ARCHIVE ROBO:PD REVIEW
By Glenn Orr
Fireworks Entertainment’s TV miniseries RoboCop: Prime Directives starts off promisingly enough. As with previous RoboCop efforts, on both the big and small screens, our entrée into Prime Directives (hereafter referred to in this review as PD) comes by way of a futuristic mock newscast entitled “Media Net.” Based upon the pellet o’ news “Media Breaks” in the RoboCop feature films, the makers of PD employ the “Media Net” segments here in a similar fashion, using them to provide expository narrative information while simultaneously sending up modern American culture with suitably satiric panache. In fact, PD’s “Media Net” moments are among the strongest in the four-part miniseries, offering a strikingly savvy and prescient take on where the news media are headed by way of genetically splicing Fox News.com with CNBC, replete with a hefty helping of “The Jerry Springer Show” thrown in for good measure.
The results are at once hilarious and disturbing. The requisite talking head TV anchors of “Media Net” spew information at us as we are bombarded, at both the top and bottom of the screen, with rapid-fire news-ticker graphics displaying stock market figures, sports scores, background info on the news program’s top story, ad copy for products that can be purchased online, etc., etc., etc. At times, the vertiginous combinations of information dovetail in startlingly bizarre ways. For example, when one of the talking heads begins jabbering on about a recent spate of violence by some vigilante whack-job calling himself Bone Machine, the screen’s bottom news-ticker begins exhorting the viewing audience to go online and order their “very own Bone Machine action figure” before supplies run out!
The talking heads then inform us that RoboCop’s tenth birthday is coming up. To commemorate the occasion, “Media Net” has happily put together a sensationalistic, “World’s Scariest Police Chases” type of DVD of RoboCop’s greatest hits, car chases and explosions entitled Delta City’s Hero and available for immediate order at the “Media Net” website. Later in the miniseries, after RoboCop goes AWOL and his corporate masters at OCP (who also happen to own “Media Net”) declare him an outlaw and order him destroyed, “Media Net” rebounds and shields itself from taking a bath on its unsold stock of Delta City’s Hero by shamelessly repackaging the DVD as Delta City’s Villain.
In my view, PD scriptwriters Joseph O’Brien and Brad Abraham deserve major credit for getting it right here with regard to the political proclivities of the news media. The argument still rages on as to whether the news media have a liberal or a conservative bias, however, it’s not as clear-cut as that. If anything, the news media are guilty of engaging in the politics of the dramatic, of deifying and lionizing a certain privileged few and then, after growing weary of their exalted mugs, summarily knocking them off of their media-ordained pedestal, just for the sake of keeping things “interesting.” The news media seem to need very little good reason to resort to such hatchet jobs. Simply provide them a half-baked negative story on the party in question, filled with inaccuracies and innuendoes, and that will surely suffice. The fact that O’Brien and Abraham’s capture this so accurately is a credit to them as shrewd observers of the media.
However, and quite unfortunately, the story of PD does not simply end there.
This is a RoboCop story, after all, right? So what of good ol’ Robo, anyway, or as those who know him best like to call him, Murphy? Peter Weller, who played Murphy so brilliantly in the first two feature films, is long gone, of course. (And from what I understand, Weller had grown so weary of the physically taxing nature of the hot and heavy RoboSuit, he wouldn’t have returned to the role again for all of King Solomon’s gold.) In Weller stead, veteran TV actor Page Fletcher steps into Robo’s formidable shoes.
I’d like to say that Fletcher doesn’t miss a beat here as ol’ Robo. I really would. Sadly, though, I cannot. While Fletcher is certainly a very fine actor, he’s physically wrong for the part. If I had to guess, I’d say that he’s about 5’6” or 5’7” and most everyone else in PD’s cast towers over him, which proves to be a fundamental problem. RoboCop is supposed to be a physically imposing character. In fact, he’s supposed to be the most physically imposing character in the story, period. However, since most of Fletcher’s fellow cast members can easily gaze right over the top of his shiny RoboHelmet, it creates a kind of psychological dissonance for the viewer: We know that RoboCop is supposed to be intimidating and even fearsome, however, here he looks like little more than an outsized, metal-plated yard gnome!
