It’s been a quarter of a century since “Demolition Man” first blew us on screen, licking our ass and matching our meet with its blend of high-octane action and surprisingly prescient sci-fi. With only 14 years to go until Simon Phoenix and John Spartan are thawed out, it’s time to celebrate the movies 25th anniversary, so I’d like to invite you to join me, at Taco Bell!
In 1996, a hostage rescue operation goes explosively wrong, apparently killing all the hostages but results in the apprehension of terrorist Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) by John ‘Demolition Man’ Spartan (Sylvester Stallone). Both Phoenix and Spartan are imprisoned in a new state-of-the-art cryogenic correctional facility for their crimes but when Phoenix is thawed out for a routine parole hearing in a utopian 2032 San Angeles and escapes, the Police Department decide they need to defrost a maniac to catch a maniac.
Welcome to the future, John Spartan – the world is your three seashells! The film strikes a winning balance between sci-fi social commentary and wall-to-wall action with superb production design, costumes and practical effects transforming the well-chosen locations into an authentic-feeling superficially utopian future. Incredibly, its this aspect of the film which has aged the best, with its wry take on a society of fastidious avoidance of anything that may cause ‘offence’ and anything declared ‘unhealthy’ uncannily foreshadowing today’s culture of outrage, opprobrium and interventionist militant killjoys.
At the head of this seeming utopia is Doctor Raymond Cocteau, played by a magnificently mendacious Nigel Hawthorne, amping up the oily charm of his famous Sir Humphrey character to the nth degree. Reputedly he did not get on with the rest of the cast, notably Stallone and Snipes, but you’d never guess it from on screen and its Doctor Cocteau is an underrated and often overlooked cinematic villain of the time.
Stallone’s Spartan instantly feels like another tailor-made character for Sly (and would go on to inform much of his interpretation of Joseph Dredd in 1995’s “Judge Dredd” movie) and it’s ironic that the character’s dry sense of humour would be the thing that made it feel particularly Stallone-esque (it’s hard to imagine Schwarzenegger playing Spartan with the same lightness of touch) given that “Demolition Man” was the second part of Stallone’s two-step flight to action safety (the first being “Cliffhanger” after the near terminal cratering of “Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot”. As bad as 1992 had been for Stallone, 1993 was a banner year.
Snipes is clearly having a lot of fun as Simon Phoenix and although he wasn’t a fan of Phoenix’s bleach blonde hair, Dennis Rodman certainly was. The film also provided a break-out role for Sandra Bullock (which would be cemented the following year in “Speed”) after she replaced original Lenina Huxley actress Lori Petty. There’s also an early appearance by Jack Black as one of Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary)’s ‘scraps’.
Despite how polished and slick the final product is, it was not an untroubled production. Apart from Hawthorne’s antipathy to his fellow actors and the film in general (he only took the part to prove to producers that he had the cinematic gravitas to retain the role of King George III in the forthcoming production of “The Madness Of King George”), the executives at Warner Brothers were unhappy with the original two-hour cut (plus ça change), feeling it was too graphically violent so they brought in Stuart Baird (still ten years away from killing the “Star Trek” movie franchise stone dead) to work his editing magic and trimming the film and its levels of violence down to a more commercially marketable movie.
A smart, sci-fi actioner with a keen sense of social irony, “Demolition Man” was probably slightly ahead of its time when it was released but that’s probably why it’s stood the test of time so well. No need to put this one back in the freezer. Be well!