Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Demolition Man
Hellscapes are a popular topic these days. Everyone seems to think we’re in one, no matter political affiliation or religious preference. But that doom-and-gloom attitude is not new. Hellscapes were around before the term was even coined. But they were and are great fodder for action movies. In fact, the action movies of the 1990s were particularly fascinated with the concept as they were still hungover from the days of high crime rates, but also found humor by adding a politically correct foil for the hero who plays by his own rules. Designed by those who would like law enforcement to mete a sterner, older form of justice, these action films often foretold of a time when their antiquated hero would be unwelcome in a land of civility.
But only Sylvester Stallone was willing to that world in Demolition Man.
The plot revolves around John Spartan (Stallone) — a Stallone style name if there ever was one — who tracks insane criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) to a hellscape within 1996 Los Angeles. The event leaves 20 or so people dead and Phoenix manages to pin it on Spartan. Both are sentenced to long terms within the state’s new “cryo-prison.” Within the cyro-prison, inmates are held in suspended animation while their violent tendencies are replaced with skills beneficial to society. Well, that’s the idea anyway. When Phoenix has a parole hearing in 2032, he busts out of the cryo-joint and commits a number of MurderDeathKills. Ill-equipped to handle someone like Phoenix, the chief of police decides to thaw out Spartan.
That premise sounds like any number of action movies, particularly from the Clinton Era of the United States, but what sets Demolition Man apart is the world Spartan finds in the future. It is a beautiful, tranquil city of blue skies and joy-joy feelings. After the big one and a larger downfall of civilization, cryo-prison creator Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne) established a new society based around one simple idea: anything bad for you is immoral; therefore illegal. As we’re told by Sandra Bullock’s Lenina Huxley, this includes smoking, drinking, chocolate, red meet and spicy foods. Breeding is strictly regulated and sex has been converted into a strange and sexless exchange of energies via headsets. In short: it’s a hellscape as only Stallone could image it.
Not that he did, mixing together the work of three separate writers, the world of Demolition Man feels like the creation of Heathers writer Daniel Waters. The tongue-in-cheek PC culture gone mad idea feels like his idea, anyway. The way its executed in the film feels like Stallone calling out specific bees in his bonnet during a time when Second Lady Tipper Gore was trying to ban rap music and Hilary Clinton was suggesting it would be okay if gay people joined the armed services. In Stallone’s mind, the world they wanted to create was one in which men were neutered in every sense of the word and people sang along to old commercial jingles instead of “proper” music.
In hindsight, he seemed to forget home much the Clinton/Gore team loved Fleetwood Mac and how their ideal future would come complete with hourly broadcasts of “Don’t Stop.”
But Stallone’s fear of a liberal world gone pastel is very much part of the charm. The San Angeles of 2032 — a metroplex formed after the Big One incorporating all counties from Santa Barbara to San Diego — is a quietly fascistic world; but it is one Waters, the other writers and probably Stallone all recognized as somewhat inviting. The price Cocteau makes people pay for tranquility is the loss of autonomy. But the few glimpses we get into the world before Cocteau suggests that everyone was ready give up that freedom for a uniform, yet serene existence.
Into that world comes Snipes’s Phoenix. And it’s clear Snipes is loving every minute. His performance is one of the highlights as he navigates San Angeles the way an untempered id might. He breaks bones, steals guns, blows up a car, and makes a really distasteful racial slur because that’s what the spirit compelled him to do in that moment. Also, the actor is nothing but charisma and presence here. Watching him in this movie will remind you why people loved Snipes so much back in the 20th Century.
Stallone is also pretty good. He’s essentially playing a comedic version of Marion Cobretti from Cobra. It’s a part he’s dedicated to, and he’s definitely more comfortable with the humor here than his earlier attempts in Oscar and the dreadful Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. He’s also more confident as a futuristic lawman here than he will be in the subsequent Judge Dead — a film that may end up as your weekend cheesy movie some day. Having the comparison handy reveals just how engaged and interested Stallone was during this production. Maybe it’s because he saw himself as the lone voice of reason in a PC hellscape, but this is one of his better 1990s action film performances.
Some of his one-liners seem out of place, but that could be down to the direction. At least a few of the zingers are meant to be ironic statements on the whole idea of the Stallone action hero, but director Marco Brambilla plays them completely straight in tight close-ups befitting Cobra or a Schwarzenegger film.
But Brambilla does a decent job with a number of fight scenes. Don’t get me wrong, they’re archly 1990s with cantered angels and record scratches on the soundtrack. Nonetheless, most of them manage to flow, maintain a sense of geography and cut together nicely. A rarity in similar action films of today. Also, Brambilla’s discomfort with the satirical edge of the script means the obvious satire plays for the cheap seats; an oddly endearing aspect. Every so often, you’ll notice the vestigial component of a deleted subplot, but you really have to go looking for them to notice.
Ultimately, though, the nightmare world Stallone envisioned in Demolition Man seems quaint now. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to the notion of sensitivity that manages to be both funny and entertaining; though perhaps not as the filmmakers intended. In short: it’s futuristic cheese.
Demolition Man is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms. It is also available on Blu-ray and DVD.