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The Los Angeles of 1996 is a lovely place to settle down, raise a family and make a career if you’re one who enjoys murderous gang-infested streets, random blocks of burning buildings, and general riot-inducing anarchy. It’s home sweet home. The city has become so out of control, commercial airliners no longer land there and the police are mostly special forces units trying to save innocents caught in the violence. Meet LAPD Sergeant John Spartan (Stallone), a kind of rogue leader who thrives on catching the baddest of the baddies, and tonight, he’s got his eye on the big prize. It seem a particularly naughty fellow named Simon Phoenix (Snipes) has gone and hijacked a municipal bus full of passengers and Spartan is on the job. Suspected to be holed up in a large ramshackle (and sporadically burning) public school, the cops fly Spartan in on a helicopter to bungie jump into Phoenix’s lair. “Send a maniac to catch a maniac,” he says before leaping out the back into a steady stream of machine gun fire. But not to worry, those are movie henchmen so they’re well-trained in the art of horrible shooting. Screaming Phoenix’s name all the way down, Spartan infiltrates the derelict building, taking down foes left and right. Meanwhile, deep inside the structure, Simon is watching on closed circuit monitors because of course he is. Sensing that the cop is going to make it all the way to his position, he takes drastic actions, puncturing barrels of gasoline that any good school comes fully stocked with, and waits for John to arrive. When the inevitable confrontation starts, the two maniacs have the obligatory banter and a fist fight ensues.
Naturally, the building explodes in spectacular fashion and both men survive unscathed. Unfortunately for Spartan, the hostages he thought were elsewhere, were hidden and now lost in the fire. Condemned by his superiors, he is arrested and sentenced to 70 years in cryogenic rehabilitation along with the man he captured. Cruel twist. Now flash forward to 2032, 22 years after a massive earthquake destroyed and then joined the three cites of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego to form a mega-tropolis called San Angeles. But things changed after the natural disaster. A pacifist named Dr. Raymond Cocteau is the leader of this new utopia where weapons of any kind are outlawed, people are under strict regulations concerning social behaviors, such as cursing, sex, children and more. In the great Franchise wars of yesteryear, a single chain emerged victorious and is now the only restaurant in the city. Since the only chain that would probably sign with the producers for such a thing was Taco Bell, they became the product placement of choice. Hooray. Everyone is calm, considerate, relaxed, and obedient. The police, having nearly no reason to exist, have devolved into a worthless collection of uniformed officers with no ability to handle any real crime, which isn’t a problem until the day they decide to defrost Simon Phoenix for a look-see into his rehabilitation and give him a parole hearing. Whoops. Guess what happens next? If you said, “Phoenix kills everybody in the room and escapes to terrorize the now peaceful city,” move to the head of the class, you did well, except they call them MDK or Murder Death Kills in 2032 and Phoenix commits quite a few right out of the gate.
Back at the police department, perky nostalgia-driven officer Lenina Huxley (Bullock) and her co-workers are in shock, not having ever had a MDK while on the force, The last reported homicide was in 2010 and they are not equipped for how to proceed. Huxley is not only obsessed with 20th-century pop-culture (her office and apartment are veritable Antiques Roadshow wet-dreams), she is also a scholar, having studied extensively about life a few decades prior. Watching the carnage on the video surveillance cameras, an older cop who was around in the time of Simon Phoenix’s terror reign recalls the one cop who took him down and recommends to the Chief that they thaw out John Spartan for help. Skeptical of the idea, the Chief relents and releases Spartan from his cryo-chamber, angrily telling the groggy cop that things have changed and his once “demolition man” ways are no longer accepted, but please help catch the psycho-killer wrecking the city.
Once back in uniform, Spartan goes right into action and tracks Phoenix to the museum where miraculously, not only has Simon found a huge collection of guns on display, they are in prime condition, able to fire, and surrounded by boxes of ammunition. This includes the last produced handgun of the millennium, a Magnetic Accelerator that, well, makes things go boom in a big way. The two have another showdown where they proceed to destroy just about everything between them yet are utterly incapable of hitting the other. Phoenix eventually gets the upper hand and escapes, where he inadvertently runs into a well-dressed man that Simon is unable to shoot in the face, even though he really wants to. How is this possible? Well, we soon come to realize that this man is the one who is behind setting Phoenix free, plugging his brain in with close-quarter military combat training, martial arts mastery, secret codes, city plans, passwords and more while he was in cryo. Part of that was a security measure that makes Simon unable to kill him. So who is “him”? Well, he’s none other Doctor Raymond Cocteau (Hawthorne), the mastermind behind this new utopia and the leader of the sprawling city. He’s got a problem though. Living underground, unwilling to accept this new way of life is Edgar Friendly (Leary), a rebel leading a huge population of followers scraping together an existence with what little they can muster. They venture out often and spray graffiti on buildings (which are automatically removed by built-in graffiti removing technology). They also make raids at various Taco Bell’s to steal food and supplies. It’s during one of these raids when Spartan first sees the rebels, and springing into Demolition Man mode, runs out of the restaurant and starts beating the crap out of them before he realizes their just hungry. Sensing something is more off about this modern society than he first suspects, he begins to question the rule of Cocteau. He requests security footage from the encounter Cocteau had with Phoenix, which Huxley supplies, but before he has a chance to read it, she wants to have sex! Whoa! Slow down, missy! But wait, it turns out sex is not at all like what you’re thinking. Nor for that matter what Spartan is thinking. She slips on a somewhat sexy robe, but then dons some odd headgear and places its match on John. She gives him a towel as well. How romantic. This is the sex of the future. No touching, just erotic sensory stimulation given and received through the headset.
