Outside the crowd-pleasing safety of the Rocky and Rambo franchises, Sylvester Stallone’s career has seen mixed fortunes. Some of his movies were entertaining, but didn’t make huge amounts of money (such as 1981’s Nighthawks), while others were either critical or financial calamities – Stallone’s ill-advised forays into comedy, Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot spring to mind.
In fact, Stallone’s entire career is studded with alternating hits and misses; 1987 arm-wrestling drama Over The Top under-performed, but Rambo III came out the following year and more than tripled its budget. Similarly, 1992’s Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot, which received hideous notices, was followed by Cliffhanger in 1993, which was a big hit.
Demolition Man, which came out in the same year as Cliffhanger, seemed to suffer by comparison. Its reviews were relatively mixed, and it didn’t make quite as much money. Yet Demolition Man, a blend of sci-fi, comedy, and action, is one of the smarter entries in Stallone’s filmography – far smarter than most contemporary critics gave it credit for – and it has, we’d argue, aged better than most of his bigger hits from the same era. And, guess what? It’s now 20 years since Sly’s character, John Spartan, was put on ice:
So to celebrate, join us as we take a look back at the 90s-tastic Demolition Man…
“You’re gonna regret this for the rest of your life… both seconds of it”
Demolition Man introduces us to John Spartan – a muscle-bound tough guy in the usual Stallone mode, except this one wears a beret for some reason. A hard-working cop on the beat in 1996 Los Angeles, Spartan’s infamous for causing widespread destruction in his pursuit of criminals. One of those criminals is Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), a cackling, Joker-like agent of chaos and Spartan’s arch nemesis.
As the movie opens, Phoenix has taken a busload of people hostage, and has them holed up in a warehouse full of explosives. Having scanned the building and found it empty, Spartan enters, causes his usual havoc, and arrests Phoenix – only to discover that, as the warehouse collapses behind him, the hostages were inside all along.Both Spartan and Phoenix are convicted for the deaths and sent to a CryoPrison, where they’re left to serve a lengthy stretch in a freezer. Thirty-six years later, Phoenix is thawed out for a parole hearing, and with his martial arts skills and the creative use of a pen, promptly escapes.
Phoenix finds himself in a future metropolis so devoid of crime that its police force has completely forgotten how to deal with physical violence. With the gleeful abandon of a child in a playground, Phoenix embarks on a new campaign of destruction, his target: Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary), the leader of an underground movement. With cops helpless at Phoenix’s rapid hands and feet, bored, sweet-natured Lieutenant Huxley (Sandra Bullock) has the bright idea of thawing out John Spartan to deal with the problem.
Unlike Phoenix, who treats the peaceful utopia of San Angeles like a griefer in an MMO, Spartan is perplexed and ill-at-ease in this future world. Alcohol, caffeine and other stimulants are banned. Swearing results in on-the-spot fines from irritating ticket machines. Even going to the bathroom involves not toilet paper, but a mystifyingly technical process called “the three shells.”
Aside from Huxley, who regards him as a hero from yesteryear, Spartan’s regarded as a dinosaur – a violent relic from a bygone age. Nevertheless, Spartan proves to be the only person capable of predicting what Spartan’s going to do next, and he quickly gets to the bottom of exactly why he escaped in the first place; the ruler of San Angeles, Dr Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), had him thawed out to assassinate Friendly, who presents the last remaining opposition to his quietly stifling rule.
The stage is set for a final confrontation between Spartan and his group of effete cops, and Phoenix, who’s raided a local museum of its guns, and released the rest of the city’s frozen criminals.
“Send a maniac to catch a maniac”
Demolition Man went through several changes before it arrived on the big screen. It was originally offered to Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, and intended to provide a similar kind of sci-fi action team-up as Universal Soldier had been for Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren in 1992. Unfortunately, neither Van Damme nor Seagal particularly wanted to play the villain. When Stallone came aboard, he asked Jackie Chan to play Simon Phoenix, but Chan, worried about what his huge Asian audience would make of his playing a sociopath, turned it down.
The script, meanwhile, went through numerous drafts. Three screenwriters were credited in the finished movie – Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau, and Peter M. Lenkov – but the writer of the shooting script, Jonathan Lemkin, went mysteriously unmentioned.
The presence of all those writers, and the original intention to have Van Damme and Seagal in the leads, hints that the script may once have been a far straighter sci-fi action script than the film we ended up with. Indeed, Peter M. Lenkov’s second draft, dated 1989, bears little resemblance to the shooting script, the strange names and tongue-in-cheek humor are nowhere to be seen.
For the wackier version of Demolition Man reworked by subsequent writers, Wesley Snipes is inspired casting as Simon Phoenix, and it’s hard to imagine Van Damme, Seagal or even Chan bringing the right mix of humour, physical presence and psychopathy to the role. He clearly relishes the part, even if he is saddled with a ridiculous dyed hair-do and a script peppered with Simon Says gags.
