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Sometimes, a film can hit just about all its marks and still be disappointing: take Fred Dekker’s RoboCop 3 (1993), for example. Here’s a movie where expectations are already set fairly low (this is the third one, after all, and the first without Peter Weller behind the helmet), yet there’s every possibility to be not only pleasantly surprised but genuinely blown away…after all, Dekker is the unmitigated genius behind two of the greatest genre films of all time, Night of the Creeps (1986) and The Monster Squad (1987). In his more than capable hands, RoboCop 3 could have been the caustically funny, surprising joy that RoboCop 2 (1990) should have been. Instead, the film ends up being a thoroughly competent, middle-of-the-road sci-fi action film with only hints of Dekker’s demented genius. An auteur like Dekker reduced to the role of hired gun? Say it ain’t so, Joe!

The film kicks off with a pretty familiar scenario: the loathsome OCP is still trying to build their dream project, Delta City, over the charred bones and lower-class citizens of near-future Detroit. As in the previous RoboCop films, Detroit is still a war-zone: this time around, the prime offenders are a mob of stereotypical “punk” marauders dubbed The Splatterpunks, who seem to delight in setting any and everything ablaze with Molotov cocktails. In a telling development, OCP is taken over by the Japanese mega-conglomerate, Kanemitsu Corporation, making Detroit the first U.S. city to come under foreign rule. The new president, the titular Kanemitsu (Mako), is a no-nonsense businessman who’s tired of OCP continually missing its deadlines for breaking ground on Delta City.

In order to help along the process of claiming property that the residents don’t want to part with, OCP employs a collection of mercenaries known as Urban Rehabilitation Officers (Rehabs, for short). The Rehabs are, ostensibly, being used to fight the rising crime wave: in reality, they’re being used to forcibly remove the residents of the various slums that OCP wants to demolish. The residents are moved to “refugee camps” where they promptly seem to drop off the grid: the ultimate case of the “haves” doing away with the “have-nots.”

Our intrepid heroes, Officer Murphy (now played by Robert Burke, who looks a little like Weller, if you squint) and Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen) get caught up in the struggle when a group of homeless revolutionaries, led by scrappy Bertha (CCH Pounder) and Nikko (Remy Ryan), a pint-sized hacker who’s ably to handily turn lethal ED-209s into loyal “puppies” with the push of a button, butt heads with the Rehab officers, led by the odious Commander McDaggett (John Castle). In the ensuing chaos, Officer Lewis is killed (RoboCop’s sad “Officer down” line is just as ludicrous on paper as it is in the film) and Murphy is branded a murderous renegade. As OCP and the Kanemitsu Corporation fill the airwaves with bogus stories about RoboCop’s villainy, OCP’s CEO (Rip Torn) and Kanemitsu work behind the scenes to eliminate the cyborg avenger and clear the last roadblock to the long-delayed Delta City. To this end, Kanemitsu unleashes his own cyborg, a lethal-killing machine known as Otomo (Bruce Locke). Will RoboCop and the revolutionaries be able to stop OCP and the Rehabs once and for all or does the dawn of Delta City begin now?

While the first film was a fairly streamlined, subtly ironic sci-fi action film, ala Mad Max (1979), the sequel employed the “bigger is better” aesthetic, pumping up the action scenes while letting some air out of the more subversive ideas. In the process, RoboCop 2 became a much sillier, louder and goofier film, albeit one with enough inherent parallels to the original to serve as a more than suitable follow-up. RoboCop 3, by contrast, is the most cartoonish of the three films, as well as the first of them to earn a PG13 rating: as expected, this means that the film is exponentially less gritty and gorier, although the body count is still exceptionally high…in this case, it just means that hordes of baddies “fall down,” ala old Westerns, rather than explode in red sprays of arterial fluid.

By itself, this isn’t really a problem: the second film was, in reality, only a few small steps removed from a complete cartoon and (brain surgery scene notwithstanding) had about as much impact. The bigger issue comes from the fact that the whole film is obviously pitched at much younger audiences: all of the issues are very black-and-white and the very character of Nikko feels like nothing more than an attempt to insert a pre-teen hero into the mix. Compared to the foul-mouthed urchins in RoboCop 2, Nikko is Little Orphan Annie and the whole thing has a trite feel that definitely feels aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Acting-wise, RoboCop 3 is extremely broad, although the style does tend to work, since the film is inherently broad and silly. Burke does a suitable job as Weller’s replacement, although he doesn’t sound anything like our original Officer Murphy. We get a few “regulars” here, such as Nancy Allen, Felton Perry and Robert DoQui, although they’re pretty much relegated to the background for the majority of the film, allowing newcomers like Ryan, Pounder and Stephen Root (always a joy to see) to step up to the plate. For his part, Rip Torn turns in the kind of performance that he’s been autopiloting for way too long, although his smug bureaucrat fits the film’s heart-on-sleeve politics like a glove.

More than anything, I’m disappointed that so little of Dekker actually shows through in the final product. Short of a few scattered scenes and details (the OCP exec jumping out of a window while his wife harangues him on the phone, RoboCop driving the blazing, Pepto-pink pimp-mobile around like it was a tank) that are explicitly reminiscent of Dekker’s tongue-in-cheek approach, the film is depressingly generic and middle-of-the-road. It’s always bummed me out that Dekker only directed three films in his entire career and this was one of them: it’s equivalent to Francis Ford Coppola’s entire filmography consisting of The Godfather (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Jack (1996). At the very least, Dekker has recently been rumored to be involved in Shane Black’s new Predator reboot: fingers crossed that this translates into him directing the film, although a Dekker script is (usually) a thing of beauty, so that’d be fine, too.

Ultimately, RoboCop 3 is not a terrible film: in many ways, it’s no worse (or better) than a hundred other direct-to-video, ’90s era “gems.” While the film is competently done, however, it also possesses no real sense of identity or even much in the way of distinguishing features: it just “is,” for better or worse. Since the third entry seemed to effectively nail the coffin lid shut (at least until the recent reboot), it’s fair to say that our heroic man of steel had already passed his expiration date by this point, a mere six years after he debuted. Quite the pity, really: with Fred Dekker writing and directing, RoboCop 3 should have been one of the most unforgettable franchise entries ever. Instead, the film is so generic as to be completely forgettable: now that’s irony that’s right up Fred Dekker’s twisted little alley.