“We're police officers! We're not trained to handle this kind of violence!”
Sly Stallone's campaign to take over Blu-ray seems nigh-on unstoppable at the moment. But this latest crop of macho mayhem unleashed on the format has had more stinkers in it than classics. We've already looked at the lame effort of Cobra and I'll be sidestepping the likes of The Specialist and Assassins because I fear I'd exhaust my thesaurus of variations of the words dull and disappointing, but we still have the undisputed champion of this run in the giddily excessive and thunderously exciting futuristic actioner, Demolition Man. Now this is what we need from the big man to take the taste of those other naff and ill-advised outings away.
Stallone took his 80’s image and put it through a wash ‘n’ rinse cycle, biodegrading the crass, icon-hungry political/moral colours that had made him such a bright and vivid right-wing vengeance machine and diluting his macho strutting with audience-savvy winks and a healthy dose of self-mockery. Sly was making his big 90's comeback. Riding the success of Renny Harlin's awesome Cliffhanger, which was released earlier the same year (1993), but injecting his regained title as Action King with enough good-natured tongue-in-cheekery to ensure his heroes could now be as larger-than-life as he wanted them to be yet still have the crowds and the critics firmly on his side. He was no longer waging a war that the politicians and the “system” were busy losing every day of the week. He realised that he was in the business of entertaining the masses … and, thus, his crusade, despite the gung-ho antics that continued to be the bread and butter of his new icons, was in climb-down mode. The guns were bigger than ever, the body was sculpted beyond belief and the death-tolls were just as colossal, but the chip had been removed from his mighty shoulder. In other words, Sly was relaxing and enjoying the work again. And it really showed with this, his first proper fantasy flick since Death Race 2000.
It is 1996 and super-cop John Spartan (Stallone), aka the Demolition Man for his penchant for leaving wreckage everywhere he goes, makes a spectacular leap from a helicopter into the maelstrom of a desperate hostage situation in order to nail his uber-violent nemesis, Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), a mass-murderer/thief/terrorist ... and free the multiple innocent people he is apparently holding to ransom. The apprehension of Phoenix goes well, after a bludgeoning skirmish, naturally, but the rescue of the hostages goes very badly awry … resulting in the death of them all. Unbeknownst to Spartan and the authorities, there was nothing that the Demolition Man could have done to save them but, living up to his name again, he's gone and left the building as a steaming pile of rubble and smouldering bodies. Phoenix is stuffed into a cryogenic cell and carbon-frozen until society can work out how best to deal with him. And, for his perceived actions having accounted for an enormous loss of innocent life, poor old John Spartan, too, is banged-up in the experimental ice-box.
We jump to the future, thirty-five years hence, and California has been radically altered due to seismic troubles, the powerbase now shifted to the newly formed capital of San Angeles and society there seems to be enjoying a completely crime-free existence. But, into this dubious utopia comes chaos in the form of Simon Phoenix who, awoken for a perfunctory parole hearing that nobody expects him to walk out of, does just that … with the aid of someone unseen who has implanted some serious badass skills and know-how into his once-slumbering psyche. Leaving a trial of corpses in his wake he escapes the facility and explodes into a world of impotent, harmony-loving jessies – and that's just the cops! - and recommences his life of anarchy and murder with now unchallenged superiority.
Faced with such unparalleled violence, the law has no way to cope. When swearing is the height of criminality and judiciously fined on the spot, the act of homicide (or Murder Death Kill as the law now proclaims it with shocked emphasis) is something that hasn't been seen for a very long time. They're going to have to fight fire with fire, then. Which means springing out of jail the only person who plays by the same lack of rules, and knows precisely how to deal with a ruthless delinquent like Phoenix. That's right … they're going to have to thaw out his powerhouse arch-opponent from the previous century, the Demolition Man.
“Send a maniac ... to catch a maniac!”
