Review: Demolition Man

Demolition Man 1993 Movie Poster

Los Angeles. 1996. The Future. LA has descended into a shitty whirlwind of fire and crime, and the pen-pushers at City Hall are helpless to stop it. So when Super Bastard Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes – Blade) kidnaps a busload of hostages, there’s only one man they can send to bring his ass down. Send a maniac to catch a maniac. Enter Maniac Cop LAPD Sgt. John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone – Over The Top).

Problem is the ground is full of perps, and the hostages will be long dead if Spartan has to go by foot. Thankfully, his old fly-boy pal, Zachary Lamb (Grand L. Bush – Die Hard – the other agent Johnson), is willing to defy orders and chopper him in. A thermal scan of Phoenix’s building reveals no hostages, so Spartan can go full hardcore taking down his man.

Jumping out of the helicopter, he eliminates like 50 people on his way down using his pistol. Ducking and rolling as he hits the ground, he busts into the building proper. He ain’t in the mood to be reading no one their rights. Instead, he pistol-whips everyone without mismatched eyes (Simon Phoenix has these, see). Soon he finds his man.

But Phoenix is waiting for him. He’s already prepped the room, and Spartan is stood on a floor sodden with gasoline. It’s the 90’s so smoking is still pretty cool in films and Phoenix is a regular Marlboro man. Being a supreme badass bastard though, he uses blow-torches to light his fags (that or the burning remains of his victims – whichever is more readily convenient).

Demolition Man Spartan fights Phoenix

Even when the inevitable happens, Spartan is still ballsy enough to run through the fire to spear the maniacally laughing super-crim. He could punch his ass into meat paste, but he’s still a cop, at least by a very tenuous pube’s breadth at the moment, so he carries his nemesis out there. All the munitions and C4 that a high end murderizer like Phoenix has littered about sure does make a big explosion.

The rest of the cops have turned up by now (in armored Hummers with bulldozer no less). As they quickly start digging through the rubble they find the dead remains of the hostages. But didn’t Spartan do a thermal scan? Nope, according to Phoenix. In fact, he apparently told Spartan that they were in the basement but Spartan didn’t care. That’s not gonna look good on a report. Plus, the captain (Steve Kahan – Lethal Weapon) isn’t exactly John’s biggest fan. But that don’t matter, it’s not like they’re gonna take the testimony of a known killer like Simon Phoenix very seriously, are they?


John Spartan gets sent down. But he’s not about to be sent to the big-house where all the scum he busted (whom survived) are housed. They did that shit already in Tango & Cash. No, this is the future, so he’s cryogenically frozen with a sentence of 70 years. During his time as an ice cube, he’s going to be emotionally re-wired with new behaviours and habits. When he’s thawed, he won’t be a gun-totting criminal any more.

This isn’t like being frozen in carbonite though. Instead, Spartan is cast naked into a giant beaker that is filled with clear goo. He slips about a bit and you can see his ass. It’s pretty awkward, especially for the guards and warden. A special rod containing a glowing blue ball is inserted into the container and when that ball hits the goo, BLAMMO, everything get’s frozen solid.

35 years pass.

August 3rd, 2032. Spartan is still on ice, just tucked away at the back of the cryo-prison that’s full of con’s at this stage. But today is special. Today our old friend Simon Phoenix is up for his parole hearing. He’s not gonna get parole of course, but that due process bullshit gotta be observed.

Time on ice hasn’t cooled (heh) Phoenix’s troublesome ways – he mocks the Warden Smithers. He’s locked into some high-tech Hannibal Lecter carrier thing. All voice-activated. And the guards shit it when he speaks the password to let him go. Suddenly he’s kicking their faces. How did he know the password, one asks while being choked. Simon doesn’t know. Soon everyone is dead, save for Smithers. Good thing too, as Phoenix has need of him yet. Specifically, his eyeball, cause like in Minority Report, everything is done by a retinal scan.

