If you didn’t catch my last review (and why didn’t you?), Demolition Man pits badass cop John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone – Escape Plan) against meniacal bastard Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes – Passenger 57). Their old-school rivalry is played out on the streets of future LA, where everyone is too sanitized and pussy-whipped to intervene. But while you may write off Demolition Man as your prototypical 90’s sci-fi actioner, you’d best think again. Because like one of those M Night Shyamalan films, there’s a twist. See, Simon Phoenix isn’t the real bad guy.
So officer John Spartan is thawed out of cryogenic prison in 2032 to re-capture Simon Phoenix who has escaped from the same facility. Spartan got sent down when he first nabbed Phoenix in ’97, because during the collar a bus-load of tourists got killed (apparently) in an explosion. Phoenix is in for stuff like murder, kidnapping, jay-walking etc etc.
2032 LA is totally different from 1997 LA. In fact, it’s now called San Angeles, and it’s all white and clean, and everyone wears Japanese robes. Everyone talks about their feelings and no one touches each other. You get fined for swearing and toilet paper doesn’t exist anymore. Seeing how a veritable dinosaur like Spartan copes in such a future is the amusing aside to a serious Search & Destroy mission he’s running on Phoenix.
Yet his lack of knowledge of future living isn’t the only obstacle between him and Simon. No, there’s other bastardry at work too. Lets take a look:
Captain Healy (Steve Kahan – Lethal Weapon)
It’s movie law – when you’ve got a maverick cop, you gotta have a ball-breaking captain too. Ying and Yang. Now Healy isn’t exactly Spartan’s biggest fan. While Spartan gets all the press headlines and the cool nicknames, Healy is in the background writing up reports, sorting out insurance forms and getting grief from the chief.
He probably likes Spartan. In such a hell hole of 90’s LA, you need someone to bend the rules to get shit done. But Healy has got mouths to feed (probably). His wife is also getting on his ass for coming home late too (again, probably). So he’ll be damned if he’s gonna go down with Spartan when he’s implicated in the wrongful deaths of a bunch of tourists. They’re gonna be getting embassies and ambassadors involved and all sorts. No, he’s got a pension he needs to worry about, and while it’s a bit of a bastard thing to do to let your man take the fall, can you really blame him?
Chief George Earle (Bob Gunton – Shawshank Redemption)
If you wanted a recognizable scumbag bastard in the 80’s and 90’s and had a few quid to spare, you’d totally look at Robert Davi (Die Hard, Goonies). He’s that guy that you’ve seen in a million films playing the same smartass-yet-ultimately-doomed badguy role. Bob Gunton works for the same casting agency in Hollywood. But they don’t hire him out as a gangster or criminal. No, Gunton’s MO is that of the Authoritarian Twat.
The Authoritarian Twat lives and dies by the rules. Be they the word of God or the state, this dude is the booknerd who grew up to be that total asshole boss you all hated in that job you once had/have. He’s the grammar Nazi. The Rules Lawyer. The Spoiler.
But he always looks sharp. He’s precise (he probably shaves using a set square), and it’s his unshakable obedience that makes him perfect middle-management. He’s the ideal pawn for someone with a more devious brain to play with. Someone like Mayor Cocteau. Sure, Earle’s position has probably been hard won (via a lot of ass kissing and pen-pushing, no doubt). However, faced with Simon Phoenix on his hands, something that sets fire to his little rulebook, he doesn’t know how to act. His way of thinking is just so narrow that he can’t adapt to the situation.
The idea to thaw out Spartan isn’t even his either. It’s Huxley’s (Sandra Bullock – Speed). At least he’s clever enough to pawn it off as his own plan. What an asshole.
Adam – Cryocon Ally (Jesse Ventura – Predator)
Without John Spartan on the scene, Simon Phoenix could have torn San Angeles apart with his bare hands. With his augmented killing abilities, knowledge of the cities systems, and an epic mean-slash-psychotic streak, he doesn’t strike you as the kind of guy who works well with others. But, he could use a bit of help when his old nemesis is brought back from the dead.
