According to 1993’s Demolition Man, the Los Angeles of 1996 is like a war zone: a post-apocalyptic, grim, techno-blasted war zone. As seen at the start of this sci-fi-comic-action bonanza, even the Hollywood sign is in flames, and it is in this ravaged urban arena where two combatants at opposing ends of the lawful spectrum are facing off in their latest of many comparable conflicts—“Send a maniac to catch one,” declares Sylvester Stallone’s LAPD Sgt. John Spartan, before he leaps from a helicopter. His target, the other maniac, is a drug-addled ham and giddy sadist named Simon Phoenix, played by Wesley Snipes, as happily devoted to the showiness of his villainy as Stallone is to his comparable heroism.
Fatigued by the enduring, cumulative nature of their antipathy, Spartan by this point sees the routine discord as a personal vendetta more than he does a professional obligation, and his heedless behavior and against-the-rules advance have led to frequent chiding and a repudiation of his namesake “demolition man shit” (as for Phoenix, his own moniker affords multiple opportunity to add “Simon says” before any number of one-line quips). They fight, stuff blows up, innocent people get killed, and both men are imprisoned and cryogenically frozen in the California Cryo-Penitentiary.
From there, Demolition Man (available to stream on Hulu and purchase at Warner ) moves forward to 2032, where the plot essentially continues as before. In this strange new world, however, where Phoenix has escaped (or has been suspiciously freed) and Spartan has resultingly been let loose under the rationale that an “old fashioned criminal” needs an “old fashioned cop,” the prior enmity is now augmented by a novel set of circumstances. The reason for Spartan’s reentry into the picture is because the city that once was a destitute, violence-infested L.A. has now become San Angeles, a peaceful, utopian metropolis that is all surface sheen and ostensible serenity. It is sterile and dull, if deceptively safe, and its inhabitants habitually exchange banal pleasantries while avoiding physical contact at all costs. (Hmmm, prescient?) And as evinced by its redundant and therefore lackluster breed of law enforcement, it’s also a society abundantly ill-equipped to handle a man like Phoenix. Most of the police force isn’t sure what “187” refers to—the antiquated crime now referred to as the convoluted though still accurate “MurderDeathKill”—and when confronted by Phoenix, the officers are baffled, calling in for guidance when he responds with a “scornful remark.” When Phoenix truly goes off, killing many in his wake, officer Erwin (an uncredited Rob Schneider) vomits and proclaims, “We’re police officers–we’re not trained to handle this kind of violence!”
As should be obvious, none of this is meant to be taken especially serious, and the intermittent insertions of action-associated tropes (or the lack thereof in this pacified city) playfully nod to the conventions of the genre, conventions embraced by the initially discouraged Spartan’s new partner, Lieutenant Lenina Huxley, played by a bubbly, fresh-faced Sandra Bullock. Bored with the sanitized humdrum of her superfluous occupation, Huxley (named after Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World,” and Lenina Crowne, a character in the story) longs for the action-packed days of old, showing her 20th century affinity via toys and props and conspicuously placed posters for films like Lethal Weapon 3. Although she struggles with the tough-talking vernacular (“He’s finally matched his meet. You really licked his ass”), she becomes an earnest aid in Spartan’s plight. Additional humor (and Demolition Man has to be one of the funniest films of its kind) derives from the comic inefficiency of the police, the insipid colloquiums bandied about by everyone, and baffling modern-day trends like being fined for swearing (per “verbal morality” parameters) and the use of three seashells in lieu of toilet paper, the exact usage of which is left amusingly unexplained. Something semi-serious is brewing, though, and the behind-the-scenes unrest generally stems from two diverging powers: the seemingly benevolent Dr. Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), evangelical overseer of San Angeles since the time of 2010’s “great earthquake,” and, leading a rag-tag band of “Mad Max” holdovers (“subterranean hooligans”), the resistance leader Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary), who sees through the surrounding façade.
By this point in his career, Stallone was having a rough go of it in Hollywood, with uninspiring movies like Oscar (1991) and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) leading up to Demolition Man (only 1993’s Cliffhanger was and is a more typical, compelling Stallone feature). Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal turned down role of John Spartan (just as Jackie Chan did for Phoenix, not wanting to play a bad guy), so Stallone successfully stepped in as an engaging, sympathetic Everyman, a bemused fish out of water just looking to do the right thing. And although Spartan is compared to a Neanderthal in this erudite cultural climate, his unpretentiousness and his love for classic cars and cheeseburgers (even when made of rat) make him considerably more entertaining and interesting than anyone else around him. Snipes, for his part, rides well the fine line between genuine, outright wickedness and comic, cartoonish foil. Refreshingly outmoded agents of chaos and justice, respectively, Phoenix and Spartan are resurrected with new skills; the former is programmed with technological expertise while the latter comes out of his refrigerated state with the skills of a seamstress, knitting Huxley a sweater after their romantic rendezvous falters. Still, faced with their new reality, a reality that includes ritzy Taco Bells, the chain having won the mysterious franchise wars, and commercial jingles now playing on the radio as pop favorites, the two share a similar distain for such ridiculousness, and despite their apparent differences, they, like the viewer, relate through the mutually perceived absurdity.
Demolition Man’s plot is an essentially episodic compilation of these contemporary quirks, the background conspiracy, and the alternating confrontations between Spartan and Phoenix. There’s some mention of Spartan’s now deceased wife and a still living daughter, who is alluded to but quickly, somewhat bizarrely, dropped from concern. Otherwise, it’s a film bursting at the seams with profusive explosions, ample gunplay, and appealing old school mayhem, all well placed and paced by director Marco Brambilla (this would be one of only two features to him name). The picture knowingly references Rambo, Star Wars, Brian De Palma’s Scarface, “Mr. Rogers,” and even Stallone’s macho nemesis Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose name now graces a presidential library thanks to an amendment passed during the intervening years. Written by Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau, and Peter M. Lenkov, its title apparently derived from a song written by Sting and recorded by Grace Jones in 1981, Demolition Man, at the same time, laudably approaches assorted dystopian themes and provides a good-natured and still resounding critique of excessive political correctness and virtual-reality detachment. Perhaps surprisingly insightful in the process, from a period when such films were notably hit or miss, this neglected blockbuster achieves a comparatively rare feat: a witty satire encased by sturdy action fulfilment.