RoboCop 3 (1993)


The original RoboCop asked, among many, many other things, how much of a body a person can lose and still pass for human. Its sequels force us to ask how much of the original RoboCop creative team we can lose and still get ourselves a RoboCop movie. Neumeier and Miner? Gone. Verhoeven? Long gone. And now the man in the machine himself, Peter Weller? Also gone. Hell, he’s on record saying he only did RoboCop 2 because they backed a truck-load of money up his driveway. Replaced by Robert John Burke, who’s…alright…know what I mean? He’s fine. Seems to play Murphy a bit more robotic than his predecessor…in some scenes. But in others, he gets some of the best RoboCop one-liners in the franchise, better than all the ones in 2, because here Murphy’s in his right mind. “How can I help you, officer?” our main villain asks at the end (one of this film’s infrequent attempts at paralleling the first film). And Murphy gives the most truthful answer any cop’s every given anyone: “By resisting arrest.”

Of the original cast, only Nancy Allen, Robert DoQui and Felton Perry remain, and they’re all fine. But just like last time, what they have to work with is spectacularly less so. At least Basil Poledouris is back on the ones and twos, so we can all rock out to his most excellent RoboCop theme once again. No disrespect to Leonard Rosenman. Like everyone else with two ears and a brain, I loved his work on Star Trek IV. But his soundtrack to RoboCop 2 sounds like it’s both trying to build up to Poledouris’ theme and deliberately avoiding it, resulting in the musical equivalent of blue balls…until the end credits, when he brings in a chorus just to shout “Ro-bo-Cop” over and over again. That, at least, is funny. Poledouris writes some new stuff here, combining it with slight remixes of his old stuff, and it’s about the only thing about this film I can call “unqualified good.” A lifeline of familiarly in a swirling hurricane of change, inexplicable unless you know what was going on behind the scenes.

As I’ve tried to foreshadow over the last two reviews, Orion Pictures was going bankrupt as this movie entered production. Two Academy Award winners in a year (Silence of the Lambs and Dances with Wolves) were not enough to save it from the previous half-decade of box office disappointments, RoboCop 2 included. Or its mountains of outstanding debt, the not-so-secret sauce in the otherwise-tasteless Big Mac of the American economy. Debt is about the only thing we manufacture anymore, apart from weapons of mass destruction, and if you think that’s a bad thing, or that we should do anything about it, be prepared to get called a communist by people who don’t know what that means and just use it as a synonym for everything they hate.

Even this film – bastardized, low-budget sequel that it may be – is aware of the problem with structuring an economy around debt. That’s why OCP, seemingly unassailable villain of the entire franchise, begins this movie on the brink of bankruptcy. Either they break ground on Delta City by the absurd, pace-dictacting deadline they agreed to between movies, or their loans get called in and that’s ballgame. Time to call in their militarized SWAT team, fresh from the frontlines of the Amazon Wars, to clear out Detroit’s even-more-numerous-than-last-time population.

I said I was going to educate y’all on where SWAT teams come from, didn’t I? Well, I misremembered this movie, feeling it was more suitable place to put that than the already-overstuffed review of RoboCop 1. But the short answer is, in 1962, President Kennedy created the Office of Public Safety, a subsidiary of the US Agency of International Development (USAID), which is itself a subsidiary of the CIA. For over a decade, the OPS armed, trained and handed out pallets of cash to polices forces all over the world, but especially up and down Central and South America. All the name of fighting the Cold War by teaching local cops the fine art of imprisoning, torturing, or outright “disappearing” anyone to the political left of Richard Nixon. And getting away with it, too, since the only people who cared were other filthy, godless Commies. Except not really – half the reason we know about any of this shit is because local priests were, and still are, real good note-takers.

A few years later, back in the United States, something happened that I still have to call “the Watts Riots” so people know what I’m talking about, even though some of us like to call it “the Watts Uprising.” Whatever you call it, the fact remains that, after years of both ambient and outright racism from the already-notorious-at-the-time-LAPD, the residents of LA’s Watts neighborhood started street fighting with the cops on August 11, 1965. LAPD Chief Bill Parker immediately panicked, called in the National Guard, and by the time the dust settled, 34 people were dead. One firefighter died fighting a fire (there are certain risks that come when the territory, after all), and two cops got shot by other cops while attempting to shoot civilians. Meanwhile, the LAPD managed to kill 23 people and the National Guard killed another 7.

