"RoboCop 2" begins with a blast of vicious satire. A thief, wandering through an underground garage, spots the car he wants, breaks in and, as he's preparing to make his escape, is clamped into place with metal bands and fried to a crisp.
The sequence, as it turns out, is a television commercial for the latest in anti-theft devices. During the news broadcast that follows it, there are reports of a radiation leak at a nuclear plant in a Brazilian rain forest, causing the destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of trees.
"Environmentalists are calling it a disaster," says the Barbie doll newscaster (played by "Entertainment Tonight's" Leeza Gibbons), adding with a chuckle, "But don't they always."
Set in the Detroit of the very near future, "RoboCop 2" is a brutal, cynically violent movie about a brutal, cynically violent civilization in decay. As savagely graphic as its predecessor but less skillful by half, the picture is about a time when all of our problems as a culture have ratcheted up a notch, when the city is bankrupt, its police force on strike, its streets a battleground ruled by a messianic terrorist named Cain, who controls the production of a potent new designer drug called Nuke.
Cain, who's given a kind of fragile malevolence by Tom Noonan, sees himself as a revolutionary leader whose mission is to create an underworld empire based on a line of specially designed drugs that offers something to everyone. His opposite number, Old Man (Daniel O'Herlihy), is the chief executive officer of Omni Consumer Products, a giant conglomerate that is threatening to foreclose on its loan to the city by taking the government "private." One man represents the ultimate in criminal evil, the other man the ultimate force of dehumanized corporate greed.
One man opposes them. A man in a can. Ask for him by name.
Directed by Irvin Kershner, from a script by Walon Green and comic book revisionist Frank Miller, "RoboCop 2" shows the signs that it might have been a heartlessly funny modern commentary, a witty satire that gave the conventional inner-city police-movie cliches a wicked spin. The original "RoboCop" was a savagely stylish comic book, but what made it so resonant was the primal plight of a man whose memories, whose humanity, was lost somewhere in the wiring. He was a kind of modern Frankenstein's monster, and a couple of early scenes in the sequel indicate that the filmmakers are interested in exploring these themes.
The notion of the ghost of a man struggling to find himself inside the machine is little more than a ghost inside this mechanistic dumpster of a movie. For the most part, the filmmakers treat us to endless noisy shootouts, mutilation (there are even a couple of nifty surgery scenes) and runaway psychopathology. The movie's more original touches are all in the area of cruelty. A scene in which RoboCop (Peter Weller) is strapped down to a table and worked over -- in succession -- by a pile driver, a chain saw and a sledgehammer, is certainly harrowing, as is a later scene in which Cain's brain (with the eyes still attached) is suspended in a jar, still alive and still conscious. The problem is, they're nothing but harrowing.
With its desensitizing blood lust, "RoboCop 2" contributes yet another ugly note to this already demoralizing season of sadism. If things continue as they have until now, the body count at the movies may reach into the millions. Yet the studios may feel that their instincts for more graphic violence are confirmed by the big dollar figures at the box office. For me, there is yet another unanswered question: How is it that so many bullets fly and Leeza Gibbons never catches one? Talk about your missed opportunities.