Saturday, August 28, 2010

Robocop 2

Robocop 2 got a bad rap when it came out, and it's easy to see why. It could never live up to the original, the very existence of which is kind of a miracle. Robocop is both a kickass action movie that raised the bar on cinematic violence and a no-holds-barred satire that was ahead of its time in its depiction of corporate omnipresence, the militarization of the police force, and the general crassification of society at large. Like all of Paul Verhoeven's movies, you were never sure if you were supposed to laugh or cringe. Or both. Or neither. Who knows with that kinky Dutchman?

Robocop 2, on the other hand, takes all of the masterfully integrated components of Robocop 1 and cranks them up to 11 so that they don't fit together so well anymore. Like its upgraded biotech antagonist, it's a bigger, clunkier, less elegant beast than its predecessor. The funny parts are obviously trying to be funny, the violent parts are too over-the-top to be shocking, and the satire has degenerated into comic-book exaggeration. While the first one was an honest-to-God Film with a capital F wrapped in the shiny silver skin of a goofy B-movie about cyborgs, possibly the goofiest of B-movie tropes, the second one is just a goofy B-movie about cyborgs. But if you've ever read one of my reviews before, you know damn well I'm not gonna knock it for that.

At the start of Robocop 2, Detroit is in even worse shape than it was in the last one. Or in Action Jackson, for that matter. The cops are on strike, half the populace is addicted to a new superdrug called Nuke that looks like Taco Bell hot sauce, and evil multinational conglomerate OCP is about to pull a hostile takeover of city government. So what OCP does is, they take the brain of Kane, the leader of the Nuke gang, and put it into a huge stop-motion robot octopus monster that's dripping with gatling guns and chainsaws and arc welders, and there's only one dude who can stop him. You might have heard of him. First name Robo, last name Cop?

But before we get to that shit, we got some human drama to deal with. The first movie was as much a metaphysical melodrama as anything else, making you feel for the ghost of Officer Alex Murphy trapped in the machine of Robocop. At the end, he reclaims his humanity, but I guess he didn't tell the suits back at OCP, because they'd prefer if he just did what he was told like a good home appliance. They wish he'd stop cruising by his old house and freaking out his wife, so they make him tell her that her husband is dead and only Robocop remains. I've read reviews that say that this theme is then dropped so the movie can focus on the carnage, but I think it's subtly working in the background over the course of the film. Robo wasn't lying when he said that Alex Murphy was dead, but that doesn't mean that Robo isn't still human. At one point in the movie, his programming is overwhelmed with a list of bullshit politically correct directives that render him incapable of taking decisive action, much like a computer than can only do what it's been programmed to do. After he fries his circuits to burn this programming out of him, he's left with no directives at all, not even the three he started out with in the first one: "Serve the public trust," "Protect the innocent," and "Uphold the law." At first, you'd think this means that Robocop is going to go crazy and start murdering motherfuckers, but that's not his style. He doesn't need any programming to tell him to be a good cop. He wants to protect the innocent, serve the public trust, and uphold the law, because that's the type of dude he is. As he learned at the beginning of the movie, he can't be Alex Murphy anymore, but that doesn't mean he's just a robot. A robot can't make choices, but Robocop chooses to be a hero of his own free will. And isn't our free will what makes us human?

Anyway, that's some heavy-duty shit for a movie where Tom Noonan's skull gets sawed open and his brain and spinal column get put in a jar with the eyeballs still attached so he can watch the doctor show off his hollowed-out head like it was a conch shell he found at the beach. This is a pretty hardcore movie. Everybody who gets shot gets shot about a hundred times, and they're not afraid to kill kids and little old ladies or press gun barrels to the soft-shelled temples of infants. There's a heavy emphasis on surgery, with both the hero and the villain undergoing non-consensual vivisection, as well as some impromptu scalpel torture of a dirty cop. It seems fascinated with the effect of metal on flesh, whether it's in the form of bullets, bonesaws, Robocop 2's face-mauling claw hand, or Robocop himself, who puts Kane in the hospital by launching himself off of a motorcycle through the windshield of the oncoming big rig Kane is driving. Think about how badass that is: Robocop uses his own body as a projectile weapon. I think the movie missed an opportunity to have Robo stand up from the wreckage of the truck, his blue-steel chassis painted red with the blood of his enemy.

Even so, this is an extraordinarily vicious movie, which makes the comedic scenes of reprogrammed Robo spouting mish-mashed platitudes to a team of evil little leaguers even more jarring. That's what I love about it, though. Why bother with a consistent tone when you can run the gamut from Cronenbergian body horror to Airplane!-style spoofery? This is a movie that doesn't just have its cake and eat it, too; it has its cake, eats it, pukes it up, pisses on it, then makes some little elephant sculptures out of it, which it then blows up. Or something. I don't know, man, this is a movie that does a lot of shit with its cake.

I also like the villains. For one, there's an 11-year-old named Hobb with a foldaway submachine gun who is somehow the second-in-command of the drug empire. He's a mean little bastard, but you still kind of feel for him when he bites it because, after all, he's just a kid. He hangs out with fucking psychopathic drug dealers all day, how's he supposed to know right from wrong? He even gives an argument for the legalization of drugs that is so entirely reasonable that you stop thinking of him as a villain. He's much preferable to The Old Man, the oily OCP CEO whose bottom-line brand of banal evil makes Hobb's drug-dealing and murdering look quaint.

But the star of the movie, in my opinion, is Tom Noonan as Kane. He plays the character as a Charlie Manson cult leader who really, honestly believes that the drug he's peddling is the key to paradise on earth. "Jesus had days like this," he says when Robocop invades his lair, and he's not trying to be funny. He means it. His performance is so convincing that it's a shame that he disappears halfway through the movie and turns into a Max Headroom digital avatar that appears on a plasma screen in Robocop 2's face. Even so, he gives Robocop 2, who exists only as a mixture of animatronics and stop-motion puppetry, a personality. You picture the soul of Kane living in the machine, and it humanizes the special effects.

Noonan is one of my favorite creepy character actors. A tall, lanky fellow with an expressionless monotone, he's best known as the killer in Manhunter, but he also played Frankenstein in The Monster Squad. I've actually had the good fortune to run into him twice, once in Brooklyn when he was getting off of a train I was getting on (He had to duck to go through the door), and again when I was smoking a cigarette outside of a bar in Manhattan. He was on crutches for some reason, and after he'd hobbled about halfway down the block, I finally worked up the courage to shout, "Robocop 2 rules!" He skeptically looked back at me over his shoulder, probably wondering if I was making fun of him. I feel bad about that, because I definitely wasn't. Robocop 2 does, in fact, rule. It might not be a timeless classic like the first one, but it's a big, sloppy, socially irresponsible B-movie with guts. And it's not afraid to show them to you, either.

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