Demolition Man is a movie I watched so many times on HBO, I started watching it in the network’s secondary audio program to mix things up a bit. (I think that probably taught me more Spanish than the class I took, too.) It’s been at least a decade since the last time I saw it, so I was surprised to discover all the lines were still bouncing around in my head. I was also surprised it was a little more clever than I remembered it.
This isn’t to say Demolition Man is a brilliant movie, only that it isn’t mindless. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, which shares similar frustrations with the fact Americans prefer safety to freedom, feels a lot more genuine by making its lead character an apathetic anti-hero. Stallone tends to get on a soapbox when he’s not delivering questionable one-liners. It’s not as heavy as it was in Cobra, and Stallone has mellowed out a lot since that film, but it’s still apparent. Speaking of forgoing subtlety: not only is Brave New World flat out mentioned, but Sandra Bullock’s character is named Huxley.
The movie opens four years in the future—1997 to be precise—and Stallone plays a bad ass, door-kickin’ policeman by the name of John Spartan. When we first see him, he’s hovering in a helicopter high above an urban war zone in the middle of Los Angeles. Just before repelling down to the scene, he adjusts his beret and mutters, “Send a maniac to catch a maniac.” The ensuing stunt is good, as are most of the film’s stunts, but the way the editors cut it together would have broken any human’s back… not that I mean to suggest Stallone is merely human.
The maniac Spartan wants to catch is Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) who manages to murder a group of hostages before framing Spartan for manslaughter. Both men are arrested and, since this is the future, they get placed in cryogenic storage which has replaced traditional prisons altogether. Fast forward to the year 2032, in which crime has been reduced to the point policemen don’t even know how to arrest people anymore. Phoenix manages to escape the cryo facility during a parole hearing, at which point John Spartan has to be awakened to stop his murderous rampage. A smarter science fiction story would have explored the implications of sentencing a human being to cryo-prison, but Demolition Man just wants to entertain. It does a good job of it, too.
Never mind the fact the setup is stupid. The setup doesn’t matter because it’s a conceit to see two 20th century men in a future setting where most people listen to shitty music, eat shitty health food, outlaw everything they don’t like, and bury their heads in the sand rather than acknowledge the inconvenient truths underlying their superficial lives. And yeah, the film’s message wallops you over the head, but you probably won’t find a modern action film even beginning to lift a corner of that veil.
Another surprising aspect of the film is that it actually deals with Spartan’s culture shock quite a bit. Yeah, it chooses to do it with a lot more humor than drama, but it’s there. There is one scene about midway through in which Huxley begins to look up Spartan’s daughter and he stops her. He stops her because he knows what kind of world his daughter grew up in, and it’s a world that’s completely incompatible with someone like him. Something about that short scene strikes me as honest, and it’s another reason I would have preferred a story that dove headfirst into the implications of freezing criminals.
And then there’s the three seashells, also played for laughs, that demonstrates just how weird the future might be to someone who ended up there against their will. No, I don’t think the filmmakers were shooting for anything more than a cheap laugh, but the character’s conundrum did stimulate me in exactly the way I want to be stimulated by science fiction. I’m not entirely sure we won’t do away with toilet paper by 2032.
Even though it came out near the fall of the Tough Guy Movie, Demolition Man is a pretty good example of the subgenre. It feels like Joel Silver’s attempt at a John Carpenter film, at least in terms of subject matter. And all the principal actors are great, in particular Snipes who obviously had a blast filming his scenes. Also good here is Dennis Leary who more or less does his stand-up routine, but hey, he’s good at it and it works, so I ain’t complaining.