But facts don’t matter as much as what you do with the facts afterward. And for a brief, shinning moment the entire government of California, from Governor Pat Brown on down, united to project an image to the rest of the world of cops being overwhelmed by armed and organized domestic insurgents…some of whom might’ve even been (gasp, shock, horror) Communists! Just like in Vietnam, which was very much heating up at the time, this being just over a year after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. So the Watts “Riots” became an excuse to give cops around the country a ton of money, the better to defend themselves from the people they’re supposedly sworn to protect. To counter the Communist werewolves supposedly lurking inside all of their civilian fellow citizens with Special Weapons and Tactics. Hence, “SWAT.”

Congress officially shut down the Office of Public Safety down in 1974, during a brief period when Congress actually seemed to care about all the awful shit the CIA gets up to on the regular. But all of OPS’ former employees landed on their feet – after all, by then, SWAT teams were popping up all over the nation, and somebody had to train them. So whenever, say, one of the original Black Lives Matter activists from Ferguson turns up dead in a car they somehow managed set on fire after shooting themselves in the face, I think of Honduras in the 1950s. Or Brazil in the 1960s. Or Argentina in the 1970s. Or the “Amazon War,” lurking in the background of these RoboCop films. It must be going real well if OCP can just hire people out of it and deploy them to the streets Detroit, rechristening them the “Urban Rehabilitation” or “Rehab” Team. Then again, there was that news story about the nuclear power plant last time…

Supposedly, five years have passed since RoboCop 2, but I don’t know where that information comes from. It certainly isn’t in the text. What I do know is somebody read Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, or absorbed the hype around the then-upcoming movie through osmosis. Because the OCP-taking-over-Detroit subplot, so central to the last two films, is here almost completely replaced with a subplot about OCP being taken over by the Japanese Kanemitsu Corporation, which seems to be holding all those oh-so-precious-loans. Perhaps this is the last remnant of comic book writer Frank Miller’s work on these films, because if there’s one thing Frank Miller loves more than dystopian, urban hellscapes, it’s ninjas.

I should save this for a Rising Sun review, or a whole-ass Michael Crichton retrospective, but here’s the real irony: by November, 1993 (when RoboCop 3 finally hit theaters) the stock market and real estate bubbles that powered the Japanese economy throughout the 80s had both popped spectacularly. Prices were cratering, and Japan was well on its way to what used to be called “the Lost Decade” and is now called “the Lost Score” or “the Lost 20 Years” – a sustained period of general malaise, where everyone slowly realized all the dreams they’d once had were DOA. And that their political system, having removed economic questions from its own purview, was not just unwilling, but incapable of doing anything about it. Except inflating the next stock market and real estate price bubbles. If you were conscious in these United States during 2007, -8 and -9, you might have some idea what all that was like…unless you were already Too Big to Fail. And now you know why everyone stopped talking about Japan taking over the world around 1994, and certainly after 1997, when a region-wide economic crash made everything even worse.

Hey, look on the bright side: at least we got Evangelion and the 90s Gamera Trilogy out of it.

The Rising Sun movie tried to get out of being called racist by changing the ending of the book so that (spoiler alert) it turns out a white American actually did the murder that kicks off the plot…or did he (dun-dun-dun)? RoboCop 3 tried to get out of being called racist by…well, let’s be honest – by being the second sequel to a film that, while successful, was still pretty low on the pecking order of post-Star Wars blockbusters and had to become a cult classic before it got any real respect. But also by having the very-much-not-Japanese Remy Ryan play our Japanese-American protagonist, Nikko…a computer engineering child prodigy who can, and will, over the course of this film, hack literally anything. Because if your stereotypes are “positive” they suddenly, magically, stop becoming stereotypes, I guess…is the thought process some people had in the 90s. And still have today, apparently. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, without her electronic acumen, Nikko would have even less characterization than she has already, and even less reason to be in this film. Oh, she’s a child RoboCop fan? Well join the fucking club with the rest of us. Roger Ebert really wasting his criticism of “tykes” being “shoehorned” into RoboCop movies “so that the kiddies will have someone to identify with” on the last flick. All the lady hackers I show this movie to nowadays are too busy identifying with Murphy to really give a shit about his second surrogate child in as many films. And back in the 90s (when most of them were Nikko’s age) they had the ultimate Lady Hacker Role Model in Barbara Gordon, provider of tech support for the Gotham City vigilante community and, eventually, the entire Justice League. A position she still holds to this day in some dimensions, New Gods bless them and keep them.