After he fails to get her to try the “wild mambo” the old-fashioned way, she kicks him out to his apartment down the hall. There, he plays the security tape and is convinced something stinks in Denmark. The next day, after making up with Huxley (by way of a red sweater he knits overnight, a skill he learned through behavioral modification) they piece together that indeed, it was Cocteau (gasp!) who secretly altered Simon’s rehab programming and is trying kill Friendly. The plots thickens. Time to warn the underground leader that things are about to get very ‘shooty’ his way.
Directed by acclaimed video-collage artist Marco Brambilla, the film, at least for it’s time, was considered over-the-top with its violence, but is tame by today’s standards, mostly because there is little to no blood on screen. Stallone, by this point, was making a career out of these mostly cookie-cutter action movies, but people wanted more and he delivered. The film is actually fairly witty and works better as a satire than an action piece, though there’s the glaring question of why, if they can successfully freeze and then wake a person, isn’t everyone doing it? Yes, it had its flaws, but there also seemed to be no improvements to the facility or the process in the thirty-six years that passed. Considering how fast technology is moving these days, we suspect it would be a whole different system in forty years. But that’s for another conversation. The dialogue is sharp and there is a near perfect blend of self awareness and tongue-in-cheek that keeps the story entertaining but not so silly as to be Judge(d) Dredd-ful (see what we did there?). A lot of the film depends largely on how well you like Stallone and how much adorableness you can handle in watching a young Sandra Bullock, who was just getting into form around this time. She’s the real draw here, and it catapulted her into major stardom. Funny, quirky, charming, and even sexy, she kept the balance, reminding us that this is a comedy and an action flick. While the muscle-bound boys busted up everything in their path, she smiled and smiled and smiled her way into everyone’s hearts. Demolition Girl.
Scene Setup: Things are pretty confusing for poor ol’ John Spartan. He’s taken out of the freezer, defrosted and set loose to catch the maniac Simon Phoenix without much time to adjust. A lot has changed since he went into deep freeze, and to see the world as it is now is kind of jarring (especially how to use the three shells in the bathroom! Hint: swearing helps.) What’s worse, the leader of this new fascist pacifist utopia is a little unsettling, a little too . . . well, creepy. When he realizes that he’s actually behind the release of Phoenix and using the psycho to take out an underground rebel trying to survive off any scraps they can forage, Spartan rethinks his strategy and decides to work on the side of the downtrodden. While Dr. Cocteau orders Lenina Huxley to escort Spartan back to the rehab center for immediate reinstatement of his sentence, John has other ideas. He tells her and her partner they all need to go underground and warn them about Cocteau’s plan. Once there, they find Edgar Friendly.
That Moment: Edgar Friendly is not the savior he’s really become in the eyes of the people following or Cocteau himself. Friendly even says that he’s just trying to survive and that sometimes, people come along. But he is the leader and he knows it. There is a weight about him that reflects this and the actor, Denis Leary, does a great job portraying that burden. While Stallone plays it feisty and, well, Stallone-ish, Bullock does cute and Snipes plays crazy, Leary keeps it real. He looks weathered and haggard, unkempt and struggling to make it to the next day. He’s the only one that doesn’t seem to be a caricature, giving the film a sudden sense of reality, which works surprisingly well. He is both a reminder of the way it was and the face of rebellion against conformity. Leary wisely steers clear of being over-the-top, sticking to a rawness instead that becomes the only real humanity in the film.
It’s not like the movies didn’t try with the other characters. In fact, when Spartan is released, the first thing he asks about is his wife. We didn’t even know he was married! It was never mentioned or eluded to in the opening. Huxley tells him her light was extinguished in the big one of 2010 because that’s how they speak now. So no wife, fine, but then he asks about his daughter! Seriously? Okay, wow. He was a family man. Before he can get an answer to her fate, he is interrupted, but she is not brought up again except for one line where he comments on how he almost doesn’t want to see her again because he thinks she might consider him a primitive. Apparently, there is a deleted scene, cut from the theatrical version that introduces her to the audience and in fact shows that she may actually be one of the women living underground with Friendly. During the firefight that erupts after Spartan meets Friendly and Simon attacks, John is seen in several quick shots protecting a woman that looks to be the appropriate age. It’s an unfortunate decision to lose this story as it would have added far more depth to Spartan.
Back to That Moment in. Under the city, Spartan meets Friendly and Friendly immediately surrounds him with guns, thinking he has come down to arrest him or worse. The two men see eye to eye quickly when Spartan tells him he is no fan of Cocteau. This intrigues Friendly and he explains that the people down with him are the “enemy” because they still believe in thinking, reading, free speech, choice, and more. Cocteau has turned everyone above into robots and he’d rather live as he is than as one of them. This is the life that Spartan once knew and he makes an instant connection to the rebel leader.
So why does it matter? Friendly is hardly in the movie and is nothing more that a plot device to bring Simon back, right? While that may be true, there is much we can take away. His name is a good place to start. Edgar is a combination of two Old English words: “Eed” meaning prosperous and happy, “Gar” meaning spear. Here is a character that is literally happier than those who have “everything” because he still has pride, self-worth, and freedom. More, he is the “point” of attack on Cocteau’s false world of happiness. He represents the hope that those above have lost and those below cling to. More importantly, he is the link to the past that Spartan recognizes from his old life. Spartan risks everything to find “Edgar” and warn him that those with power are trying to destroy him. John is trying to save the right to be free, to be human, to be alive. Together, they eventually do.
Director: Marco Brambilla
Writers: Peter M. Lenkov (story), Robert Reneau (story)
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock