I've come to the realization, after much soul searching, that any movie that even kind-of, sort-of, maybe reminds me of 'Robocop,' will probably get a pass from me. Oh, it has a satiric edge? Is cloaked in pitch-black humor? Features grisly on-screen violence? A robot or robot-like suit is involved, somehow? Bring it on!
This goes a long way in explaining my warm-and-fuzzy memories of the two 'Robocop' sequels, which, upon revisiting, I've realized are really pretty lousy.
Paul Verhoeven's original 'Robocop' has been talked to death (and analyzed far into the afterlife), but it can still be said that it remains an unstoppable sci-fi/action movie accomplishment. Peter Weller, as a gunned-down cop turned metallic crime fighter, brings subtlety and grace to a role (and a title) that sounds dreamed up in some movie executive version of Mad Libs. His death and resurrection cycle is positively biblical, and it's a testament to Verhoeven's subversive strength that he fills the story with rich character, genuine pathos, and wonderfully satiric commentary about the go-go 80s and the more-is-more ethos of big budget action moviemaking. It's a genre masterpiece, as far as I'm concerned, and beautifully stands the test of time - the jokes are just as cutting and funny, the herky-jerky stop motion animation even more winningly handmade.
But, of course, where there's a hit, there's a franchise, and 'Robocop 2' quickly followed the first film. With Verhoeven replaced by 'Empire Strikes Back's Irvin Kershner (working from a script co-written by comic book luminary Frank Miller) but much of the cast intact, the sequel sought to replicate the funny-thrilling feel of the first movie, with the same kind of fake commercials and "news breaks" interspersed throughout the narrative (not nearly as clever this time around) and, once again, Robocop fighting a corporately designed version of himself (this time it's a former junkie).
'Robocop 2' is exceptional for a couple of reasons. First, it undid the entire character arc of Murphy/Robocop as established in the first film: by the conclusion of 'Robocop,' the character is perfectly in tune with both his human and robotic halves. In the sequel, he's back to being a squawky bucket-of-bolts; lost are the deep feelings of connection and the problem solving abilities he worked to achieve in the original. It's awful. The other reason 'Robocop 2' is exceptional is because it features a character whose NAME is the sequel. Literally. The bad guy is called "Robocop 2." How lame is that?
While the sequel isn't without its (very cheap) charms: there's a gooey-gross brain transplantation sequence; a child mob boss gets some laughs; and the Robocop 2 character, as animated by the great Phil Tippett, is a marvel of stop-motion animation, these are fleeting moments that get lost in the cacophonous wrong-headedness of the rest of the movie. 'Robocop 2' is way worse than I remember it.
But even worse is the third film in the series, 'Robocop 3,' again co-written by Frank Miller, but this time directed by Fred Dekker, previously responsible for the charming low-budget rambles 'Monster Squad' and 'Night of the Creeps.'
Instead of sticking with the tried and true R-rating that had served the franchise so well, Orion (then in the midst of big time money problems) opted to go with a PG-13 rating and continued financial difficulties delayed the film more than a year. The resulting film was most definitely not worth the wait.
Continuing with the second film's dehumanization of the titular hero (Peter Weller, off shooting Cronenberg's marvelous 'Naked Lunch,' was replaced by nobody Robert John Burke), Robocop instead becomes almost a secondary character, swept up in a rising street rebellion after the death of his partner (played, again, by series stalwart Nancy Allen). The story is far too large for the movie's incredibly limited budget (not to mention its restrictive rating), with large street riots and robotic ninjas proving far too complex and ungainly for the small production.
Everything looks cheaper and less efficient in 'Robocop 3,' with the story even more unwieldy than the second film's (lots of focus on the banal political mechanizations behind the privatization of Detroit), with a less committed cast and crew. The result is positively shoulder-shrugging in its ineffectiveness, without even the minor charms of grisly violence and neat-o special effects (be prepared for some of the worst late-stage optical effects you'll ever see, boy-o-boy).
The 'Robocop' trilogy features one of the fastest and steepest declines in recent motion picture memory. In just three films, over a fairly condensed amount of time, the series went from being the pinnacle of science fiction, a film compared to 'Metropolis' and '2001,' to bargain basement crap that would barely warrant a late night basic cable presentation. Talks of visionary director Darren Aronofsky doing a remake/reboot of the original seems to have stalled, thanks to MGM's financial quagmire, so it looks like, after all is said and done, we'll have one great 'Robocop' movie and a couple that kind of remind you of the first one, but are otherwise awful. Sometimes being reminiscent of 'Robocop' isn't enough.
