Vilifying Children the Right Way
RoboCop 2 (1990) Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, and Gabriel Damon. Directed by Irvin Kershner. Written by Frank Miller and Walon Green.
RoboCop 2 starts off with an anti-youth slant. In the first ten minutes, we see the heroic cyborg bust in on a plant making the super-potent narcotic "nuke." Among the criminals is Hob (Gabriel Damon), a boy no older than 14. Sighting Hob, RoboCop holds his fire. But young Hob shows no gratitude. He sneers at RoboCop's compassion. "Can't shoot a kid, huh?" Then Hob shoots RoboCop in the head, essentially punishing our adult hero for not hurting a child. Typical Hollywood anti-youth message.
Even this early in the film, things aren't as bad as they could be. While the kid is ungrateful and even a bit sadistic (he grins as he shoots RoboCop), he is not the worst person in his environment. In this near-future fantasy film, the streets have become a Hobbesian state of nature where criminal savagery reaches comic proportions. Hob, so appropriately named for this world, fits right in.
The next time we see Hob, he and another member of the drug gang are getting information from a crooked cop. The other gang member is an adult, but Hob is the one calling the shots. The cop gives his info to Hob, then Hob tells the adult gangster, "Pay the man," and the adult gangster does as he's told.
Hob buys a cop
Before Hob and the other gangster can escape the scene of their bribing, RoboCop and his fully-human partner (Nancy Allen) bust in on them. RoboCop roughs up the crooked officer while his partner tackles the adult gangster. Hob has a chance to flee, but instead he tries to rescue his partner by attacking Allen. Few films have offered a child character with this much loyalty and valor. Sadly, it doesn't last. Hob does a great job fighting Nancy Allen, nearly killing her. But when things get rough, he flees, abandoning his adult partner.
The actual leader of the drug gang is an adult named Cain. He's more savage than Hob or any other member of his gang. Presumably, that is why he's their leader.
But Cain does not remain their leader. RoboCop puts Cain on his deathbed. One member of the gang wants to rescue Cain from the hospital, save him from the police, but Hob stops her. She is addicted to nuke, and Hob has it. He uses it to control her.
We soon learn Hob's refusal to rescue Cain is not cowardly but Machiavellian. With Cain out of the way, Hob can take over the outfit. And boy does he! While Cain assumed leadership by being the most brutal, Hob earns leadership by being the smartest and in some ways the most admirable.
The city of Detroit is in financial trouble. If it does not pay off a huge debt, the evil corporation OCP will foreclose and literally take over the city. The mayor, desperate to preserve democracy (and his job), grudgingly meets with Hob. When Hob offers to help financially, the mayor dismisses him at first because of Hob's youth. Then Hob shows him the cash — enough to pay off the city's entire debt. All Hob wants in return is for police to stay away from his gang.
Meeting the mayor
Cain was just a thug. Hob is a business leader and a good PR manager. Were it not for child labor laws, we can imagine, Hob could just as easily be the CEO of a software company or a car manufacturer.
Of course, in a movie, when a kid rises to the top of the criminal world, it's a good bet he won't live to see the closing credits. But Hob's death scene is a good one. After being shot by Cain (who has come back as a cyborg), Hob is discovered by RoboCop. He and RoboCop bond, and he dies as a sympathetic character. Usually when a young character achieves something, especially when he does it in defiance of adult authority, the youth regrets it, sending youth in the audience the message to stay submissive. Not here. Hob never regrets his life of ambition and success; he merely regrets it coming to an end. "I'm gonna die. You know what that's like, don't you," he tells RoboCop, who went through his own death before becoming a cyborg.
Top o' the world, Ma
Movie critics attacked this film. It shouldn't surprise us. Many old film critics don't like a film showing much respect for youth. John Hughes, for example, was often scathed for taking teenagers 'too seriously.'
Many critics, though, did not come right out and say they were bothered by RoboCop 2's respect for youth. Instead, they often claimed to be turned off by the film's excessive violence. The first RoboCop (without a strong character younger than 21) was bloodier but drew less criticism. Leonard Maltin, for example, praised the first RoboCop as "slick, slam-bang action entertainment," then denounced RoboCop 2 as "offensively violent and humorless." (Actually, RoboCop 2 has a great sense of humor. Who could miss the humor of our evil corporation trying to destroy RoboCop by subjecting him to the rule of a focus group? Who could miss the fun of RoboCop firing warning shots at someone for smoking — something many of us would love to do?)
When Thelma & Louise was released, it likewise drew condemnation for promoting violence, though it had far less violence than most crime films do. Critics just didn't want to admit they were bothered by a film showing women that level of respect, so they complained instead about violence.
When critics attack a film that has a young character in it, that is often a sign the film did something right.