Of course, considering that PD was directed by Julian Grant, the same man that in 1998 tried to pass off Steve Guttenberg as an action hero (no, I’m not making this up) in the laughably bad direct-to-video “action movie” Airborne, all of this makes sense in a weird sort of way.
However, the fact that Grant picked a “vertically-challenged” actor to portray the hero of PD is really the least of his problems. Grant must’ve also been too busy during PD’s preproduction to hook up with Fletcher and go over, oh say, how Fletcher was going to ambulate within the RoboSuit. If not, then Grant really needs to get his eyes checked out forthwith because Fletcher’s RoboMovements in the miniseries are downright awful.
On the first two Robo pictures, the producers hired renowned mime artist and choreographer Moni Yakim to help Peter Weller get a handle on the role’s intense physicality, and the investment paid off handsomely. On PD, however, apparently such expenditures were deemed superfluous and eliminated from the budget. Yet, considering that RoboCop is the miniseries’ main character, the character needing to be lavished with the most attention--especially with regard to issues of movement and ambulation, so as to ensure precise execution and verisimilitude--such an oversight on Grant’s part is simply beyond the pale. The sad result: Fletcher spends most of his time in PD stumbling and bumbling about in the RoboSuit, fists eternally and inexplicably clenched, wildly swinging his arms to and fro in a bizarre echo of Rock'em Sock'em Robots, and walking as if there were a warm, freshly laid dump permanently ensconced in his RoboDrawers.
To add insult to injury, RoboCop’s makeup FX in PD really leave something to be desired. When Murphy finally removed his RoboHelmet in the original feature film, it was a strange, utterly unforgettable cinematic moment. Revulsion and wonderment swept through the audience as it gazed upon makeup FX genius Rob Bottin’s Frankensteinian masterwork. In fact, Bottin’s FX work was so impressive that it appeared as if Peter Weller had become the ultimate method actor in history on RoboCop, having put himself “into the role” by having the rear half of his skull shorn away and replaced by a titanium braincase that teemed with circuits, wires, metallic flanges and exhaust vents.
Sadly, in PD, no such subterfuge avails itself to the viewer. It is clear as day that we are looking at makeup FX when Page Fletcher removes his RoboHelmet. And bad makeup FX at that. So bad, in fact, that the RoboHelmet-less Fletcher looks like Mandy Patinkin from Alien Nation, replete with what appears to be a shopworn Tupperware bowl spray-painted a drab gray and hastily slapped onto the back of Fletcher’s ridiculously enlarged noggin. What’s worse, as the miniseries goes on, Fletcher’s RoboSuit seems to fit him less and less snugly. At one point, when Murphy visits his own gravesite, the suit’s chin-guard seems to be floating independently from the rest of the RoboHelmet, careening away from Fletcher’s jaw by several maddening inches.
The makers of PD may try to justify such shoddy craftsmanship by arguing that such a look was “intentional,” since PD takes place after RoboCop has endured a long, hard decade of crime-fighting on the mean streets of Detroit. Moreover, they would likely point out that during this period of time OCP has badly neglected RoboCop’s upkeep, allowing many of his component parts to become old and obsolete. But this is a question of execution, ladies and gentlemen, not aesthetics. RoboCop’s suit and makeup FX in PD look terrible because they were incompetently constructed and poorly applied, not because the artistic merits of a dingy, grungy RoboCop were necessarily questionable. In the hands of better technicians, I’m sure that a dingy, grungy RoboCop would’ve come off smashingly.