As the sleepy-eyed defender of justice, Sylvester Stallone is similarly well cast, and Demolition Man may be one of the best showcases for his faintly melancholy style of acting since First Blood. Stallone plays put upon underdogs better than any other action star in the business, and his perpetual bewilderment at the unrecognizable world around him gives the movie its heart.
Demolition Man makes several allusions to famous works of sci-fi, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to HG Wells’ The Sleeper Wakes. Its depiction of a post-disaster metropolis that has drifted into pacifism and decadence is also extremely funny, and acts as a inverted version of RoboCop. In that film, Detroit had spiralled into violence, corporate domination and vapid television reporting. Demolition Man’s San Angeles is a tidier city, but it’s also a place where political correctness and health and safety are taken to ludicrous extremes – where physical contact has fallen by the wayside, and everyone talks in an insipid and infuriating register specifically designed to avoid causing offence. (“Mellow greetings. What seems to be your boggle?”)
It’s a future that looks and sounds like a right-winger’s nightmare of a pinko future, where guns are outlawed and men are too effeminate to defend themselves. You might think, then, that Demolition Man is meant as a warning of what a future under Democrat rule might look like (akin to the “1000 years of darkness” Chuck Norris hilariously spoke of on YouTube recently), but instead, it appears to be a quite wry satire of the action genre’s gun-stroking politics.
By the early ’90s, Hollywood clearly realized that the muscle-bound man of action, which dominated the box office in the previous decade, was on the wane. Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to send up his entire career to date in Last Action Hero, released in the summer of 1993. It ironically proved that action stars were no longer the bankable success they once were, as it did relatively poor numbers at the box office, having been utterly upstaged by Jurassic Park.
Demolition Man’s satire of action movie trappings is much more subtle, and less awkward as a result. It’s unusual to see an action hero so painfully out of his element, and placed in a situation where he’s treated with scorn rather than adulation. In one key scene, Spartan even says to Huxley, his one adoring fan: “This isn’t the Wild West… The Wild West wasn’t even the Wild West. Hurting people’s not a good thing! Well, sometimes it is, but not when it’s a bunch of people looking for something to eat!”
In this strange new world, even Spartan appears to be questioning the old ‘might is right’ adage that permeates pretty much every ’80s action movie ever made.
“Looks like there’s a new shepherd in town”
All beard-stroking aside, Demolition Man remains a breezy action flick at heart. The movie may tickle the ribs of the action genre, but it’s still positively stuffed with explosions, car chases and endless shoot-outs.
It’s a pity, then, that director Marco Brambilla fails to make these sequences really pop; Demolition Man’s a decent looking film, but its scenes of violence are oddly lacking in energy. It’s the kind of movie where characters fire clip after clip at each other, but the sense of danger’s somehow misplaced.
As a result, the action scenes end up feeling like a distraction from the fish-out-of-water comedy, or the bits where Wesley Snipes gets to exercise his wild-eyed charisma rather than hit people. It’s in these moments where Demolition Man borders on excellence. From an awkward visit to Taco Bell (now a haute-cuisine restaurant, having successfully won ‘the franchise wars’) to Stallone and Bullock’s non-sex scene (another action parody, since sex scenes were a legal requirement of the genre in the ’80s), Demolition Man proved that Stallone really could put in a decent comic performance.
In fact, the performances in Demolition Man are mostly great. Bullock’s good value as the absurdly wholesome Huxley, who collects 20th century memorabilia and sings advertising jingles. Nigel Hawthorne’s oddly cast as the most avuncular despot in cinema, but even he fits into the film’s slightly kitsch vision of the future, all Japanese kimonos, parasols and bad hats (he wasn’t entirely complimentary about the film in his autobiography, though, having taken the role to help secure funding for The Madness Of King George). Scowling man of action Jesse Ventura’s lurking in here somewhere, too, though the excision of his fight scene with Stallone means his role is a true blink-and-you’ll-miss-it one.
Demolition Man’s critical reception wasn’t particularly kind, which seemed to be because so many reviewers took it as a straight action picture rather than a parody of one. In some instances, the criticisms weren’t wide of the mark – it’s an incoherent, messily edited film in places, and its action lacks the much-needed bite that a director such as John McTiernan, Paul Verhoeven, or even an on-form John Woo might have provided.
As it is, Demolition Man isn’t the best sci-fi action movie of the 1990s, but it is one of the wittier and more entertaining ones. This is, after all, a movie that sees Sylvester Stallone sit and knit a fetching jumper.
Now if only someone could explain to us just how those three shells work…
This article was originally published on Den of Geek UK in 2012, and appears here in updated form.