Junkfood Cinema: Demolition Man

By  · Published on May 21st, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; what you crave. Every week, inexplicably, I revisit Planet Schlock and return to Earth with a few nuggets of awful from the planet surface. I then batter them in unchecked adoration and self-loathing and deep fry them in snark. The delicious result of this endeavor is Junkfood Cinema. As you devour these films, and their various shortcomings, with your eyes, I will pair each entry with an actual food item in an effort to sap anything resembling legitimacy from this column. How serious am I about bad movies? I’m so devoted to cinema crapitee that today I am traveling into the future (of the past) and examining the finer points of Demolition Man.

Demolition Man boils the entire struggle of good and evil down to two men: tough-as-nails cop John Spartan and homicidal looney tune Simon Phoenix. Phoenix manages to build an empire of crime in the distant future of 1996 when Los Angeles is on the brink of total annihilation. On one fateful day, he hijacks a bus full of civilians and holds them for ransom. When Spartan intervenes, while he does capture Phoenix, he inadvertently causes the deaths of the hostages. The authorities decide (plot fail) that Spartan deserves the same sentence as Phoenix and freezes both of them in the newly-established cryo-prison; Phoenix eligible for parole before Spartan?? Jump ahead to the year 2032, a glitch in the parole assessment program leads to Phoenix escaping and wreaking havoc on a society that has largely abolished crime and violence; therefore having no contingency for Phoenix. They decide the only way to stop an old-school criminal is to thaw out the one old-school cop who knows how to take him down.

What Makes It Bad?

The Simon Phoenix character seems as it were originally written for an athlete. And no, I’m not just saying that because it looks like Wesley Snipes patronizes the same beauty salon as Dennis Rodman. What I mean is that Snipes is less an actor in this film as he is a joke dispenser wielding weapons-grade levels of machismo. The only thing that saves Snipes here is that he’s never been that great of an actor so its not as if he appears to be slumming it in this one. All I know is that the weirdness of his bi-chromatic contact lenses is matched only by his terrible delivery of evil mastermind monologues. Still, some of the best bits of violence are born of his character’s lunacy; watch for the eyeball scene.

Seriously, fuck the future. To the casual observer, this may not seem like a post-apocalyptic film and their error is understandable. There are no burnt out buildings or massive stacks of rubble and debris. The majority of the inhabitants are not dressed in rags and cannibalism is not the rule of law. Granted, there are elements of the populous living underground in less-than-favorable conditions but that is because they chose not to be a part of the society on the surface. I don’t blame them. Because the truth is when you exist in a world where the most popular music is commercial jingles, sex has become a virtual-reality game, and the only choice for dinner out is Taco freaking Bell, my friend, you have entered the seventh circle and the cataclysm is upon you. I would rather take my chances with the Italian depictions of the future, with all their flame-throwers and headbands, than live in this chipper-to-a-fault, pseudo-Mormon snoozeburg.

There are some interestingly terrible casting choices in this film. Firstly the female lead is played by Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock (it’s hard to type that while laughing uproariously but I suppose it is true). I guess I have to respect that she is absolutely going for it and throwing herself completely into this mondo ridiculous role, but that doesn’t change the fact that she is supremely obnoxious throughout. Apparently the script called for a woman with a “naivete influenced by her overly docile society,”…which Bullock read as “this character has a severe learning disorder.” Sorry Sandra, you’d have to wait and play the race card to win the Oscar, not the Rain Main card.

Also, whoever thought it would be a good idea to cast Dennis Leary as the rebel leader of the underground resistance was clearly on futuristic, designer drugs. Could this guy care less about this part? You can almost see him mentally tallying his day rate in his head. And if you ever wanted to know the origin of Rob Schneider getting a part in Judge Dredd, he plays the same annoying squirt in this film only, mercifully, in a much smaller capacity. Benjamin Bratt also shows up just in time to bug the beJesus out of me as the dumb-as-a-doorknob young recruit.

Why I Love It!

I find the concept at the heart of Demolition Man to be quite interesting. Stallone’s less-than-delicate super cop is an amalgamation of several action heroes and dropping him in a future that has all but eliminated violent crime makes for at least ripe opportunity for comedy; if only the execution had been more consistent. It’s essentially a square-jawed bull in a futuristic china shop scenario. Now granted, the timidity and incessant blandness of the future society is a bit of an overcompensation, but that doesn’t mean that seeing the tower of testosterone action hero archetype try to exist in a world where the Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer/John McTiernan scope of violence is wholly absent isn’t entertaining. The film is also accidentally prescient when it makes a joke about Schwarzenegger becoming president…closer to reality now than they ever could have imagined.

Stallone is fantastic in Demolition Man. To the casual observer, geez there are a gaggle of casual observers watching today, it may seem that Stallone’s John Spartan is indistinguishable from the plethora of other beefheads he’s played in previous action films. But what he’s actually doing is creating a parody, a caricature, of not just his own muscle-brained repertoire, but the action hero as a whole. Bullock’s character, who it is established has an unhealthy fascination with “old-school” cops, comments on his escapades with misplaced admiration that effectively therefore mocks the hero model. For Stallone’s part, he ratchets up the cheesiness and gives the Demolition Man a hilariously absurd clarity of purpose. I love that, in another nod to action heroes, the society in which he was unfrozen issues fines for profanity no matter where he is. It makes for great extended gags where he stands cursing up a storm and reveling in citation after citation that comes pouring out. I also love that the sound of the tickets being issued can be heard faintly in the background of any given scene.

I love the fight scenes between Stallone and Snipes. Are they the most technically-proficient? Not even a little bit! But the animosity and conflict between these two is structured as if it were a superhero film. The villain and the hero must do battle multiple times to cement the epic nature of the struggle between them before ultimately good must win the day. The fact that the battle intermittently shifts from high tech gadgetry to fisticuffs and back also highlights this comic book formatting. Hell, there is even a scene where they duke it out in a museum as the villain steals rare artifacts; coupled with the abject goofiness of Snipes, I half expected to hear the Joker theme from the 60’s Batman series as Snipes made his escape.

Junkfood Pairing: Taco Bell

Really screenwriter, really?! The only restaurant to survive the “franchise wars” was Taco Bell?! So every restaurant in the world is now Taco Bell?! I advise you to go to your nearest Taco Bell, order a burrito supreme, and throw it on the floor. When the manager casts a glare, fall to your knees and scream, “you maniacs, you finally did it! Damn you all to Hell!!!” Or at least, that is what I intend to do.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.