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It’s intriguing how time can transform certain films.
Back in October 1993, Demolition Man was considered a solid yet unremarkable action adventure, bolstered by the one-two punch of Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes. Fast forward to the present day, and it now feels like an uncannily prophetic piece of cinema that astutely predicted our modern society.
No, another AIDS virus hasn’t plagued us, and toilet paper remains in ample supply — as does intimate human contact. However, Marco Brambilla’s film keenly captures the fractured state of modern society. His is a world divided by extreme, even radical, points of view.
I’m not about to delve into politics. But what was once a somewhat silly, above-average action thriller has evolved into a clever, satirical romp reminiscent of RoboCop. Who would have foreseen that?
For newcomers, here’s the lowdown: Stallone stars as John Spartan, a rugged detective who plays by his own rules and will stop at nothing to get the job done. Snipes plays his polar opposite, a ruthless criminal named Simon Phoenix, whose sole desire is to sow chaos. After an explosive introduction, the two are put on cryogenic ice as punishment for their lawlessness. They’re later awakened in a distant, seemingly utopian future society, where they continue their violent feud.
Darkly humorous, action-packed, and featuring an exceptional ensemble including Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Bob Gunton, Glenn Shadix, Denis Leary, and somehow, Rob Schneider (who also co-starred in Stallone’s Judge Dredd), Demolition Man is an enjoyable, well-executed romp that delivers exactly what you’d expect — for better or for worse.
The intrigue of the film lies in its meticulous details. In 2032, the world has evolved into a tale of two cities. One side features a sanitized society devoid of profanity, intimate contact, humor, violence, and sex. The other comprises feral citizens who seize every opportunity to offend their adversaries. This is a different kind of dystopian conflict, where curse words and germs are enough to shift the balance. It’s an exaggerated riff on age-old political correctness arguments that plays well to certain crowds today.
One of the film’s many pleasures is witnessing Spartan and Phoenix disrupt this immaculate civilization with their old-fashioned sensibilities. In the past, they were merely two ordinary men engaged in combat. Three decades later, they might as well be the harbingers of the apocalypse. This clever gimmick carries the film through its slower moments, aided by Sandra Bullock’s vibrant performance and a surprising script that blends humor with action.
Unique among most future-set films, which often present a bleak, somber outlook for humanity, Demolition Man is decked out in bright colors and remarkable architecture. Yet it never undercuts the chill of the Huxley-esque culture on display. Here, people conform to a society that has all but stripped away their freedoms, governed by strict laws and absurd politics. Crime may not exist, but what’s the point of living when you can’t have anything beyond vanilla ice cream?
It’s heady stuff.
Surprisingly, most of this world communicates through TV screens and phone-like devices. At one point, Spartan turns on a screen and receives an unexpected video call from a topless woman. “Oh, I’m sorry, wrong number,” she muses, unexpectedly giving the audience the first example of a “butt dial.”
On a darker note, Spartan and Phoenix are hardwired to pursue specific objectives. Spartan takes up knitting not by choice but due to a rehab program implanted in his brain. Phoenix commits heinous acts seemingly at random, but we learn that his primary objective comes from a higher authority that can control his actions. At first glance, these details may appear as throwaway gags, too outlandish to be taken seriously. However, they add a darker subtext to the film, warning us of the potential dangers of trading freedom for security. The two-tiered system composed of “haves” and “have-nots” also reflects real-world issues of class division and disparities in access to resources and opportunities.
Much like RoboCop, Demolition Man is primarily an action film with satirical elements, and its themes and subtexts are open to interpretation. Stallone and Snipes are the film’s driving forces, but the deeper elements add to the entertainment value and give the audience something to contemplate after the credits roll.
Let’s be clear: Demolition Man is far from a cinematic masterpiece. Stallone’s performance drags the film down. He struggles with comedy and has zero chemistry with Bullock. Imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger in the same role, and you might have a better movie. Snipes has fun playing the wildly unhinged villain despite his limited screen time.
Some production values are rather comical, particularly in the underground rogue society. There, everyone sports long hair, shaggy beards, and trench coats in sets filled with copious amounts of steam. I understand the need for contrast, but the grit and grime aren’t entirely convincing.
Nevertheless, the positives far outweigh the negatives. The action scenes pack a punch thanks to sharp editing and solid choreography. Remarkably, the film was made on a relatively modest $50 million budget and still looks fantastic. Car chases, shootouts, thrilling fight sequences, elaborate stunts, and a handful of explosive moments will undoubtedly keep you on the edge of your seat.
And then there’s Bullock. She nearly steals the show with her charming, disarming performance as Stallone’s naive yet unabashedly optimistic partner. “I thought your life force had been prematurely terminated,” she says with unwavering conviction. Bullock excels in playing the spirited, capable nerd, as seen in Speed and Miss Congeniality. It’s a pity she spent much of her later years in dramatic roles, as the actress has a natural talent for comedy.
Other aspects work well in the film, but the gist is that 30 years later, Demolition Man remains a minor gem from the ’90s. While it may not be a cinematic masterpiece, the film’s ambition sets it apart from most others in the genre. It provokes thought, entertains, and provides a surprisingly accurate reflection of the future — offering much more than you might expect from your typical action movie.