Plus, the architect of the whole scheme, Cocteau, has programmed Phoenix so that he cannot turn on his master. Handily for Simon, an old pal of his, Adam, has been cooling off in the Cryoprison for several years. After a quick defreeze, he’s ready to help him bring down Spartan for good. Plus, as he hasn’t had Cocteau tinker with his behaviour, he’s got no problem-o wasting the evil overlord.
Jesse Ventura is a genuine Badass Hall of Famer in the making. A former Navy Seal turned WWF wrestler then-commentator, Ventura turned his hand to acting, then Governorhood. He now holds a regular TV gig as a conspiracy nut who goes about poking his mustache where it doesn’t belong. Still, he’s the only man on Earth who can claim that he killed Arnold Schwarzenegger in a movie prior to the millennium. Yes, Captain Freedom slaying Ben Richards in The Running Man was a CGI fake, and technically Linda Hamilton killed the Terminator three years previously. But, damnit she’s not a man, and that bit where Richards hits the spikes was pretty grim, so you gotta give it to him.
It’s a real shame we don’t get to see more of him here. There are rumblings about scenes that were shot being cut, but there’s little of Ventura left on screen in the present version. He does get to mow down Cocteau, which is pretty badass. Beyond this, you could totally mistake him for the Stone Cold Steve Austin knock-off Goldberg here. His roles in Predator and The Running Man may have been small, but they were both highly memorable. You probably didn’t even realize he was in the Demolition Man.
Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary – Ice Age)
Edgar Friendly represents the unsilent majority. The moaners. The bitches. The people who, in his words, want to “run around naked with green jell-o all over their body reading a Playboy magazine”. Well I’m sorry pal, but that doesn’t make you free. That just makes you a pervert. Look, I get it, freedom of choice, freedom of speech etc etc, and yeah, I’d be pissed too if I couldn’t eat meat, or bone some hot future babes. But I wouldn’t go about my underworld rebellion by drawing lame graffiti everywhere. Are you like 16 or something? I’d kind of be happy with a future that isn’t, you know, a fucking mess.
No, if I wanted to stage a coup d’etat I’d be unleashing all phases of terror techniques. I’d be hacking their cable systems and broadcasting porn and old episodes of COPs. I’d drive around in ice cream trucks and chimichanga vans. I’d be subversive. Instead, it seems all the Scraps want to do is be miserable and lazy, and you’ve got to hand it to Cocteau for weeding these guys out of society and into the underground. I’m pretty sure the world would be a better place without all these scroungers knocking about bleeding the state dry. Okay, maybe I’m getting a little Republican here. A civilization where people are tracked, told that they can’t obey their most basic genetic imperatives, and are forced to listen to radio jingles all day long is bad. Compared to the future worlds of Elysium or The Terminator films though, it isn’t that bad. But, like they say, it may be a nice prison, but it’s still a prison.
Friendly is the anti-Cocteau. He’s unkempt, emotive, filthy. At the time, Denis Leary was one of the pre-eminent voices of counter culture America. His rants (which some claim stolen from other comedians) about drugs, middle of the road music and vegetarians, are probably what scored him the role. They got one outspoken, angry, asshole to play another outspoken, angry asshole. Perfect casting, no?
Doctor Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne – The Madness of King George)
If casting directors Ferne Cassel (Taken) and Joy Todd (Rambo 3) dipped into the old Pen-Pushing-Bastard-Chief-of-Police and Wrestler-Turned-Badguy-Lieutenant pools, it only stands to reason that they’d get a Brit as the evil mastermind. Nigel Hawthorne, who sadly died in 2001, originally started as a British comic actor in stuff like Dad’s Army and Yes Minister. While he’d done Hollywood before (starring alongside Clint in Firefox), he really excelled at walking the boards, and most of his film roles are Shakespearian or period set. Still I’d like to think that he used Demolition Man as a warm up for his Oscar winning performance in The Madness of King George, the following year.
As Dr. Cocteau, he is calculating, purposeful, reassuring. But beneath the veneer of the caring and benevolent teacher and guide, he’s also practical. As a doctor, he understands that sacrifices have to be made. As an elder, he’d have been through the dark times of pre-quake LA. He’ll remember the dark days of the demolition man. After the big quake, he was in a prime position to rebuild the city in his image. Now, he has no such cataclysm to wipe the slate clean. He needs another force of nature. He needs Simon Phoenix to rid him of the only obstacle between him and the society he’s tried so hard to perfect.
