Demolition Man (1993)


I have to admit that Sylvester Stallone was never my favorite action star.  Largely it was because I associated him with Rambo and the ongoing Rocky movies.  By the time I was old enough to start seeing the more violent action features Stallone had long been a bit of a joke.  It wasn't until I was much older that I saw the original Rocky and First Blood and realized why he had become as popular as he was. 

Despite the fact that I had no desire to rush out and see movies with Stallone, in 1993 I received tickets for a press screening of Demolition Man.  I wasn't exactly excited, but I also wasn't paying for it.  I also knew absolutely nothing about it; in all honesty, I don't remember a big push on television for the movie until word of mouth resulted in it being popular.  The most I remember were some tepid tie-in commercials from Taco Bell. 

To say I was surprised would be an understatement.  The movie had smart, biting humor. Wesley Snipes was completely insane throughout, Sandra Bullock certainly got my attention, Denis Leary went on one of his rants and, above all else, Sylvester Stallone was good in this.  Keep in mind he was also coming off a series of bad movies, including, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.  This was everything he needed to keep his career going, and the fact that it both referenced classic dystopian science fiction and made fun of the political correctness trends of the time was a plus.  It was a big dumb action film, but it also had subversive touches that made it that much better.

In 1996, Los Angeles is pretty much in the state we thought it would be in 1993, and police officer John Spartan (Stallone) is pursuing a criminal named Simon Phoenix (Snipes) that has set up his own little empire in a war-torn part of the city.  Spartan captures Phoenix, but is blamed for the death of Phoenix's hostages and is put into a cryogenic freeze to serve out a 76-year prison sentence.

In 2032, Phoenix is unfrozen to go through a quick parole hearing, but he decides to use some skills programmed into him during cryo-sleep to parole himself.  The trail of bodies left behind comes to the attention of the San Angeles Police Department, and Lenina Huxley (Bullock) comes up with the idea of removing Spartan from cryo-sleep in order to catch Phoenix.  While Spartan adjusts to a world where everything from swearing to salt has been outlawed, Phoenix wreaks havoc throughout the city while pursuing the mission he was awakened for: killing a man named Edgar Friendly (Leary), who is leading an underground resistance movement against San Angeles's corporate dictator, Dr. Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne).  

Demolition Man does suffer the problem many science fiction films do when set too near in the future.  In reality Los Angeles, to everyone's surprise, got better and overcame a number of its problems of the time, slowly developing new ones along the way as any big city does.  We certainly have not even achieved the ability to put anyone in a cryogenic sleep even to this day, and what looked like a possible future technology in the '90s looks like pure fantasy now.  In Demolition Man's world a large earthquake devastated Los Angeles in 2010, and Cocteau's eventual takeover as the metro areas of L.A. and San Diego merged led to the peaceful, sterile and ultimately boring conditions of 2032.  There is not really any discussion about what the rest of the world is like - for all intents and purposes, San Angeles may be its own city state, completely separate from a fragmented United States - but it seems like what would have happened to California if Jerry Brown had been given dictatorial powers. There is some hint that it is probably still part of the United States, as it does contain the Arnold Schwarzenegger Presidential Library, but not much is explained beyond the city's borders. 

The fact that this takes place in a future that seemed far at the time, but is now only 12 years away, also begs the question about how many of the people don't remember how it was prior to 2010.  Lenina Huxley would have been seven when the earthquake hit, and largely grew up under Cocteau's rein, as obviously many of the other police officers did, but it's hard to believe that more people wouldn't have chafed under the lack of freedom and joined Friendly down in the city's ruins rather than living a sanitized life up above.  The lack of food is probably the big factor, as the "Scraps," as they are called, often have to steal what they can.  

The set design is well done, with almost everything having more to do with utility and function, and often looking like corporate campuses (which is, in reality, where most of the outdoor scenes were filmed).  However, Demolition Man is not just here to provide laughs, but, as its name implies, to blow things up.  There is plenty of that, with some tense fighting between Spartan and Phoenix, as well as a satisfying conclusion.  The movie provides a good balance between being satirical and a popcorn film, and largely succeeds, including stunt work and special effects that still hold up. 

There are a few places where it gets rough.  The original movie was meant to be longer and, though he talks about finding his daughter, we never meet Spartan's daughter in the movie we see, although the actress that was supposed to play her appears a number of times as one of the Scraps.  There are also some discrepancies regarding other criminals that Phoenix has awakened, as many of the fight scenes between them, Spartan and Huxley were removed as well.  Luckily everything is quick-paced enough that it's not that noticeable when watching, but there are clues and continuity errors here and there due to the re-editing of the movie.  

Although there is a lot of the movie that, simply because it gives dates, puts it out of step with reality, there is still much happening here - the continued willingness to give up freedom for security, especially since 2001 - that unfortunately applies to the real world.  Happily I don't think we're going to get stuck wining - or, watering, or juicing, since alcohol is illegal - and dining at Taco Bell any time soon, but it is still in the back of my mind that there is a good portion of the nation that would look at Cocteau's San Angeles as a paradise rather than a prison.  

Demolition Man (1993)
Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Sandra Bullock, Wesley Snipes, Nigel Hawthorne
Director: Marco Brambilla

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