Demolition Man Wesley Snipes eyeball

As an aside, seriously, how many films do we have to see where some poor old dudes get their eye plucked out before we start realizing that retinal locks are stupid? There’s even one in Angel’s and Demons, and that’s some high brow Tom Hanks title.

Anyway, across town Officer Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock – Gravity) is wishing her allies in law enforcement, Alfredo Garcia (Benjamin Bratt – Miss Congeniality) and Erwin (Rob Schneider – The Stapler) a good morning. She’s bored though. There hasn’t been a serious crime for years (save for some offensive graffiti here and there). She’s itching for some action, just like her heroes from the 80’s. Her office is a shrine to violence and brashness and neon-lights. She even has a Lethal Weapon poster on the walls (likely a gift from Joel Silver, who produced both movies).

She’s about to get what she asked for.

Alarms sound from the main room. Even Chief Earl (Bob Gunton – Shawshank Redemption) is losing his shit. The computer is cooing, “Code 187 in progress”. Wtf is a 187? – well it’s a MDK – murder-death-kill, Lenina Huxley. Do you want me to assign a coroner?

See, everyone in the future is surgically implanted with a chip that reads their vitals and tracks their whereabouts. So when Smithers and the rest of the boys at the Cryo-Pen get got, the police know about it immediately. But there hasn’t been a murder round these part for 10 years. Thankfully, Huxley is all over this. Before long she’s checked the parole list, figured out Phoenix is on the loose and that he’s made off with the Warden’s car. They quickly track him to a terminal where he’s accessing the internet. Time to send in the cavalry.

Rob Schneider is right. They aren’t equipped to handle this. So just how did they catch him last time anyway? Thankfully, old fly-boy Zachary Lamb is still around. According to Old Zach (Bill Cobbs – The Bodyguard), 12 state manhunts, satellite surveillance, even TV time on Unsolved Mysteries were all not enough to bring him in. In the end it just took one man. But we all knew that. We saw it at the beginning.

So it’s no surprise when John Spartan is thawed out to catch his oldest foe. It is surprising to Old Spartan though. Things have changed. Like LA. LA isn’t LA anymore. Instead, LA is SA. San Angeles. It all changed when some super quake hit, and old LA died. Now everything is clean, no one eats meat, or swears, and certainly no one smokes. In fact, the only thing John Spartan wants after defrosting is a cigarette and a big shit. Shame no one told him that they outlawed toilet paper in the future too. Instead they’ve got these three sea-shell things. There is no explanation as to how they’re used. We primitives, whom still use hand-fulls of wadded up paper to cleanse are anuses, can only guess their mystical use.

Demolition Man John Spartan three seashells

The future is a total pussy version of everything. People don’t even touch anymore, let alone bro-fist. Kissing is out. And sex (“fluid transfer”)? Don’t even mention that. Basically, everything that is in any way fun (and therefore bad for you) is illegal.

While it’s hard to ignore the whole 1984, Big Brother, sci-fi cop revenge drama that is getting played out here, what we’re really dealing with is a fish out of water story. It’s Kindergarden Cop with Blade as the nemesis instead of kids. Or Beverly Hills Cop only inverse. Or Back to the Future just already in the future. John Spartan was top dog in the old world. He was cool. He fit in. Not any more, and oh how hilarious all the social faux pas are he makes.

A few fave amusements are badass pop culture references like “Hey Luke Skywalker, use the force” before throwing away Garcia’s iPhone, and the mention of the Schwarzenegger Library (predicting political history it would seem). Surely that’s a nod to Sly’s “appearance” in Twins?

Anyway, Spartan has a maniac to catch. The Big Wig Computer thinks that Phoenix is going to set up a drug base somewhere in the city. John knows better than that though. His old buddie is after a gun and that’s that. But the only place you even view a gun these days is in a museum. Let’s get our asses over there.

Phoenix has already beat us to it. His only boggle is that he can’t break through the plexi-glass. At least not without a friendly helping hand from an innocent bystander.