Note: from this point on, I'm going to be discussing the two 'Robocop' sequels almost exclusively, since the first disc of this set, the original film, is identical to the disc previously issued on high-definition (and previously reviewed by us). None of the special features that were on that initial review disc have been reinstated here; it's bare bones and a flimsy, smaller disc size, even.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
There are three discs in this 'Robocop' trilogy box set. The sequels are presented on 50GB discs while the first film (the best, the most accomplished, the most revered), gets half the space with a 25GB disc (it's the exact same disc that was released in 2007). The discs don't auto-play, but merely stay on their static menu screen. The discs are mostly feature-less, besides the odd trailer (or two) and the discs are Region A locked.
Honestly, the two latter films look surprisingly good on Blu-ray. I thought that maybe they would look awful since the movies themselves are so poor, but nope. They actually look pretty solid. This may be due to the fact that they're afforded more space (given 50GB discs), with better 1080p AVC MPEG-4-encoded transfer jobs (aspect ratio: 1.85:1).
There are, occasionally, on both films, sequences which look a bit fuzzy and washed out (particularly in some of the more manic scenes in 'Robocop 3'), but what really shines is in the second film, in the sequences with lots of stop motion. This is particularly true in the extended battle that closes out the film, in which both Robocop and the monstrous Robocop 2 are articulated via stop motion. Really great stuff.
Objectively, the third film probably looks the best – the image looks scrubbed clean without any DNR nonsense, with a more vivid image than the occasionally murky look of 'Robocop 2,' but the movie is such an unrelenting bore, that it's hard to work up much enthusiasm for it.
There's a layer of grain on both films that makes them look nicely cinematic but occasionally can overwhelm, which overall gives the feeling that you're watching these films via a really good cable channel. But, all that said, they look pretty good, with detail occasionally being quite strong, skin tones generally well done, and black levels being fairly deep and bottomless.
If you don't have the first film and are a fan of the franchise (and can find it fairly cheap), you probably won't be disappointed in the transfers.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio on the two latter films is also fairly consistent, if not exactly mind-blowing, with an occasionally strong use of the surround channels (in the metal-on-metal robot fight sequences, mostly). Again: they could have probably been better, but were you really expecting that for a pair of diminishing-return sequels?
Things generally sound quite crisp and clear, only occasionally dipping into unintelligible murkiness, which is probably due more to no one cleaning up the original audio, then there being something specifically wrong with these mixes. If the audio sounded poor originally, nobody bothered cleaning it up for these releases.
All that said, there isn't much wrong with these mixes, at least from a technical standpoint. And while the moments where the surround sound tracks truly get a work out are few and far between. The Robocop vs Robocop 2 fights in the sequel, have an appropriate amount of dynamic, multi-channel oomph.
Just like the video, it's hard to really find much to appreciate here besides a workmanlike efficiency afforded to some sequences.
The audio options for the sequels also include Portuguese, French 5.1 DTS, Dutch 5.1 DTS, Italian 5.1 DTS, Spanish, Russian 5.1 DTS, Castilian 5.1 DTS, Czech, Hungarian and Indian; with subtitles in English (for the deaf and hard of hearing), French, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Netherlands, Russian, Castilian, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Chinese, Hungarian, Romanian, Slovakian, Indian, and a couple of Asian languages I couldn't identify. Damn.
As I said before, none of the extras that were originally supposed to be on the first 'Robocop' disc have been reinstated, and there are no new special features on either of the sequels – no retrospective documentaries, interviews or commentary, or featurettes linking the franchise together (like the brilliant stuff on the 'Back to the Future' trilogy). Can you say "missed opportunity?" Or maybe just "laziness"?
The first 'Robocop' is an undeniable classic – a smart, funny genre masterpiece that knowingly ribbed the action mainstays that it also, lovingly, embraced. And that first film is a part of this box set, so it's got that going for it. Besides that, the two latter films are more or less terrible, taking the good things from the first film and recycling them, in more and more watered down ways. While the second film, directed by the gentleman responsible for 'Empire Strikes Back,' has some interesting bits, the third film is an unmitigated disaster – the kind of thing that would air on Syfy Channel on a Saturday night. And it's not like this box set is doing anything to endear the sequels to you. There are no retrospective documentaries linking the series in a way that feels fresh and vital and with only middling audio and video quality, without even a bump up for the first film, this is a box set worth skipping.