I’m always a bit shocked when reminded that Robocop 3 was released in theatres. The second perfunctory follow-up to Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987) has got all the markings of a straight-to-video sequel: poor set designs and special effects, stock musical stings, clumsy cinematography, haphazard tonal shifts, and a plot that completely misses the point of the original. In fact, I might have proven more forgiving of the flick if I’d discovered it as part of the Full Moon catalog years after the franchise had been all but forgotten, but director Fred Dekker and screenwriter Frank Miller started the multimillion-dollar production right on the heels of Irvin Kershner’s Robocop 2 (1992).
Let’s take a moment to compare the two films. Following in the footsteps of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), Robocop 2 went out of its way to deliver more action, more satire, and more outlandish stop-motion cyborgs than its predecessor. Robocop 3, on the other hand, gives us a handful of redundant shootouts, childish “eat the rich” platitudes, and an Asian stuntman in black pajamas pretending to be a robot. Even Robocop seems a pale shadow of his former self, owing to Robert John Burke squirming in a suit a few sizes too small (it was fitted for Peter Weller) and his dialogue consisting entirely of generic one-liners devoid of the wit and irony once emblematic of the series: “Maybe you have a hearing problem!”
I find it curious that our titular hero doesn’t enter the narrative until the fourth action set piece or so. First, a bunch of terrorists attack the mercenaries hired by Omni Consumers Products (OCP) to relocate the citizens of Detroit and facilitate its transformation into Delta City. Then the group face off against ED-209 as they raid a government armoury. The police pursue them, giving way to a decent car chase. Somehow, the cops end up in a standoff with sniper punks, and finally Robocop shows up to rescue his partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) and then get her killed a few scenes later by siding with the terrorists, inexplicably breaking his second directive: “Uphold the law.” In fairness, the woman does stand in front of the bulletproof law enforcement machine during a shootout.
Some of you may recall that Murphy wiped all of his directives in the previous instalment. Well, they’re back in Robocop 3 only to get erased again ten minutes later. At first, I thought the filmmakers were trying to appeal to a younger audience, which would’ve explained the ADD plotting and the inclusion of obnoxious characters like Nikko (Remy Ryan), a prepubescent hacker who keeps reminding Robocop of the meaning of Christmas and such. If that’s the case, someone should have explained to Miller that gruesome suicide jokes don’t play well with the four-to-eleven demographic. Also, jokes should have punch lines.
It occurs to me that Robocop 3 indulges in all of the stock Frank Miller tropes of which we’ve come to tire in the last twenty years. I’ve already told you about the killer punks and the outlaws protecting their city. We also get rampant misogyny, as experienced by Robocop’s new technician Marie (Jill Hennessy), and a freaking ninja. You see, the Japanese have acquired OCP, which means the aforementioned stuntman in pajamas wields a katana and executes three summersaults before kicking his enemies in the face. Also, a gong is sound every time he appears on screen.
Believe it or not, that’s not the worst depiction of Asians in Robocop 3. The honour goes to Kanemitsu (Mako), the new joy-challenged owner of OCP, who pushes his employees (once unscrupulous opportunists) to the point of suicide and, mild spoiler alert, ends the film by bowing to his occidental superiors. It’s worth noting that all the foreigners in the cast are presented as villains and all the Americans as victims of said foreigners. Even the lone white traitor in the group falls prey to the leader of the mercenaries, McDaggett (John Castle), who, of course, speaks with a British accent because scummy hired guns don’t exist in the good old US of A.
If I didn’t know any better (which, come to think of it, I don’t), I’d assume Fred Dekker and Frank Miller raging bigots. It’s too bad because Miller, in particular, helped redefine the very pulp tradition from which Robocop 3 draws inspiration. At any rate, there’s a reason why we refer to the franchise as Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, even though he only directed the original, and widely regard Frank Miller’s Robocop as a comic book nobody wants to read.