Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Demolition Man (1993)
The late 80s and early 90s was a golden age of goofy action loosely connected with sci-fi themes: from the hugely successful Terminator 2 to Total Recall to Robocop, it was the zenith of combining Phillip K. Dick plots with explosions. It was at this cultural high tide that Demoltion Man was released, introducing Stallone's first foray into the genre.
We begin in the terrible future Los Angeles of 1996, where we're just shy of Escape from New York/LA dystopia, including an inexplicably burning "Hollywood" sign. Heroically named John Spartan (Stallone) is sent in to stop the villainous Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes with a blonde mohawk), playing the "Joker" to Stallone's grim, window smashing vigilante. Spartan is finally able to bring in his nemesis, but somehow the cop, not the psychotic murderer, is blamed for the deaths of a bus full of hostages. As punishment, Spartan is frozen in ice and implanted with subliminal knitting instructional videos.
Meanwhile, in the even more distant future of 2032, ridiculously named Lenina Huxley (the adorable Sandra Bullock), named after a Brave New World character AND the author of Brave New World in case you didn't get it, is bored by her everyday life in the LAPD. In the future, crime no longer exists outside of the occasional curfew breaker or bad-word-user. In one of the best running gags of the film, all cursing results in an animatronic voice announcing a fine for inappropriate language use. Her wish for excitement comes true when Phoenix breaks loose at his parole hearing, having somehow learned the release code for his handcuffs and how to kick people really hard. Phoenix goes on a murder spree, killing several cops and the prison warden before disappearing off the grid.
Huxley, along with a wise old cop (character actor and Morgan Freeman stand-in Bill Cobbs), convince the chief to reluctantly unfreeze Spartan, whose chiseled biceps have inexplicably remained rock-hard throughout suspended animation. Spartan has trouble adjusting to the prissy and effeminate future, but his cop instincts take over and he is able to quickly track down Phoenix in time for a big dumb action set-piece at a museum.
After the action scene, Spartan is invited to dinner with the founding father of this new world order, at the greatest (and only) restaurant in town: Taco Bell. His chalupa is ruined though when Dennis Leary shows up as a violent rebel who basically just does his stand-up routine in lieu of acting, so I'm not going to use his character's name. The plot thickens as Spartan discovers that while he's been given super-knitting skills as part of his rehabilitation, Phoenix was made even more dangerous and psychotic, and his escape was a planned action against Leary's freedom fighting resistance.
We get a few big action scenes and a final showdown, but without going into too much detail I can say someone's head is kicked off from their body as a final "Chekhov's gun" reference to a character saying they'd "lose their head" if it wasn't attached.
Honestly, except for the camp humor that was obviously intended, there isn't much about Demolition Man that belongs on this site. It's a fun popcorn movie, the kind that you might not seek out but would definitely watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Stallone projects are built to minimize his glaring weaknesses as an actor, so he rarely talks, or emotes, or does anything that isn't shooting or shouting or looking befuddled. Sandra Bullock has a breakout role one year before her mainstream breakout role in "Speed," as the adorable buddy/cop/love interest/clutzy comic relief. There's plenty of good observational comedy mostly gleaned from other sci-fi, from the germaphobia carried to ridiculous extremes, to the absurd contraptions.
The real star of the show though is Wesley Snipes as Phoenix. Most of that comes from the fact that it's a great part, a deranged lunatic that kills people for fun because he is just a bad guy. But even a part like that can be ruined by the wrong actor (Travolta in Broken Arrow), and Snipes just looks like he's having a good time as he throws future citizens through plate glass windows, beats up the police with a smile, or shoots a cartoonishly over-sized gun without much accuracy. Movies like this live and die with their villains, and Demolition Man has a great one. Snipes does a great job, and only the most squeamish will be offended by the portrayal's potential racial implications. It's not like he goes around with a giant boombox on his shoulder with a bucket of chicken fresh from Taco Bell.
While most of the humor is organic, some of it comes from the inevitable aging of a sci-fi movie that dates itself with its premise. The only real unintended humor comes from the prediction of 1996 Los Angeles as a war zone, or the references to the "2010" earthquake, or the ridiculously antiquated computer terminals. Conversely, the "President Schwarzenegger" joke has actually become more funny with time, even if Schwarzenegger is unlikely to ever actually become president.
As Stallone movies go, it's one of the few that I'd consider genuinely "good" in the normal sense of the word: it's not regarded with quite the same status as Rocky or First Blood, but it's far from the "so bad it's great" qualities we see in Rocky V or the Rambo sequels or Cliffhanger.
Phoenix: Spartan? John Spartan? Aw, shit, they let anybody into this century! What the hell you doing here?
Spartan: Look, Huxley, why don't we do it the old fashioned way?
Huxley: Eeeew, disgusting! You mean... fluid transfer?
Huxley: You are even better live than on laserdisc!