Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Demolition Man

I love science fiction movies that can teach me about my nation's past.  Remember the epidemic-level gang wars in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s that resulted in the notorious Simon Phoenix annexing a large portion of the city as his own fiefdom?  Good times, man.  What about the time we cryogenically froze Jeffrey Dahmer instead of sticking him in prison to get beaten to death by a broom handle?  Or the massive earthquake of 2010 that devastated Los Angeles and somehow lead to the remains of the city melding with San Diego to create San Angeles?  You don't remember that?  Me neither.  You would think the merging of two cities that are 120 miles apart would have been newsworthy, but it must have flown under the radar; I definitely recall the awful attempt to merge Chicago and cheese heads into Chicaukee.  Lake Michigan was green, yellow, and red that summer.

Of course, I have all this knowledge of our past thanks to the historical document Demolition Man.  Back in 1996, LA police bad-ass John "This Is" Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) performs a one-man raid on the headquarters of Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), a homicidal sociopath that was holding a busload of civilians hostage.  Because sending in a one-man SWAT team is standard protocol for the LAPD.  Well, Spartan manages to kill off Phoenix's evil henchmen and capture Phoenix, but he blew up the entire building complex in the process.  Spartan performed a body heat scan on the complex before entering and found only a handful of people; the handful accounted for Phoenix and his men, so the hostages must have been kept somewhere else.  Or were they?  In the wreckage of the building, dozens of bodies were recovered; Phoenix attested that Spartan blew up the building knowing that the innocents would die.  And because the 1996 LAPD put their trust in known terrorists, Spartan was arrested, tried and convicted of a few dozen counts of manslaughter.  His sentence is to be cryogenically frozen for seventy years (that sounds like an inexpensive solution); Phoenix is to be frozen forever, which seems rather silly to me.
..and the award for "Least Amount of Effort in an Album Cover" goes to...Sting!!!

Fast-forward to 2032.  The city of San Angeles has been devoid of crime and violence for so long that nobody can even remember such things.  Except for the people who are old enough to remember.  Because, seriously, it was less than 36 years ago, at the absolute longest.  This utopia is run by Dr. Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), who has decided what is good for society (unthinking, unquestioning compliance) and what is bad (spicy and other unhealthy foods, curse words, sexual intercourse, etc.).  However, Cocteau's San Angeles has its disgruntled citizens, too.  Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary) is the leader of a literally underground society that lives in the sewers and cherishes personal freedom, although at the risk of starving to death.  For some reason, Simon Phoenix was thawed out for a parole hearing, despite his eternal sentence; even stranger is the fact that he knew voice commands to free himself from his restraints.  Phoenix proceeds on a murder spree, something that the SAPD are not equipped to handle.  So, how do they catch Phoenix?  By thawing out the man who did it last time, John Spartan.  Explosions and fish-out-of-water jokes ensue.

I make fun of Demolition Man, but it's because I care.  Most movies like this are shallow, boring, and predictable.  At the very least, this film is not boring.  As far as action movies go, there is a lot to like here.  Things go boom, there are some pretty sweet fires, and they even manage to incorporate freezing as an action device --- and not in a way that directly rips off Terminator 2.
In this dystopian future, the "Yo Quiero Taco Bell" dog never went away.
The movie is actually kind of cute, too.  I won't say that it's terribly funny, but there are a lot of clever ideas in the script --- Taco Bell being the only restaurant in the future, high fives not requiring physical contact, and toilet paper giving way to three seashells, for starters --- and you rarely hear "clever" being used to describe a Stallone movie.  I also liked that Sandra Bullcock's character takes her name from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  The film is by no means perfect, but it's funnier and smarter than most action movies, even if the ultimate point of the story is simple enough to insult a child.

