The 90s On Netflix: Demolition Man (1993)
Huxley (not that one)7.5
Mark Harrison | On 20, Nov 2020
Director: Marco Brambilla
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Nigel Hawthorne, Denis Leary
Watch Demolition Man online in the UK: Netflix UK / Amazon Prime / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. In this column, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
We’re still 12 years off the actual date of Demolition Man’s Aldous Huxley-inspired dystopian utopia, but 2020 has already seen a widespread transition to contactless payments and greetings, a massive rise in video calling, and even an overall shortage of toilet paper. So, what better time could there be to revisit an actioner that pits Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes against each other in a battle to make America “well” again?
The 1993 film may be a little optimistic in projecting that cryogenically freezing and rehabilitating criminals would be commonplace just three years later, but it opens in a 1996 Los Angeles that has completely gone to hell, where long-time foes LAPD sergeant John Spartan (Stallone) and psychotic criminal Simon Phoenix (Snipes) are about to have their ultimate showdown. In the aftermath, both of them wind up with lengthy sentences in California’s new cryo-prisons.
When Phoenix unexpectedly escapes during a parole hearing in the year 2032, he finds the megalopolis of San Angeles living in harmony without violent crime or even naughty language. Thus, the SAPD are entirely unequipped to deal with his brand of carnage (“We’re police officers! We’re not trained to handle this kind of violence!”) and at the urging of 1990s nostalgist Officer Lenina Huxley (a brilliant Sandra Bullock), they defrost Spartan to find Phoenix and take him down.
Originally sold to Warner Bros in the late 1980s, the script by Daniel Waters, Peter M. Lenkov, and Robert Reneau constructs a utopia where everyone gets what no one wants. It’s a canny wrangling of the conditions that would lead to the otherwise perfectly desirable outcome of no “MurderDeathKills” for more than two decades still being a nightmare for both its fish-out-of-water super cop and for anyone else who’d have to actually live in it for more than 20 minutes.
Although it’s one of Stallone’s better-regarded movies of the 1990s, there’s no question that Wesley Snipes absolutely runs away with this movie. Improvising on top of an already strong script, he’s charismatic without ever having to be sympathetic or redeemable in any way shape or form, so that you believe pulling the guy who beat him last time out of deep freeze is the only rational response. Can we now acknowledge that it’s Simon, not Joaquin, who makes the best R-rated version of the Joker?
By no fault of his own, Stallone is pretty much left in the dust by the rest of the cast. This did prove to be a comeback movie for him after the likes of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, but he’s never been as adept at the snappy one-liner as his cohorts in this era of action cinema. While the film returns Last Action Hero’s jab at his ongoing rivalry with Arnold Schwarzenegger – “He was President?” – that’s whose comic timing we’re missing in places here.
His comebacks to Snipes are comparatively weak, and the attempted sanding-off of his sensitive side, so familiar to all of us from the Rocky movies, makes him an imperfect fit for this. The only big miscasting is Denis Leary as resistance leader Edgar Friendly, whose riffing stands out more starkly than Snipes’ because it feels like the film has paused for him to do stand-up.
On the other hand, the film enjoys the benefit of various happy accidents, such as Bullock replacing Lori Petty and lending the film a star-making comic turn, or Nigel Hawthorne only taking this role as a screen test for the film version of The Madness Of King George III, and bringing all of his prickly contempt to a character with some regrets about the society he’s built. This is the debut film for director Marco Brambilla, but with the backing of producer Joel Silver and some of the most experienced crew in the business, it looks and plays like nothing else released in the 90s.
The film was a sizeable hit for Stallone (Arnie’s Last Action Hero faltered earlier that year) and has long been established as a cultural touchstone by the mystery of its three-seashell toilet arrangements alone. Despite a legal dispute with Warner Bros over the profits that wasn’t settled until 2019, Stallone has more recently stated that a sequel is in the works, based on a new script by Waters.
Until we see what that plan turns up, Demolition Man remains the ultimate smarter-than-it-looks sci-fi actioner – a raucous romp that builds the maximum entertainment out of its critical adaptation of Brave New World, amping up its absurd detachment from reality to spook both liberal and conservative audiences into actually rooting for a centrist solution. With all that and a superb line in quotability, it’s future-proof.
Next time on The 90s On Netflix…
“‘What will NY152 say today?’ I wonder. I turn on my computer. I wait impatiently as it connects. I go online, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words…”
Demolition Man is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.