In Defence of… Demolition Man
I was never completely on board with Sylvester Stallone whenever he tried to go full on one man army. Arnie, hell yeah, sign me up. But Sly’s attempts (see Cobra, Judge Dredd, The Specialist, Rambo: First Blood part II and Rambo III, etc) have always left me a little cold. Arnie and Sly might both be ridiculously over muscled meat heads, but Arnie can play those types of movies straight and make them work, and Stallone just can’t. Sly works best when his characters are a little more human. The best three performances of Stallone’s career are Rocky, First Blood, and Cop Land. None of those characters are unfeeling, unflinching killing machines. In Cop Land he is soft, and slow, pushed to breaking point before he considers fighting back. In Rocky he is a lovable mook who just wants his shot. And in First Blood he is a man that was forced to become a killing machine and it breaks him. Schwarzenegger could never make those parts work for him. Just as Stallone couldn’t ever really make typical Arnie roles work for him. They had similar builds, but a completely different presence. The only way Sly could successfully play a one man army was to play it with a wink, and there is no better example of this than…
That trailer tells you all you need to know plot wise (two bad ass 90’s dudes tear up the future) but it doesn’t really convey the tone all that well. See, Demolition Man is a satire, a send up, a piss take. Its tongue is firmly in cheek.
A lunatic cop and an even loonier killer blow the hell out of Los Angeles in the 90’s. To pay for their crimes they are frozen in a cyro-prison and due to extenuating circumstances both wake up in the year 2032. The future, much to their disgust, is a bland, colourless, boozeless, saltless, sexless, joyless place that doesn’t know how to deal with these rampaging dinosaurs.
Throughout the film characters make reference to the movies of the nineties and talk about the extreme violence of the decade. But really the film is sending up 80’s flicks. The poster on Sandra Bullock’s wall is for Lethal Weapon 3 (Clearly they have no taste in 2032), a 90’s film but from a series that began in the 80’s. Arnie gets name dropped a couple of times, and even Rambo gets referenced. Both 80’s figures. In Demolition Man the gleefully dumb, violent movies of the 80’s and early 90’s go up against the tame, bland, PG13 movies of today. What’s surprising about that is Demolition Man came out in 1993 (the same year he made Cliffhanger, not a bad year for Sly). The film is a rebuttal against the blandening (not a word) and homogenising of action movies before that had really started to happen. It predicted the future! The Three Sea Shells is totally going to be a thing.
The entire film is a love letter to the big dumb fun of the 80’s and early 90’s. Brilliantly awful one liners? Check. Hero so bad ass he can single-handedly bring down buildings? Check. Angry police chief who wont get off said hero’s back? Check. Lots of firing guns whilst running? Check. It has it all. Plus, the most 90’s villain ever: Simon Phoenix. First of all, even his name is 90’s. Phoenix. The only way he could have a more 90’s name was if he was called Phoenix Biggunshooter (don’t steal that. It’s totally going in a script one day). And his first name is Simon, so you know the film is going to use a Simon Says (it actually does it twice, “Simon says: Die” and “Simon says: Bleed”). Then there’s his look. Bleached blonde hair, different coloured eyes, and a orange wife beater under some dungarees. His name is great. His look is great. He IS great. When people defend Demolition Man, 9 times out of 10 they are defending it because Simon Phoenix is just so cool.
Wesley Snipes plays Phoenix as a psychopathic cartoon with wild eyes and a manic grin. Snipes was clearly having the time of his life, and has never been better than he is here. He goes full on comic book with the character and it suits the tone perfectly. The film is at its best when Snipes and Stallone are trading one liners with each other. So the characters are purposefully the personification of 80’s and 90’s excess, and to really bring that point home the world of San Angeles (in the film Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego have merged into one giant city because why not?) is a completely bland, nothing place where crime has all but ceased to exist, the only music is 20th century commercials, and the only restaurant is Taco Bell (or Pizza Hut depending on which version you’re watching). John Spartan (Stallone) and Simon Phoenix are larger than life characters stuck in a time and place that is completely lifeless. The future the film presents isn’t given a whole lot of depth, but is given just enough thought to be funny.
If it can get a laugh, it goes in regardless of whether or not it makes sense. Hence the franchise wars and Taco Bell emerging as the victor. And Arnie as president. And the Three Sea Shells (which weirdly became the thing everyone remembers about this movie). And the somewhat Nazi-ish looking police uniforms. And the swearing violations (which combines with the Three Sea Shells for the film’s best gag). It’s all in there to add a bit of colour. None of it coalesces to form coherent point, though it tries during Dennis Leary’s speech. It is just there because it is fun. And that is the driving principle behind Demolition Man, and that is why it is one of Stallone’s most underrated flicks. It is a damn good time. The action is over the top, the one liners come thick and fast, the characters are wonderfully ridiculous and the performances knowingly so, and the sense of humour keeps things light. It is the best kind of stupid, the kind that knows exactly what it is and has fun with that.
The best example to describe the tone of this movie is this: When Phoenix gets out of cyro-jail he wakes up to find he can speak a bunch of different languages, knows Kung-Fu, and is ten times as strong as when he went in. When John Spartan gets out he finds his newly acquired superpower is… the ability to knit.
Demolition Man is the movie where Stallone can cross stitch up a storm and for that reason alone it deserves to be seen as a 90’s movie classic.