Judge Patrick Bromley wanted to buy this box set of sci-fi classics for a dollar. His neighborhood video retailer declined Patrick's generous offer, and watched him carefully the rest of the time he was in the store.
Our reviews of Robocop: Criterion Collection (published September 16th, 1999), Robocop 2 (published March 7th, 2000), Robocop 2 (Blu-ray) (published October 5th, 2011), Robocop (Blu-ray) (published November 1st, 2007), and The Robocop Trilogy (Blu-ray) (published October 25th, 2010) are also available.
MGM finally gives some long-overdue special attention and releases two of the best sci-fi films ever made. Plus Robocop 3.
Though the films are available separately (the original having been released by both Criterion and MGM some time ago, and the two sequels being new to MGM DVD), this review refers to the Trilogy box set that MGM has issued, encompassing all three films and some swell special features.
Because they really are three very different films, we're going to tackle each one on a case-by-case basis.
The Charge: Robocop
Part man. Part machine. All cop.
The Evidence: Robocop
Set in the not-too-distant future, Robocop tells the story of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, Naked Lunch), a police officer working in the rampantly decaying city of Detroit. When Murphy is brutally murdered by a gang of criminals, he is brought back to life (sort of) and used as the prototype for the new "Robocop," a cyborg designed to do nothing but fight crime and follow orders. The corporation behind Robocop, Omni Consumer Products (OCP), has plans to gradually take over the city of Detroit—beginning with its law enforcement. As Murphy/Robocop and his partner Lewis (Nancy Allen, Blow Out, Out of Sight) continue to clean up the streets of Detroit, they begin to close in on ties between the criminal underworld and some high-ranking members of OCP, while at the same time Robocop is slowly becoming aware of his real identity.
Leave it to Dutch director Paul Verhoeven—who can sometimes be an insane genius (Starship Troopers) and sometimes just be insane (Showgirls)—to use his outsider's perspective and create a biting satire on American consumerism, corporations, privatized business, and heroic jingoism. One by one, the film deconstructs and destroys the values and practices of '80s America—it's a direct response to the Wall Street and Rambo mentalities that had invaded our cultural consciousness during the decade. Not too shabby for a dumb ol' action movie.
That's the trick—and the genius—of Robocop: it's a caustic satire disguised as a regular action flick. But for all its satirical cleverness, it's still tremendously accessible—that's because it functions beautifully as both a satire and as an action film. It's two movies at once; on one level, the film can be viewed as typically violent '80s action fare—there's enough explosions, gunfire, and cops vs. robbers back-and-forth that it might appear to be nothing more than that on the surface. On that level, the film is not only serviceable, it's downright superior—it's tough and violent and funny as hell.
More sophisticated viewers, on the other hand, are able to see the film on yet another level altogether. Like his later Starship Troopers, Verhoeven uses a traditional action movie framework to sneak past his satiric agenda—not to mention some rather profound ruminations on the notion of identity and free will. It's what gives Robocop its lasting power; folks just there for the action will move on to the next shoot-em-up, but fans in tune with the film's implications will keep coming back. It's not often that an action movie (especially one made in the '80s) will reward you for being smart.
It's said that an action movie is only as good as its villain, so (true to form) Robocop overachieves and gives us three great bad guys: corporate scumbag Dick Jones (Ronny Cox, Deliverance, Total Recall), low-life criminal/cop-killer Clarence Boddicker (That '70s Show's prolific Kurtwood Smith), and the massive robotic menace ED-209. It's a testament to the filmmakers that each villain is properly developed, given adequate screen time, is equally threatening (though all in different ways), and dealt with appropriately—a potential surplus of villainous characters is perfectly balanced.
Of the three films included in The Robocop Trilogy, the original Robocop fares the worst in terms of image quality; the 1.85 anamorphic picture is a little soft on detail and there is some visible print damage—possibly due to the fact that it's the oldest of the three. The image is still acceptable, with colors well balanced and some nice deep black levels, but it's definitely the weakest in the set. The 5.1 audio track, on the other hand, is just as good as those featured on the other discs—there's some strong bass activity for the action sequences and dialogue is presented clearly.
