Monday, September 24, 2012

Demolition Man (1993)

The Movie: It’s 1996 Los Angeles, and crime has gotten so bad that violent criminals are able to isolate sections of the city for themselves. Case in point, psychopath Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes of the Blade franchise), who has recently kidnapped a busload of hostages who were unfortunate enough to blunder into his neck of the woods. Going against orders, John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone of Deathrace 2000 and the Rambo franchise), a cop with the nickname “the Demolition Man” due to the massive property damage he’s in the habit of causing during the pursuit of his job, leads a crew to rescue them. Unfortunately, during the confrontation Phoenix blows up the building where he’s been hiding. The bodies of the hostages are found in the rubble, and both men are sentenced to cryogenic imprisonment.

Flash forward to the year 2032. Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara have merged into the uber –city San Angeles. The new society is pacifistic and peaceful; violence has been unheard of for decades, and nearly all the “vices” we take for granted today are outlawed. Police Lieutenant Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) is dissatisfied. She has long been fascinated by the excitement of late 20th-century history, something she feels is lacking in her job and her life. While there is a rebellion group, known as the Scraps, their activities are limited to stealing food and graffitiing buildings. As we are shown early on, the technology of the society makes the latter crime something of an exercise in futility. In short, Huxley longs for some excitement. Well, you know what they say about careful what you wish for…

Simon Phoenix is brought out of the freezer for parole, and somehow manages to escape. He immediately goes on a violent rampage. The police being helpless to deal with somebody like Phoenix, they unthaw the man who originally brought him in. Unfortunately, when Spartan has his first reunion with Phoenix, he finds him to be even more deadly than he remembers. It also gradually becomes clear that Phoenix’s release is connected to the highest levels of the city government. However, worse than Phoenix, John Spartan has to figure out how to navigate this crazy society he’s woken up into; and Phoenix seems a step or two ahead of him on that…

The Review:
Look, you can’t take away peoples’ right to be assholes.”
-Simon Phoenix

It’s very easy to go into Demolition Man thinking it’s just another big, dumb, Reagan-era spawned action flick. That’s certainly how it plays out for the first ten minutes. The audience is dropped right into the clich├ęd setup, complete with gunfire, explosions, innocents in danger, reckless stunts and a scene-chewing madman. However, once our two heavies are put in the freezer and the credits have rolled, that’s when you start to realize how much the joke was on you. The change is so sudden it’s possible to believe you just switched movies for a moment.

Demolition Man is simultaneously a satire on society and a spoof on the action movies of the era. What starts out looking like yet another big, dumb exercise in gratuitous violence actually turns out to be rather smart, witty, and at times even a bit subtle. At least, as subtle as one can expect of a spawn of the Reagan-era action flick to be. What’s more, unlike the majority of so-called spoofs and satires put out by Hollywood the humor doesn’t feel forced. It’s clear that the whole cast is in on the joke, but they still play straight; or at least with tongue firmly held in cheek.

The society presented by the satire portion of the movie is wonderful, and a source of many laughs. It’s pretty much Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, but without any of the sex and drugs. In fact, both of those things are banned; sex is done through a sort of virtual reality device. You can get ticketed and fined for swearing. Most of the foods and other diversions we take for granted are also banned. In fact, one of my favorite lines is where Huxley is listing off for Spartan what all is now banned by law. And no, the fact that Sandra Bullock’s character shares a last name with the author of Brave New World is not coincidence.

Now, considering the current political climate of the United States and people’s natural tendency to read things into fiction, it’s all too easy to read contemporary politics into this movie; so I’ll just get that part out of the way. Many people are probably going to take the very simplistic view of San Angeles being the end result of the Right’s “Big Government” boogeyman. I make no secret about being somewhat Left-leaning in my views, but after a certain point I find both sides equally ridiculous. Also, it’s been my experience that despite the claims of the Right, both ends of the spectrum seek government regulation; the difference is in what they want to regulate. The Left tends to think the government should regulate the public sphere, while the Right tends to want government to regulate the private sphere.

With that in mind, I can see political nightmares from both ends of the spectrum in Demolition Man’s San Angeles. From the Right’s end we can see the regulation of food and products. From the Left, there is the legislation of morals. Also, there is one part where we learn that Taco Bell has won the Free Market Darwinism that the Right is so fond of and now controls all restaurants in this society. What’s that? Sounds too ridiculous? Well, I can tell you that Boise State University holds many of their events at the Taco Bell Arena; and that is far from the only corporate sponsorship of a private concern that I have run across.

The core lesson of the dystopian society subgenre as a whole is that all human society is inherently flawed; and therefore we as citizens must ever be aware of our society’s flaws lest they turn it into something nightmarish. If you look at history you’ll notice that all the countries today that are bywords for dysfunctional societies; Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Communist China and the Taliban, to name but a few; came into being because enough people saw them as a better alternative to what they currently had. It’s a lesson that I hope my species will eventually learn; preferably before my country finishes its transformation into a corporate oligarchy.

On the action movie spoof side, Demolition Man is able to use this ridiculous society to poke fun at the tropes of the genre and turn them on their heads. For example, there is the near-universal trope that the police are completely useless to deal with the villain. Well, in this movie that’s multiplied by a hundred. “We’re police officers,” protests one officer after the department realizes what they’re up against with Simon Phoenix, “we’re not trained to handle this kind of violence!” Or, there’s one of my favorite parts where Spartan reprimands Huxley “hurting people’s not a good thing!” Then suddenly he pauses, as if remembering what genre he’s in, and amends “well, sometimes it is.”

Sylvester Stallone does a great job as John Spartan. On the one hand, he plays the whole fish out of water role very well. More so, however, Stallone has some good comedic timing. Admittedly, with the roles he’s been shoehorned into over the years he hasn’t had much opportunity to demonstrate it; but he does in Demolition Man. I can’t see Stallone doing standup; but the man has a real knack for straight-faced delivery and playing off the disparity between what he’s saying and how he’s saying it.

Most action movie psychos are the same, but Simon Phoenix is your action movie psycho’s action movie psycho. Snipes doesn’t chew scenery in Demolition Man, he gnaws through it like a buzz saw. He also gives the impression that he’s having the time of his life doing it.

I tend to be ambivalent about Sandra Bullock. I have seen her in both good and crappy roles, and her acting has matched. However, she is enjoyable as Huxley. For one thing; as the character who knows the most about the 20th Century, she serves both Spartan and the audience as a guide to the movie’s setting. Among other things, this gives her plenty of opportunities to deliver some great lines.

The other major thing about Huxley is that she’s not the helpless, screaming, useless individual that the love interests of these kinds of movies tend to be. What makes that really interesting is that Demolition Man actually could have gotten away with it. After all, all of Huxley’s colleagues, male and female, are that way; why should she be any different? And yet, when the violence fires up, Huxley proves more than capable of handling herself. Spartan squares off against Phoenix alone of course, that’s just how these movies go. However, for the most part Huxley actually works beside Spartan as more or less an equal partner in fighting the villain. It’s sad that a movie should deserve kudos for making its heroine competent, but there you go.

So in conclusion, Demolition Man is a fun satire and spoof on action movies, with good acting and great dialogue. It also has more than enough gunfights, explosions and general testosterone poisoning for any action fans. There are at least one or two fairly brutal parts, warning to the squeamish; but overall this is just a fun, and even halfway intelligent, little movie.