What’s an ‘Accidental Classic’?
It’s not the opposite of a classic film but one that achieves lasting artistic merit by accident. A film like ‘Apocalypse Now’ or ‘Casablanca’ achieves classic status by measure of some alchemy and talent. Luck played a role but the films achieve more or less the aims intended by their creators in both formal elements and in greater thematic reach.
An accidental classic is a film that becomes more than the sum of the parts by being less. Where half-assed interpretation of an idea or a failure to grasp the depth of a subject makes a film that’s far more interesting than it would have been had the creative team been firing on all cylinders. Where not getting the thrust of idea leads to a far more interesting take on that theme. Films like this typically appear during transitions in the business model of the entertainment industry where the idea people and the production staff aren’t on the same page. Usually this results in nonsense and drivel, occasionally insanity gets filtered through a team of staid professional and you get something like ‘Robocop 2’.
Robocop made a lot of money in 1987 so the studio heads wanted a sequel but the Jesus Allegory slash satire of 80s excess didn’t lend itself to a sequel. The original writers came up with some Zardoz like concept that involved Robocop reanimating from metallic dust in a dystopian future that suggests they’d spent too much time on hallucinogens. Orion pictures then hired ‘dark’ comic book auteur Frank Miller to write the script and an art house picture director to helm it. The pressures of budget, impending release dates forced everyone to move forward before a clear concept was in hand.
Tim Hunter left the production over ‘creative’ differences to be replaced by Irvin Kirshner (Empire Strikes Back) at the eleventh hour and hack screenwriter Walon Green was hired to ‘punch up’ Frank Miller’s insane original script. But there wasn’t enough time to come up with a coherent concept so most of Frank Miller’s insane, teenaged misanthropic ideas made it through to the final movie, albeit filtered by a sober group of professionals who treated them as perfectly normal story telling conventions. The end result is suggests a great depth of vision that probably wasn’t intended and a detailed world through casting and little character bits that grounds a funhouse view of America vision of the future in a mundane reality.
Now that dorks have taken over large swaths of pop culture it’s easy to forget that genre films used to be made by normal adults who did normal adult things. Instead of obsessing over comics concerning some dude in a bat costume fighting another dude in clown makeup, they went to parties, they had hobbies, they read books and enjoyed theatre. They had affairs and a curiosity about the wider world, even if it was shallow. In fact you could make a time line of batman interpretations to show the progression/decline as adults left the room.
The Adam West batman series was made by men who had living memories of depression era America and serving in World War II. If you remembered real poverty and survived that to storm the beaches at Normandy or survived Japanese night attack on a Pacific destroyer at Guadalcanal, the concept of a grown man in a bat costume with boy side kick whose chief villain is a grown man who wears clown make up can only be interpreted as high camp. No batman movie was made in the seventies unless you count ‘Death Wish’ and other vigilante movies that came with the urban crime wave. That movie’s about a man with a gun and the will to use it, what Batman is once you strip away the toys, the lair and the costume.
A generation later gave us Tim Burton’s batman made in the cocaine fueled 80s, a film which offers some peeks into the mind of an adult with a bat costume but was set in a surreal impressionistic fantasy world that at least side steps the ridiculousness of the entire concept and maintains some of the camp humor inherent to the idea of the Batman. Then came Christopher Nolan’s dead serious philosophical treatises about justice, the rise and fall of civilizations and dystopia which feel like having a fourteen year old in a trench coat giving me a lecture about the corruption of the world. The Dark Knight is a film by comic book nerds, reviewed by comic book nerds and deified by comic book nerds who need themes underlined and equate ‘dark’ with quality.
Robocop II was made when people who’d never cared about comic books in the first place were still making summer blockbusters. The original Robocop was made before Paul Verhoven’s nasty mean streak overwhelmed his critical faculties was remarkably prescient in predicting looming pension crisis, the spread or urban blight and with ever increasing militarization of the police with Robocop as a stand in for S.W.A.T teams, armored personnel carriers and the like. Robocop was more or less the movie that its’ creators wished to make, even if the crime lord presented in the film is a balding middle-aged white man with glasses who’s called Clarence Boddicker.