Soon he’s tooled up and ready to rock. Thankfully, Spartan is there to intercept him. Grabbing a pistol of his own and a sawn-off, they duel in the museum’s depiction of an old school LA Street corner. Phoenix makes his escape after blowing up a wall using a futuristic phaser gun. It’s here we come into contact into the Mayor of Happy Happy Dull Dull land, Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne – Firefox).

For some reason, Phoenix can’t kill Cocteau. Kind of like how Robocop can’t arrest Dick Jones, Simon Phoenix has been programmed to obey Cocteau. See, while everyone is seemingly happy and clean in San Angeles, there’s a dark under belly that everyone ignores. Under their very feet, in the sewers and among the rubble of old Hell-A are the Scraps. People who renounced popular culture and society. They’re basically all hobos who like doing their own shit like cooking rat burgers and restoring old cars. And their leader? Who else could it be than wise-cracking, fast-talking Bill-Hicks-and-other-comedian-ripping-off 90’s megastar, Dennis Leary?

sewers in demolition man

Cocteau see’s Edgar Friendly (Leary) as his diametric opposite. They’re the political version of Spartan and Phoenix – they hate each other. And Friendly and his scraps are the only thing between Cocteau’s city becoming totally perfect. However, the police are all lame-asses now, so it’s not like he can send one of their crocked asses down into the sewers to kill friendly. No, he needed an old-school bastard to do the job. Phoenix was the perfect choice.

During his “rehabilitation”, Cocteau reprogrammed Phoenix to give him advanced knowledge of stuff like computers, secure systems, passwords (hence why he knew the password to his chair-restraint), martial arts, explosives and so fourth. So what skills, you might ask, was John Spartan given during cryo-sleep? Knitting. That’s right, the computer thought the best way to combat John’s obvious anger-issues are to make him into a seamstress. Oh well, at least he can forge a lovely sweater for Huxley as an apology for trying (and failing) to manipulate her into fluid transfer. Swings and roundabouts.

So it’s a race against time for Spartan to find and stop Phoenix from killing Friendly and then tearing the place apart. Spartan knows only too well that Cocteau can’t control Phoenix, and that it’s all gonna end up in the shitter unless he intervenes. And to hell if he has to blow up a few Taco Bells/Pizza Hut’s along the way.

Demolition Man Sylvester Stallone

In 1993 Sly had been taking a beating. He was suffering from the unanswered body-blows of criticism for the likes of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Rocky V and Oscar. He’d recovered some cred from Cliffhanger, earlier in the year, but the days of Tango & Cash, and Rambo 3 were now distant memories. Demolition Man (along with Judge Dredd in ’95) marked Sly’s attempt to capture some of that Sci-Fi Action cheese, the same cheddar that Arnie was supping on. T2 was released the previous year, and marked perhaps the biggest movie sequel ever (and won Schwarzenegger a ton of cash). Famously rivals at this point in their careers, maybe Sly wanted a piece of the action?

While the highs of Judgement Day are never matched here, Demolition Man does deliver on numerous other fronts. It’s $57 mil budget is all over the screen. I mean, everything about the future looks…futuristic. The costumes, the sets, even the cars. The production design is really good, and all the muted colours and fabrics really makes the hard edges of Stallone and Snipers stand out. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a tie-in “Making of” book floating around somewhere. It’s even got futuristic titles without any vertical lines in any of the E’s (which they seem to forget after so long) and look like metal and make cool plane sounds when they explode on to screen.

Perps being put into cryo sleep isn’t the only sci-fi conceit either. Similar to Terminator 2, there’s a lot of subtext at play here. While T2 was all about machines learning to be human, Demolition Man explores the old 1984/Brace New World concept of Big Brother surveillance, and genetic manipulation. Was Cocteau wrong to make everyone total pussies? The world does seem better, does it not? Re-watching the film now, you realize how much of a primitive Spartan (and by extension, us) are in such a society. And aren’t we always striving for such a lifestyle – safe, clean, no more toilet roll? Maybe Cocteau was right.

