Few movies have blended smart and stupid with the meticulous alchemy of Demolition Man. A careless eye might take a casual look at the clichéd poster and trailers and see another idiotic blockbuster. And yes, Sly Stallone blows shit up and delivers cute one-liners con brio. At the same time, a streak of cleverness runs through Demolition Man, resulting in a movie that satirizes the action genre and delivers surprising snippets of social commentary. In fact, over the course of a career marked by wrongheaded misfires and doofus event pictures, this might be the most underrated thing Stallone ever made.
The film begins in the dreaded near-future. It’s 1996 (*gulp*), and Los Angeles has descended into soot-stained madness. Warlords rule entire sections of the city. You know what this mess needs? A muscle-bound cop who plays by his own goddamn rules. Enter John Spartan (Stallone), who kills bad guys with a casual sneer and a pair of rippling biceps. His arch-nemesis is Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), a psychopath with a Dennis Rodman dye job and a pair of overalls from Blossom. In the opening sequence, Phoenix is pure, cackling chaotic evil: He’s kidnapped of busload of innocents, and only Spartan can save them.
Of course, Spartan storms right into this hostage situation. Of course, things go south. Sure, Spartan gets his man, but the civilians end up dead. As punishment for his recklessness, Spartan is sentenced to the same punishment as Phoenix: Both men are to be lowered into tub of goo and cryogenically frozen. (I imagine the liquid to be leftover Crystal Pepsi. And with that, I’ll take my dated 90s references and show myself out.) It’s like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner get suspended in amber, destined to wait until the world needs to watch two lunkheads do battle again.
Cut to 2032. The world has settled into an antiseptic utopia. Blissful fascism rules the day. Along the streets of San Angeles (Los Angeles mixed with San Diego and Santa Barbara after “the Big One” of 2010.), crime and poverty seem to be gone. So is profanity, and sex, and anger. You ever go into one of those houses that’s a little too clean? Like, eerily clean? That’s what this world looks like.
That sounds like the perfect playground for a lunatic like Simon Phoenix. Naturally, he busts out of his ice cube and starts wreaking havoc. The cops haven’t seen a murder in years, so they’re ill-equipped to deal with this rampage. It only makes sense to thaw Spartan, Phoenix’s natural counterpoint. For the balance of the movie, these two nutjobs will set this brave new world on fire.
At the same time, Spartan must adjust to living in the 2030s. His principle guide for future living will be Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), a resourceful cop with a penchant for 90s trivia. She introduces him to a society that’s more secure but less fun. (Nobody touches each other, and language seems to be devoid of slang.) Even more bizarre, every restaurant has been replaced with Taco Bell, and sea shells take the place of toilet paper. As he attempts to capture Phoenix, Spartan stumbles into a world he can barely recognize.
Thankfully, some things stay exactly the same. We meet Chief Earle (Bob Gunton), Spartan’s grouchy new boss, whose primary function seems to be screaming at Spartan until veins pop along his temples. There’s also a conniving bureaucrat/cult-leader (Nigel Hawthorne), who establishes that capitalism is still alive and well. His evil plans tie-in with an underground activist (Denis Leary), and Phoenix’s escape.
Most of Demolition Man is easy to figure, so I haven’t given too much away. The fun doesn’t come from the pea-brained plot, anyway. No, the best of this movie is out in margins, where it hides satire in plain sight. Much of the film’s comedy derives from Stallone’s jock action hero being marooned in a future that has outlawed his every reason for being: Spartan can’t fight; he can’t cuss; he can’t even screw. The sight of Stallone as a neutered bad-ass is absolutely hilarious, and the actor has never been more game to poke fun at himself, and the genre that made him a superstar.
Beneath that, the script (from Peter Lenkov and Daniel Waters) makes subtle commentary about just how much we’ll trade freedom for security. Demolition Man‘s future represents that swap in its final form: People haven’t just turned in their individual freedom, they’ve given over their individuality. By 2032, humanity has settled into an invisible prison, run by pass-aggressive jailers. The filmmakers probably didn’t mean to embed a thesis on just how quick and easy the road to fascism can be, but it’s in here, all the same.
As you might guess, Demolition Man is far from perfect. The romantic chemistry between Bullock and Stallone amounts to zippo. Leary’s nicotine-fueled rants feel tacked on. (They were.) First-time director Marco Brambilla doesn’t know when to reel in a joke. (The automated profanity hall monitor gag gets old after a while.)
Still, a lot about this movie is wise beyond its years. (Although, if Taco Bell is your only option, you’re gonna need a lot more than three sea shells in the bathroom.) It’a also dumber than a box of sheetrock screws. The real magic is that it pulls off both traits really well. You can laugh with Demolition Man and at it, even after these years. From an actor who gave us garbage like Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, that’s no small achievement.
115 min. R. Hulu.