If Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop is a Jesus story – with Robocop being an industrialized, American Jesus – then Robocop 2 is about Christ’s perversion. This second installment in the Robocop series, directed by Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back), does contain some of Verhoeven’s intentions but is a different beast altogether. Comic book creator Frank Miller (Sin City, Batman: Year One, Hard Boiled, 300) penned this sequel and his brand of humor and writing is apparent – Robocop 2 is enjoyable and clever at times – but it’s missing the outsider’s perspective (Verhoeven is Dutch) making Robocop such a clever and insightful film.
Like in the first Robocop, this sequel is littered with phony advertisements critiquing America’s commercialization. However, where each of Verhoeven’s ad’s say something intuitive about America, the 8mpg 6000 SUX, the “sports heart,” or the board game Nukem commenting on America’s fascination with excess, violence, and materialism, the commercials in Robocop 2 aren’t as witty. Instead they rely on over-exaggerated representations of early ‘90s issues: a car alarm which kills the criminal, suntan lotion protecting against lethal rays, and an executive killing himself for picking the wrong data carrier. Here are a few, which are funny but lacking the subtlety of Verhoeven’s stabs:
Unlike the first Robocop, which is undoubtedly fantasy (A robot cop??? Come on?), Robocop 2 strays even further into comic book territory, incorporating less of Verhoeven’s violent realism. Nobody is blow to pieces by the menacing ED-209; nobody turned into a toxic abomination and smashed with a 6000 SUX; nobody has their arms blown off or brains scattered by Red from That ‘70s Show. Verhoeven saw mangled bodies growing up during World War II, scenes which he claims colored his worldview – his violence reflects the actual consequences of carnage. Robocop 2 doesn’t. Instead its violence is a pantomime of the original, only containing a portion of Verhoeven’s trajectory. Where Robocop/Murphy is a Christ figure in Verhoeven’s film the character is now more like Quasimodo, watching from the lonely annals of the OCP controlled police station.
Robocop 2 skimps on the violence but still criticizes America sharply, keeping in line with its predecessor. In fact, Robocop 2 is even more scathing in its critique, almost at times driving the point home too heavily. In this film OCP forecloses on Detroit, making it the first corporate run city. OCP begins mimicking Nazi’s – OCP security wear Gestapo-like uniforms, the OCP flags outside their city hall are almost identical to the Nazi flag – and their attitude is clearly fascist. Miller successfully elaborates on Ed Neumeier’s original but its abrasiveness doesn’t carry the weight of the first film, making it a lesser film – even if it’s still a fun and pretty decent sequel. I can’t fully dismiss the hyper-critical commentary of Robocop 2 because it’s funny and poignant yet it’s missing something. Whether that’s Verhoeven’s influence or the franchise’s popularity corrupting the product is uncertain; after all, Kershner did direct arguably the most popular of the Star Wars saga, adding to his credibility.
Robocop was Verhoeven’s first jaunt into American film – doing the film Flesh and Blood (featuring American actors including Jennifer Jason Leigh) and doing one episode of HBO’s The Hitchhiker don’t necessarily count. His homeland, The Netherlands, even though critical of his hyper-real scenes of sex and violence, has a different view on the matters. The Netherlands averaged about ten murders a year in 2010; America had over 15,000 in 2009. The other comparisons in violent crime are about the same (The Netherlands would have about 200 murders a year if their population matched the U.S.). It’s hard to imagine somebody coming from such a place seeing America as nothing but a wild kingdom, where everybody has guns and crime is rampant. I was only there a week and can see the differences and they are vast.
Of course The Netherlands has its issues, just like everywhere else, but coming to a country rife with excessive commercialism and a different hyper-consumerist culture had to be a culture shock. A look at the camp classic Troll 2, and director Claudio Fragasso’s (using the name Drake Floyd) depictions of middle class Americans – Joshua’s bedroom is a mishmash of pre-teen popular culture in no discernable order – demonstrate an unfamiliarity with the intricacies of our popular culture. Verhoeven’s level of familiarity is uncertain but even an awareness of American popular culture’s doesn’t prepare one for its intricacies. Even the tropes making certain titles popular may vary. And then there’s the difference between outlooks on sex and violence. Perhaps it’s the vast cultural differences between both directors (Verhoeven and Kershner) contributing to the difference between the two films. Yes, both work within similar parameters but create a different product.
Another key difference between Robocop and the Kershner’s sequel is the different attitudes regarding drugs. Robocop 2 features a decrepit Detroit, brought down by the new “designer” drug Nuke (taken in the neck – probably in the jugular), clearly stating America’s attitude towards drug use (especially during the Reagan and Bush administrations). America’s been fighting The War on Drugs for the last few decades and losing. Billions, if not trillions, of dollars have been wasted fighting against drug use – all the while propping up the black market Robocop fights against – and people still get high. The late, great Bill Hicks commented about America’s drug war poignantly and summed up my point: “There’s a war going on, and people on drugs are winning it! Well what does that tell you about drugs?” Going into a lengthy diatribe regarding drugs doesn’t seem necessary (above what’s already been said) but considering The Netherlands’ drastically different stance towards drug use Miller’s script reveals a more American perspective towards the issue.
Yes, Robocop 2 contains some poignant subtext and is a fun ride but is ultimately a lesser film. My contention is it’s because of Verhoeven’s perspective, coming from a European country and entering America in the middle of Reagan’s administration. Culture shock is an understatement, especially when coming from a nation with little violent crime, legalized soft drugs, and legal prostitution. The puritanical hang-ups most American carry, even subconsciously, wouldn’t work in Verhoeven’s native land. It’s no wonder he’s so hyper-critical of America in the ‘80s.
Here is the trailer: