In 'RoboCop 3,' this man of steel has lost his edge


Oh, no, Robo, say it ain't so.

But it is so, and let us weep many bitter tears for the demise of "RoboCop," the brilliantly subversive hero of Paul Verhoeven's astounding and lurid 1987 film. Now it's "RoboCop 3," and he's been turned from a ruthless avatar of violence against the lawless into a politically correct Chia dog to the point where he's no longer recognizeable. He's become cuddly. He's not RoboCop anymore; he's a social worker with a breast plate.

Of course it was too much to hope for. Verhoeven, the mad Dutch screwball genius who likes to walk on the wild side ("Total Recall," "Basic Instinct"), has long since abandoned the project to which he brought such wit and daring. So has Irvin Kershner, who directed No. 2. Now we're stuck with Fred Dekker, a horror film buff turned director, sort of.

Peter Weller's another A.W.O.L. Showing up in his place is Robert John Burke, a look-alike who's been a very interesting presence in the independent films of Hal Hartley, the Stanley Kubrick of Long Island. But it's difficult to tell if Burke is up to Weller's standards or not because the film is constructed in such a way that its own central character has very little to do except stand around and look like a cigar store indigenous American.

The plot has some inherent power as it seems borrowed from an episode in history, and re-enacts it without a trace of self-consciousness. That would be the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, in which an almost helpless population of Polish Jews fought the mechanized columns of the Third Reich to an absolute standstill. As "Robo 3" has it, the people of "Cadillac Heights, New Detroit" are scheduled for "re-settlement" and their neighborhood for razing. The agents of this violence are a breed of urban soldiers called "Re-Habs," under the command of a tyrannical movie-Nazi (complete to his blond hair, blue eyes and epicene British accent), played by John Castle.

There's a lot of Warsaw Ghetto imagery: walls glistening with barbed wire, guerrillas huddled in sewers, late night roundups by elite troops, gray armored vehicles crunching down city streets. This stuff works, primarily on sheer visual iconography association. But nothing else does.

Someone came up with the idea of having evil Japanese behind it all, and the racism is far more flamboyant than in "Rising Sun" and more disturbing for its nonchalance. None of the action sequences have true zing. A cloyingly cute little girl computer hacker turns things icky-poo every time she appears, and poor Nancy Allen shows up for a few minutes to perform one act, and then vanishes early. She had the right idea.

"RoboCop 3"

Starring Robert John Burke and Nancy Allen

Directed by Fred Dekker

Released by Orion

Rated PG-13

... **

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