Granted, Murphy and Nikko’s relationship is much more developed than Murphy and Hob’s…by which I mean “it lasts for more than one scene.” Like, two scenes. They give us a glimpse at Murphy’s parenting skills, which (all things considered) aren’t that bad. A little rusty, but passable. He was a dork dad, was our Alex Murphy, and I imagine his jokes were endearingly cringe. About the only interesting thing he says to Nikko comes when he’s trying not to tell her what he knows about her parents – that they were taken to an OCP concentration camp (oops, sorry – I mean, “Rehab Center”) and killed while attempting escape. “If you remember them,” he tells her, “they’re never really gone.” And coming from you, Murph, that’s…fucking something. You barely remember your wife and son, except in intermittent flashes, and your corporate masters made you tell your wife, to her face, that you were gone at the start of the last film. Did you ever do anything to correct that? Oh, we’ll never know, since it never comes up in this picture? And she only comes up in a dream sequence, where she morphs into your two work-wives? Well that’s just prime, and not weird in the slightest.

RoboCop 3 also tries to get out of being called racist by having Shakespearean veteran of stage and screen John Castle play our main, on-the-ground antagonist, Paul McDaggett, commander of the Rehabs, charged with forcibly evicting the residents of Old Detroit…including Nikko’s family. And putting them in camps. But he’s sleepwalking through material he obviously felt was beneath him, so the film also sees Kanemitsu Corp. deploy an android ninja – a Ninja Terminator in all but name – to the streets of Detroit, specifically to hunt down the populist urban insurgency that’s risen to oppose OCP’s forced-removal program. (Led by, among others, the future Amanda Waller, CCH Pounder.)

The Ninja Terminator’s name is “Otomo” and he’s so good at passing for human he can smoke, the logistics of which might just break my brain if I think about it too hard. Real Terminators took until The Sarah Connor Chronicles before they could do so much as eat a chip, but here’s Kanemitsu Corp. in alternate-1993, making an android who can smoke, seemingly for no reason other than to make him look cooler when he’s leaning against a window. He barely has anything else to do. The rebels he’s nominally hunting are all dead by the time he finds their hideout, killed by McDaggett’s Rehabs. And his fight with RoboCop is both too short and inexplicably boring…until you find out they hired Otomo’s actor for his looks and nothing else. Either RoboCop 3 couldn’t find a Japanese-American actor with some martial artist skills who looked as cool in that suit and those shades, which I don’t believe…or they ran out of time to search for one and money to pay them, which is probably the case.

It would’ve been nice if they saved the whole “RoboCop fights an evil RoboCop” climax for this movie…and that was apparently one of Frank Miller’s original plans…but they still might’ve fucked it up by doing something dumb, like putting Dr. Faxx’s brain in RoboCop 2’s body. Or running out of time and money to do a proper stop motion robot fight – as they ran out of money to do a proper RoboCop vs. Ninja Terminator fight, here. But both “RoboCop vs. Ninja Terminator” and “RoboCop vs. Generic British Action Movie Villain #47325” feel like de-escalations of conflict from the already-dubious heights of “RoboCop vs. RoboCain.” (Cain, who wasn’t even smart enough to move his drug lab after RoboCop found it the first time…even though the lab was on wheels!)

The worst part, for me, is that we never see the Rehab Camps, and their absence gives the audience room to ask, “Why wouldn’t people want to leave this Detroit again?” And then make the same two or three Detroit jokes. Also, the Rehab’s logo is all wrong. It looks a little like a stylized swastika, but if Roger Ebert’s review of RoboCop 2 was anything to go by, the last movie was already too subtle about painting OCP as a pack of fascist creeps. They had the flag all ready to go back then and they’ve got the brown shirts here. And body armor with fake muscles on the outside, for some reason.

If we’re taking bets on whom in this universe might want to put their brain in a robot body, my money’s on the Old Man…but he, apparently, got himself fired somewhere in the time jump. Replaced by the great Rip Torn in an act of miss-casting that, while not a capital crime, is at the very least a misdemeanor. He shouts at people, like Rip Torn’s want to do, but he’s not playing a main villain – he’s playing a cog in the machine of capitalism, so vast it transcends nations and actively seeks to tear down all the borders that stop money from moving, even as it erects literal walls to keep humans as locked down as possible. And pawns all of its negative aspects off on racialized stereotypes. Oh, Japanese businessmen are so greedy and inscrutable and probably mobbed-up…not like American businessmen, oh no. Please ignore this picture of Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker being chummy.

I’m just mad we don’t have Dan O’Herlihy to kick around anymore. And that Nancy Allen only came back on the promise she’d receive what every actor dreams of: a sweet death scene. Her reintroduction sees all the cops in their local greasy spoon chant her name when they get a call, and these days I shout at the screen, “Yeah, you all better chant. She gave you a RoboCop y’all could work with.” We have a statue of RoboCop in our Detroit now, but I hope they have a statue of Lewis in his. Her death is one of the few times I have a genuine problem with how Robert John Burke plays Murphy. I don’t think he emotes enough, and can’t blame it all on his only having the lower half of his face to show the camera. About the only time we heard Weller’s Murphy raise his voice was when he thought his partner might be dying. Burke’s Murphy should at least scream. A nice long “Noooooo!” would’ve been appropriate, given genre conventions and time of release.

Or maybe I just think that because the Lewis and Murphy Show we get here is mostly a boring retread of the last movie. As is the entire first half of this one, to be honest. Uh-oh, here comes another walking sexual harassment lawsuit from Security Concepts, looking to take away Murphy’s emotions by taking away the memories that power them. Except this one’s played by Bradley Whitford, years before he joined the Bartlett Administration. It’s still painfully obviously he didn’t read his briefing packet when he got the job. If he had, he’d know they already tried this in the first film and it didn’t even last through the second act. “How can you interface human components with a machine and then complain when the human makes a decision?” Murphy’s newest basement-dwelling labcoat, Dr. Marie Lazarus, asks Future-Josh at one point. And that’s a very good question, Dr. Lazarus. I wish someone had asked kindly Dr. Faxx about that. And I know several characters in the RoboCop remake who needed to ask it of themselves.

But also, Dr. Marie Lazarus? Seriously? “Oh, yes, Dr. Marie Lazarus, Harvard Med., class of Alternate 1985. Graduated third in line behind Drs. Joseph Iscariot and Luke Magdalene. Interned at the Mayo Clinic under Dr. John T. Baptist…a.” Thank you, I’ll be here all night, folks. Tip your waiters…

By effectively work-stopping Future-Josh’s plan, Dr. Lazarus proves my theory that the Hippocratic Oath still exists in RoboCop World. She gets more screen time than her lab-coated predecessors and uses it to great effect…though mostly just to nerd-out with Nikko and play Mother of Mercy to Murphy. That way, Nikko can react to an actor who doesn’t have to get dressed in 60 pounds of physically painful suit for every scene, and Murphy can spend most of the second act splayed out on a table, just like last time. Marie even gets a Stirring Speech at the end, broadcast to all of Detroit thanks to Nikko’s technical acumen. A speech I love since every word of it is true, calling on the citizens of Detroit to rise up against OCP’s incursion into Cadillac Heights, their ranks swollen by a recruitment drive among the unfriendly neighborhood street gang. Because if they take one neighborhood, your neighborhood is next, and what better place than here? What better time than now?

This is the part where most reviews of RoboCop 3 get bogged down in continuity errors. Like how Murphy got his original Prime Directives back somewhere between movies, except Four is no longer Classified. But Dr. Lazarus appears to delete Four when she puts Murphy under for a heart replacement, so what’s the point of having them back again? Especially since they only really come up when Murphy’s deciding to side with the rebels against the Rehabs? Oh, wait…that was the point. The whole point. Just that, nothing else. There’s lots of little things like that, none of which matter near as much as the true root cause of them all. Director Fred Dekker’s on record saying he had as much creative control as a director could want on this project, given the circumstances…but the circumstances were dire and that’s as obvious as the arm Robert John Burke’s trying and failing to hide behind his back in this scene were Otomo supposedly cuts Murphy’s arm off.

Dekker’s gone on to blame this film’s critical and commercial failure on it being too “left wing,” and I have to ask…”left wing” as opposed to what, Fred? As opposed to Frank Miller, whom you (according to him, at least) had right there the whole time and ignored so hard he swore off making movies for twelve years? “Left wing” as opposed to, say, four out of five Dirty Harry movies, including the one that inspired Miller to create Sin City? Okay, I’ll buy that for a dollar, kinda. “Left wing” as opposed to Beverly Hills Cop? Which, quiet as its kept, is based entirely around juxtaposing the class divide between a rich-ass city with a pampered-ass police department and the blue collar, working class Detroit Style of Axel Foley? “Left wing” as opposed to Bill Clinton? Well…I’ll buy that for a dollar, too.