What is sinister about Cocteau is that he’s doing what he believes is right. There is no sense of greed in the man. He’s already wealthy, powerful and influential. He’s already changed so much. To Edgar Friendly and John Spartan, he’s already ruined so much. But while the Cocteau Plan has been 99% effective in creating a society of perfect harmony, he still yearns for that extra 1%. He rules with a gloved hand, guiding people down the right path. Anyone who disagrees are quietly reconditioned or removed altogether. To him it is a duty. As he says in the movie during dinner at Pizza Hut/Taco Bell:
“You weren’t here when the real disturbances began. The city degenerated into a total fear zone. So when I saw the chance to make things right, I seized. If I had not, the radiance of San Angeles would not be here…just your rotting cesspool of hate and fear. Which would you prefer?”
So what is it that drives him? Who knows. Maybe it’s just that insistence to control his fellow man. Cocteau doesn’t demonstrate the typical desires of your normal badguy. We don’t see him behind the scenes with hookers and cocaine (a staple for most corupt political types). Perhaps his greatest flaw is hubris. He woefully underestimates Simon Phoenix. While Phoenix is programmed not to be able to harm Cocteau, there is nothing to stop one of Phoenix’s goons (in this case Adam) killing the doctor. I guess he didn’t see that one coming.
Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes – Blade)
Make no doubt about it, Simon Phoenix is an evil scumbag bastard. He’s one of those kind of bad guys who revels in killing. It’s his business, sure. But he’d happily shank a guy for free. All the other stuff like the drug empires, the manhunts, all that shit is gravy. You can often attribute a reasoning behind a character’s behaviour. Villains often fall into the Greed category of doing something for their own ends, be it more power, more money, more bitches. Others might be fueled by revenge or a perverted sense of justice. Simon Phoenix is none of these things. Like old Alfred said in The Dark Knight, “someone people just want to watch the world burn”.
His rap sheet says it all:
He claims, at the moment he’s about to impale Spartan on a spike, that this is the “best day of his life”. From that tiny little glimpse into his character, you can surmise that he probably didn’t have a very good childhood. I’m guessing Daddy never bought him that pony. Considering the volume of Simon Says jokes in the film, I imagine he received many Simon Says-related beat downs at school.
“Stop hitting me!”
“You forgot to say Simon Says”.
That was until he picked up a gun.
But maybe he just wants to be left alone. “The mailman figured it out, the cops figured it out, but the damn bus drivers…” he’s remind his nemesis that no one ventures in his little corner of Hell-A. Yet look at his almost-androdgynous appearance. He has the David Bowie mis-matched eyes. The dyed blonde hair, the unusual clothes. The jewelry. Couple this with the way he acts, the mayhem he creates – he’s screaming for attention. It’s a horrific cycle of self-perpetuating hate and temporary fulfilment. Like fat people who eat to make themselves feel better but end up feeling worse because they’re getting fatter. That’s exactly what’s going on here, just with mass-murderation instead of gorging on Rocky Road Häagen-Dazs.
Maybe he should have listened to one of his many victims in San Angeles; it sounds like the best place to receive positive mental rehabilitation. Perhaps he could have seen the error of his ways given time, emotional support and some form of indestructible asylum. Instead, he just ends up playing the Joker to John Spartan’s Batman.
You have to respect actors who aren’t afraid to try something different. In 93′, Wesley Snipes was riding a wave of good will. He’d laid the groundwork for a fantastic career in badass cinema, with films like King of New York, New Jack City, Passenger 57, White Men Can’t Jump and Rising Sun all being made in relative succession. While he’d played the gangboss Nino Brown in New Jack City (for which he was nominated for the prestigious MTV Villain of the Year award), the majority of his roles were that of the kickass dude. Passenger 57 could be considered the birth of the prototype Snipes actioner, where he’d pair his martial arts with street-jibes.
