Marco Brambilla is a Milan-born, New York City-based video collage and installation artist, which doesn’t make him a natural choice to direct a Sylvester Stallone movie. He also directed Excess Baggage, Dinotopia and the upcoming Abominable, but if you said, “Who should direct a slam-bang action film?” I would not answer with a video installation artist who comments on visual overload through his work.
1996: maniac Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) kidnaps a number of hostages and hides in an abandoned building (the Belknap Hardware and Manufacturing Company in Louisville, Kentucky, which was scheduled for demolition, substitutes for a Los Angeles building). This lures in LAPD Sgt. John Spartan (Stallone) — “Send a maniac to catch one” — who jumps out of a helicopter directly into combat. Spartan had done a thermal scan and no bodies were found, so he goes in guns blazing.
Unfortunately, the hostages were already dead and their bodies are found in the rubble of the exploded building. Phoenix claims that Spartan knew he had hostages and attacked anyway. The question of why does the court believe a man who has killed numerous people over a cop comes to mind here, but if you’re going to ask questions that make sense, you’re not ready for 1990’s action films.
Phoenix and Spartan are incarcerated in the California Cryo-Penitentiary, where they are frozen and given subliminal rehabilitation techniques while they sleep.
2032: Phoenix has a parole hearing and escapes, armed with the skills he needs to survive in the future, like computer hacking. Remembering that it takes a maniac to catch one, Lieutenant Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock, who took over the role from Lori Petty after just two days of filming) thaws out Spartan.
Spartan wakes up to the peaceful world San Angeles — Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara all in one city, kind of like Mega-City One from Judge Dredd — and discovers that he is a man out of time. It’s the most politically correct world ever, a place where physical contact and swearing are illegal and anything unhealthy is banned.
It’s also a place where Taco Bell is the only survivor of the Franchise Wars and is now considered the finest restaurant in the world. In Europe, where Taco Bell is less known, this movie substitutes Pizza Hut.
Spartan and Phoenix battle at a museum that has outlawed weapons, where the villain meets Dr. Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne, who lent his voice to The Black Cauldron and The Plague Dogs). Cocteau is an evangelic peace-loving ruler who has been in charge of San Angeles since the Great Earthquake of 2010. Phoenix finds that he can’t kill him because the leader is the one who programmed him while he was in cryosleep.
He did all this so that Phoenix will murder Edgar Friendly (Dennis Leary), the leader of the Scraps, an underground gang that resists his absolute power. Huxley figures this all out and Spartan tries to stop him. Unfortunately, Phoenix also has an army of dethawed criminals. He taunts Spartan by telling him that he killed all the hostages before the bombs went off, doomed the hero cop to 36 years of cryo-prison for no reason.
Phoenix kills Dr. Cocteau, thanks to one of his men not being programmed, and tries to take over the future. Spartan stops him and blows up the cryo-prison in the process. He suggests that the peaceful future can only succeed if the Scraps and the above ground people learn to work together. He kisses Huxley and they walk away together.
It’s pretty amazing how much Judge Dredd took from this film, like Rob Schneider’s character and Adrienne Barbeau as the voice of the computer. It’s an early pass at that film and actually a million times better. It doesn’t feel dated at all, despite how silly it is at times. And by silly, I mean awesome.
Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps) actually did some uncredited rewrites to the film. It was his idea to show the two adversaries in 1996, saying “If you don’t show Kansas, Oz isn’t all that special.”
Of all the ridiculous ideas in this film, the bathroom seashells take the prize. Stallone has explained them by saying that the first two seashells were to be used like chopsticks to pull waste from the body and the third was used to scrape what was left. I mean, just the thought of how the three seashells work makes me pause this movie every time and try to comprehend what they’re all about.
The real explanation comes from screenwriter Daniel Waters, who wanted a scene where even the bathroom in the future would cause Spartan problems. So he called another screenwriter and asked for ideas. The answer? “I have a bag of seashells on the toilet as a decoration.” Waters replied, “OK, I’ll make something out of that.”
Hungarian science fiction writer István Nemere claims that most of that script was based on his 1986 novel Holtak Harca (Fight of the Dead), in which a terrorist and a soldier are frozen and then awaken to a society that has outlawed violence. He’s alleged that there is a conspiracy where a man has been illegally selling the ideas of Eastern European authors to Hollywood after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
According to this article at The Toy Box, the Mattel action figures that came out for this film basically took the body parts from The New Adventures of He-Man figures and added new heads. That said — where else can you find a Dennis Leary action figure?
There are tons of small roles in here filled with actors and personalities that I love, like Jesse Ventura and Jack Black. Jackie Chan was Stallone’s first choice to play Simon Phoenix, but Jackie doesn’t play bad guys, even when they planned a sequel to this.
I know I said earlier about ignoring plot holes, but there’s a major moment that isn’t touched on in the film. After Spartan learns that his wife died, he asks about his daughter before being cut off. In truth, before the Wasteland battle, he meets a Scrap named Kate (Vasilika Vanya Marinkovic, Jacklyn Hyde from the 2000’s reboot of Women of Wrestling) who he learns is his daughter. You can see him protecting her during the battle and she also stands next to Friendly when he’s introduced to Associate Bob at the end (I kind of adore Associate Bob, who constantly says “greeting and salutations” a line from another Daniel Waters movie, Heathers).
In fact, there’s a ton of this movie that was cut to achieve a more teen-friendly rating, including more of the scene where Phoenix rips out Warden Smithers’ eye, Phoenix spraying a crowd with machine gun fire, Phoenix killing Zachary Lamb and a battle between Jesse Ventura’s character — who has been overdosed with adrenaline — and Spartan. All of these cuts make the continuity of the battle scenes in the Scraps underground lair and the cryo-prison an absolute mess.
Best of all, when this movie in Kuwait, it was called Rambo the Destroyer. That’s a carnie movie that even Italian film producers would have to applaud.
I love Demolition Man, a film that gets its title from a song by The Police that Grace Jones sang on. It’s big, dumb, loud and completely insipid — and inspired — in all the best of ways.
You can watch this movie on Vudu for free.
NOTE: The poster art for this article comes from Casey Callender and you can buy it right here.