Good, bad, so bad it's good, what really matters about RoboCop 3 is that it's just plain damn dumb. Dumb as a RoboCop sequel, dumb as an action movie, dumb as an early '90s film that vividly wishes in every way that the '80s were still happening. Following upon two notably violent, nasty movies, it was tailored to end up with a PG-13 rating in the United States; the lack of gore isn't the problem per se, but the mentality that was behind that lack of gore. It was eagerly and pointedly trying to sand the edges off an adult property to sell merchandise to children - nor was this a new idea, as there'd already been a failed stab at a RoboCop cartoon - and that comes into play in all sorts of ways in the film itself, but especially in the introduction of a plucky child sidekick who is the absolutely goddamn worst. And in an effort to santise the grimier elements from the franchise, what got emphasised were the most ludicrous bits, and brand new ludicrous bits that didn't even happen before, like the suit-wearing android ninja (Bruce Locke) that's the most present example of Frank Miller indulging in his weirdest obsessions in this film, given that all the rest of his obsessions tend to involving things like dismembered limbs and curvy prostitutes and, whenever remotely possible, curvy prostitutes dismembering people. For, like RoboCop 2 before it, the film was indeed written by Miller at first, and then turned into something filmable by writer and director Fred Dekker, who deserved better than to have this film's tremendous failure slam the door shot on a directorial career that had begun with the solid horror comedies Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad. And where RoboCop 2 was a movie where you could see talented comic writer Frank Miller flashing-forward to deranged crank Frank Miller, RoboCop 3 finds Miller deep into crank mode already, with only one year between the two.

The film was shot in 1991, but not released until 1993, with the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures taking place in the interim; that company released many a great film in its day, but flickering out of existence was the least penance it could do for foisting something like this on the public. It starts out, actually, quite promisingly: some time well after the events of RoboCop 2, Detroit-based soul-devouring corporation Omni Consumer Products has been bought out by Japanese soul-devouring corporation Kanemitsu, which has finally figured out a way to move forward on Delta City, the massive disruptive city-replacement development teased for two movies now. The thought of being thrown out of their homes and reduced to chattel sits poorly with the inhabitants of the neighborhood slated for destruction, and so an underground rebellion has sprung up, led by the radical warrior Bertha (CCH Pounder). She and her fellow rebels are perpetually under fire from the Rehabs, a euphemistically named paramilitary group hired by OCP's new figurehead CEO (Rip Torn) to wage urban warfare.

The opening five or ten minutes, laying out this situation and watching our first battle between the Rehabs and the rebels is actually pretty exciting, not least because it actually does something proactive and new with the RoboCop universe, something that was never true of the first sequel. Also because we don't know any of the characters yet, and don't have to deal with them. That starts to change when the core rebels encounter Nikko (Remy Ryan), a little girl who managed to escape as her parents were taken down by Rehab leader Paul McDaggett (John Castle), but it's not fatal just yet. Aliens did the same thing (that is, I'd wager, exactly why it happens here), and that turned out alright. No, it's not fatal for a good three minutes or so, right up until Nikko and the rebels arrive at a Detroit police stronghold guarded by one of the ED-209 attack robots that were so much better in the first movie. With a mischievous smirk, Nikko jogs right up to its feet, promising to make it "as loyal as a puppy"; she opens an access hatch which permits her to enter a new command line, and by "command line", I mean that she literally types "LOYAL AS A PUPPY". And then, the ED-209 trains its guns on the rebels and enunciates, "I am now authorized to / be loyal as a puppy." Dekker or Miller, somebody loved the holy living fuck out of that phrase. And worst of all, having wasted, like, 30 minutes of screentime setting up this moment, Dekker doesn't even indulge in a sight gag in which the ED-209 acts like a puppy. It just stands there doing nothing. I mean, if it had romped or rolled over, or whatever, I'd have hated that too, but at least it would have been a payoff.

Also, my apologies to Remy Ryan, whose career has continued up to the 2010s, but as a child - at least, in this one movie, under Dekker's guidance - she was just awful. Every line, and the puppy line is one of the worst, sounds like she learned it phonetically, and was only occasionally informed of what emotion corresponded to the words she was mouthing.

We're still not even close to the titular cyborg showing up, but that's okay, because nothing in the rest of the movie is interesting enough to talk about. Basically, Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen, wearing her third and by far worst hairstyle in three movies, this one making her look like a poodle in uniform) get involved in protecting the rebels, and that pulls in her partner RoboCop (Robert John Burke), who is there to see when Lewis is shot down by McDaggett (Allen only agreed to appear in the film on the stipulation that her character would die in the first half; it's the 40-minute mark of a 104-minute film). This event, coupled with his reasonable conclusion that his programmed directive "Serve the public trust" and "Protect the innocent" would tend to put him on the side of the unarmed people being attacked by a paramilitary group, leads RoboCop to join the rebels and fight back, royally pissing off OCP and Kanemitsu. Eventually, he even wills himself to spontaneously erase his secret "molest no OCP executives" directive, even though it theoretically was already erased in the last movie, so he's able to get his revenge on McDaggett.

Put it like that, and it seems, I don't know, reasonable? But of course, it's the scribbled in doodles around the margins that give movies their personalities, and RoboCop 3's personality is stunted indeed. There's the matter of horrible little Nikko, such an obvious bid to appeal to kids that I can't stand it; there's the feverish, stuck-in-the-'80s fascination with Japanese corporate practice mixed with aghast paranoia that the Japanese might actually beat the Americans, who everybody knows are God's chosen capitalists. There's the jetpack RoboCop sports in the third act, and the less I think about that, the better of I'll be, and probably all of you, as well. The whole thing is just so addled: it has a whole mess of ideas and no real interest in doing anything with them, and it feels unmistakably like the exact thing it is: Frank Miller gushing his weird ideas about society and then a reliable journeyman trying to bend them into a family-friendly shape.

Worse than anything to do with the plot, though, is the saggy action, which has that unpleasant peek-a-boo quality of hard violence retrofitted into teen-friendly fare, where you can tell that awful things are definitely happening, but they're hushed away with a tidiness that has always invariably bothered me more than the extreme bloodletting of something like the first RoboCop. At least there, the film acknowledges the dignity of the human body (black comedy and all), recognising in violent death something sobering and messy and physical. RoboCop 3 has the same grandiose murder sprees, but an eerie lack of blood that makes everything disorientingly insubstantial and stripped of consequence.

And worse even than that is Burke's RoboCop; the actor was cast, I imagine, because he generally resembles Peter Weller (who had skipped off the more edifying pastures to shoot David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch), with one critical difference. He was, you see, taller than Peter Weller, and the suit designed for the first actor sat uncomfortably on his shoulders, literally. The result is a compromised physical performance, and since RoboCop is primarily a physical creation (though Burke fucks up the dialogue, too: he ends up dabbling in every emotional vocal register available to a robot other than the confident authority that Weller knocked out of the park on the first try), watching a visibly uncomfortable man twitching spasmodically in a way that suggests a dying bird more than a cyborg is the last thing the movie needs, as a RoboCop picture or just as pure cinema.

One thing works: the score. After sitting out RoboCop 2, Basil Poledouris came back to write the music, which really means that Poledouris's RoboCop Theme came back, and while I like none of the orchestrations here nearly as much as the ones in the first movie, the mere sound of that intense, futurist march lends a much welcome authority to the character's appearances that is not earned by any other element of the production. I don't know if music alone can make a movie good; but in this case, it makes the movie somewhat tolerable, and for that I am deeply appreciative.

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