Now most other action Gods in the 80’s and 90’s, when they hit a gold combo of movies, they’d typically change nothing until it stopped working. Arnie had blown up as the good guy in Conan the Barbarian. But when Conan the Destroyer tanked, he took on the role as the titular bastard Terminator. From then on he was the good guy. JCVD is the same. A quick look in on No Retreat, No Surrender as a bad Russian martial artists dude. Then it’s hero roles. Sylvester Stallone? Has he ever played a bad guy?
Wesley Snipes could have played it safe. He could have insisted on another wise-ass ass-whooping role. Instead, he puts in a wicked performance as Phoenix. I once read William Shatner’s (Star Trek) autobiography. It described Christopher Lloyd (Suburban Commando) as “chewing the scenery” in A Search for Spock. I didn’t really know what that meant. But I think that’s what Snipe’s is doing in Demolition Man. He’s having fun. He’s dialing it up to 11. I can totally see him doing a Heath Ledger on set and just being in character all the time.
Jackie Chan turned down this role because he felt that audiences wouldn’t buy someone who’d always played the hero as the villain. I think that shows a lack of vision on Chan’s part. The occasional bastard roles are often career highlights for many of the “Heroic Age” action stars. JCVD in Expendables 2. Seagal in Machete. Cruise in Collateral. And Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man.
Bonus Bastard – John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone – Expendables)
So you thought that Phoenix was the ultimate bad guy right? Well you’d be dead wrong. I ask you, do any of the crimes you see him commit include mass murder? Nope, but then we don’t know what kind of heinous shit he got up to off screen. But does he kill, say, 80 people without a thought? Doubtful. Well John Spartan does.
Think back to the final confrontation between the two alpha males. By unleashing the little freeze-everything-it-touches device, not only does Spartan flash-freeze Phoenix, but the entire facility. All the fail safes shut down, and the building naturally explodes, taking the 80 multi-lifer crims who were on the verge of defrost with it. Ah, but they’re only more bad guys, right? More Jesse Ventura’s that would need putting down. However, think back – wasn’t John Spartan wrongfully imprisoned in that very facility? Could he 100% guarantee that everyone else incarcerated within the cryo-prison were guilty, and that there wasn’t a single chance that they may be innocent, ya know, like him?
Yet the killing don’t seem to bother him. In fact, he seems pretty satisfied by the conclusion. And that’s some dark shit right there folks. As Phoenix admits, he killed the tourists that landed John Spartan in prison. Because they’d entered his territory. That’s a shitty deal. But a bus load isn’t much compared to 80 damned people. And who now has the authority, the balls, to bring Spartan to heel for this? Chief Earle? Don’t take the piss. Spartan is now the only remaining fully functioning 80’s throw-back kick ass dude left in town. If he wanted to, he could take over.
How about how he rages and gets angry at all the things he doesn’t understand? Wake up John, children do that. Yes, it’s difficult being in a place (or time) that is weird. It doesn’t mean you have to be a dick to everyone you come across. I’d liken his attitude to going to a foreign country and just expecting everyone to just deal with it when you do some ignorant shit. While Phoenix just kills everyone, Spartan is not far behind in terms of manners.
And at the end, when he introduces Associate Bob, the same lackey that served the corrupt Cocteau and the mad Phoenix, to Edgar Friendly, what does he think is gonna happen? Do you think he’s going to counter Friendly’s insane ideas, plead for balance and compromise? No! He’s gonna fucking enable him. He’s gonna help him tear down this idyllic society just so he can read Guns & Ammo and fluid transfer anyone he chooses. Power bent Cocteau to evil. What do you think it’s going to do to some filthy, joke-stealing angry bastard? The look on Spartan’s face of “I just done a good thing” would be hilarious if he hadn’t just doomed an entire society. If he actually stopped to think, he’d realize he’s just heralded the end of modern life to 99% of San Angeles as they know it.
I’m not going to even get into how he almost forces Huxley into sex with him (I’m pretty sure that’s called rape in the future too). Just next time you watch Demolition Man – and it should be a staple part of any Stallone or Badass Cinema fan’s library – just try and take note all the times John Spartan comes across as a total bastard.