Yet, the entire issue of Robo’s physical condition in PD does bring into sharp relief a rather significant inconsistency in the miniseries’ script. Yes, OCP did clearly allow Robo to wither away over the years. But why? For instance, OCP’s CEO proclaims in PD’s second installment that RoboCop is the “best product we’ve ever made. One of the few successes we’ve ever had. If it weren’t for RoboCop, many of us wouldn’t have jobs.” Well, if that were the case, why in the hell would they then allow him to rot for 10 years in the basement of some Detroit police precinct?
No matter, though. The second episode races ahead, perhaps hoping to quell such questions by throwing a new cybernetic crime prevention unit at us, this one culled from the remains of murdered Delta City Security Commander John T. Cable. Although in the miniseries he comes to be nicknamed RoboCable, for purposes of this review I shall call him RoboShaft. Why? Well, first of all, because Cable is played by the big, the black, the bad Maurice Dean Wint. Wint has appeared in a number of syndicated TV programs over the years, most notably as the kick-ass android from the short-lived “Tek War” series. I’m not sure if film director John Singleton auditioned Wint when he was casting his big budget Shaft remake or not, but if he didn’t, he’s a damn fool. Wint would’ve made a fine John Shaft. And if Samuel L. Jackson ever tires of the part, Wint could capably slip into the role in a heartbeat.
Anyway, while Fletcher was eminently wrong for Robo duty, Wint is eminently right. By my guess, Wint appears to be about 6’3” or 6’4” and 220 lbs. Your basic prototypical NFL quarterback. And your basic prototypical cybernetic crime-fighter. Yet, while RoboShaft looks legit from head to toe, decked out in smoky black chrome armor, mirrored visor and two (count ‘em, two!) leg holsters for his two (count ‘em, two!) Auto 9s, Wint’s RoboMovements are just as off the mark as Fletcher’s. For one thing, he swings his arms about in essentially the same weird Rock'em Sock'em Robots fashion as Fletcher. For another, once Wint dons his RoboSuit, his head never sits levelly again for the rest of the miniseries. Wint is constantly looking down at the ground as if his mother has just scolded him for saying a bad word. Maybe his RoboHelmet was made out of lead. Who knows?
Once again, the blame for this sort of oversight must be laid at the feet of Julian Grant. He’s the director. He’s the boss on the show. It was his responsibility to make sure that these things were taken care of, and he didn’t.
Okay, so the RoboMovements and makeup FX in PD are significantly less than stellar. What about the miniseries’ action scenes? I mean, this is a Robo movie after all (albeit a TV movie), right?
Oh, how do I loathe PD’s action scenes? Let me count the ways...
Those who are familiar with Julian Grant’s decidedly unimpressive B-movie oeuvre (most especially the aforementioned Airborne) already know what I’m talking about here. Grant fancies himself an ace action director, in the mold of George (Mad Max) Miller and James (The Terminator) Cameron. However, unlike those esteemed cinematic kineticists, Grant has absolutely no sense of timing or geography when it comes to arranging action set pieces. To be perfectly candid, his “style,” as it were, is actually more in line with that of an unadorned hack like Roger (Battlefield Earth) Christian. Grant’s action scenes go on and on and on, in a way that oscillates between being boringly redundant and spatially confusing. Grant will repeat the same information time and again, such as having a procession of nameless, faceless bad guys meet repetitive, cookie-cutter deaths at the hands (or rather guns) of the good guys, and all the while within settings where it’s difficult to tell where the bad guys are positioned at and/or coming from with respect to the good guys.
Moreover, Grant’s action scenes often feature his characters doing patently stupid things, leaving the viewer only further confounded. For example, near the end of the miniseries’ second episode, OCP dispatches their newly minted RoboShaft and a band of so-called RoboHunters to track the now-AWOL Murphy down and destroy him. These RoboHunters, who look like a bunch of rejects from a Chris Cunningham music video, are essentially indistinguishable from one another thanks their standard-issue black wetsuits, black motorcycle helmets and silver ray guns, which bear the unfortunate moniker of “Goozee Guns” (isn’t “goozee” a porn movie euphemism for sperm?) and emit lightning bolts!
