Revisiting the Reviled – Robocop 3 Swapped Satire For Toy Sales

GameStop, Inc.
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“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s certainly not Peter Weller!”

It may seem like a distant memory, but there was a point where Frank Miller was a respected comic book artist and writer. Before “wake up, pond scum,” before the “goddamn Batman,” before Holy Terror, before he was a viable Hollywood commodity, albeit temporarily, Frank Miller used his cache as a modern comic book icon into his first Hollywood screenwriting gig. Miller penned the first draft for Robocop 2. Of course, there were massive changes made to Miller’s screenplay, and though he was dissatisfied with the finished product, Miller chose to return for Robocop 3. An experience so unpleasant that Miller swore off Hollywood.

Robocop 3 didn’t just temporarily destroy Miller’s Hollywood ambitions, it was one of the last films released by the bankrupt Orion Pictures. It relegated Robocop to the purgatory of a low-budget television series, and also marked the final directing credit of Fred Dekker. Director of cult classics Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad, Dekker is a better filmmaker than Robocop 3 would suggest.

The story of Robocop 3 is basically boilerplate stuff for this series. Yet again, the film’s plot is centered around the construction of Delta City, a corporate utopia that will supplant Old Detroit. Here we are in the third film in the series and Delta City has progressed from almost ready for construction to almost ready for construction. I realize that often large projects of this nature are held up by a seemingly endless bureaucracy, but this is excessive. It is also a sign of budgetary restrictions leading to stifled narrative.

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“I, for one, welcome our new Japanese overlords.”

Anyways, OCP, the evil mega-corporation, must clear out the neighborhoods of Old Detroit in order to erect their monument to capitalism. Under increased pressure from their new Japanese overlords, they’ve hired fascist mercenaries, complete with the uniforms that keep fascism fashionable, called the Rehabs. Rounding up the citizens they’ve forced from their homes and placing them on buses, the Rehabs send the unfortunate residents to “rehabilitation centers,” basically corporate concentration camps.

The Rehabs are met with resistance in the form of armed, disgruntled, and displaced residents of Old Detroit. Soon this rag-tag group of rebels takes a computer hacking toddler under their wing. After Robocop and his old partner, Lewis, decide to stand with the rebels, the Rehabs slaughter Lewis. Now Robocop is a fugitive, and must help the rebels in their epic battle with OCP for the future of Old Detroit.

Even overlooking the film’s general cheap look and feel or the replacement of Peter Weller with Robert John Burke – not only does Burke walk into a thankless role, he had to wear the suit from Robocop 2 which was designed specifically for Weller’s frame – there’s plenty to dislike. Chief among the film’s crimes is the dilution of the violent and satirical tone that made Robocop a classic in the first place. In a decision likely dictated by the desire to sell toys, Robocop 3 has our hero accessorizing with a jet pack and detachable gun-hand. The accessories, each sold separately, would work within the framework of a Robocop story if the filmmakers made a commentary out of it. They don’t even try.

ED-209 Action Set Sold Separately

ED-209 Action Set Sold Separately

Keeping with its kid-friendly themes and honoring a long-standing tradition of adding annoying child characters to a sci-fi sequel, the film features the addition of the computer hacking whiz-kid, Nikko (Remy Ryan). Nikko serves two functions within the film. The first is to whine and cry in the most annoying and bloodcurdling fashion imaginable. The second is to actually use the big toys. When we’re first introduced to her, we see her Robocop action figure prominently placed on the nightstand. Later, during ED-209’s brief cameo – a salary dispute prevented ED from fully reprising his role – Nikko hacks into the mechanized monstrosity’s mainframe and makes him “loyal as a puppy.” She turns this into a big toy. Basically, Robocop 3 has the best special effects of any early ‘90s toy commercial.

Unlike the original Robocop, which was a clear indictment of Reagan-era corporate culture, the third film undercuts its predecessors by making OCP’s actions attributable to their new Asiatic overlords. Sure, OCP hired a fascist brigade to evict the residents of Detroit, but they did it at the demands of the new Imperialist Japanese. The Japanese even send their cybernetic samurai to assist the fascist regime. The current CEO of OCP (Rip Torn) is a bumbling figurehead, drowning under the demands of his new bosses. Without the CEO presenting a clear direction for the company, chaos ensues. People carrying manila folders frantically run around the office while other worker-bees jump out of windows. All of this turns OCP into an unwitting collaborator of the evil plans dictated by the CEO of the Japanese corporation, who surprisingly wasn’t named Tojo. The Japanese panic present in Robocop 3 makes the similar elements in 1989’s The Punisher seem quaint by comparison.

If there is one thing that Robocop 3 is adept at, it’s wasting an exceptionally talented supporting cast. When an actor the caliber of Stephen Root, most notably Milton in Office Space, is a generic non-entity, you know there’s talent being squandered. The same could be said of CCH Pounder as Berth Washington, the leader of the militant rebels, or Daniel Von Bargen, a character actor most recognized for his work on Seinfeld. Other notable talents woefully misused include Law & Order’s Jill Hennessy plays the concerned scientist and The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford as a smug corporate prick. But, hey, the cameo by Shane Black, writer of Dekker’s The Monster Squad and future director of Iron Man 3, doesn’t completely suck.

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“What happened to your face, Robo?” “Scheduling conflicts.”

Despite moments of competent direction by Dekker, most of the action is bland and clunky. In one scene where Robocop is pelted with Molotov cocktails, a scene included to explain why Robocop’s face looks different, he just passively stands there as a couple of Splatterpunks, the film’s generic gang, set him on fire. When Robocop does muster up the energy to, you know, shoot the bad guys, the violence occurs off-screen. It’s all so sanitary.

Produced immediately after the second installment in 1991, Robocop 3 languished on the shelf for 2 years while Orion Pictures dealt with their own corporate Armageddon before hitting screens. Dekker’s career has never recovered. He worked as a producer on Star Trek: Enterprise, but has not helmed another project in film or television.

Frank Miller temporarily abandoned his screenwriting ambitions following the disillusionment of his Robocop experience. After Robert Rodriguez adapted Miller’s Sin City into a box office hit, Miller was again, albeit temporarily, en vogue in Hollywood. Zack Snyder’s successful adaptation of 300 gave Miller enough cache to write and direct an adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit – a guaranteed future entry in this column – which was a considerable commercial and critical flop. Whether or not Sin City: A Dame to Kill For once again rehabilitates Miller’s standing in the film industry remains to be seen. Even though he’s morphed into a hack and conservative crank, Miller does have a legitimate legacy in the world of comics. His legacy in the film world, however, isn’t fully defined yet. Having said that, I think it’s safe to say his best work is behind him, so is Robocop 3.

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