Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Yes, you read that Verdict right—three-and-a-half stars for “Demolition Man,” the 1993 Stallone/Snipes shoot-em-up/satire that asks the question…how do the three seashells work?
It’s probably the highest rating this movie will get from a critic, but read on.
“Demolition Man” was released in a time where our action films weren’t always about ideas or complex characters (if you think about it, we have plenty of those today; some damn good ones)—they were mostly about iconic figures like Schwarzenegger, Willis, Van Damme, and of course, Stallone shooting stuff up, kicking ass, and taking names. Only a few titles snuck under the radar as films that may have been ahead of their time in terms of story but made up for with the same amount of intense action everyone in the ‘80s and ‘90s was accustomed to. These are films that have some sort of symbolic theme underneath all the violence, such as “Aliens” (holding on to what’s left of being a fighter and (if you’ve seen the director’s cut) even a parent) and “RoboCop” (holding on to what’s left on one’s humanity before being totally under control). And then you have “Demolition Man,” which begins in the 1990s before taking its main story to the 2030s. This was the early ‘90s’ way of predicting what a potential future would be like if America suddenly became politically correct. It’s like if Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, “Brave New World,” starred Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes.
And speaking of which, Stallone plays a rogue LA cop named John Spartan, who, in a brief prologue in 1996, has finally tracked down Simon Phoenix (Snipes, chewing scenery like Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice), the criminal he’s been hunting for a long time. But in capturing him, his actions result in the destruction of a building where Phoenix’s hostages were stored, thus resulting in him serving a 70-year sentence frozen in stasis on a manslaughter charge, while Phoenix serves a life sentence.
Cut to the year 2032, where the city is now the pseudo-utopian San Angeles after a big earthquake caused the merging of LA, San Diego, and Santa Barbara. The city is under the guidance and control of Dr. Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne). Crime is now gone, weapons are taken away, citizens have transmitters in their hands, vices are outlawed, and even the slightest use of profanity costs a fine. This is why when Phoenix is thawed and awakened in this pacifistic world for a parole hearing from which he escapes, the San Angeles Police Department don’t know how to handle his violent behavior. (By the way, I love this line from Rob Schneider as a nervous cop: “We’re police officers—we’re not trained to handle this kind of violence!”)
They say it takes a maniac to stop a maniac. Luckily, Lt. Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), who collects all ‘90s memorabilia (even in her office), knows what can be done to stop Phoenix, having studied John Spartan’s unorthodox cop behavior. So, Spartan is reanimated, the race is on to stop Phoenix from carrying out whatever dastardly scheme he has in mind, and in the meantime, Spartan constantly tries to adapt to this new world where his methods are even more unusual now than they were before he was imprisoned.
As Spartan and Huxley continue the chase, they learn more about a group of rebels who live underground and don’t agree with Cocteau’s fascist ways. They have their own society in the sewer system, where they store all things prohibited from the surface, such as alcohol and meat (though since there are no cows, the meat is from…rats). And it becomes clearer that the overly evangelistic Cocteau, who arranged for Phoenix to escape in the first place (apparently frozen prisoners can be programed certain knowledge during rehabilitation), wants to obliterate the rebel leader (Denis Leary) so that the rebel group will fall and his city will be 100% peaceful. Even Phoenix agrees Cocteau is more of “an evil Mr. Rogers” than a saintly king.
The film certainly has a sharp satirical edge, establishing a society where violence is purged. People speak in overly polite manners, physical greetings (such as handshakes, high-fives, even kisses) are no more, sex is electronic and not the least bit physical (and pregnancy is apparently forbidden unless you have a “license”), and yes, instead of toilet paper, there are three seashells used to…clean one’s self. (Though, seriously, how are they used? That’s never explained.) There are a lot of funny lines thrown in the mix of numerous touches that make up this futuristic society; so many that I’m not sure I can name them all since they’re so clever and more. There’s also a nice running gag about how Huxley is so determined to be as rogue as Spartan that she constantly tries to come up with catchphrases that suit ‘90s-action-film needs but just can’t pull them off.
But even with that, the film is still a ‘90s shoot-em-up action flick—heavy on intense action, violence, wisecracks from our hero and villain, explosions, etc. It’s all pretty standard stuff and for the most part, setting its central focus in 21st-century totalitarian civilization doesn’t change much of it, no matter how funny the reactions from supporting characters may be. That was a complaint among most critics in 1993, when the movie came out. But looking at it from a mid-2010s perspective, “Demolition Man” really holds up, despite those clichés. That’s because the way things are going today with the Internet, social media, and group-focus, you could argue that our society may be headed in the same direction as the society at the center of this movie. There are people out there, especially on the Internet, who either strive for attention and call out other people, who are too sensitive and want nothing even remotely standing in the way of a goal they believe might be passive. This is what’s being addressed in the film, with Cocteau’s followers complying in the attempt for perfection and rebels who want more variety and free will but take extremes for such things. So, at the center of “Demolition Man” is a battle for compromise, because no side is right or wrong. What’s needed to live in this world, as Stallone’s character learns, is balance, and that’s also what Huxley and her fellow officers, as well as the rebels for that matter, learn along the way as well. And as for the ‘90s action clichés and how they’re definitely dated now, that also works in the film’s advantage, having taken our hero and villain from the 1990s to the future, so it kind of works. Watch this movie again and you might see that this film may actually better now than it may have been in the past. It certainly made me think while it also kept me entertained…but how do the three seashells work? Seriously, how are they even sanitized after they’re used?