If It Only Had A Heart

If you thought Old Detroit was going to the dogs in "RoboCop," wait till you see what horrors lurk in RoboCop 2. Crime is rampant in the streets, the city has gone bankrupt, the police are on strike and half the population seems to be strung out on a deadly new drug called Nuke. All of this looks like good news to Omni Consumer Products (OCP), the heartless corporation that runs the police department and, as it turns out, wants to foreclose on the city itself. "We're taking Detroit private!" OCP announces with greedy glee, smelling profit in urban chaos.

To control their new city, OCP wants a new, improved cyborg, and they set their scientists to work building a bigger, more brutal law-enforcement machine. It's the fiendish idea of Dr. Faxx (Belinda Bauer) to implant the brain of a psychotic criminal in the new cyborg, to insure the most ruthlessly efficient results.

Is RoboCop/Murphy (Peter Weller) obsolete? Our knight in shining armor is still struggling with his own identity crisis: is he man or machine? At the start of this sequel, director Irvin Kershner ("The Empire Strikes Back") and writers Frank Miller and Walon Green set us up for an exploration of this futuristic mind/body dilemma. Murphy's widow has filed a complaint to keep the hunk of metal from lurking outside her house: she's spooked that this machine insists he's her husband. There's a surprisingly touching scene where RoboCop has to be reprogrammed to deny his humanity. Kershner's accomplishment in the first half of "RoboCop 2"--which offers up the original's mixture of crunching action, dystopian satire and depraved villainy--is the genuine pathos this conflicted tin man evokes.

But a curious thing happens to this sequel. It forgets what it's about. In the last third of the movie, the character of RoboCop vanishes behind his visor, the script loses its focus, and the special effects take over. Crunch. Bam. Kaboom. See RoboCop duke it out with RoboCop 2. You may never know whether Murphy has completely turned into a machine, but you know the movie has, and boredom sets in.

When sequels lose their nerve, they usually do it in the same way: afraid to advance into uncharted territory, they merely duplicate the scenes that made the original a hit. But Kershner's heart doesn't seem to be in the violence (Paul Verhoeven did it better in the original, and he's still doing it in "Total Recall, " another paranoid futureshock epic). One still laughs at the news briefs and futuristic commercials (now that the ozone layer has been destroyed, they're peddling Sunblock 5000), but they were fresher the first time out. "RoboCop 2" muffs its chance to offer up the screen's first tragic machine hero. You keep waiting for Murphy's widow to reappear. She never does. And neither does Murphy.