This second teaming of writer Ed Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven is not close to being the equal of their first effort, RoboCop. The attempts at social commentary are just as ham handed and the 1997 film lacks the humor and human dimension of the first. Fans of the original Robert A. Heinlein novel are also advised to steer well clear, as any resemblance between the source material and the final product is strictly accidental beyond the title and the names of a few characters. All this would be forgivable if it produced a good movie. Sadly, forgiveness is impossible in this case.
The film does offer some nifty special effects and plenty of grue for fans of the old ultra-violence, but other elements like story logic and characters that matter to us are missing in action. While the original novel is required reading at U.S. military academies, the effect of this movie at West Point would probably be more like watching Blazing Saddles while sucking laughing gas. (“Right, we have the technology to cross half the galaxy but we have to send foot soldiers down to the planet to fight it out, hand to, um, pincer/claw/whatever. Never mind that our weapons are completely ineffective unless you shoot the damn things fifty times, let’s get right up to inside impaling distance! Yippie-ki-yay, motherf– Arrrrrrrrrgh!”)
Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is the son of a wealthy Buenos Aries family living in a fascistic future where the full rights of citizenship only come to those who volunteer for “Federal Service.” Humankind appears to be at war with a race of aliens known as the Bugs. Johnny’s über-hot girlfriend, Carmen (Denise Richards) is über-hot to volunteer and the stirring in “Little Johnny” compels him to follow suit, much to the dismay of his elitist father, who had dreams of Harvard for his boy.
After they enlist, Carmen goes to flight school and Johnny into the infantry. Their friend Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), a psychic, goes into the intelligence corps, who all dress like they bought their uniforms at Heinrich Himmler’s yard sale. Herr Doogie then disappears from the movie from the movie for all intents and purposes, until near the end, where his appearance serves little purpose that couldn’t be fulfilled by a nameless extra.
Boot camp is like the first third of Full Metal Jacket with live ammo. Broken arms and knife wounds are like skinned knees at day camp. Johnny manages to impress Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown) and get promoted to squad leader but then gets a “Dear Johnny” message from Carmen. Fortunately, there is Dizzy Fuentes (Dina Meyer), who stalked, er, followed him all the way from Buenos Aires and who really wants to make him forget all about old what’s-her-name. Still that doesn’t stop Johnny from committing a major screw-up that gets a member of his team killed. He’s ready to quit when the Bugs drop a meteor on Buenos Aires, killing his family and obliterating any home he might return to. Quitting is no longer much of an option.
Johnny’s unit is sent to Klendathu, the Bug’s home planet and finds that the enemy, thought to be mindless drones, is more sophisticated and deadly than anticipated. Needless to say, things do not go well and large numbers of Rico’s comrades die in spectacularly R-rated ways.
Both Casper Van Dien and Dina Meyer were veterans of TV’s Beverly Hills, 90210 and that is completely appropriate, as the early parts of this movie play out like a big budget prime-time soap opera, only without the narrative depth. Melrose Place is an Ingmar Bergman film festival compared to this. Van Dien gives a decent performance, given what he has to work with here. Denise Richard displays her normally low talent-to-breast-size ratio. Dina Meyer is enthusiastic and looks great naked but there’s not nearly enough of that to save this movie.
The only cast members who make any impression at all are Michael Ironside, a runner-up to Peter Weller for the role of Murphy in RoboCop, as Rasczak, Johnny’s high-school teacher who becomes his commander later in the movie, and Clancy Brown. They bring a level of grit and maturity that thoroughly outshines the remaining cast of recently promoted television actors.
Verhoeven, who admits he only read part of the book before getting bored, is more interested in satirizing what he sees as American militarism. Any kind of militarism is a pretty easy target and Verhoeven’s approach lacks anything in the way of subtlety or surprises. This movie is the satirical equivalent of three runs up the middle and a punt.