Demolition Man was the last gasp of the Eighties.
Yes, I know. It wasn’t made till 1993. Yes, they were still making those Eighties-style action film with the over-developed he-men like Arnie, Sly, and Jesse even after Demolition Man came out. And, yes, Sylvester Stallone would make several more such films in the next few years.
But something had changed. That same year, Arnold Schwarzenegger made The Last Action Hero, a film which portrayed the world of Action Heroes as a weird parallel reality which didn’t follow the laws of our universe (although it would be a decade before he abandoned the movies for politics). And four years later, Stallone would play an overweight cop in Cop Land.
The age of steroid-enhanced body-building action heroes was coming to end. So Sylvester Stallone made this film, an action movie which is more than the typical, mindless Eighties action movie.
No much more, but more.
He’s playing the usual absurdly tough cop, John Spartan (a full Eight years before Halo came out) who is known as the Demolition Man because of his annoying habit of bringing buildings down around himself when he takes down the latest muscle-bound bad guy.
Spartan has finally caught up with his greatest Nemesis, Simon Phoenix, a nihilistic and thoroughly mad criminal genius who destroys things and people for his own amusement. Only things go wrong and Phoenix frames John for the death of his latest collection of hostages.
John is sentenced to 66 years in the new Cryo prison, where he will be “rehabilitated” while frozen by mental suggestion.
He wakes up thirty-five years later in a strange — and very polite — but heavily controlled new world where behavioral modification has made everyone mostly happy (or else) and virtually eliminated crime.
Well, except a bit of graffiti. And some swearing.
However, they thawed him out early because Simon Phoenix somehow managed to break out of the Cryo prison (with some not-too-mysterious help). The police of 2032 are completely incapable of dealing with him (heck, they’re barely capable of dealing with such public menaces as grafitti artists or shoplifters) so an eager young officer, who dreams of being an Action Hero just like John Spartan (she’s played by a very young Sandra Bullock not long before she skyrocketed to fame in Speed, back when the was the same age as the character she’s still playing two and a half decades later) comes up with a crazy scheme: thaw out John Spartan to stop Phoenix.
This, naturally, leads to all the usual Eighties Action, with plenty of fighting, car chases, machine gun fire, explosions, and good old fashioned violence of every sort.
Okay, I’ll confess, I love this thing, perhaps as much because of its general silliness as for any other reason. It’s not meant to be anything other than a bit of goofy fun, but it certainly does that part well.
I wasn’t quite as fond of it when I first saw it, but watching it again after more than two decades (largely because of The Critical Drinker’s excellent review) I find it more entertaining than ever. It seems to have improved with age, although that might be partly because we are now living in an age of enforced niceness, where using the wrong word can get you into a lot of trouble — even if no one much minds a bit of swearing.
It helps that we have a pretty good cast, with Wesley Snipes a standout as Simon Phoenix. He’s pretty much vanished since then, but he must be the Platonic Ideal of the Eighties action movie villain: not only is he a Black Belt and a talented physical performer, but he was also Classically Trained as an actor.
And, let’s face it, you need a skill set like this when you have this much scenery to chew.
Sir Nigel Hawthorne, best remembered for Yes, Minster and The Madness of King George, plays the suspiciously benevolent Dr. Cocteau who created this “perfect” society, while Dennis Leary — one of my favorite actors — has a scene-stealing turn as the anarchic leader of the (literally) underground resistance, complete with a lot of unscripted ranting. And Jesse Ventura does actually show up, although he doesn’t get much to do and you probably won’t even recognize him.
But, unfortunately, his mano a mano battle with Stallone ended up on the cutting room floor.
There are even one or two pretty good actual science fiction moments, all tongue firmly in cheek, of course, like the reference to President Schwarzenegger. And Sly’s new talent: knitting sweaters. The running gag about the three seashells is just tiresome, however. But I’m inclined to forgive them for it.
Oh, well. It isn’t brilliant, but then it wasn’t meant to be. In fact, it’s way smarter than the intended audience and does a pretty fair job of parodying its own subgenre.
Let’s face it, it is surprising when an Eighties action movie is aware, let alone self-aware.
This is a full-on mega popcorn movie, the kind of film that’s at it’s best when you play it so loud the explosions rock the house (check your foundations first!)
And best of all, it’s fun!
Now, if we could just figure out some way to pop the corn by shooting it out of a cannon…