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Non-Review Review: Demolition Man

I love Demolition Man. I know I shouldn’t, but I do.

Eye see you...

It’s like chocolate. I know it’s bad for me, but I just can’t resist it’s sickly sweet charms. My head screams out at me every time I smile, wondering what the hell is so damn funny, but I ignore it.

Demolition Man is not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. It isn’t the best action movie you will ever see, nor is it the best comedy you will ever see, nor is it the best science fiction film you will ever see. However, when you mix all those elements together, you get one highly tasty stew with a very distinct flavour. Sure the performances aren’t great – Stallone was never going to be an Oscar-winning actor (he’s an Oscar-winning writer though), and I thought Sandra Bullock would never be an oscar-winning actress (though Hollywood showed me). Wesley Snipes is pretty convincing as a nutjob, but real life since then has probably indicated that the role wasn’t too much of a stretch – Simon seems like a guy who would simply stop paying his taxes.

The movie isn’t especially smart. Well, it’s kinda smart – in a ‘one of the characters in a post-apocalyptic fascist state is called Huxley’ sort of way. But it’s primarily dumb fun, with wit and intelligence either an afterthought or a fluke. This is a movie which expects us to pump our fists in the air when John replies to the sarcastic salutation, “Be well!” with the witty rejoinder, “Be f*cked.” Yep, it’s that kinda movie. But you know what? I pump my fist every damn time. Every damn time.

On rewatch, it’s somewhat striking how radically the tone of the movie shifts after its precredits sequence. We open in a post apocalyptic late nineties where the Hollywood sign is on fire and LA is in the grip of anarchy. Remember that? Yeah, good times. Anyway, it opens like your typical Stallone movie, with the muscle-bound lug dropping on to the roof of Phoenix’s warehouse and dropkicking some thugs while looking for the passengers of a bus that went missing. Anyway, he encounters Phoenix and they go mano-a-mano, causing a huge explosion. When the bodies of the passengers turn up in the rubble, rogue cop John Spartan (great name! really!) is imprisoned and cryogenically frozen. Based on revelations later in the movie, LA must have the worst forensics team in the world. But let’s not let logic get in the way.

That’s the key. Don’t think too hard on this movie. Let it breeze by and enjoy the little moments. Just go with it.

Anyway, after this little surprisingly dark and straight-forward opening, the movie dramatically shifts gears. Though archival news footage reveals that the nineties were just as comical (when a reporter asks John “How can you justify destroying a $7 million dollar mini mall to rescue a girl whose ransom was only $25,000 dollars?”) and the dialogue is just as clunky before John spends quite a bit of time in a block of ice (“You have done the city great service, John Spartan,” the younger version of the warden exposits, before lamenting he has to freeze the eponymous Demolition Man), it’s here that the movie really finds its feet.

It somehow manages to make the renamed San Angeles (where a single instance of graffiti demands the attention of the entire police force) ridiculously fascist but also incredibly wimpy. When confronted with a violent felon, police officers consult a self-help-style computer for advice on how to deal with him. “Approach, and repeat ultimatum in an even firmer tone of voice,” it suggests. “Add the words, ‘or else’.” As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well. Apparently some brutal, old-fashioned borderline-fascism is needed to show these kids how it’s done.

The plot is driven by the escape of terrorist Simon Phoenix, the man with a criminal record that just keeps going and going. By the way, did anyone notice “Manslaughter” on his rap sheet? He doesn’t seem like the kinda guy to accidentally kill anyone, but I digress. As San Angeles proves wholly unprepared for his special brand of over-the-top gratuitous violence, and even unfamiliar with the code for a “murder death kill” (though I imagine most modern law enforcement officers are equally unfamiliar with that code), the city decides to thaw out the one man who has beaten Phoenix before. “Send a maniac to catch a maniac,” the film suggests in one of its more eloquent moments.

What’s interesting is the way the movie pits Spartan’s inherent fascism against that of the San Angeles government. Spartan is a badass cop in the fine cinematic tradition of badass cops. “You’re going to regret this the rest of your life,” he warns a suspect, before adding, “both seconds of it.” Cue fist pump from audience. Of course the film suggests that there is depth behind his facade. Or at least another, more sophisticated stereotype. “I fleshed you out as a blow-up-the-bad- guy-while-grinning type,” Huxley suggests, “but you’re the moody-gunslinger-who-will-only-draw-when-he-must type.” Either way, Spartan isn’t going to win any civil rights awards, testing a stun baton on an innocent by-stander among other things.

However, he’s cast (admittedly ironically) as the voice of reason in all this. In a world that has been zapped of sex, salt and toilet paper, Spartan appeals for a return to old-fashioned police brutality, reckless swearing and rat burgers. He’s a man’s man. Of course he’s more at home with the ragtag rebels hiding underneath the city, run by Dennis Leary and following a philosophy that bears more than a passing similarity to The Asshole Song. Well, if you have to base your philosophy of living around a song, it’s as good a choice as any, I suppose. Things are so bad the rebels resort to robbing for food, and have recruited a young Jack Black as a gun-totting extra. Times are tough for everyone. It becomes clear that there’s social injustice afoot, and that’s the one type of injustice John Spartan won’t abide.

Ignoring the overly familiar plot and setting, which has been handled countless times before and handled better countless times before, the movie is just good fun. Stallone isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he can convey enough casual brutality and weirded-out confusion to carry the film. While the script won’t win any awards (certainly not for dialogue and certainly not for subtlety – we’re introduced to the future San Angeles with the aged version of the expository warden from earlier bringing the audience up to speed on the state of affairs, “I try not to think”), but it is just witty enough to carry off what’s trying to do. It’s little touches like the laser pistol which takes a while to charge or the CompuKiosks which offer self-validation to insecure citizens and an early morning ego-boost. Things like “the franchise wars” and sideswipes at “President Schwarzenegger” (which are even funnier now). That’s saying nothing of the three seashells (never explained in universe – though Sly has his own ideas – they are pretty disgusting). There also room for some plain non-sensicalness, with a wrong number video call which seems to exist only to add some nudity to the film. It’s Stallone’s reaction which makes those two and a half seconds worth it.

The action scenes are functional. They sizzle in that way that late eighties/early nineties action sequences do, before they became all flashy and CGI. They aren’t exceptional, but they get the job done – like Spartan himself.

In short, Demolition Man is a film that can be enjoyed with a smile on your face, if you’re willing to loosen up. Anyone expecting anymore is really asking too much and in the wrong film. For my money, it’s the most entertaining film Stallone has made to date (though I’ve always been a Schwarzenegger man, to be honest), and it’s one of the few films that blends action and comedy and science fiction very well. It’s a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

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3 Responses

  1. Well you aren’t the only one. I totally dig this movie and it’s one of the more purely enjoyable action and Stallone movies out there. (I am also hopelessly affectionate for Tango and Cash-Yep)

    But admittedly, I prefer Arnie movies at the end of the day either.

    • “But admittedly, I prefer Arnie movies at the end of the day”

      Agreed.

      • Yep – Stallone is arguably more versatile, but I think that’s led to overconfidence. Arnie has made some terrible films, but I still think he has a higher hit ratio than Stallone, who seems to be more willing to go out on a limb for a project (anyone remember Oscar?)

        Of course, Arnie would never have given us Demolition Man, so I shouldn’t complain.

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