This all makes Marco Brambilla's SF thrill-ride sound like a really severe and nasty duel spun out across time, but the truth of the matter is that Demolition Man, written for the screen by Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau and Peter M. Lenkov (who, between them had the likes of Batman Returns and Action Jackson to cite as action-fantasy credentials) and is much, much lighter and more slapstick than many had expected. Certainly the film's trailer, which came with a ridiculous music mix culled from Wojciech Kilar's ominous Vampire Hunters theme for Bram Stoker's Dracula, made it look like a relentlessly hard-nosed and all-out aggressive experience. The film well may pack some brutally physical wallopage, but its most agreeable angle is to found in its sense of humour. Filled with broad swipes at a benign city populated by fops, toffs and socialite wuss-bags, the screenplay seems to back the bravado and machismo of our hero and celebrity worshipping culture whilst, at the same time, ridiculing its protein-packed posturing. And, speaking of which, Stallone has never been funnier, nor so inclined to send himself and his own protein-packed image up. Acting as what many have described as a dry-run for Danny Cannon's big screen Judge Dredd adaptation, Demolition Man plays with extremes – of psychotic mania, of law enforcement, and of future-perfect scenarios – but it chooses to have fun with them, and the film's tone is appreciably light and devoutly comic-book throughout. We are not in the realm of the cyberpunk, here, and nor are we being bombarded with prophetic warnings and fantastical speculation. Like Cyndi Lauper's girls, it seems Demolition Men just wanna have fun!
John Spartan, paroled ostensibly just to capture Simon Phoenix and to be returned to the cooler immediately afterwards to serve out the rest of his sentence, struggles to adjust to the new civilisation. He can't speak without getting fined for every other word, he can't figure out how to use the three seashells in the bathroom (ha, even a fool knows how to use the three seashells …?), he can't drive the in-synch vehicles, and if he wants a good, old-fashioned gun he's going to have to go to the museum to find one. And, speaking of old-fashioned, if he wants a bit of ooh-la-la in the traditional manner - “Fluid transfer? EEEEWWWW, disgusting!” - he's going to have to lie back and dream of the good old days. They do things a lot differently here. With Sandra Bullock's unfeasibly perky and cute new-age copper, lovely Lenina Huxley (both names doffing the cap to SF author Aldous Huxley, with Lenina being the moniker of his heroine in the classic Brave New World) tagging along to, ahem, keep Spartan out of trouble, and San Angeles' suspiciously benign overseer, Dr. Raymond Cocteau (played by Nigel Hawthorne and named rather obviously after premier French fantastist Jean Cocteau) seemingly hiding something and clearly resenting the defrosted detective probing around the world that he, himself, has built out of the ruins of the corrupt older one, there appears to be a lot more going on than meets the eye. There's certainly something going on beneath the beautifully manicured lawns and radiant plazas. A quasi-guerilla faction led by someone called Edgar Friendly (Dennis Leary) seem to be making lightning-quick raids in the city to steal food and to leave anti-authoritarian slogans daubed in the good, old school tradition of graffiti. Something stinks in this gleaming garden of Eden … and it's making John Spartan's nose twitch more than the sewer-served rat-burger that he gets to munch on at a rebel barbecue.
Acting on a now antiquated concept – a hunch to you and me – Spartan does some digging and discovers that Phoenix's escape has been orchestrated and that whilst the madman has been asleep he has been secretly encoded with a specific mission and a whole gamut of anti-social skills. Sadly, Spartan has been instilled with a hankering to knit! But don't worry, Stallone ensures that he's lost none of that all-essential ability to run in slow-motion from mighty big fireballs and to quip sadistically cheesy one-liners as he despatches goons left, right and centre. So we're definitely on safe ground, folks … metaphorically safe ground, that is.
