I think my twelve-year-old self would roll his eyes if I said anything other than Demolition Man is a fun, rip-roaring slice of ’90s action cinema.
I have little desire to pick it apart too much. I’m fiercely loyal to the films of my youth, particularly these days, and will fight Demolition Man’s corner purely because it gave me so many wasted years of daft entertainment and big laughs when I needed them. Admittedly, I should’ve been studying a little harder, and not demolishing valuable brain cells by rewatching a gurning, grunty, thawed out caveman diving about the place.
“Ubiquitous” is an adjective we chuck around when selecting our Bargain Bin films for The Rewind Movie Podcast, and in the small town of Richmond, North Yorkshire, circa 1994, Demolition Man was most certainly that.
During secondary school, I owned the VHS tape, and can vouch for its widespread popularity as I was the mug lending it out non-stop to friends, and against my will, to dreaded friends of friends. Fortunately, it was always returned safe and sound – unlike my From Dusk Till Dawn video, which was sadly lost forever, courtesy of a permanently baked lad, who used to huff Lynx deodorant through his school jumper.
Marco Brambilla’s Stallonian sci-fi opus was omnipresent. Every boy at school must’ve seen it at least once. When me and my fellow Judderman, Rob, weren’t drinking Metz and watching Evil Dead II, passing film quote notes under the door of our adjoining classrooms, making fun of our English teacher – “Vigo the Carpathian”, making bizarre To Kill a Mockingbird board games, or kicking Chelsea buns down the street, we’d often quote Demolition Man – cracking in-jokes about our rubbish ice cream van school lunches by labelling the subpar patties, “rat burgers.”
I also recall mimicking the irreverent lunacy of Wesley Snipes’ Simon Phoenix with a totally different group of friends between our occasionally violent card games of “Raps”, and playing “Heads and Volleys.”
“Somebody put me back in the fridge.”John Spartan, Demolition Man
Upon a recent double rewatch in preparation for the podcast, it was peculiar to recognise just a handful of names from the opening titles; far fewer than my usual average. The director, Brambilla, in particular, I knew absolutely nothing about. Turns out I was also a fan of his ’97 sophomore effort, Excess Baggage (or maybe just a fan of Alicia Silverstone). An Italian-born, Canadian video artist; Brambilla’s filmography from 1999-2020 consists solely of video installations.
One name, however, leapt immediately off the screen like an exploding building. Before I figured out what a producer even did, I was a disciple of Joel Silver. From the Lethal Weapon series, to Commando, Predator, and personal favourite, Die Hard – his films were among the ones I would loop on a regular basis.
Old pro, Alex Thomson BSC, also shot Stallone’s Cliffhanger the same year as Demolition Man, as well as previously serving as director of photography on childhood faves, Labyrinth and Alien 3, Schwarzenegger’s Raw Deal, Ridley Scott’s fantasy adventure, Legend, Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon with Mickey Rourke, and Death Line aka Raw Meat – a ’70s London Underground cannibal horror, reminiscent of 2004’s Creep. Thomson also worked as camera operator for the brilliant, Nicolas Roeg, in the ’60s.
From the opening shot of the Hollywood sign in flames to a G.I. Joe-lookin’ bloke in a beret; bungee jumping out of a helicopter, yelling “PPHHOOEEENNIIIXXX!!!” at the top of his lungs, you know exactly where you stand. Switch that brain off. You won’t be needing it.
It’s big, dumb action, but I found it delivers more than we’re perhaps expecting; certainly more than we’re used to from a ’90s actioner. It could’ve descended into unwatchable territory in the hands of another director, but for my money, Brambilla gave it a solid grounding, and paid attention to some crucial details.
Perhaps this is too generous, but the way Spartan eyes the Cryotube as he initially goes into stasis is a smart visual setup for the final scene, which has him freezing Phoenix. Many directors would’ve missed that tiny trick, and, although a microscopic detail, it illustrates Brambilla knew how to relay information quickly and clearly.
For me, Demolition Man holds up. It works particularly well in a meta movie double feature with another self-referential action film of the same year, Last Action Hero, with the bigger man himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was an Arnie advocate, through and through. Generally speaking, I maintain he made better films than Sly. When it came to Stallone, I wasn’t a Rocky kid, but I enjoyed aspects of First Blood, and absolutely loved both Cliffhanger and Demolition Man.
It looks expensive and glossy. It’s got scope and scale, and a talented visualist in Brambilla. Fans of Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, RoboCop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers) will have a ball. It successfully reflects the excess of the ’90s, and represents its blockbusters warmly and accurately; flying the flag for the kinds of films I loved as an early teenager. You may lose a few brain cells, but it’s an enjoyable, relatively healthy way to do it.
What can I say? It still inspires joy-joy feelings in me.