, Dr. Faxx approaches Cain with a once-in-a-lifetime offer: the genuine chance to become a god…or at least as close to it as he’ll ever get. Will RoboCop be able to get his mojo back in time to duke it out with the new-and-improved Cain or does OCP finally hold the fate of Detroit in its greedy, little hands?

While the majority of the humor in the first film was more subtle and blackly comic (aside from the glorious scene where RoboCop drags Leon out of the “punk” club by his hair, of course), all of the humor in the sequel is much more overt and front-and-center. This extends to the numerous fake commercials which break up the action, much as they did in the original film: this time around, the commercials are much more over-the-top and function less as cutting satire than as broader buffoonery. In some ways, the tone of the film is much closer to the sequels to Lloyd Kaufman’s Toxic Avenger (1984) in their depiction of a dystopic world gone wildly, giddily off the tracks. Like the first film, the world-building in the sequel is strong, forging a good bond between the two films. At one point, a commercial for “Sunblock 5000” casually mentions that the ozone layer is gone, while a throwaway news bit discusses a rogue satellite frying Santa Barbara in the same way that one might ask someone to pick up their dry cleaning. The details are all quite fun (if more than a little silly) and help to make the film that much more immersive.

If I really have a complaint with the film (other than the fact that it’s a solid half-step down from the original), it has to be with the main villain: while Tom Noonan really sinks his teeth into the role of Cain and runs with it, he’s absolutely no match for the inspired insanity of Kurtwood Smith’s iconic Clarence Boddicker. In many ways, Noonan is constantly upstaged by Gabriel Damon’s Hob, the ridiculously foul-mouthed kid who slings Nuke for Cain’s gang: by the latter half of the film, Hob has become the defacto leader (albeit briefly) and that’s when the villains really seem to take off. In an action film like this, you really need unforgettable, hateful villains and RoboCop 2’s just pale to the originals, unfortunately.

Cast-wise, the film brings back many of the original actors, including Weller, Allen, Dan O’Herlihy, Felton Perry and Robert DoQui (as the ever-suffering Sgt. Reed). This, of course, has the effect of creating an even stronger connection with the first film, a connection that’s reinforced by the production design: while many sequels have a “more of the same” feel, RoboCop 2 definitely feels like a continuation of a longer narrative, even if that narrative feels a bit unnecessary, by the end. In fact, it’s easy to see this sense of “continuation” as intentional, since the film has a completely open ending that not only doesn’t fully resolve the action but also directly sets up another film (a set-up which the third film, unfortunately, doesn’t make good on).

Even though RoboCop 2 is a much sillier, more weightless film than the first, there’s still a lot to like here: the more overt comedy leads to some great scenes like the ridiculous telethon where Mayor Kuzak (Willard Pugh) desperately tries to raise the funds to save Detroit (with the help of a fiddle-playing contortionist, no less!) or the giddy setpiece where a gang of Little League players commit a violent robbery and are let loose by the newly “nice” RoboCop, since they’re just kids. One interesting aspect of the film is how often we get treated to some rather eyebrow-raising moments involving the numerous child actors: they’re all saltier than a pack of sailors, with a particular favorite line being “Go fuck a refrigerator, pecker-neck!” To be honest, I don’t think I can recall a film where kids swore this much (there are plenty of films where kids engage in violent behavior, so that was considerably less surprising) and it made me bust out laughing more often than not.

Weller handles the new comedy angle with aplomb (his “nice” scenes are genuinely funny), which has the effect of humanizing Murphy to a much greater extent than the first film ever did. It’s great to have Allen back, as well, although it doesn’t feel as if she gets as much to do as she did the first time around. And, above complaint notwithstanding, Noonan is always a reliably unhinged performer: if he didn’t have such big shoes to fill, I doubt if I would have anything bad to say about his performance, to be honest.

While the sequel is a great deal goofier than the original, it’s not necessarily any less gratuitous: this time around, we get treated to an incredibly graphic brain transplant scene, along with the goofy “brain stem with googly eyes” bit that triumphantly ends the final battle. Since the film is pitched at such a comic-book level, however, the whole thing actually feels less violent than the original, which managed to ground everything in a more realistic, if still fantastic, milieu.

For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed RoboCop 2, even if it was distinctly inferior to the original. There’s plenty of great action sequences, some genuinely funny comedic bits and a strong connection to the first film, making it pretty much essential viewing for anyone who enjoyed Verhoeven’s original. While this is nowhere hear the follow-up that either Terminator 2 (1991) or Aliens (1986) was, RoboCop 2 is a perfectly decent continuation of the franchise and a good way for fans to another dose of some good old-fashioned, cyborg law and order.

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