I’ll Buy That For A Dollar

RoboCop 3 (Ted Dekker, 1993)

The third film of a franchise comes with low expectations – by then none of the original cast are in it, or the protagonist faces an evil double, or everything is shot in 3D, or the original premise is junked. Diminishing returns doesn’t come into it.

Yet RoboCop 3 is better than it has any right to be. RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) was the director’s now trademark hyper violent satire on the corporate world, in which an almost fatally wounded cop (Alex Murphy (Peter Weller)) is made into a cyborg and forced to fight crime. He/it is the property of OCP (Omni Consumer Products) who clearly have an eye on the privatisation of the state for profit. In the sequel – directed by Irvin Kershner who directed the best (and second) instalment of a certain other trilogy – OCP are foreclosing on Detroit for non-payment. Detroit, by then, is a criminal warzone, by OCP envisaging a new gleamy city, which they will fund and profit from.

That city is still the Promised Land in the third film, but Detroit residents are being evicted supposedly to make way for the development. Functions of the state are clearly privatised and outsourced, with a new villain in the shape of Paul McDaggett (John Castle) and a new CEO in the shape of Rip Torn from The Larry Sanders Show. The Detroit police become increasingly wary of McDaggett’s plans, as rebels fight back in Old Detroit. When RoboCop’s (now Robert Burke) partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) is killed – she really ought to wear that armour she has – he sides with them against OCP, erasing the fourth directive which should prevent such things. OCP, meanwhile, are facing financial ruin and a corporate takeover from Japan. Head office send in an agent, Otomo (Bruce Locke), to try and reassert control.

It is satisfying if ironic, of course, to see the skewering of a corporation in a Hollywood movie – although of course Orion went belly up in 1999. One character tells us “There is no silver lining, only corporate scumbags who want to line their pockets” and McDaggett snarls at the CEO “If you’re just now figuring out the line between big business and war is a little blurry, then you’re further over the hill than they say you are.” OCP’s ownership of people and land is reasserted again and again – memories are property, ideas are property. The media colludes in corporate brainwashing.

Detroit was, of course, the powerhouse of the American economy, the centre of the car industry – and it is telling that RoboCop is compared to a Chevy when he needs repairs. It appears that, albeit for a brief period, the tension lines of race could be ignored in the face of working class solidarity in industrial capitalism. But outsourcing and rationalisation led to the almost complete destruction of the industry and Detroit was indeed to declare bankruptcy. African American ghettoes surrounded by declining white suburbs was the result. Motown moved to Hollywood.

The trilogy has a range of African American characters, albeit their race is not commented on at all – Johnson (Felton Perry) is a Vice President throughout, surviving when many others don’t, a visible success story. Sgt Warren Reed (Robert DoQui) is the grizzled police sergeant, who becomes the moral heart of the film. Meanwhile, the new character Bertha (C. C. H. Pounder) is a smart and charismatic leader of the rebels. (There’s another character, a pimp (Ron Leggett), who feels rather more stereotypical of Hollywood film, an echo of the mayor from the second film and a criminal from the first.)

Age has not been kind to some of the special effects – whilst the stop motion animation of the police robot was always clearly a model, flying RoboCop is clearly blue screened in. Alongside the ultraviolence and a rather awkward use of the word “slag”, we also have a child protagonist, Nikko (Remy Ryan), of mixed ethnicity and, surprisingly, less cute than you’d fear. She is a computer genius – echoes of from Lex (“Oh – a UNIX!”) Murphy Jurassic Park. Indeed, RoboCop’s feminist credentials are stronger than Jurassic World.

Of course, what doesn’t sit well is the final climactic shoot out which leaves the Detroit Police as heroes. We are clearly meant to punch the air: “It’s time to show how real cops kick ass”. But news stories about the police have been problematic of late. Here, the Repressive State Apparatus wins out over corporatism – and that is perhaps a hollow victory for the citizen.

Meanwhile, the CEO of OCP – an anagram of COP, of course, even if I kept hearing it as OCD – has visions of corporate rebirth: “I realize that it looks bad but, I mean, maybe our plans were overambitious. Let’s start a skoshy bit smaller. Let’s gentrify this neighbourhood, build strip malls, fast food chains, lots of popular entertainment. Whadda you think?”

Regeneration as land grab. Still so familiar.

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