Or maybe the whole problem is there is no left wing in America, at least not an organized one, and there really hasn’t been since organized labor lost the backing of the Executive branch of the federal government. Sure, the right wing likes to call everything it doesn’t like “far left,” but that’s part of their grand propaganda project to seize even more power by working the nominal “referees” in our so-called “democracy”: that is, ordinary people who don’t know any better, and news media they watch to try and figure out what the hell’s going on. How else can they learn when they have to waste all their time worrying about being one paycheck away from homelessness? Working a shit job that perpetually schedules them for exactly 35.5 hours a week so their bosses can deny them even the stingiest, shittiest kind of health insurance? And then they turn on the TV and all they hear about is how “far” or “radical left” politicians (who were at the time, and still are to this day, about as “leftist” and “radical” as Joe Lieberman..or Joe Biden, for that matter) want to take away the few creature comforts our shitty system allows, like guns, high froutoise corn syrup, cigarettes and “violent” video games. None of which they could take away, even if they wanted to, since all those things make too many rich people even richer…but again, facts don’t matter.

All of which is to say, I think the fact this movie sat on a shelf for a whole year (a year in which Jurassic Park came out, no less) might’ve put a slightly bigger damper on things than its incoherent, self-contradictory “politics.”

Yes, this is the film where OCP calls a fascist pogrom force down on Detroit’s head at the behest of their new Japanese masters – a right wing fantasia of the late-80s if ever there was one. But it’s also the film in which RoboCop joins a popular domestic insurgency against his corporate owners and their fascist pogrom force. For the first time since the end of the first film, the people hiding out in a dilapidated Detroit factory are the good guys, and the decorations inside the rebel base indicate RoboCop 3 is technically a Christmas movie. And like the American Jesus he was originally created to be, Murphy seems to inspire his fellow officers to join him by the end through little more than example and force of personality.

For the first time in any of these films, we get to actually see the cops walk out, with Sgt. Reed leading the charge, so at least we know somebody’s character has developed in three movies. Reed gets a nice moment here, talking about having to face his own family, and it feels like the perfect culmination of his arc – from “police officers don’t strike!” in the first movie, to that one good scene he got in the last one, where his voice broke as he called Murphy “one of mine,” and told the last walking sexual harassment lawsuit from Security Concepts, “I want him back on his feet.” Johnson gets his best moment here, as well, impotently chiding the cops as they walk out, though even that’s a bit of a continuity error too. “You can’t do this!” he says, and I’m like, “Dude…they’ve done it twice in as many films. Which you were also in! Hell, you’re one of the few people who were. You should be the one telling McDaggett how radicalized this force already is, and how trying to recruit them to the Rehab team might just backfire and radicalize them further. Which it does.”

But there I go, doing the thing I criticized other people for doing – pointing out continuity errors in a film where you can see the wires holding a gun Murphy’s supposedly shooting out of a Rehab guy’s hand. Where you can see the blue-screen outline in every shot of Murphy in his new jet-pack. Where you can see plenty of things that tell the shadow story of RoboCop 3. The story of a production rushing to get enough movie in the can before someone shut the studio’s power off over a delinquent electric bill. The story of a film whose video game tie-in came out a whole year before the film itself, and was, if anything, better, even on Super Nentendo.

At least this one feels a real movie, as opposed to a supercut of several TV episodes. It’s not a good movie…but it is a good excuse to talk about the history of police militarization and xenophobic economics. I love where it gets, but I hate how it gets there – thirty minutes of yet another Xerox Sequel followed by an actual conclusion to the franchise. At the end of all things, Rip Torn turns to his new boss and says, “Let’s gentrify this neighborhood! Let’s build strip malls! Fast food joints! Lots of popular entertainment.” And I have to laugh now, even if it’s a nervous laughter, because that’s exactly what’s happened to almost every American city in the time since this film came out. It’s so ubiquitous, in fact, that no one would dare treat it as a bad guy plot, or even as the button-up joke at the end of a bad guy plot. It’s just the way things are. And I have to laugh, because otherwise, I’d get too depressed to work.

RoboCop is a documentary, but the RoboCop Franchise is the template for pretty much every superhero franchise to come, far moreso than Chris Reeves’ Superman films and predating the downfall of the 90s Batman films by three whole years. It is further proof of Sansa-Jean’s comment in X-Men: Apocalypse that “the third one is always the worst,” though I still take issue with that. As far as I’m concerned, the worst ones are always the Twenty-Year-After-the-Fact Remakes. Because what happens when you make a RoboCop movie that takes economic questions as far off the table as the rest of America’s political system? Let me spoil it for you: outlook not so good.


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