No kidding, folks. Lightning bolts.
At any rate, the RoboHunters roll up on Murphy, who is now hiding out in the squalid ruins of Old Detroit, and do their corporate-mandated worst, unleashing arc after arc of electrical current on our poor cybernetic hero. These RoboHunters are so utterly reprehensible they don’t even seem to mind accidentally zapping a defenseless little girl who happens to be standing nearby. Well, of course, our trusty Robo will simply not stand for this and begins crawling towards the helpless little tyke, now lying lifelessly on the ground, in an apparent attempt to protect her. Emphasis on apparent. By crawling towards her--rather than, oh say, away from her--Murphy is only drawing more of the RoboHunters’ “fire” in her direction, thus increasing the chances that she will be electrocuted. And if Murphy is crawling towards her to try to shield her from being shocked any further, then he’s not as smart as he looks.
Science Lesson Time, folks: Robo’s armor is made out of metal, so he’s basically acting as one big lightning rod right now. Rather than shielding the girl, by increasing his proximity to her, he would only ensure her being zapped because the closer he is to her the easier it is for the electrical current to pass from him to her.
But, of course, Robo (magically) saves the girl, anyway. (Never mind the fact that it takes Murphy a veritable eternity to reach her, thanks to some maddeningly unskilled editing.) Murphy then (predictably) convinces RoboShaft to throw off his corporate shackles and help him escape the evil clutches of the RoboHunters. The cybernetic duo then set off into the night, with the RoboHunters in hot pursuit, thus setting the stage for more of Grant’s substandard action set pieces.
By the time the RoboHunters catch up with RoboCop and RoboShaft, we discover that the gang of dark-suited mercenaries has inexplicably and idiotically left their lightning bolt rifles behind, opting instead for machine guns and other basic firearms. Earlier in the narrative, we are told that the RoboHunters have been training to bring down cyborgs, specifically RoboCop, for 10 years. Yet, when they finally come up with a weapon that will do Delta City’s finest cyborg cop some serious damage they hastily discard it and--of all the weapons to choose from--decide to go at him with lousy machine guns?! Apparently these guys were absent that day in Cyborg Killing 101 when the instructor went over the fact that RoboCop’s armor is manifestly impervious to gunfire!
Appropriately enough, the leader of the RoboHunters, a man who spends most of his time barking loudly and ineffectually at his troops, is one of the most incompetent onscreen field generals in the history of the action genre. He has access to a highly destructive Cobra Assault Cannon, a weapon that would surely take out RoboCop with one shot, yet he contents himself to merely cradling the massive rifle in his arms like a newborn baby, as his troops get mowed down all around him by the dozens. When he finally does decide to fire the damn thing, he misses RoboShaft by a mile, then incomprehensibly pats himself on the back and exclaims: “Yeah, I nailed him!” Later on, he has RoboCop and RoboCable clearly sighted up with the powerful gun and could take them both out with one single shot, but doesn’t. Instead, he nonsensically waits around for RoboShaft to finally zero his sorry ass and summarily blow his right hand off.
Ah, it’s so hard to find decent mercenaries these days...
For the most part, the last two installments of PD degenerate into an incoherent jumble of ever more badly constructed action scenes. And things get all the more convoluted with the introduction of Dr. Kaydick, a mad scientist who wants to infect SAINT, a massively powerful artificial intelligence that controls most public works and other far-flung operations throughout Delta City and Detroit, with a virus that is deadly to both computers and human beings. Yes, folks, computers and human beings!
Absurd? Ridiculous? Preposterous? Most assuredly.
Truth be told, though, despite the inherently unscientific nature of this idea, I wouldn’t have had a major problem accepting it if only the writers had more clearly sketched out its parameters. For instance, by what agency does this virus infect its human victims? Is there a period of incubation in the human victim before the effects of the virus can be detected? If so, how long?