Because director Paul Verhoeven was determined to push the violence in Robocop to an extreme, the film was originally branded with an "X" rating back in 1987, but was trimmed down to an "R" for theatrical release. The version MGM has included on the Robocop Trilogy is the uncut film, previously available on the Criterion Collection release. There's not all that much that's different—a few more moments of graphic violence have been restored somewhat (most notably the legendary toxic waste guy/speeding car sequence). Whether or not this is a true "director's cut" remains unclear—there is evidence in the retrospective featurette and on the commentary that there an even more graphic cut still exists—but MGM should be applauded nonetheless for seeing to it that this preferred cut of the movie was the one included.
The original Robocop is the only film in the trilogy for which MGM has included any real supplemental material (the other two movies come with just their original trailers). There are a few deleted scenes, all of which would have appeared as part of the numerous TV broadcasts that appear throughout the film. There are also two original production featurettes, shot during the making of the film, that contain some interesting behind-the-scenes footage but aren't really necessary viewing. Also on hand is a storyboard feature with commentary by Phil Tippet, a photo gallery, an original television spot and two theatrical trailers for the film, and some bonus trailers for other MGM/Orion releases.
The best special feature on the disc, a retrospective featurette called "Flesh and Steel: The Making of Robocop," captures some modern-day interviews with several of the film's key participants. Everyone involved speaks extremely candidly about the obstacles they faced in shooting and how these led to tension on the set (Verhoeven appears to have fought with just about everyone), yet there seems to be a general consensus that the finished product wound up being something pretty special.
There is also a commentary track, recorded by director Paul Verhoeven, co-writer Ed Neumeier, and executive producer Jon Davison. They deliver a good talk, detailing the production history (though it doesn't delve into the misery the way the retrospective featurette does) and discussing some of the film's themes. Paul Verhoeven is always fun to listen to on commentaries, because, well, he's insane—plus I love to hear him say "Phil Tippet" over and over. Overall, it's a valuable inclusion; casual viewers may want to give it a pass, but fans of the series should definitely check it out.
The Charge: Robocop 2
He's back to protect the innocents.
The Evidence: Robocop 2
Robocop 2 draws a line in the sand for fans of the first film, challenging them to endure a far more extreme movie experience—it separates the men from the boys. For those folks who felt that the original Robocop wasn't brutally violent or darkly comic or casually sadistic enough, there's Robocop 2. Want to see a 12-year-old boy run a drug empire and swear like a sailor? 2's got it. Human brains shattered and smashed into a city sidewalk? 2's got it. A fully conscious police officer vivisected with a scalpel while a room full of people—including the aforementioned 12-year old boy and the police officer himself—are forced to watch? 2's got it.
None of this is to suggest that Robocop 2 is a bad film—far from it. For those receptive to it, it's a masterful amalgam of sci-fi and comic book influences; in that respect, it's one of the best films of its genre. It takes much of the essence of the first film and distills it into something potentially far less palatable for mainstream viewers, stripping away anything that isn't hardcore. If Robocop can be enjoyed almost as two very separate films at once—the standard action film and the twisted sci-fi satire—then Robocop 2 is a clearer hybrid of the two. It takes one tone throughout, though one that's less accessible than the first film—you'd better be willing to accept it on its own terms or risk total alienation.
Robocop 2 takes place a few years after the events of the first film, with the police of Detroit still threatening to strike and facing obsolescence—the evil corporation OCP still intends to replace them with more Robocops. At the same time, the city is waging war on a new drug called Nuke and its inventor Cain (Tom Noonan, Manhunter, Heat), a ruthlessly cruel spiritual and criminal leader bent on building an empire.
