Franchises that never were: “Demolition Man”

In the Nineties, kids, this stuff was cutting edge...

I’ve always had a warm gooey place in my heart for many of Sylvester Stallone’s Nineties films.

After a period in the Eighties where his brand of earnest, knuckle-headed action films fell slightly out of favour and the more comedic likes of Bruce Willis (and, to a certain extent, Arnold Schwarzenegger) took the lead in critical plaudits and box office takings, Stallone seemed to regard the Nineties as prime reinvention time.

This decade saw enjoyable mountaineering action adventure “Cliffhanger” (love that dialogue-free, Beethoven-scored trailer), the “2000 AD” adaptation “Judge Dredd”, NYC tunnel cave-in drama “Daylight” and most intriguing of all, the low-key crime drama, “Copland”, which saw Stallone not playing a kick-ass action hero or blue-collar warrior but a very human,  quite believable small town sheriff presiding over a small town inhabited by corrupt cops.  It also saw “Oscar” and “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot”, but let’s draw as discreet a veil as possible over those latter two flicks (actually, I quite like “Oscar”…)

As the picture and post title suggest, I’m going to waffle on a bit about his 1993 action flick “Demolition Man”, which saw Stallone exploring a variation on the blue-collar, distrustful of society, anti-heroic tough guys which people much of his filmography.  Set in 1996, then a couple of years into the future, Sly plays tough as old boots LAPD cop John Spartan (crazy name, crazy guy) whose obsessive chase of sociopathic criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) and game of one-upmanship results in a tragedy which sees both parties cryogenically frozen.

Yep, it’s that kind of film – there still isn’t a cryogenic freezing process which works in the way depicted in this film but for the purposes of the plot not only is there one, but it works perfectly and eventually decants an out-of-his-era Spartan into mid-21st century Californian metroplex peopled by sandal-sporting, kaftan-wearing, mung-bean munching hippies.

So, not a sub-set of society best placed to handle the duelling male egos unleashed on them, then?

Nope, and the resulting clash of ideals – Stallone’s alpha male who doesn’t care what’s in his way as long as he gets his hands on whichever criminal he’s pursuing and a society which regards the unfrozen Spartan as a barbarian exemplar of a cruder age – is what fuels the film’s comedic sequences.  His exasperated reactions to this demi-paradise of healthy lifestyles, diminished physical contact and profanity-free social intercourse are clearly designed to be the stuff of audience identification – thank God we don’t live like that! – but I can’t quite get to that place as the right-wing politics behind those sentiments are so far from my own that there really isn’t a meeting point.

As much as I enjoy the film, I have to view it as a silly action flick with some occasional neat ideas underpinning it and not as a film which has anything more valuable to say than ‘cool practical stunt sequence, bro’.   The reactionary aspects of the film – society would be so much better if only poor, oppressed Republicans were given carte blanche to carry concealed weapons, ignore judicial due process and generally mould the world in their image – are there if you look beneath the surface but don’t impact too much on your enjoyment of this sci-fi actioner, a truism which applies to many action movies of the era.

Stallone is typically effective in the lead role – he’s at his best when he gets to embody the physical brawn he’s renowned for and employ just a little ironic comedy too, so as to assure the audience that he’s in on the joke and he knows how ludicrous much of the action in his films is.   And the action in “Demolition Man” is another thing which makes this film something of an old school treat as it’s mostly practical and performed by stuntmen rather than being rendered in post-production on a server farm.

What a nice thing, too, to see Wesley Snipes when he was in his prime, with his antagonist being not only a credible threat but one who seems destined for much of the film to be the character who’ll emerge victorious from the inevitable head-to-head collision – heck, even this AMC movies blog agrees with me about Simon Phoenix’s dubiously hair-styled, 90’s buzz word-spouting awesomeness.

You can’t really talk about this film fully without noting that Sandra Bullock steals the whole film from under Stallone’s feet in every scene that they share – he knows what kind of film he’s in and calibrates his performance accordingly but Bullock is  on another plane entirely and manages to be convincingly tough, charming without being cloying, funny without mugging and cute without being in any way self-conscious

As I’m currently over 800 words on this post, it seems appropriate to try to wind things up before I start talking about the glorious sets, Nigel Hawthorne’s pitch-perfect performance as the playing with fire social engineer Dr Cocteau or the idea that an oldies radio station in the future will just play advert jingles.

It’s a fine film which isn’t as clever as it would have you believe it is.   It’s a film which makes you yearn for practical action sequences in films, actual sets and the other stuff which gave sci-fi action films in the 80’s and 90’s a sense of physical heft and odd plausibility even when barking mad things were happening.  It’s a film which has so much unexplored satirical possibility within its basic premise that I might actually welcome the prospect of it being remade one day if a good enough film maker were to take it on.

My wife watched this with me and felt that, for all it’s bone-crunching, macho stupidity and weird moments – why does Dennis Leary’s character and his army make such a big entrance near the end only to subsequently do nothing whatsoever? – it was the kind of film that we don’t see examples of any more.   It’s only when you have a dearth of these kinds of action movies that you realise that you used to quite enjoy them in the summer time – witness the popularity of Stallone’s own retrospectively styled homage to his past career, “The Expendables”, to see that a decent chunk of the movie going populace are quite keen on action movies which side-step the complexities of the modern world for a few hours of car chases, bare knuckle brawls and pension age men doing implausible things in the name of abstract concepts like truth and justice.

I’m now totally going to watch “Tango & Cash” for more daft 80’s/90’s action cheese:  I can feel the brain cells dissipating as I write…

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1 Comment

Filed under Films, Geekery

One response to “Franchises that never were: “Demolition Man”

  1. Love his glasses in Tango and Cash, and Russell in drag ha!

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