Now, as far as the acting goes...well, it goes.  Sylvester Stallone does his typical thing; he's barely monosyllabic, but he looks pretty good when he's shooting and punching stuff, so I'm not going to judge the man too harshly.  I thought he handled the humor in the script pretty well, even if he never spat out the marbles in his mouth.  Wesley Snipes was extremely entertaining as the supervillain of the film; he out-overacted most comic book villains, but I'll be damned if he didn't do it just right.  If absolutely nothing else, his fashion sense should be applauded.  Not just anyone can pull off pirate pants, you know.
"Eyes to see you." - not actually a quote from this film.
Sandra Bullock is surprisingly likable as the clueless but friendly sidekick to Stallone.  It wasn't a hard part to play, granted, and she doesn't really bring anything special to the part, but this is a nice, simple, and uncomplicated performance of low-key comedy.  Pre-nose job Benjamin Bratt has a small supporting role as a typically wimpy SAPD officer; he's kind of wooden, but being the straight man is a thankless role, so I'll let him off the hook.  If you're familiar with Denis Leary from his work on Rescue Me or his frequent interviews on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, his performance here might be a little on the raw side; on the other hand, if you remember his work circa-No Cure For Cancer, then you should know what's in store for you --- rants, namely.  I actually don't mind him here, but his rants are only "edgy" if you're still stuck back in 1993.  Despite having a few lines and a pretty visible character, Rob Schneider is not credited in this film at all, which is especially strange since he was on Saturday Night Live at the time and this is probably my favorite film role for the guy.  You might recognize a number of other minor characters in the movie, as well.  Jesse Ventura, Toshiro Obata (Shredder's sidekick in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies), and Billy D. Lucas (famous for being Schwarzenegger's stunt double) all play Cryo-convicts, like Simon Phoenix.  Jack Black has about two seconds of screen time as one of Leary's henchmen.  MTV alum Dan Cortese and Lara Harris (not the one from Mulholland Drive) are both background characters in the Taco Bell scene.  Bill Cobbs (the guy who takes all the "wise black man" roles that Morgan Freeman turns down) and Grand L. Bush (one of the Agent Johnsons from Die Hard) play the same character, thirty-six years apart.  You will definitely recognize Glenn "Otho" Sadix as an effeminate assistant.  And last, but not least, Bob Gunton does his typical thing as a jerk authority figure.  Are any of these supporting performances particularly revelatory?  Not at all.  Everyone plays their part (sometimes, they even over-play it) pretty well, making this a surprisingly well-rounded movie, acting-wise.
I never played it, but I assume that the lack of physical contact made this a waste of quarters.
One of the mysteries of Demolition Man (and there are several) is exactly what happened to director Marco Brambilla after making this film.  He has only three more credits on IMDb, and none of them are what I would call career-killers, even with an Alicia Silverstone movie under his belt.  Whatever the reason for his retirement (forceful or otherwise), I think Brambilla made a perfectly acceptable action flick, designed to entertain and make you crave popcorn.  Was his direction subtle?  Hell, no.  But who is looking for subtle in a Stallone action movie?  The action looked good, the plot made a decent amount of sense, and none of the jokes were wasted (even the lame ones).  That's not a bad job for a big budget action movie.
Do tough guys wear berets just so they can punch anyone who smirks?
All in all, Demolition Man is darn near perfect for what it is meant to be.  It could be more intentionally funny, sure, and it could certainly be more unintentionally funny, but those are two flaws I think most eighteen-year old action movies would be willing to live with.  As a legitimate movie, I think the balance of solid action with remedial satire deserves
 ...and yet, I enjoy this movie on so much more than a legitimate level.  I encourage you to watch this movie again (perhaps with some booze?  Side note --- don't do drugs, kids!) and laugh at the more ridiculous moments.  Demolition Man more than earns the Lefty Gold rating of
For some reason, when I did a Google Image Search for "Demolition Man," I came across this screenshot from Pulp's "Common People" music video.  I have no idea why, but I love Pulp and felt obligated to include it here.

1 comment:

  1. Can't agree more with your review! This was a perfect parody of action movies. Especially the beginning with Stallone running away from the explosion in slow motion.