And Stallone is superb as Sgt. John Spartan's fish-out-of-water. It is important to understand that the star had tried to wrestle comedy into his action roles before, most notably with the riotously idiotic Tango & Cash alongside Kurt Russell, and had made very unsuccessful forays into situational rib-ticklers with both Oscar and Stop! Or My Mum Will Shoot (God help us!). But here he gets it totally right and reveals not just good, but incredible comic timing and a terrifically funny side to his persona that neither derails his hard-man character nor falls flat in any way. The “sex-scene” with Huxley is brilliantly done, of course - like a funked-up version of the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen's ace SF-comedy, Sleeper - but it is Spartan's reluctant and disappointed retiring to his own apartment that provides the best laughs. Looking daft in a neo-chic kimono, he doesn't quite know what awaits him in a futuristic room that he is not familiar with. Just listen to his bitter, embarrassed growl of “Lights!” when he falls down the first step into the darkened place. And, already sexually frustrated at not being able to indulge in the “hunka-chunka” in the old-fashioned way with Lenina, a video-call wrong number from a topless babe elicits one of the best and most self-deprecating reactions that I've ever seen Sly do. And then, adhering to his cryo-freeze subliminal coding, he unconsciously picks up the knitting! Most action films suffer from the down-time between the bouts of chaos, but Demolition Man is able to make the most of its quieter moments too, thanks to Stallone's easygoing willingness to lampoon himself.
And then there's Snipes.
“So let me get this right. They defrosted you just so you could lasso my piddly ass? Damn, you been had! I been dreamin' about killin' you for forty years!”
“Well, keep dreaming!”
Looking like a cross between a pimp, a golfer and a jester, his Simon Phoenix is an addictive menace. This guy's not just going to pulverise you physically, he's going to berate and mock you whilst he's doing it. Even your own friends would falter in attempting to save you because they'd be laughing too. Phoenix is, therefore, the ultimate bully. With a cluster of half-assed and easily forgettable actioners (Passenger 57 and Rising Sun anyone?) before this, Snipes was ready to move into the bigger arena. His fighting skills are excellently honed, if a touch too flamboyantly announced, but he also carries a bizarre combination of traits that make him, at once, hilariously off-the-wall and quite terrifying. His breakout from the prison is a major case in point. As the warden seeks to hide away in the wreckage and Simon eyeballs him – literally, as it turns out – there is a real sense of imposing threat to his approach. Likewise when he turns on the hopelessly ineffective cops by the street computer, and when the buffoon in the museum moronically enquires of him, “What's your boggle?” At times like this we genuinely fear the man. And then, straight afterwards, we'll be giggling right alongside him again as his verbal ordnance is deployed.
His exchanges with his nemesis, Spartan, are priceless. “Aww, sh*t! They'll let anybody into this century, even you!” or “It's a brave new world, John. Too bad you can't stay!” or “I'm a blast from the past!” as he learns how to use a veritable hand-held canon with which to renovate the new town.
The rest of the cast are great too, with Sandra Bullock at possibly her sexiest and most engaging, and Benjamin Bratt really enjoy-joying his time as a super-smiley cop who doesn't realise just how ripe he is for ditching the staid protocol and going underground. It is certainly unusual to see Nigel Hawthorne in a high-octane action flick, especially one set in a glistening future, but it is remarkable how well he plays off his former role as conniving political aide Sir Humphrey Appleby in the award-winning TV comedy Yes, Minister with his measured refinement and etiquette. Now the one with all the power and the kudos, he is still the voice that is whispering in the ear. Still the turner of the wheel and the puller of strings. We don't trust him, of course … because he is too relaxed, too sure of himself, and never short for a flurry of well-chosen words. He is slimy and political. Therefore, he is evil.