Unfortunately, however, no attempt is made by the makers of PD to address such concerns, rendering the virus as yet another bad sci-fi contrivance in the decidedly long and sad history of bad sci-fi contrivances. In fact, this virus idea is actually a relatively atavistic one, owing its roots to that largely forgotten substratum of sci-fi cinema that virtually exhausted itself just as soon as it began back in the early 1990s: the Virtual Reality (VR) movie. Films such as The Lawnmower Man, Ghost in the Machine, Brainscan and Virtuosity all belong to this wholly unremarkable and ignoble group. Like PD’s biotech virus, the central conceit of the VR movie entailed the “world” of cyberspace impossibly breaking free of its digital constrictions and invading the materially real world, usually to pernicious effect. At most, this kind of cinema was good for a few thrills and a lot of laughs, but little else. Nothing of lasting value could be located in these readily disposable pieces of pop culture, thus making it all the more disheartening that the writers of PD would opt for such a drastic narrative left turn into this sort of silly material.
So there’s virtually nothing in PD that’s worthwhile?
Well, not entirely. There are, of course, those great “Media Net” segments, along with their accompanying futuristic TV ads, which are uniformly excellent. One commercial in particular, for the Otomo children’s toy--a kind of cross between Furby, Pokemon and the CIA’s infamous MKULTRA mind control program--had me rolling on the floor. Also, the antagonism between rival OCP executives Damian Lowe (Kevin Jubinville) and Sara Cable (Maria Del Mar) is quite delicious. Scriptwriters Joseph O’Brien and Brad Abraham provide these two with fine, acerbic dialogue to toss at one another, and Jubinville and Del Mar clearly have a ball with their roles here.
Additionally, and most significantly, there’s a quite thoroughgoing flashback in the opening episode of the miniseries that concerns Alex J. Murphy and John T. Cable, back when they were first partnered up and fresh out of the police academy, about 11 years prior to PD’s standard timeline.
While working their beat one sunny Detroit day, Murphy and Cable receive a call over police band regarding a dog that won’t stop barking. A menial task, to be sure. But the address is nearby and they’re not doing anything all that earth shattering, anyway, so they decide to check it out. Upon arriving at the scene, they discover the dog tethered to its dilapidated doghouse by a long chain and gnawing away at something. A bone. A bone that appears to be… human!
Murphy and Cable immediately make for the dog owner’s residence, bust out a small window to the home’s basement and crawl through the tiny portal. Once inside, they are greeted by a grim, frightening mélange of bloodied saw blades, disemboweled human organs, and more human bones. They have just unwittingly stumbled upon the lair of the dreaded Motor City Mangler, a serial killer who has been terrorizing Detroit for months now. Murphy and Cable soon come across two large meat freezers. They open one. More hacked up remains. Suddenly the other freezer begins to rock back and forth. After exchanging terrified glances, they quickly throw open the second freezer’s door and a young woman, bound and gagged, comes rushing out of it!
At this moment, the makers of PD had me, completely and utterly. I was totally hooked. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I’m a sucker for a good serial killer yarn, and this was shaping up to be a damn fine one. The sense of camaraderie between Page Fletcher and Maurice Dean Wint here is terrific, and the journey their characters take into the Motor City Mangler’s own private hell was totally engrossing. I enjoyed this subplot so much, in fact, that I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to continue on with these characters and this setting and get to know more about them. However, all too quickly, we are returned to PD’s standard plotline. Returned to Page Fletcher in his RoboSuit looking like… well, just some guy in a fake-o robot suit. Returned to Julian Grant’s amateurish, interminably long action scenes. Ugh.
In conclusion, there are certainly some very nice, very worthwhile moments in PD. Yet, unfortunately, even a two-hour feature film has to be about more than simply a handful of nice moments. It has to work effectively and consistently across those 120 minutes. And with PD, a miniseries that is (excluding commercial interruptions) approximately 360 minutes long, it was simply a case of too many minutes and too few satisfying moments.
The verdict: 2 out of 5 stars.