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Should I Watch..? 'Demolition Man' (1993)

Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

Demolition Man is a sci-fi action film released in 1993, and it's directed by a debuting Marco Brambilla. The film depicts a risk-taking cop and psychotic criminal who are both cryogenically frozen before being thawed out in 2032 to a society where crime has been eradicated and the police are unable to stop the sudden violent spree that ensues. The film stars Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Nigel Hawthorne, Benjamin Bratt and Denis Leary. The film makes several allusions to earlier sci-fi works, notably the novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The film received a mixed response from critics, but it did find success at the box office with global earnings in excess of $159 million. The film is now considered something of a cult classic and rumours of a sequel have been swirling for years, with Stallone claiming in 2020 that a sequel was in development, something he had previously dismissed in 2006.

Watchable

What's It About?

In the then-future of 1996, psychotic career criminal Simon Phoenix has kidnapped a bus full of hostages and taken them to an abandoned building on the outskirts of Los Angeles. His long-time nemesis, LAPD officer John Spartan (nicknamed 'Demoliton Man' due to the amount of havoc he causes during his shift), launches a one-man campaign on the compound but discovers that the hostages are not there. Confronting Phoenix, Spartan is caught in the explosion when the building is destroyed. While Phoenix is sentenced to a life on ice in California's new cryogenenic prison, Spartan is charged with the deaths of the hostages after they were found buried in the rubble and he too is frozen in jail.

Fast forward to 2032 and the city-state of San Angeles is a peaceful utopia free from all violence and any sort of deviant behaviour. Dr Raymond Cocteau, the man behind this societal change, is attending a parole hearing for Phoenix who has apparently been reprogrammed while frozen into becoming a more compliant citizen. Sadly, Phoenix has been unaffected and escapes after murdering several overwhelmed police officers. The more pacifist SAPD soon realize that their only option is to break Spartan out of his ice box but for Spartan, the future is oppressive and disturbing. Together with history buff Lt. Lelina Huxley, Spartan rejoins the force and continues his hunt for the most dangerous man alive.

Trailer

What's to Like?

Suspend, if you can, your derogatory sniggers about the already out-of-date plot and focus instead on the meat hanging off the bones. Demolition Man is a very curious film indeed, pretending to be an all-out slugfest between the future Expendables 3 co-stars but actually is a slightly satirical swipe at extreme liberalism. This supposed utopian vision of the future sits on top of the same sort of economic ruin we last saw in RoboCop and it isn't really much of a surprise to find the river of revolution bubbling beneath the surface. As for the future, there are more things to amuse than things that make sense - the infamous seashells used in the toilet, for example, which Spartan struggles to understand. But in retrospect, the film is actually closer to reality than we might care to admit with fascist-looking police uniforms and sleek, electric vehicles.

The film wisely adopts a tongue-in-cheek tone to the material and luckily, the lead stars pitch their performances perfectly. Stallone's deliberately Neanderthal supercop and Snipes' ridiculously over-the-top mega crook are ideally suited to this nonsense with Stallone smashing it in the action scenes (including the obligatory slow-motion running away from an explosion, which I swear is in every one of his films including Rocky) and Snipes firing off some delicious dialogue. Bullock wasn't quite the star she would become in a few years after her star turn in Speed, but her overly smiley and far-too-keen character still allows her the chance to shine. In spite of the silliness, the film is still a solid and respectable effort that trumps most of Stallone's output at the time and even more impressive, still holds up fairly well today. If you're in the right frame of mind then this film will manage to entertain you in spite of itself.

Bullock might not be the star she would become at this point but her earnest, girl-next-door character indicates her obvious star ability.

Bullock might not be the star she would become at this point but her earnest, girl-next-door character indicates her obvious star ability.

Fun Facts

  • Snipes hated his dyed blonde hairdo for the film, shaving it off as soon as filming had finished. Nevertheless, it did have one fan as NBA star Dennis Rodman copied the look and style when he debuted for the San Antonio Spurs in 1993.
  • The film was subject to a plagiarism claim by Hungarian novelist István Nemere who claimed that the film was largely based on his 1986 novel 'Holtak harca' ('Fight Of The Dead'). He didn't pursue a legal case against the filmmakers because he felt the cost of doing so was too expensive. Strangely, the Hungarian word 'Lofaszt' can be seen as graffiti in the scene where Spartan first meets Edgar Friendly - the word translates as 'f*** no' in English and was famously spoken by Edward James Olmos in Blade Runner.
  • Lelina Huxley's name is partly based on a character from Aldous Huxley's novel, Brave New World, which depicts a future society where showing any sort of emotion is considered taboo (and possibly illegal) and your future is pre-determined.
  • The film mentions Stallone's long-time friend and rival Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming US President after a change is made to the US Constitution. A day short of ten years after the film's release, Schwarzenegger's political career began when he started serving as Governor of California.
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What's Not to Like?

