In 1993 Schwarzenegger had Last Action Hero and Stallone had Demolition Man. Both films satirized the action blockbusters that these two actors dominated in the eighties while also, tongue in cheek, celebrated the action genre. Last Action Hero is more concerned with the notion of the cinema as a modern myth making device while Demolition Man takes a look at the politics inherent in the action genre.
Most of Demolition Man takes place in the distant future where society, thanks to the violent labors of people like Stallone’s John Spartan, enjoys a homogenized existence, completely ignorant of their fascist political system. It’s a future dependent upon the heroes of eighties action films winning the day. Paradoxically, the character of John Spartan chafes at the prospect of this new society even though, as a cinematic fantasy, his character represents much of the same ideals but in microcosm. Once the “dream” is rendered redundant it changes and Spartan allies himself with the liberal sewer dweller Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary) and his followers.
Wesley Snipes as Simon Phoenix is the antithesis of Spartan. Their relationship isn’t too dissimilar from that of Batman and the Joker. If one pole is the complete order afforded by fascism, the other pole is total anarchy. The issue with Phoenix and the Joker is that they’re sadistic maniacs, suggesting an equation that, by its very nature, reiterates the conservative fantasies of eighties action spectacles.
Filmmaker Marco Brambilla suggests more political themes than his film could ever possibly analyze and comment on, but the mere suggestion is often enough. As a balance to prolonged scenes of operatic violence and dry political satire Demolition Man has Sandra Bullock as Lenina Huxley. Brambilla uses Huxley to keep the laughs coming, to subvert Stallone’s macho posturing, and too lightly ease the intersections of satire with traditional genre tropes. Bullock is the unsung hero of this film.
Demolition Man has always been one of my favorite Stallone pictures. I grew up watching a video store demo tape back in the day. As a child, when the more sophisticated aspects of the film were lost on me, I always enjoyed the adventure and humor Bullock and Stallone brought to the proceedings. Now that we’re only twenty-five years away from the future in Demolition Man I suspect the groundwork for the “franchise wars” is already well under way.