Years after the events in the original Robocop, Detroit is on the verge of bankruptcy, the police are on strike due to their pensions getting cut (did someone involved with this film have a time machine?), and a new drug is accelerating the descent of Detroit into full blown urban blight. Mega corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) wants to take Detroit private in a foreclosure and introduce the heavily armed Robocop Mark II to clean up the slums to pave the way for a gleaming gentrified future.
Based on Sin City, Frank Miller has the worldview of a really smart thirteen year old boy who absorbs a lot of pop culture but doesn’t have any deep interests beyond that. He also writes women from the perspective of a guy who views them with a mix of lust and terror. There’s a difference between a precocious teenager’s view of a corrupt system in decline and grown adult’s view of the same process. Unlike the kid in the trenchcoat, the grown adult gets the joke. Adults all around him are bluffing and pretending to care, but then people go on with their lives and have a drink at the bar. It’s the difference between your teenaged fantasies about role playing a pure hero on the work stage and the reality of savoring a minor victory after five years on the job.
This is a film that has more than many scene of grown criminals taking life and death orders from a foul mothed fourth-grader with no explanation or commentary. It’s just presented as mundane reality in the off-kilter world of the film. The drug gang includes a guy who dresses like Elvis and a Paul Abdul clone for no explainable reason that lends a great deal of depth to the group that clearly wasn’t there in the script. The aforementioned drug gang is led by an ex-hippie Jim Jones like style cult leader, a conceit that shouldn’t work except they cast Tom Noonan, a man so good at playing people who’ll skin you alive that he’s probably suspected of every murder that happens within ten miles of him, as the insane drug lord Cain. His equation of Robocop’s vendetta to the persecution of Jesus hints at depths of delusion.
On paper, Frank Miller was probably imagining something closer to gang out of Sin City or something a latter day Quentin Tarantino would imagine. The actual film presents these characters with no background or explanation as if they were familiar archetypes. The cognitive dissonance creates a subconscious illusion of a world gone off-kilter.
It’s a film that takes an insane giant corporation conspiracy that leads to putting a psychotic murderer’s brain in a killer robot and presents it is it were the corporate equivalent of buying a competitor to hide undisclosed debts on a stock report. The evil corporation is presented as an enabler of petty one-upping, passive aggressive sabotage, ass kissing and career agendas that suggests Enron if it had ever gotten into the killer robot business. The depths of corruption between OCP and the city of Old Detroit were largely implied due to time constraints, but that rather than making the backstabbing seem perfunctory, it has the effect of weaving into the web of the story like a Robert Altman film about city politics.
Robocop II features a big city machine mayor who seems influenced by Marion Barry but gets his moments of heroism and humanity while remaining a figure of ridicule. In one scene, after being offered fifty-million dollars in cash from the aforementioned fourth-grade kingpin to stop Detroit’s foreclosure he tells a skeptical underling ‘Why do you have to label people? You know that I hate labels!”. It’s a great throw away character bit that grounds a scene that is surreal only in retrospect, and that speaks volumes about the wacky mayor of Detroit who was a character before his real world counterpart Kwame Kilpatrick was ever elected (again, the makers of this film appear to have predicted the future). Even the denouncement when the corporate villain gets away with it in the end is presented as the result of petty corporate governance protecting its’ own, and not as some grand statement about the corruption of man.
It’s here that Robocop II of all movies make for an interesting comparison to ‘The Dark Knight’. Christopher Nolan makes his statements in grand operatic gestures, announcing the theme, then revealing the theme and then making sure that you appreciate the genius of him having made that theme. The Joker’s evil villainy is revealed during a HEAT ripoff style heist and PG-13 Jigsaw killer pranks that are underlined at every moment. Robocop II features a scene of Tom Noonan’s cult leader Caine calmly watching a man get vivisected with a calm Budda smile in a scene that gave me nightmares and more casual cruelty that’s made more shocking by understatement.