Normally, I'm not a fan of films that don't take themselves too seriously but for once, Demolition Man gets it right by managing to find the balance between camp and awful. Yes, the story is ridiculous and very much of its time - I still remember the fad for cryogenics from the early Nineties even popping up in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. So the film is as goofy as Mickey's other sidekick but it recognises this and adapts itself surprisingly well. Credit to debutant director Marco Brambilla for crafting a film that combines aesthetic design, a knowing screenplay and the correct tone. It won't be for everybody - fans of Stallone's more violent output like Rambo III might feel short-changed - but I think this film deserves a second look.

My biggest issue with the film is that it doesn't know what it wants to be. This split personality between old-school action and social commentary kinda cancel each other out - the action is too derivative and there isn't enough of it for hardened action fans while the satire tends to get lost or overshadowed by the explosions and gun fire. Speaking of which, I'm not sure exactly what point the film is trying to make. Stallone's closing monologue had more than a hint of his attempt at ending the Cold War at the end of Rocky IV and comes across as a ham-fisted and meaningless political statement - the sort of vague platitude you'd expect from a beauty pageant contestant.

It might look like a brave new world but this sci-fi shooter is as old school as they come - a retro vision of the future from the mid Nineties.

It might look like a brave new world but this sci-fi shooter is as old school as they come - a retro vision of the future from the mid Nineties.

Should I Watch It?

It's certainly not a classic, but compared to much of his output from the time, Demolition Man is something of a minor triumph for Sly. It is unashamedly silly but still good value as a mindless action flick, albeit one that isn't afraid to hint at some deeper themes. Regardless of its aspirations, the film shouldn't be dismissed like some other Stallone pictures (see below) and action film fans shouldn't feel too upset watching this cult effort.

Great For: reviving Stallone's career briefly, bringing wider attention to Sandra Bullock, action fans with low expectations, Republicans

Not So Great For: accurately predicting the future, consideration by various award voting bodies, producing sequels

What Else Should I Watch?

Stallone's career was beginning to falter at the end of the Eighties after critical failures with films like Tango & Cash, Cobra and the wretched final part of the original Rocky series, Rocky V. However, 1993 proved to be a renaissance year for the big man with both this and Cliffhanger, another tongue-in-cheek action film that is essentially Die Hard on a mountain. It was certainly enough to sustain his career successfully until the end of the decade, culminating with an impressive turn in Cop Land which sadly didn't make as much as more negatively received films like Judge Dredd and The Specialist.

Science fiction and action became close colleagues in the Nineties, thanks in no small part to the incredible success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day - a film that still feels contemporary (if you ignore the hairstyles and fashions) and is arguably Schwarzenegger's greatest outing as the monotone cyborg killing machine. From the game-changing effects of The Matrix to the satirical bug-splattering of Starship Troopers, the Nineties saw both the revival of George Lucas' famous space opera and the continuation of the Star Trek series, now featuring the stars of the Next Generation show.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Sylvester Stallone

Sergeant John Spartan

Wesley Snipes

Simon Phoenix

Sandra Bullock

Lieutenant Lelina Huxley

Nigel Hawthorne

Doctor Raymond Cocteau

Benjamin Bratt

Officer Alfredo Garcia

Denis Leary

Edgar Friendly

Bill Cobbs

Officer Zachary Lamb (future version)

Bob Gunton

Chief George Earle

Glenn Shadix

Associate Bob

Technical Info

*story by Robert Reneau & Peter M. Lenkov

DirectorMarco Brambilla

Screenplay

Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau & Peter M. Lenkov*

Running Time

115 minutes

Release Date (UK)

12th November, 1993

Rating

15

Genre

Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller

Razzie Award Nomination

Worst Supporting Actress (Bullock)

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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