Directed By: Marco Brambilla
Screenplay By: Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau, Peter M. Lenkov
Story By: Peter M. Lenkov, Robert Reneau
Produced By: Joel Silver, Michael Levy, Howard Kazanjian
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Nigel Hawthorne
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 115 minutes
Review Date: January 21, 2011
“Only While Intoxicated.”
With Demolition Man, I felt the need to create a new umbrella category of films, and that’s the title I’m going to run with, for now.
I’m not going to delve too deep into Demolition Man. You know all about this movie already, and even if you haven’t seen it, you know exactly what it is.
I never saw it when it first came out; in fact I knew of it only by reputation — so mine is a completely unsentimental perspective. Bear in mind, this review comes not from a place of childhood nostalgia but from one of clinical objectivity.
As the film opens, the camera sweeps over a dramatic vision of L.A. circa 1996: an out-of-control city run rampant with crime. I say “dramatic” because in the foreground, the Hollywood sign is in flames.
As the opening titles play out, the movie grants us a preview into its own future: a future of unnecessary Dutch angles, overused slow-motion, and corny one-liners. John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone), a no-holds-barred juggernaut, combats the relentless crime waves like a caffeine-fueled teenager in a first-person shooter with infinite ammo. What kind of name is John Spartan, anyway? Jesus.
Wesley Snipes plays Simon Phoenix, another thirteen-year-old in a grown-up’s body who likes to play with fire. As a veteran cop (Bill Cobbs) points out later on, “He’s evil in a way you’ve never read about…a criminal the likes of which you’ve never seen.” Uh-huh.
In any case, these two are mortal enemies, destined to battle each other forever or something. Spartan finally apprehends Phoenix, but ends up getting a bunch of hostages killed due to an oversight, so they’re both sentenced to 70 years of “subzero rehabilitation.” ‘Cause that’s how shit works in the future — I mean, 1996.
In the real future, 2032 — we know this from the new-age, Tangerine Dream-inspired synths as Spartan wakes up from cryo-stasis — San Diego and Los Angeles have been merged into one planned city called “San Angeles,” a place that has been stripped of all human interface. Here, concepts like crime — and sarcasm — are urban legends, long-forgotten memories. “Safety Above All” is the catch phrase, as everything that is, and possibly can be bad for you, has been outlawed: cigarettes, swearing, even salt to name a few. This is blunt-force satire at its finest.
Dennis Leary, as an underground (literally) revolutionary-type character, is the only bright spot in this crisply utilitarian universe. Too bad we hardly ever see him.
In this world, the police force is completely ill-equipped to deal with, much less respond to, even minor incidents. A responding officer to the situation caused by a public miscreant references a computer-generated script dictating proper police procedure. One measly little murder — for instance when Simon Phoenix escapes cryo-stasis and kills the presiding doctor — is a matter of national security. Hence one character’s sledgehammer of a line, “We need an old-fashioned cop.” Cue the Demolition Man.
Why is John Spartan nicknamed the Demolition Man? ‘Cause he blows shit up. That’s his style.
As he proceeds to wreak havoc across the pristine city, he’s chaperoned by Lenina Huxley (three guesses to name the reference), played by Sandra Bullock, as hot and as wooden as she’s ever been. She’s mildly competent where the rest of her crew is utterly hopeless only because she’s nostalgic for an era she never knew, fascinated by the “vulgar” twentieth century.
For as mystified by the future as John Spartan is, Pheonix is a kid in a candy store, hacking public access terminals left and right with the ease of Mark Zuckerberg. Don’t worry, this is explained later on in the, uh…plot.
The “badness” of Demolition Man is obvious. I’d basically written my entire review in the first twenty minutes of the movie, to give you some context. The question is, can it be enjoyed as a total farce?
Indeed, there’s plenty of humor to be found, mostly unintentional. The best parts of the movie are its glaring plot-holes, its inconsistencies, its head-scratching nonsense. Computer systems are hilariously outdated; an operating system in the police headquarters looks like something the director’s kid drew with a crayon.
The bits that actually work include John’s frustrated attempts to use the advanced technology that has replaced toilet paper, and his discovery that his specialized rehab has granted him a psychological sewing complex — since he apparently lacks sophistication.
Some of Stallone’s offbeat dialogue is priceless (“Somebody put me back in the fridge”). The “Schwarzenegger as President” prediction, coupled with Stallone’s reaction to said revelation, is probably the comedic high-note of the movie.
The general appeal is watching Stallone, a “caveman”/”barbarian”/”relic of the past” (you’ll hear these labels flung around endlessly by infuriated authority figures) ruffle feathers and generate automated citations for swearing every two seconds.
Certainly the comedic value of Demolition Man, intentional or otherwise, can’t be denied. But why should audiences have to settle for tripe like this? Why can’t we have these same themes in science-fiction, and also something with substance and intelligence? It seems to me like Demolition Man is a prime example of what sci-fi was in the nineties: innately lowest-common-denominator entertainment, barring a few exceptions. It belongs in the wasteland of ruined potential.
For a film like Demolition Man to be considered acceptable by even our most relaxed viewing standards, it needs to offer something more than just a formulaic, by-the-numbers screenplay that could have been written by a ten-year-old. Honestly, by the halfway mark I was just waiting for it to be over. Bored with its flash-bang sense of pacing, its expositional beats that hit with blunt-force trauma to the back of the head. Seriously, you could walk away from this movie for twenty minutes, make a sandwich, come back, and know immediately what was going on. Even the mechanics of its action sequences are inane, with fight choreography that is robotic at best.
Demolition Man, like the character whose namesake inspires its title, is most certainly, and thankfully, a relic of the nineties. Decent in memory, but during, it’s more like the monotonous car ride of a family vacation (“are we there yet?”).
I’ll repeat: Only while intoxicated.
And believe me, I most certainly was.
Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.