Robocop may have worn its comic book origins proudly on its sleeve, but Robocop 2 brandishes them like an emblem across its chest; you can see it in every camera angle, hear it in every exaggerated sound effect—this thing is a walking, talking comic. That's probably because one of the writers of the sequel is Frank Miller, the great comic book creator and author responsible for some of the best material comics have to offer. Though his original script is said to have been heavily altered and edited, his presence is felt all across this film. The movie itself is actually structured quite like a comic book—a limited series, actually, where successive issues tell smaller stories that eventually add up to a finite product. And while in some ways this approach is what makes the film what it is—one of the best comic book films not made from a comic book—the structure ultimately works against the film. It becomes episodic—ideas are introduced, explored for a little while, then dismissed as we move on to the next one (Robocop's "nice guy" makeover, for one, or bad-guy Cain as Robocop Two—a narratively illogical but cinematically brilliant device that receives precious little screen time). The elements add up, but the story doesn't flow as cohesively as it could have.
Does the film work as successfully as the first Robocop? No, not to this reviewer. It's too fragmented and episodic, and (like its titular character) a tad too coldly metallic. There are some, however—even here on our very own Verdict staff—who would suggest that it's a superior film, and it's a claim that could definitely be substantiated. Hardcore sci-fi fans and comic book lovers—camps I myself belong to, though not as fervently as some—will find a great deal to admire about Robocop 2. It manages to do exactly what a good sequel should: it explores the characters' universe further, gives the hero a new (and better) villain to contend with, and offers a fresh perspective on the material (the sequel is directed by Irvin Kershner, also responsible for the better-than-the-original The Empire Strikes Back). It doesn't necessarily expand the mythology or improve upon the first film the way a superior sequel does (like, say, Terminator 2), but it is a pretty fantastic lateral move.
The version of Robocop 2 included in MGM's Robocop Trilogy is top-notch; the widescreen image is one of the best I've seen—it's so clear, so detailed that at times it looks almost 3-D. The 5.1 audio track is excellent as well, comparable to the audio on the other films in the trilogy: dialogue is delivered clearly, while the plentiful explosions and gunfire have a nice kick. The only extra included is the film's original theatrical trailer.
The Charge: Robocop 3
Back on line, back on duty.
The Evidence: Robocop 3
Robocop 3 finally lets the series down. It's more than just bad in terms of the franchise (like, say, Alien: Resurrection—not a bad movie, just a disappointing Alien movie)—it's a bad film all around.
Robocop 3 puts a new man in the suit, Hal Hartley veteran Robert John Burke (Thinner, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), taking over for Peter Weller as Murphy/Robocop. This third installment pits the cyborg against a number of villains, including another ED-209 and the ever-present OCP—now in cahoots with a mercenary army brought in to evict the people of Detroit from their homes. When Robocop is unjustly framed in the media for murder, he's forced to go underground and join up with a citizens' resistance effort in an attempt to reclaim Detroit once and for all. Plus, he flies.
The fundamental problem with Robocop 3 is that, even beyond its PG-13 rating, it has been made specifically for young boys—it's Robocop for kids. Everything has been dialed down to the lowest common denominator, which would help explain the repeated moments of melodrama (every time a "good" character dies, he or she gets an impassioned closing line set to sad/swelling music), overblown sentiment (a Curly Sue-esque young orphan girl plays far too large a role in the proceedings), and cheap humor—who knew Robocop had been programmed to rattle off so many awful one-liners?
The film feels terribly flat—on screen is non-stop spectacle, and yet there's no connection to any of it. That may be because Robocop 3 has no real story to tell, just a series of action beats, once again designed to elicit gasps of "Cooooool!" from 13-year old boys. It's a major departure from the slyness and sophistication of the first two films.
If Robocop 2 suffered from an overcrowding of the story, Robocop 3 outdoes it in every arena: story, number of characters, even what's on screen—the frame feels too busy most of the time. At least Irvin Kershner knew how to organize the wealth of plot elements in some sort of linear way; the film was episodic, but coherent. In Robocop 3, everything in the film is in constant battle with everything else, all fighting for the viewer's attention. Literally everything is thrown at the wall, but none of it sticks.
