The existence of 1990's RoboCop 2 was an inevitability; almost as inevitable as the wet noodle the project would turn out to be. The original RoboCop fell into a particular sweet spot where it left plenty of room for a sequel to fit in storytelling-wise, while also leaving very little purpose for that sequel to exist beyond "because people will pay for it". And so, naturally enough, RoboCop 2 ended up being a fairly generic turn-of-the-'90s action film which, judged strictly on its own merits, has a certain appeal for fans of the form, including a couple of decent performances and some rather fine visual effects. Judged as a sequel to RoboCop, it's irrelevant and ridiculously trivial. And this must have been expected.

What could not have been expected, on the face of it, would be that special jot of madness that would creep in thanks to the executives at Orion Pictures deciding that the man they wanted to write RoboCop 2 was none other than Frank Miller, who in the late '80s was still looked on as one of the golden gods of the comic book world, and whose instantly-iconic Batman miniseries The Dark Knight Returns would certainly have made him seem like a perfect fit for the tone and content established by the first RoboCop. Unfortunately, as nobody quite knew at the time, but would become hugely clear as the '90s ticked along, Frank Miller was also possessed of some deeply broken ideas about storytelling and humanity, and his draft for the film was a behemoth that could never be filmed in one reasonable feature-length package. Walton Green was hired to condense and reshape the thing, and thus the RoboCop 2 we have is not "pure" Miller, though watching it from a distance, all I could think about where the author's sometimes very dubious fingerprints all over everything. The original script was adapted into a comic book series starting in 2003, so it's theoretically possible to find out exactly what content was Miller's and what was Green's, but I have never heard a single word about the comic books that makes me feel like reading them would be a useful expenditure of any portion of my life.

The point being, the film ended up as a weird mash-up of RoboCop and The Dark Knight Returns, largely attempting to replicate the satiric jabs of the first movie but so broad in its execution that it feels more like a farce than anything else. Meanwhile, the plot churns along through a number of tattered, borderline-incomprehensible plot threads in its first hour, which I take to be the relics of Miller's screenplay insufficiently cleaned away in the act of reducing the material. Somewhere about midway through, things settle down and the story snaps into focus, but that's after a lot of clutter and deadwood have made it almost impossible to give a shit.

RoboCop 2 follows about a year after the first movie, with most things having gotten worse: the corporatist-tyrannical Omni Consumer Products has tightened its grip on Detroit, enacting a complicated plan to send the city spinning into a crime spree by slashing police wages and inciting a strike. This, in turn, plunges the civic government into a financial crisis that will result in a default on the city's debts to OCP. The chairman of OCP (Dan O'Herlihy) hopes to thus take over all that remains of the city that his company hasn't already privatized, and thus turn Detroit into a playground for whatever usurious shenanigans he and his cronies want to get up to.

Meanwhile, OCP's crown jewel of law enforcement, RoboCop (Peter Weller), has taken to stalking the wife he left behind when, in his former guise of Alex Murphy, he died. This storyline serves absolutely no purpose and is completely forgotten after the quarter mark, so we don't need to bother caring about it, no matter how much screentime it gets in the first act. That gone, RoboCop and his partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) can devote themselves to fighting the scourge of Nuke, a new designer drug devouring the city, as the apocalyptic cult leader and druglord Cain (Tom Noonan) distributes it to everyone, with the aid of sexy woman in leather Angie (Galyn Görg) and foulmouthed preteen Hob (Gabriel Damon), the two most emphatically Frank Millerish elements of the script. Unless that honor goes to Dr. Juliette Faxx (Belinda Bauer), the evil OCP scientist who wants to create a second-generation RoboCop that will be more suited to her business-suit wearing corrosive femininity and desire for masculine power.

All this fits together, after a fashion, though it's honestly a relief when the film decides that balancing plot has gotten too laborious and simply enters into a string of "RoboCop shoots, explosions happen" scenes, which give the film the admirable benefit of ending better than it starts (mostly: the very last beat that ushers us into the credits is a stupid joke of the most awful quality that I'd do just about anything to banish from my mind). The movie was directed by Irvin Kershner, an old pro at midwifing the fortunes of other people's franchises - from the highs of The Empire Strikes Back to the lows of copyright-dodging Bond film Never Say Never Again, though I will confess that the best of his work I've seen is in the thoroughly non-franchised Eyes of Laura Mars -but there's simply not much he can do with a storyline this messy besides plow through it and redeem whatever moments he can; this functionally tends to mean that he leans heavily on the most outwardly comic moments, including the news broadcasts and commercials (used to infinitely less effect than Paul Verhoeven managed), and a dispiriting moment when RoboCop, gripping onto the outside of a speeding truck, is knocked off when he hits a telephone pole with aloud THWONK, and in his dazed state is then used as a ramp for motorbikers. It's the most overt of a surprisingly large number of moments where Kershner openly telegraphs that he'd rather be making a live action Bugs Bunny cartoon than an action movie of any stripe, satiric or no.

Still, when the film is cohering, it does well enough for itself: Noonan makes for a terrifically creepy villain, if one who doesn't appear often enough; and he's a poor substitute for the electrifying sliminess of Kurtwood Smith in the first movie. It's enough of a performance to paper over how badly the script fails to clarify why Cain is a cult leader, or what the cult even believes, though, and that counts for something. Meanwhile, the stop-motion RoboCop 2 is a pretty terrific monster for the third act, and the fights between it and its heroic predecessor are genuinely well-crafted action cinema.

The film lacks satiric bite or much in the way of creativity, though isolated moments are clever: the OCP flag outside their big press conference is a dead ringer for the Nazi banners at their rallies, and Weller gets some excellent acting in during a brief sequence - the film is made up exclusively of brief sequences - where he's been reprogrammed to be maddeningly upbeat and cheerful and friendly. For the most part, though, it's just a thing that exists: not as feverishly violent as the original and less inclined to make pronouncements on movie violence, and somehow cheaper-looking, too (the RoboCop suit in particular looks rather more plasticky this time around; the distinctly blue tint it boasts in this film doesn't help matters). I would never begrudge anybody their right to find it a thoroughly satisfying action movie time waster compared to other films of its era, but it's really nothing else than that. And enough of the plot goes awry in unpleasant enough ways - frequently pointing out exactly what cracked up nut-jobbery Miller would be infected with around the midpoint of the Sin City comics run, in a most joyless manner - that the whole experience is a bit tedious and depressing, whatever incontestable merits the film has in its last 40 minutes.

Reviews in this series
RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987)
RoboCop 2 (Kershner, 1990)
RoboCop 3 (Dekker, 1993)