There’s a theory I have and it’s quite new – not to mention fairly out there – but stay with me…
What if Cobra, Demolition Man and 1995’s attempt at Judge Dredd were all part of a (very) unofficial trilogy in which Sylvester Stallone randomly makes statements concerning the state of how excessive you should be to enforce the law in the United States of America? As theories go, it admittedly needs some work, but there’s more than a nugget of fact about it: 1986’s Cobra bluntly states that to stem the never ending tide of PCP-addicted looneys, police should be allowed to do whatever necessary to keep people safe – even if that means wildly discharging your firearm everywhere and blowing up sizable chunks of the freeway… In comparison, 1995’s Judge Dredd warns simultaneously against the fascist nature of a street cop with too much power and what happens when you make a shitty comic book adaptation but in 1993, Stallone and uber-producer Joel Silver turned in by far the best (and most balanced) treatment of this theme. Now, you may call bullshit on my theory if you must, but surely you must agree that Demolition Man is not only prime level Stallone, but is a damn fine slice of action sci-fi that’s crammed full of knowing wit to go with it’s bombast that makes it a surprisingly underappreciated example of a 90’s gem.
It’s 1996 and the streets of L.A. are predictably an urban hellzone where criminals run rampant and the atmosphere is generally unpleasant, but king of this bullet strewn shit heap is the maniacal Simon Phoenix, a super-criminal that has taken over 30 people hostage for no other reason than there’s probably nothing good on TV that night. Sent to stop him is the human bicep curl known as John Spartan, a super-violent cop nicknamed the Demolition Man due to the fact that his questionable mantra – “send a maniac to catch a maniac” – usually means that law upholding chaos follows in his wake. Needless to say, after the two man battle has finished leaving an entire building flatter than a concrete pancake, Spartan is framed for the bodies of the hostages found in the wreckage and both him and Phoenix are placed in cryogenic freeze (after uncomfortably long scenes of a naked Stallone writhing around in future goo) for the duration of their hefty prison sentences but after the latter escapes during a parole hearing in 2032 and goes on a rampage, Spartan is freed to catch him once again.
However, this new world that both Spartan and Phoenix have awoken in is far different than what they are used to; after Los Angeles was devastated in the wake of an earthquake in 2010, the new world that sprung up in it’s wake is one where society has abolished everything deemed as bad behavior (drink, meat, sex, swearing, violence – you name it) to leave a sweetly naive world utterly ill equiped to deal with someone like Phoenix. A bewildered Spartan tries to negotiate a world where Taco Bell is a prestigious as the Ivy and the oldies station on the radio plays nothing but advertising jingles with the help of childlike retro enthusiast Lenina Huxley but it soon becomes apparent that Phoenix’s escape may be part of a conspiracy to assassinate Edgar Friendly, a literal member of an underground community who refuses to play by society’s rules.
A gleefully cheeky enterprise that gleefully takes the piss out of established action movie tropes while simultaneously playing up to them, it’s amazing that Demolition Man isn’t brought up more during conversations about 90’s action flicks. It’s a cracking script that’s insanely meta even before that became a thing (hello there, Scream) and it gives Stallone a much better outlet for his comedic talents than the much maligned Oscar or Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot while he gets down to the business of cracking heads.
But it’s it’s treatment of repeatedly digging an elbow into the ribs of the kind of overblown masculinity these films promote to fantastic effect while still glorifying them to a certain extent that really sets Demolition Man apart, be it Huxley teasing that Spartan’s blokey banter is how insecure heterosexual males used to bond to the constant running joke of characters getting fined by an omnipresent buzzer for swearing until Stallone literally wipes his arse with the tickets.
The players rise to the script with Stallone relishing the opportunity to merge comedy with gun blazing violence with such panache and a pre-Blade/pre-tax problem Wesley Snipes reminds you exactly how much fun he could be while seamlessly rocking a bright orange tank top and dungaree combo as he cackles like a maniac – but it’s an uncontrollably adorable Sandra Bullock as the ever-positive Huxley that really sells the concept while preemptimg her launch into superstardom merely two years later in Speed.
Going back to my original point, Demolition Man manages to pull off a balanced counter point to the violent cop genre with some well placed barbs to pop the macho stuff whenever the testosterone gets too thick. “We’re police officers! We’re not trained to handle this kind of violence!” squeals a horrified cop upon seeing the carnage Simon Phoenix casually wreaks on some of his hapless comrades and Spartan’s dismay to find out that part of his treatment while being frozen was having the desire to knit planted into his subconscious is fucking sublime.
The action stuff, as you’d expect from the producer of Die Hard, is good, solid, punchy stuff with satisfyingly chunky sound effects that make both Stallone and Snipes sound like they’re both 300lbs of marbled muscle as they hurl each other around but you can’t help but notice that they rarely share the same shot, even during the fight scenes. Whether it’s proof of the rumours that the two had an extremely unhealthy rivalry on set or just an innocent over-reliance on stuntmen is unsure and will remain as big a mystery as the legendary three seashells joke (hint for the uninitiated: it’s something to do with toilet hygiene) but it’s not enough to marr proceedings.
If any final proof is needed of Demolition Man’s unsung genius then simply compare it to the remarkable similar yet hideously inferior Judge Dredd: Stallone as a militaristic police officer in a futuristic city loaded with bizarre rules capped off by the alarming appearance of Rob Schneider? One is a energetic, witty sci-fi commentary on the action genre as a whole and the other is… well… it’s fucking Judge Dredd.
So enhance your calm, be well and give the deconstructing Demolition Man a rewatch and prepare to get wrecked.