I was surprised to learn in the closing credits that Frank Miller had once again contributed to the screenplay of Robocop 3—all of the edginess and comic book spirit he had brought to the previous installment is missing here. Sure, there are trace elements of Miller: the street gang known as the "splatterpunks" (a bit disappointing, name-wise), or the robotic yakuza-samurai that appears periodically, but overall his influence is lacking. That may be because his cowriter (and the film's director), Fred Dekker, has too great a propensity towards simplification and schlock. I've loved both of Dekker's other films, Night of the Creeps and Monster Squad, but again in an adolescent monster-geek way. Taking that approach toward Robocop is all wrong—the series demands more maturity than that. The action scenes Dekker stages are busy but not involving, and what little social satire exists—previously a staple of the franchise—barely registers. It's as though someone had seen the other two films and realized "there ought to be some"; we're left with a pathetic few clumsy and obvious attempts.
There are two noteworthy elements in Robocop 3. First, nearly the entire cast is comprised of familiar faces—character actors whom you recognize but whose names you don't necessarily know: CCH Pounder, Jeff Garlin, Jill Hennessy, Bradley Whitford, Rip Torn, and Stephen Root are among the hardworking actors showing up in everything from bit parts to major roles in the film. Second, the film truly makes you appreciate the tremendous skill and nuance of Peter Weller's performance as the crime-fighting cyborg. It may seem easy to just "act like a robot"—that is, until you watch someone else try to do it. Robert John Burke, Weller's replacement in Robocop 3, is comparable to Weller only in appearance (lean and steely-eyed with a ridiculous chin); try as he might, his physicality and vocalizations just don't do justice to Weller's creation of the character. Burke's a good actor, but he's no Robocop.
The Robocop Trilogy delivers a very attractive 1.85 anamorphic widescreen version of Robocop 3; the image is very clean and the muted colors are put across well. Overall, the picture transfer is quite good (though not quite up to the standards of the Robocop 2 transfer, which, for some reason, looks the best in the set to me). The 5.1 audio track is just as good as the others in the set, but no better—possibly because nothing about the film itself allows it to be. As with Robocop 2, the only extra included is the film's original theatrical trailer which, incidentally, does little to mislead the viewer in terms of Robocop 3's quality.
What an interesting series of films to watch evolve: the first Robocop is some low-budget, practically no-name genre film with a goofy title that comes out of nowhere and ends up a one-of-a-kind original—one of the best of its type and a landmark of the decade. Robocop 2 is a fascinating yet polarizing sequel, winning over some fans even more while driving many away. Robocop 3, almost as if in response to the effects of 2, attempts to win everyone back by making an unusually bland and juvenile sci-fi action film, but in so doing saw to it that the series would end. By collecting them together, as MGM has done here, the films' individual strengths and flaws become more apparent—one can view them both independently and as a whole body of work.
In case you're still on the fence about The Robocop Trilogy (and I'm not sure why you would be), you can find the collection priced nearly equivalent to that of a standard individual new release if you're willing to shop around a little—that's three movies for (just about) the price of one. Even if picking up the set means exposing yourself to the suckage of Robocop 3, so be it—it's a small price to pay for owning this excellent box. Let's face it—we all would have owned it eventually, if only for the sake of completion. MGM has done the busy work for us.
It's like the wife-to-be (now actually just the wife) told me when I was stressing about articulating my thoughts correctly in this review: "What can you say? You like the Robo. You like the Cop. You like the Robocop."
She's right. I do. I love the Robocop.
MGM has released a fantastic (and affordable) set; despite the crimes of Robocop 3, both the studio and The Robocop Trilogy are found not guilty. I'll buy that for a dollar!
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice, Robocop
Perp Profile, Robocop
Distinguishing Marks, Robocop
• Deleted Scenes
Scales of Justice, Robocop 2
Perp Profile, Robocop 2
Distinguishing Marks, Robocop 2
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, Robocop 3
Perp Profile, Robocop 3
Distinguishing Marks, Robocop 3
• Theatrical Trailer
Review content copyright © 2004 Patrick Bromley; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.