Demolition Man (1993)
The 21st Century’s most dangerous cop. The 21st Century’s most ruthless criminal.
In the ’90s, we had a steady stream of near-future action thrillers until The Matrix came along in ’99, and everyone pretty much realized they were well and truly outclassed and should probably give it a rest.
Still, we had some fun, cyberpunk-adjacent romps along the way. The better ones are more sharply satirical than was readily apparent at the time: Johnny Mnemonic (1995) stands up, and Escape from L.A. (1996), while not a patch on John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), is far better than you remember it being. We got a genuine underappreciated classic in Kathryn Bigelow’s stunning Strange Days (1995), and Dutch schlockmaster Paul Verhoeven pushed the boundaries of permissible onscreen carnage in Total Recall (1990). They weren’t all gems, though — Freejack (1992), for example, has little to recommend it apart from fun cameos from the likes of David Johansen and Amanda Plummer.
Demolition Man, a curio in the career of Sylvester Stallone that came along a couple of years before the superficially similar but less successful Judge Dredd (1995), falls into the first category, though; it’s a brisk, very ’90s action thriller built around a simple sci-fi concept, its sails rigged to take full advantage of the winds of social satire that were prevalent at the time.
Stallone is hyper-tough cop John Spartan who, in the then-future year of 1996, takes down urban warlord Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes having such a good time), but is tricked into blowing up a building full of hostages in the process. Sentenced to a ‘Cryo-Penitentiary’ where he’ll be kept in suspended animation for a long spell, Spartan goes into the fridge — and so too does Phoenix. Cut to 2032, when Phoenix, thawed out for a quick parole hearing (not sure how that works, but let’s see how we go … ) stages a bloody escape and goes on the lam. In the intervening years, Los Angeles has become San Angeles, a sprawling utopian city where violent crime is all but unknown, and the cops are ever-smiling servants of the people — crossing guards with badges for all intents and purposes. They’re clearly not fit for purpose when it comes to running down a bull goose psycho like Phoenix, so Spartan is heated up and set on his trail. And so, we proceed from there.
Demolition Man functions perfectly well as a rote actioner, which is Stallone’s bread and butter, but the real enjoyment comes from watching his unreconstructed macho man navigate the ultra-PC world of the future, where swearing elicits an on-the-spot fine from lurking microphones sensitive to curse words (a cute but sinister riff on the surveillance state), sex by ‘fluid exchange’ is a revolting thought, and toilet ablutions are performed — somehow — with three seashells. While his actual comedies (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992), Rhinestone (1984), et al.) might lead you to believe otherwise, Stallone is a pretty gifted comic performer, and he has a great foil in the form of Sandra Bullock’s Lieutenant Lenina Huxley, a bright-eyed cop with a penchant for 20th century pop culture who is assigned to liaise with Sly’s dinosaur. Early period perky Bullock is perfect for the role, her wide-eyed enthusiasm, and unabashed helpfulness, providing a nice counterpoint to the increasingly befuddled Spartan. Bullock actually replaced Lori Petty, Point Break (1991), in the role early in the production process, and while it’s interesting to ruminate on what Petty might have done with the part, she has a markedly different energy to what Bullock is bringing here, and I think we got the better deal with Sandy B in the role (no offense to Petty, who I’ve been a fan of since Fox’s Booker).
There is, of course, a reason why Phoenix is at liberty and running rampage through San Angeles – while frozen he’s been programmed to assassinate one Edgar Friendly, and been implanted with the skills necessary to navigate this Brave New World (allusions to Aldous Huxley abound, because of course, they do). So, while Spartan stumbles through the cultural minefield that is his relative future, peroxided and grinning Phoenix is hacking computers, loading up with high-tech weapons, and generally finding that being a psychopathic killer in a world where even harsh language is a shocking transgression is a hell of a lot of fun.
And who is Edgar Friendly? Why, the fast-talking, red-meat-eating, foul-mouthed leader of the libertarian resistance to San Angeles’ straitened, softly constraining smiley-smiley utopia, and because this was the mid-90s, he’s played by Denis Leary at the absolute height of his Denis Leary-ness. Check out some of Leary’s interstitials for MTV back in the day to get a load of the ‘mad prophet of the airwaves’ schtick he was famous for at the time (or watch some Bill Hicks to see it done better). Friendly leads a literal underground resistance called the Scraps who hang out in the ruins of paved over Old L.A., munching on rat-burgers and muttering about wanting to jerk off in public and smoke Cuban cigars. Jack Black, pre-fame, crops up in the background.
Friendly and his gang, who have been raiding food shipments, graffiti-ing the scenery with anti-social slogans, and other such refinements, are a threat to the beatific status quo engineered by messianic municipal leader Doctor Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), and he needs to be eliminated, so there’s your bog-standard conspiracy right there. It’s hardly a Sixth Sense-level reveal, but the fun comes in the satirical jabs at an ostensibly utopian society being protected by violence — violence the members of that society are incapable of carrying out.
I don’t think that would fly in the current political and cultural climate, where you can’t lift up a comments section without finding a bunch of wriggling worms screeching about SJWs and woke culture beneath it; indeed, with a 25 years’ distance and perspective, Demolition Man’s ultimate ‘why can’t we all just have a rat-burger and get along’ moral seems positively quaint given the current cultural rifts. It’s also worth noting that the film does not address the presence and relative acceptance of marginalized people on either side of the Cocteau/ Friendly ideological divide. While Snipes’ Phoenix is black, the motley crew of murderers that he thaws out and recruits are cheerfully multicultural in a way that so many criminal hordes were from the ’70s onwards (and real-world gangs so rarely were or, indeed, are), and so is Friendly’s mob, and while the denizens of San Angeles are predominantly pasty white asexuals, we do get Benjamin Bratt and Bill Cobbs (Hispanic and African American, respectively) as cops, and the great gay Glenn Shadix, Beetlejuice (1988), as Concteau’s adjutant. Still, you get the sense that Friendly’s rants about freedom are for a markedly WASPy, male, and straight brand of freedom, which rings a few alarm bells — at least viewed from our current grim era.
Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it — Demolition Man is, if we’re being uncharitable, a pretty rote, slyly funny sci-fi actioner from a quarter-century back, and while it’s fun to look at its assumptions and concerns, satirical or otherwise, through the lens of our current moment, it’s drawing a long bow to assign much in the way of deliberate intent to the way it reads now. Still, isn’t it interesting how some of the elements that came across as patently ridiculous in these things don’t seem quite so nuts these days? I recommend The Running Man (1987) and Escape from L.A. (1996) for further examples of films whose contemporary scorn is lessened by their somewhat disturbing prescience. Perhaps director Marco Brambilla, who only made two features and some T.V. work before reconfiguring himself into a video artist, had more going on with this one than was apparent on first taste. In any case, if it’s been a while, consider taking another run at Demolition Man — that bloody Sting song aside, it holds up remarkably well.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson
Demolition Man is released through Warner Bros. Home Entertainment