Tagline: The 21st Century’s most dangerous cop. The 21st Century’s most ruthless criminal.
Director: Marco Brambilla
Writers: Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau, Peter M. Lenkov
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Nigel Hawthorne, Benjamin Bratt, Bob Gunton, Glenn Shadix, Denis Leary, Grand L. Bush, Steve Kahan, Jesse Ventura
15 | 1h 55min | Action, Crime, Sci-Fi
Budget: $57,000,000 (estimated)
When people think Hollywood action stars, they invariably think of Schwarzenegger and Stallone.
More accurately, they think Schwarzenegger then Stallone, and for decades the two would scrap it out at the box office, with the former generally coming out on top. While Sly hit it big with both the Rocky and Rambo franchises, Arnie struck gold with pretty much everything he touched, his infallible mainstream charm and ability to translate acerbic one-liners leaving his closest competitor largely in the shadows. Stallone may have a larger lifetime gross, pipping his onscreen opponent by $1.8 billion to $1.7 billion, but Arnie reached his narrowly smaller total with significantly fewer movies. In short, Schwarzenegger was the name that people paid to see.
Never one to back down from a fight, Stallone did his best to keep up with perhaps the most recognisable movie star of all time, and their onscreen careers had many parallels. Back in 1991, Schwarzenegger was Hollywood’s biggest earner, smashing box office records with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, then the most expensive movie ever put to celluloid. Inevitably, Stallone would soon find himself following suit, teaming up with the popular Wesley Snipes and taking his brand Sci-fi with Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man.
The movie cost half as much as James Cameron’s masterclass in sequel making, but with a budget of $57,000,000, Demolition Man is a blockbusting spectacular in its own right, with smash mouth action, giant explosions and money-burning set-pieces to rival anything at the time. Even so, comparatively it feels somewhat low-key, and is indicative of the gap that existed between them for the majority of their mainstream competitive run. Stallone was a huge star, but Arnie was Arnie, and there wasn’t much that he or anyone else could do about it.
Demolition Man begins in a then future 1996 as Stallone’s no-nonsense super cop John Spartan tracks notorious, wild-eyed killer, Simon Phoenix (Snipes), a died-blonde homie with a hip-hop soundtrack. This time Phoenix has kidnapped a bus load of hostages, luring his nemesis to a dilapidated building he has rigged to blow. Culpable for their eventual deaths, Spartan is tried and sentenced to 70 years of sub-zero rehabilitation after living up to his ‘Demolition Man’ moniker once too often. He and Phoenix are dealt the same ignominious fate.
36 years later, and the police are no longer needed to clean up the city streets. In little more than three decades all major crimes have miraculously become obsolete in the newly named San Angeles (see what they did there?), and impossibly wooden officers are confined to their uneventful desks for days on end. So tepid and indoctrinated are those who make up modern society that all unlawful urges are alien to them, while citizens are fined on the spot for using curse words, but it doesn’t end there.
Also illegal are guns, red meat, chocolate, contact sports, and any toys deemed non-educational, while the exchange of any and all bodily fluids is a lurid and disgusting pastime which belongs to the philistines. When you actually stop to think about it, many of those so-called ‘cavemen’ are people who would make up a good percentage of the existing population. After all, this is 36 years we’re talking about, not three centuries.
It spite of this spuriously short interim, we find out that the last recorded murder in San Angeles was so long ago – a whole 26 years by my estimation – that cops have to look up the meaning of murder when Phoenix predictably escapes his parole hearing. With terrorism rife in the late 20th century, you would have thought that someone would have taken advantage of capitalist America’s passive new outlook long before Phoenix returned to the fray. But no, they have all fallen into line too. At least, that is what we’re led to assume as there is no mention of life outside the San Angeles area. I suppose a quarter of a century will have that effect on human history.
Of course, as is the case with every seeming utopia, corruption is rife at the highest level, and the maniacal Phoenix has been brainwashed by a corporate mogul with the objective of assassinating the leader of a gang of rebels who have slipped through the cracks. Led by the charismatic Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary), the imaginatively named Scraps are sick and tired of being told how to live their lives, and in-between eating rat burgers plot to alter things without ever actually doing anything, proving themselves the kind of rebellion who are happy to fall meekly into Mad Max mode.
The only man qualified to bring down Phoenix is an out of his element Spartan, who with the help of the blandly tenacious Officer Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), sets about bringing down the city’s bad apple while helping to reawaken society’s once happily violent existence.
Dubious histories aside, this is an action movie, one that doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and to its credit. Whether it’s Spartan decrying Schwarzenegger’s in-film US presidency or Huxley and her smiling partner singing along to a radio station dedicated to commercial jingles, there is much fun to be had here, and the action sequences, although lacking the spark of the genre’s better efforts, are for the large part pretty entertaining.
Stallone is also in fine fettle, and although he sometimes struggles with the movie’s attempts at moralistic satire, when it comes to the Balboa-style sentiments and boyish humility he proves himself a cut above his Austrian adversary, forging the kind of human likeability that has made him one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars.
In a complete rip-off of Judgement Day’s iconic liquid nitrogen scene, the hapless Phoenix is frozen by a resourceful, half-dead Spartan and smashed to smithereens.
Most Absurd Moment
Not content with turning the maniacal Pheonix into a brainwashed killer via the Cocteau corporation’s behaviour-altering, cryogenic penal system, the surreptitious Dr. Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne) tampers with Spartan’s noggin’, enforcing a procedure which alters an entire portion of his personality. The absurdity of that personality is never more evident than when our hero skillfully knits a sweater for the disgusted Lenina Huxley after cutting short their neurological sex in search of the real deal.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Confused by the nature of the dialogue she has picked up from prehistoric movies such as Lethal Weapon 3, and unaware that she is in fact in violation of the San Angeles Verbal Morality Statute, Officer Lenina Huxley has some choice words for Spartan as she attempts to compliment him on his recent heroics.
Officer Lenina Huxley: You’ve finally matched his meat. You really licked his ass.
John Spartan: That’s met his match and kicked his ass!
Are you sure?
In spite of its abject silliness and cavalier approach to any kind of logic, Demolition Man is actually a lot of fun, with a few comical hits to go with the occasional misses. The movie is also helped by an array of colourful, if largely hackneyed characters, but more so by the kind of exemplary cast that Hollywood’s big bucks can invariably buy.