Dennis Leary gets to waffle in his customary high-speed sarcasm, performing a breathless subterranean monologue as though competing with Hugo Weaving's V in a verbal word-off. Sadly, his rebel leader is completely squandered once we understand what his motivations are, and the whole crusade is then just handed over to John Spartan on a plate and the rebellion thrown-over in favour of the more personal feud between the leads. He goes from incessantly rhetorical partisan to gurning patsy in a second, which is a shame. It would have been great to have heard him sparring with the true anarchist of Simon Phoenix, with Spartan merely grunting-in some interjections. In fact, many scenes and ideas were cut from the final film, so it is possible that Leary was once in command of a much greater role. But Demolition Man is still a very quote-heavy movie. Huxley's constant mangling of 80's action-movie catchphrases is a smart stress-reliever. “He really matched his meat. You really licked his ass!” is a definite classic. Her fascination for 20th Century excess is a tad contrived, but somehow it still works. “Chief, you can take this job and you can shovel it!” And elsewhere we have the mostly unlikeable Rob Schneider, who would follow Stallone into the 23rd Century as comedy sidekick for the chin of the law, Judge Dredd, as a deskbound rozzer who does, at least, know how to use the three seashells that have mysteriously replaced loo-paper in the world of tomorrow.
“You're gonna reget this for the rest of your life … both seconds of it!”
Where Brambilla comes unstuck is in his big build-up of Phoenix freeing all of the other psychos from the freezer and informing them that the man who put them all there is on the streets too, and up for grabs. Once these barbarians are thawed-out we get the impression that some serious trouble is ahead, but one brief gun-battle later and all we're left with of this crew, including a briefly seen Jesse Ventura (whose big fight with Stallone ended-up getting dropped from the final production), is an admittedly nifty tussle in a corridor with the last batch of them. But this is something that really sounded ominous at the outset and was allowed to peter-out with a bit of a whimper. Funnily enough, Stallone had to contend with a similar SF let-down when the clone footage was excised from his lavish adaptation of Judge Dredd a couple of years later. Same deal – whole lot of suspenseful build … and then nothing to come of it. Having said this, I don't really think that we can feel short-changed in the action department. There are some mighty explosions and a whole lot of blistering set-tos, Sly even wearing the clobber that he would don for Barney Ross in The Expendables, black beret and all! The cars may look a bit silly – in actual fact, they are jazzed-up General Motors prototypes – but Brambilla stages a great chase sequence that sees Stallone cavorting about all over a couple of them at high speed before ending up in a futuristic equivalent of safety-bubble-wrap … or cannoli, as he puts it. Even composer Elliot Goldenthal (Batman Forever, Interview With The Vampire) seems to be enjoying himself. He combines his customary orchestral flair with some exotic electronica that signifies Phoenix's flamboyant character and extravagant fighting style with what would, in this time, be very retro hip-hop flava.
This was a great piece of throwback SF. Not only did it riff quite spectacularly on Huxley's Brave New World, but it also took a few pot-shots at the shameful future societal lies of Logan's Run, Soylent Green, Rollerball, Metropolis and, erm, The Running Man for its twisted rollercoaster ride of techno-culture-shock. The science fiction is largely irreverent, of course. We hear snippets about the Franchise Wars, which sounds like something that George Lucas would like to use, and the Big One that tore California a new topography, the “Joy-joy” lifestyles that most denizens are obliged to savour and, of course, the Schwarzenegger Presidential Library in amongst a slew of classic movie in-jokes, but there is nothing here that is meant to be taken seriously as an observation of “things to come”, although there are some slightly creepy coincidences that the screenplay inadvertently created if you look for them.
“John Spartan, this display of barbaric behaviour was unacceptable even in your time!”
“Yeah, but it worked.”
This being the US release of the film, we have the full Taco Bell series of gags. All international prints of the film had the ignominy of the franchise being replaced by Pizza Hut. Actually, I have no idea whether this weirdness has now been waived, having only ever seen US copies of the movie on home video, but the Blu-ray has been released in the UK now, so it will be interesting to find out.
Demolition Man is irresistible fun from hugely explosive beginning to butt-kicking, cryo-freeze finale. It offers tremendous violence with some ingenious Murder Death Kills, genuinely warm performances from Bullock and Bratt (which sounds like a firm of lawyers, doesn't it?), winningly over-the-top comic asides from both Stallone and Snipes, barnstorming action set-pieces and an all-round mood of solid, eager-to-please entertainment.
A great action flick from Stallone that comes heartily recommended.
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