Updated: Oct 14, 2020
In a nutshell: The near future of 1996, Los Angeles is ravaged by gang warfare. Maverick cop John Spartan goes to apprehend criminal anarchist Simon Phoenix but is framed for multiple murders in the process of his capture. As punishment, both cop and the criminal are cryogenically frozen and rehabilitated.
Flash forward to the year 2032, where Los Angeles has become the peaceful utopia of San Angeles, with crime being a distant memory. When Phoenix escapes during a parole hearing, chaos ensues and the police have to wake up the only man who can stop him – Spartan.
Following a string of early nineties misfires; Oscar, Rocky V, Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot!, Sylvester Stallone was in need of a hit. So in 1993, he doubled down on the action, with Cliffhanger and Demolition Man being released months apart.
Whilst Cliffhanger was an entertaining romp, it played on the Die Hard formula with a mountainous setting. Demolition Man was pitched like a Rocky film – it’s tagline being “Stallone vs Snipes” with Stallone defending his action title from newcomer Snipes. On first appearances, it’s blockbuster action with a dash of sci-fi, yet amongst all the explosions, was some clever satire.
Whilst you may not be familiar with director Marco Brambilla, most 80’s action fans will know of uber-producer Joel Silver, with a canon that includes Commando, Lethal Weapon, Predator and Die Hard. As usual, Silver ensures there’s a regular flow of action set pieces, Brambilla gives the film’s futuristic utopia a slick and shiny feel, whilst feeling very believable and scarily prescient.
The film opens with a dramatic action-packed prologue, showing a near-future Los Angeles in flames (which months after the LA riots, seems a little on the nose). The stakes are quickly established – Phoenix is a mad man and Spartan is the only man who can stop him. “Send a maniac to catch a maniac” to quote Stallone. Stallone does what he does best, playing the straight man and delivering some satisfying action.
Once the leads are frozen and the opening credits roll, Brambilla and the writers make a bold decision – we don’t see our leading man for 20 minutes. Instead, the film ventures into a comedy satire as we get to spend time with the future society and its inhabitants. There’s a lot of fun seeing how society has changed, the way everyone speaks and how both hero and villain react to it.
It helps that the comedy is delivered by a game supporting cast, including Sandra Bullock (in a breakout role), Rob Schneider and Benjamin Bratt as the naive and gleeful San Angeles police department. Bullock, like ourselves at Retro Ramble, is a fan of Joel Silver’s action back catalogue and craves some old school action. It’s a real tour de force for the actress who lands the jokes, looks great in uniform and kicks ass convincingly.
"Send a maniac to catch a maniac…"
What of the villains? Wesley Snipes easily earns his equal billing with Stallone, kicking ass and wisecracking, sometimes simultaneously, whilst providing real menace when required. The actor’s star was clearly on the rise at the time, and credit to him for taking the bad guy role, a career choice that many other action stars weren’t willing to risk (see Coulda Woulda Shoulda).
Snipes brings the vigour and sass of his earlier roles as a great foil to Stallone’s stoic lawmaker. Speaking of which, there’s an internet joke that Demolition Man is a better Judge Dredd film than the actual Judge Dredd film Stallone gave us just two years later! There’s also parallels to the battle between order and chaos that Batman and The Joker represent. Phoenix as the cackling madman who literally wants to watch the world burn and Spartan as the vigilante willing to break the rules and a few bones in the name of justice.
In terms of other villains, Nigel Hawthorn does his best as the stereotypical Brit villain in hiding but he’s clearly uncomfortable being surrounded by so much blockbuster silliness. Dennis Leary’s shady Rebel leader also has little to do, apart from delivering an anti-establishment- Dennis Leary stand-up routine when required.
Instead of flying cars, we’re given eye-tracking, voice-activated tech, self-driving vehicles and paperless currency – all of which are present today. Admittedly cryptocurrency and driverless cars are still in their infancy. In the same way Back to the Future played on the 1950’s outrage of Ronald Reagan, the actor becoming President, Demolition Man jokes about the Schwarzenegger presidency. Sadly there’s another kind of celebrity in The White House today, but Arnie’s two terms serving as Governor of California shows the writers weren’t far off!
There are times when the editing is a bit too frenetic which suggests some dropped sub-plots (including Spartan’s long lost daughter) but on the whole, the action choreography holds up. Overall, this film a great romp, full of great performances, action and comedy. Whilst it may not be in the top tier of Stallone films, it’s a lot of fun.
Alternate Title – Buck Rambo in the 21st Century
MVP: Whilst Snipes is firing (and kicking) on all cylinders, Bullock shines in her supporting role.
Coulda Woulda Shoulda:
The role of Phoenix was offered to Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme but they all turned it down, not wanting to play a villainous character.
Sandra Bullock replaced Lori Petty after a few days filming. Petty left due to creative differences, and not because she looked more of a teenage boy than a potential love interest.
Would you like to know more?: Check out the full Retro Ramble podcast episode here.