But don’t let all this theory concern you, the film is 95% eye-popcorn and 5% brain-matter. There is plenty of Sly jumping-out-of-the-way-of-explosion moments.

Sandra Bullock Demolition Man

As for nudity, they got that covered too. While there is plenty of Stallone ass in action, there is sadly a distinct lack of Sandra Bullock nakedness (she had a rider in her contract that forbade it, I suspect). You just get glimpses of her in a weird dream-sex sequence. However, our disappointment is made up for mere moments later when Sly gets a video call from some babe taking a shower. It’s a wrong number of course, because hey, people often misdial when they call people from the shower. It’s almost like they asked Sandra to be nude, she put her foot down, and to fill the void good-guy director Marco Brambilla (Excess Baggage) added an extra pair of tits from absolutely nowhere to make up for it.

The casting of everyone is also really good too. Wesley Snipes is specifically fun. Rumour has it that they originally offered Jackie Chan the role, and while it would be a joy to see Chan in a bad guy role, Snipes really plays with it. I don’t get racial often, but it is a very white heavy cast, and the chief bad guy is a black man. Something could be said about that, and I’m sure Spike Lee already has done. But Snipes’s Phoenix is genuinely malevolent. While he doesn’t rise from the ashes at all (save for being thawed out of cryo-sleep), he does make a lot of Simon-Says jokes too.

Sadly, Sly isn’t given much room to move. He is a stranger in a strange land, but instead of adapting himself to it, he continually rails against it. He is the living embodiment of the primitive culture San Angeles has tried so hard to quash. And unlike Kindergarden Cop, he doesn’t grow to see the benefits of his new life. He doesn’t bend or adapt. He simply smashes everything he doesn’t understand. He begins and ends as the same man. Still, we’ve seen Sly as this generic action hero many times, and there’s still a lot to love.

Demolition Man Comic issue 1

Back in the day, my mate Dave who lived on the same street as me, had the novelization of Demolition Man, which featured some additional bits. The main omission was that Spartan’s daughter was still alive in the future, and he finds her among the Scraps. They even filmed part of it, but evidently cut it out at the 11th hour. Never mind. Equally, they cut out the killing of Jesse Ventura (Predator) too, who’d been specially thawed out by Phoenix for an anti-Spartan hit squad. Another missed opportunity.

The support cast are all strong, with Bullock putting in a good pre-Speed performance. She was all set to be a potential bad-ass femme of the future. Sadly, she fell in with the RomCom crowd, and that ship sailed. The Denis Leary “American Dream” rant is also really memorable, and some of the more minor characters like Associate Bob (the legendary Glenn Shadix – Beetlejuice), Cocteau and Chief Earle are all acutely well cast too.

One area where the film fails utterly is the bizarre addition of Sting as chief song-writer. Not much has changed in terms of major artists penning songs for movie tie-ins, but Sting’s rendition of Demolition Man is horrific. Seriously guys, for Hi-End Sci-Fi action, you need heavy bands like Body Count for your end credit songs. But hey, you can turn Demolition Man off before Demolition Man (the song) starts playing.

And it’s worth staying until the end. Demolition Man is still solid. There’s some genuine humour and it’s always fun to watch old movies set in the future to see how prescient they’ve been. There’s plenty of action, decent stunt work, cool effects, the three seashells, and one of my favourite 90’s cinema trope – video footage showing how badass our badass hero actually is:

We saw a lot of them back then (Tango & Cash, Predator 2 etc). Plus, if you can, watch the UK version. For some bizarre reason, they figured that no one in Europe would know what Taco Bell is. As the characters spend an evening there, the producers were concerned we’d miss the humour that Taco Bell is the only surviving restaurant chain in America. So they re-dubbed the UK version with the name Pizza Hut. They even spent actual money on CGIing all the logos and visuals to Pizza Hut! Madness.

So next time you have a few hours to kill, and want to see some quality demolishing of the future status quo, get Demolition Man watched.

7 thoughts on “Review: Demolition Man

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