Demolition Man (1993)
Dir. by Marco Brambilla
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock and Nigel Hawthorne
When LAPD Sergeant John “the Demolition Man” Spartan is framed for the murder of civilians while taking down crime kingpin Simon Phoenix, both he and Phoenix become some of the first inmates in the new cryogenic prison being tested. Thirty years later, Phoenix escapes during a parole hearing, and begins to terrorize a future Los Angeles that is no longer used to violence of any kind. The police, now only experienced in apprehending suspects who break curfew and tell dirty jokes, thaw Spartan out of cryo and reinstate him in an attempt to recapture the dangerous fugitive.
My first memories of this movie are actually of the aggressive marketing push for the movie conducted by Taco Bell, due to its prominent feature in the film. I was only 11 at the time, and there was no way my parents were going to let me watch the movie itself. I think I first saw it sometime in high school, and by the time I headed off to college it was one of my favorite action movies. I don’t watch it quite as much anymore, but I still give it a spin in the DVD player every year or so.
This is a very bizarre film. It’s one-half violent 90s sci-fi action movie, and one-half social satire dystopian comedy. While the two halves don’t really fit all that well together on paper, I enjoy both of them equally, and the movie itself quite a bit.
While the movie isn’t a deliberate comedy (at least, no one in the movie is playing it like a comedy), the borderline-surreal environment that the reawakened Spartan finds himself in is more than sufficient for the film to have plenty of laughs to go with its action. Most of these come from Spartan’s interplay with his new partner on the force, Sandra Bullock’s extremely enthusiastic Lenina Huxley. A 20th-century pop culture fanatic, she gloms on to Spartan like her own private Stan Lee, eager to show off her (frequently wrong) knowledge of 90s slang and action hero tropes. There’s also a lot of fish-out-of-water humor involving Spartan’s reactions to “modern” technology, most notably an extended reoccurring gag with a machine that dispenses fines for swearing, and the lack of toilet paper in the restrooms – two gags that naturally dovetail together in one of the movie’s more memorable scenes.
While Bullock and Stallone are both good in their roles, special attention has to be paid to Wesley Snipes as the villain. When we first meet him, he’s a ruthless, self-assured drug kingpin, who takes pleasure in taunting Spartan before he gets captured. Due to the machinations of the outwardly affable Dr. Cocteau, he emerges from cryo freeze as an over-the-top, almost cartoonish terrorist. While Stallone mostly goes around with this bemused, “I can’t believe this shit” expression, Snipes’s Simon Phoenix is openly disdainful and sarcastic about the future, making his interactions with just about every part of this ridiculous dystopia a joy to watch. It’s not quite to the level of Alan Rickman in Robin Hood, but he does begin to approach that level of scenery-chewing, which is just perfect for a movie with this satirical tone.
Speaking of the dystopia, the movie takes multiple potshots at PC culture and over-regulation. Pretty much everything that makes life enjoyable seems to have been regulated out of existence, leading to a famous, epic libertarian Denis Leary rant late in the film. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the movie went into production shortly after Bill Clinton took office. However, even if the movie’s politics aren’t really modern any more, it has several points that still resonate today, especially when it comes to the government trying to decide what people can do with their bodies (both sex and pregnancy without a permit having been made illegal). And the Taco Bell scene is still amazing.
I’m not sure what it says about the movie that what it’s probably most known for now is an extended product placement. According to Huxley, all of the major franchises competed themselves into oblivion, leaving Taco Bell as the only restaurant in existence. As a reward for saving his life, Dr. Cocteau invites Spartan to an upscale, fancy Taco Bell, with a valet and live music. It’s such a memorable scene that Taco Bell actually recreated the restaurant from the movie as a pop-up at San Diego Comic Con a couple of years ago to celebrate the movie’s 25th anniversary.
I haven’t talked much about the action itself in the movie, and that’s because the action movie side of the film is mostly standard early-90s fair. It’s well shot, for the most part, and decently choreographed, but there’s nothing truly inventive about any of it. This movie doesn’t live on its violence, as much as it does the reactions of everyone else to the fights, from Huxley’s gleeful enthusiasm to a random cop who has to use a Youtube tutorial to figure out how to arrest Phoenix.
Even if I don’t really agree with all of the movie’s satirical targets, I find that there’s more than enough for me to still enjoy it, even in 2021. It’s definitely a relic of its time, but that’s actually part of the point: Spartan is an 80s/90s era action hero in a modern world that’s moved beyond him.
-Seriously, I’ve seen multiple breakdowns and infographics trying to explain how the three seashells thing is supposed to work. And I get it in theory. My question is, what does the next person to come into the restroom do? Use the same seashells?
-Jack Black has a blink-and-you-miss-him role as one of the Scraps in the sewers, something I never caught in all of my times watching it until I had it pointed out to me.
-This movie accurately called Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political career, a decade before he became Governor of California. In fact, the movie has him becoming president due to a new Constitutional amendment being passed – an amendment which was actually proposed right after Schwarzenegger was elected.
-In a slightly creepier coincidence, the inmate immediately before Simon Phoenix on the parole hearing docket is listed as a “Peterson, Scott.” Many years after the movie’s release, a man named Scott Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife, in a media circus trial that made the news nightly in the mid-2000s and was on the front page of every supermarket tabloid for months.