Frozen in 1996, Simon Phoenix, a convicted crime lord, is revived for a parole hearing well into the 21st century. Revived into a society free from crime, Phoenix resumes his murderous rampage, and no one can stop him. John Spartan, the police officer who captured Phoenix in 1996, has also been cryogenically frozen, this time for a crime he did not commit. In 2032, the former cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara have merged into peaceful, utopian San Angeles. Unable to stop him with their non-violent solutions, the police release Spartan to help recapture Phoenix. Now after 36 years, Spartan has to adapt himself to the future society he has no knowledge about. Written by
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John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) is a reckless Los Angeles policeman, known as the "demolition man" for the destruction he routinely engenders while apprehending big baddies. After a particularly ruthless criminal, Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), sets him up by making it appear that Spartan wantonly caused the deaths of a bus load of hostages, Spartan is sentenced to 60 years or so in prison. The film begins in a not-too-distant future (relative to its 1992/1993 production date) of 1996. Prisons are quite a bit different, and there's a new policy of cryogenically freezing inmates. We cut forward to 2032. Phoenix is up for an obligatory parole hearing when he escapes. The film's 21st Century society is extremely different (worsening cultural chaos, exacerbated by a huge earthquake, precipitated the change), and the "San Angeles" police cannot capture Phoenix or keep him in check. Chief Earle makes a decision to revive Spartan, reasoning that an out of control but effective cop mired in the ways of the late 20th Century may be the only one who can capture the out of control criminal, but he, and the future society, may be in for a lot more than they bargained for by reawakening the Demolition Man.
Demolition Man is one of the funniest, most action-packed and most poignant social satires of at least the last 30 years. It's not necessarily the easiest film to appreciate, as it makes its points through extremely over-the-top "mindless" action and tongue-in-cheek, purposefully cheesy plot and dialogue, but it's well worth trying to acclimate oneself to the style if you're not an action or sci-fi fan, as the satire cuts deep. There are other films with somewhat similar aims, such as Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997), which are perhaps just as good as Demolition Man, but they certainly can't top it, and they have aims other than the purely satirical.
The opening scene feels like a typical late 1980s/early 1990s action sequence. At least until we realize that there's not going to be a happy ending for the hostages that Spartan is trying to save. Once we arrive at the future, a lot of viewers might misjudge the performances of the principal cast besides Stallone and Snipes. Sandra Bullock, as Lieutenant Lenina Huxley (a reference to Aldous Huxley's book Brave New World), and Benjamin Bratt, as Alfredo Garcia (a reference to Sam Peckinpah's 1974 film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), at first seem to be turning in bizarrely incompetent performances. It's only later that we realize they are spot on for the film's "brave new world", which is basically an instantiation of a staunchly moralist cult run by Dr. Raymond Cocteau (a reference to famed director Jean Cocteau combined with Cocteau's friend, novelist Raymond Radiguet).
Technically, the film is quite impressive. The production design, cinematography, effects, staging of the action sequences, score and soundtrack are excellent. But what sets Demolition Man a cut above the rest are the script and the performances--yes, even from Stallone and Snipes, although Bullock, and especially Denis Leary, in a relatively minor part where he gets to do his motor-mouthed, ranting comedy schtick that made him famous, both threaten to steal the show.
Director Marco Brambilla (who has remained oddly inactive since Demolition Man, which was his first film) and his writing "team" skewer a lot of cultural norms as relatively arbitrary conventions. Radio and television commercial jingles are considered the pinnacle of musical art in the film's world. Strict morality is enforced through constant computer monitoring of behavior combined with fines--a running joke throughout the film is that profanity results in fines. Meat and alcohol have been outlawed. So has physical contact, including sex. All restaurants are now Taco Bells (in some cuts of the film intended for foreign markets, this was changed to Pizza Hut instead). There is an underground, outside of the cultic mainstream society, but they're literally underground, living relatively lawless (well, at least they eat meat and drink beers) in tunnels strewn with utility pipes.
As a result, serious crime is a thing of the past, swept under the rug (or into the sewers) and labeled with Orwellian newspeak. Phoenix and Spartan's reintroduction of violence and mayhem, including "murder/death/kill", results in a reawakening of cultural freedom, analogous to their own thawing out. The anti-utopian, anti-utilitarian political message, like that of Orwell's 1984 and later films influenced by the same, such as Equilibrium (2002), couldn't be clearer. And the message can be extended to situations that are not political. I didn't use "cult" above carelessly. The idea is that the society's warts are necessary for individual authenticity. Yes, things can run smoother under a dictatorship, but who wants to live under a dictatorship, even a supposedly "benevolent" one?
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