The difference is that Dark Knight takes place in the adult world you imagined when you were fourteen and you were the righteous hero in all your mental stories and the world didn’t understand you. A world that’s darkness is a reflection of you disappointment in realizing that adults actually lie to you and your parents can save you from every bad thing. ‘Robocop’, ‘Robocop II’ and even ‘Darkman’ take place in the real thing. A world of adults take their dystopic surroundings as normal life and develop a sense of humor to deal with it. A world where corruption is rationalized after the fact as something that was the lesser of two evils. A world where normal people do make a difference, even if they’ll never be recognized for that quiet heroism.
More importantly, Robocop II takes presents a world where some people are just insane and evil. Cain isn’t given an origin story that would make his psychotic villainy comprehensible. We learn nothing about Hob, the foul mouthed fourth grade lieutenant, other than his function within the gang, no peeks to his home life, who his parents are what he was like in school. Teenagers really care about what pain drove someone over the edge, adults know that it rarely matters. You deal with people as they are, right now and some are so far over the edge, there is no reasoning with them.
Robocop II even features in Anne Lewis (played by Nancy Allen) an interesting take on the feminist girl power character made potent for clearly being unintentional on ideological grounds. Anne Lewis is depicted as being a heroic cop on the Detroit PD but she’s never shown doing anything wildly beyond the real life abilities of a street smart female cop. She plays a crucial role in two different police gunfights by taking the initiative in a flanking maneuver rather than doing anything specifically badass. She wins her one fist fight by not losing, but she ends up gasping for air on the ground instead of using fantastical karate skills to win the day. With her unremarkable appearance and cheap haircut she even looks like someone you would bump into in line at the local mall. The lack of any background given to her about her personal life, similarly mirrors have your work friendships actually go. Anne Lewis becomes a far more potent feminist statement than the white knighting fantasies of comic book dorks by understatement. She’s a far cry from women from ‘Sin City’ or ‘Iron Man’.
There’s one scene in the film that has tremendous dramatic resonance where an amoral corporate psychologist, Dr. Faxx, convinces Robocop to deny the humanity within himself. Systematically she convinces him to accept that he can never live as a normal human. It’s one of a few scenes where the frantic pace of the film slows down and the camera focuses on faces. What’s left of Alex Murphy needs the hope of human affection and a meaning to go forward and Dr. Faxx needs Robocop to perform like a programmable corporate widget. Clearly intended, originally, as the femme fatale of the piece, is toned down in the final film into someone you’d recognize giving a presentation on risk management at a corporate seminar. She’s meant to be evil, but it’s a subtle evil that goes undiscovered for years as long as it serves the needs of her paymasters. Nor is she ever shown being incompetent. It’s Faxx that identifies a strong sense of duty as what kept Alex Murphy alive once he was reborn as a cyborg and who plants the idea of using a drug addicted cult leader’s brain to power the film’s titular super cyborg.
Robocop Mark II or Robocain is the highlight of a film that was an interesting mix of satire, drama and action film prior to its’ entrance. Realized through stop-motion animation, canny cinematography and inventive sound effects, Robocain comes alive as a menacing mechanical character with a distinct personality. At time resembling a stylized medieval knight, and others, a piece of Imperial military equipment from a nightmare version of the Empire Strikes Back from others, it’s never less than wholly convincing piece of fake military equipment.
The robot villain from the first Robocop, ED-209 was never plausible as a piece of urban combat equipment. It’s too clumsy to handle unimproved surfaces, too large to enter industrial spaces and too heavily armed to be effective at anything short of full blown combat in Baghdad. ED-209 is a bit of corporate satire that’s far too exaggerated to work on the level of the rest of Robocop.
Robocain is a far more plausible extrapolation from the world of Robocop that’s as convincing as Yoda and probably the most terrifying cinematic robot in the history of film. First revealed in a terrifying warehouse massacre that’s more frightening than most scenes in out and out horror films, Robocain has a head, with no face and style of movement that can only be described as ‘swagger’. The overly complicated design keeps you from getting a fixed mental image of the thing, the ratchet like sound effects give it a unique aural signature, and the small flaws in stop motion animation mimic the hyper precise movement of assembly line robots.
