I kind of love Demolition Man. I've never felt that way before, but that's also because I've never taken Demolition Man seriously before. Endless late night plays on basic cable and other less-than-focused (read: drunken) watchings had given me the idea that Marco Brambilla's 1990 sci-fi actioner was a "so bad it's good" kind of movie. Having now actually given the film my undivided attention, I've completely reversed my opinion on it. There's nothing bad about Demolition Man; it's a legitimately good flick.
Oh, it's hardly a cinematic masterpiece, but I don't think it's the kind of movie that can only be enjoyed ironically. Brambilla and everyone involved knew exactly what kind of movie they were making. There's nothing incidental about it. Every bit of comedy, every action cliche indulgence is totally intentional.
The first thing that I noticed during my recent rewatch is that, much to my surprise, Demolition Man actually has an opening. I had entirely forgotten that we're actually shown the 1996 backstory between super cop Stallone and super chaos-creatorSnipes and not just told about it through exposition when they de-thaw in 21st century San Angeles. I knew it had been a while since I'd paid close attention to it, but I didn't think it had been nearly long enough for me to forget about an entire stretch of the film.
It's a quick opening scene, sure, but it goes a long way to establishing what kind of a universe this story is taking place in. It's the kind of dystopic world where cops can free jump out of a helicopter and perform a solo rescue mission into a destitute palace of anarchy. It's like Escape From New York meets Last Action Hero, and I love that. It instantly sells Stallone as the kind of action hero who thinks that everyone around him, even the other people on the force, are all just in his way and the only thing that matters is getting the bad guy. And if you're going to make an over-the-top action movie, that kind of belief system is a must-have.
The second thing I noticed was how much Demolition Man has in common with The Fifth Element. It's not just the aesthetics of the cars, though they are nearly identical minus the fact that these ones don't fly, and buildings or Wesley Snipes haircut being the forefather of Chris Tucker's weird hair style as Ruby Rhod. One of the biggest similarities can be found in the score, which often sounds like it was composed on a Casio keyboard and then mixed using a turn table. Granted The Fifth Element's score is far more evolved musically, but it still falls back on a few Demolition Man sound cues from time to time.
The two also have this amusing idea that the hero just can't stand to be living in the future. Bruce Willis' character in The Fifth Element doesn't attempt to emulate 20th century life, but he does share Stallone's disregard for the conveniences of the future, which mainly serve as needless comedic distractions. Plus, if they stay in one place long enough they're bound to eventually reduce all technological progress around them a century or two by blowing it up. That's not a commonality exclusive to Luc Besson's film, though. The same can be said of all futuristic action heroes that prefer bullets over blasters.
The third, and most important, thing I noticed is how funny Demolition Man actually is. However the humor doesn't rest with the script, which is occasionally a little too on the nose with its "look how wacky the future is" gags (though the three sea shells is still genius). It's actually the performers who each elevate the material far beyond how (not) funny it may have been in lesser hands. Stallone's got the dry, "I don't have time for this crap" machismo thing going for him, but I really like Sandra Bullock and Benjamin Bratt, both of whom really sell the naiveté of their characters. I also like the little touches I never noticed before, like how Bullock hands Stallone a towel before they have "sex".
The final joy of my Demolition Man rediscovery is how out-there awesome Wesley Snipes is in it. He's playing the Joker, plain and simple. He's an agent of chaos whose only motive is to see the world burn. Snipes also looks like he's never had this much fun making a movie. Finally someone let him cut loose and the result is a wild-eyed maniac that's more enjoyable to watch than 99% of action movie villains who are all interchangeable, personality-devoid bad guys.
Is it a long lost, misunderstood classic? No, of course not. I may have suddenly rediscovered Demolition Man's greatness, but I can still see the reasons why I never took it seriously before. It's loud and silly and goofy, which can be distracting if that's not what you're in the mood for. But if you sit down with it from beginning to end, the transition from comedy to action movie extravaganza is not only pointless, but pretty pleasant.