BIG SPOILER WARNING: Giving away the ending of this 28-year-old movie is the only way to explain why I believe you should probably not bother catching up with this 28-year-old movie. Also, here be politics. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
I watched Demolition Man on July 2, 2021, exactly halfway through a year I’ve dedicated to watching as many movies as possible.1 Very near the top of my self-imposed rules for this pop culture project is finally screening films that defined Gen Xers’ sensibilities but which I have heretofore skipped for reasons good, bad and stupid.
To date, I’ve ground my teeth and swallowed my bile while sitting through Sleeping Beauty, found an equal number of things to like and detest about Flashdance, and (metaphorically) kicked myself black and blue for misguidedly making avoiding E.T. the Extraterrestrial an interesting thingTM about me for 38 years.
Put Demolition Man in the pile of artistic artifacts best left overlooked. Strip away a lot of nonsense, and the movie exists to answer the question of whether an idyllic middle ground exists between far-left technocratic authoritarianism and far-right libertarianism. The writers and director also float and quickly resolver other posers, including
- Does following rules make you unmanly? Lords yes, shows the film.
- Do hungry people have the right to steal food? Only when Sylvester Stallone condones it.
- Should a person waking from a decades-long coma be given time to process the death of their spouse? No, don’t act like a child.
- Will only violence solve violence? Absolutely, even though a police commissioner gives lip service to the hero having no moral superiority to the villain.
But the viewer need never doubt that their choices for the future consist only of harshly enforced infantilism, nature red in tooth and claw, or whatever Stallone deems preferable because, well, the characters literally say so.
To give just one instance of this, Dennis Leary’s leader of the Scraps, Edgar Friendly2 reels off this compendium of lyrics Leary could not shoehorn into his 1993 MTV hit “Asshole”:
The Scraps live in the sewers and raid Taco Bells because they shun physically implanted “codes” that would allow them to shop in grocery stores. Meanwhile, code-carrying residents of San Angelis pay instantaneous fines for cussing, fear trading fluids, and turn to A.I. kiosks for daily affirmation because making friends seems impossible.
The morality plays spools out against a surprisingly violent, but almost completely bloodless and inconsequential, shoot-em-up. An excellent Wesley Snipes runs around San Angelis in two different time periods gleefully killing people. An out-of-his-depth Stallone runs around San Angelis in two different time periods stoically killing people.
A pre-credits killing spree immerses Snipes’ Simon Phoenix and Stallone’s John Spartan in cryogenic stasis tanks for decades. The evil Dr. Cocteau3 reanimates a reprogrammed Snipes to hunt down and kill Leary. The fascist, but bored, SAPD chips Stallone out of his ice cocoon to capture Snipes. Yes: Defrost the police activism remains strong in 2036.
Revenant Stallone teams up with SAPD officer and Spartan fangirl Lenina Huxley to wreak havoc and bring some Reagan-era macho sensibleness to a society gone wrong in both directions. Poor Sandra Bullock does her best with the “why, just … why?” character of Huxley, tying to put over misquoted slang with each drop of flop sweat she can muster. Her very nearly believable attempts to flirt with Stallone deserve reconsideration as the greatest special effect of the early 1990s.
The biggest problem with the action story is that it tries to do double duty as a comedy. Stallone can be great playing Marty as a boxer. He can change the narrative on Viet Nam veterans as a silent killing machine. He can even pull off playing a schnook who never deserved what life did to him, as proven in Copland. He fails miserably as a quip machine.
Should you require proof, subject yourself to a rewatch of Tango & Cash to see a sleepwalking Kurt Russell blow Stallone off the screen. In short, Stallone will never win an Oscar for his comedic chops.
Back to Demolition Man and using the characters’ names. The movie ends in a rush as Spartan decapitates Snipes, blows up the cryo prison and (apparently) hundreds of frozen inmates who had not been sentenced to execution, convinces Bullock she likes French kisses by ignoring her initial disgust, and stands literally in the middle of Dr. Cocteau and Edgar Friend to say—again, literally—“This is what you’ll do. You’ll get a little dirty … you, a lot cleaner. And somewhere in the middle, you’ll figure it out.”
Of course, all societies operate somewhere along the spectrum of absolute authoritarianism and utter anarchy. Demolition Man propounds the emergence of such a system of personal and political governance as a profound solution to a problem that could never exist outside of a deeply stupid film. Contra that, good movies of this ilk—your Mad Max Fury Roads, your Running Mans, and your Waterworlds4—show worlds gone mad inching painfully back to order. Demolition Man wants nothing more than to convince viewers that accepting the worst of everything puts them in the best scenario.
This movie cost $57 million to make in the early 1990s.5 That was a whole hell of a lot of money to spend to give militant centrism the hard sell. If you can make time to watch just one Stallone blockbuster released in 1993, block out 113 minutes for Cliffhanger. At least Renny Harlin never tries to trick the audience into thinking Rex Linn’s rogue Treasury agent might just need to sit down for a beer with Michael Rooker’s rescue climber in order to see both sides and live happily ever after.