The scenes featuring Robocain massacring scores of cops and civilians should be the answer to anyone wondering why Storm Troopers in Star Wars can’t hit anything, and why their armor is useless. This is especially true in the long climax of the film which may be the finest insane robot goes on rampage scene ever put in a motion picture and one that features far more dead heroes and bystanders than typically shown in an ostensive comic style movie.
Again, it’s the insane, adolescent ideas filtered through an adult viewpoint that make the set piece work so well. Robocain is first presented at a corporate press conference by the corrupt Chairman of OCP and then starts a gunfight with Robocop right there in the convention hall. After Robocain mows down bystanders and desperate police officers, the old man scolds the two robots to behave themselves in a surreal moment as if they were children having a water gunfight on his lawn. It’s a hint at the entitlement complex beneath his kindly old man demeanor.
The battle spills out into the streets and the Detroit PD wages a desperate gunfight against the killer robot. Kirshner handled this scene following the convention of a disaster movie instead of an action movie, focusing on the frantic actions of the overmatched police department to protect scores of frightened civilians from gunfire. Civilians are shot trying to flee, television reporters are shot right off their station van, an ambulance is blown into flames. What on the page were probably intended as black humor is treated with dead seriousness lending a degree of terrifying randomness to its’ wrath. However the epic gunfight predates MTV style editing and confusing shaky cam in action scenes and there’s a clear sense of the ebb and flow of the tactics in the gun battle even when Robocop is trying to pull the monster robot’s brain out.
There’s a fantastic moment, after the monster has seemingly been defeated when there’s a pause in the action. People try to wake their dead loved ones, emergency workers carry shell shocked colleagues to safety, police officers tentatively come out from behind the wrecked cars that they were using for cover. It looks like the aftermath of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack with that strange comradery that binds strangers in intense experiences and it’s jarring in an action thriller that usually ignores these moments.
Then there’s a sign that the monster is still alive. Exhausted police officers guide the civilians away from danger and the reporters who are still alive call their stations that they have to leave and make a frantic exit before Robocain re-emerges and, for lack of a better term, pimp walks back into view. There’s a brief shot of the Dr. Jaxx watching her creation with a mix of aww and fear, oblivious to everyone fleeing around her. The only odd thing about the scene is part of the Robocop franchise, what do people keep shooting bullets at the bullet proof object?
All the while there are brief cutaways to the corporate team planning their next PR move while watching their corporate product gun down scores of police officers before news cameras. The focus on desperate humans over flashy action was probably dictated by the limitations in late 80s special effects technology but it works. A lot of the more practical special effects in films made during the mid 80s and 90s hold up because the directors were forced to find the most evocative way of conveying the impact of their difficult effects.
I’ve always thought that a great opportunity was missed by the makers of Robocop III. Imagine a rival mega corporation mounts a hostile takeover after the public relations disaster of Robocop Mark II’s rampage and then uses the news footage to see the combat robot to foreign governments worried about revolutions and coups. Imagine the joke adds ‘Even a paramilitary police department couldn’t stop the Robocop Mark II! Don’t you deserve the same protection?’
Robocop II is a film that’s surprisingly re-watchable. Some of the most surreal moments are treated with such nonchalance that their oddness is clear only in retrospect. It presents realistic view of political corruption and big business collusion, made more convincing because no message was implied. It grapples with issues of identity at oblique angles and presents the kind of ‘slum ambiance’ that films have a hard time presenting anymore. The overly busy plot forced the film makers to imply a great deal of background information through short hand and a series of quick moments that creature a coherent texture to a fictional world cobbled together out of comic book ideas and action film clichés.
More importantly, Robocop II is an eerily prescient movie. Issues involving the what happens when cities go bankrupt and the fear of gentrification have only become more pronounced in the quarter century after its’ release. The depiction of a police force militarization itself up to fight increasingly violent criminality is now influencing national elections. The use of robotics in combat situations too dangerous to send humans into is now part of military industrial complex contracting.
It’s a far more interesting movie than whatever would’ve been produced by following Frank Miller’s vision in spirit or following the will of the corporate suits.