Thirty years ago today, Demolition Man first hit theaters, pitting Sylvester Stallone against Wesley Snipes in a crime-free but killjoy future where even minor vices have been declared illegal. The passage of time hasn’t quite elevated this sci-fi action comedy to the legendary status of Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, but it’s still an under-appreciated gem of ’90s action movies, precisely because it unapologetically leans into the massive explosions and campy humor with wild abandon.
(Spoilers below, because it’s been 30 years.)
Demolition Man started out as a spec script by Peter Lenkov, then a recent college grad eager to break into Hollywood. (Lenkov went on to create his own shared fictional TV universe with the interconnected reboot series Hawaii 5-0, MacGuyver, and Magnum P.I.) Lenkov was a Lethal Weapon fan and envisioned an action movie about a cryogenically frozen “super cop” who wakes up decades in the future in a world largely free of crime, where he must battle his criminal arch-nemesis. As for the title, Lenkov had been listening to Sting’s “Demolition Man” constantly because the cassette player in his car was broken. Inspiration strikes in nonlinear ways.
Warner Bros. ultimately optioned the spec script and hired Daniel Waters (Heathers) for the rewrites. It was Waters who brought the comedic elements to the story, along with other substantial changes. The studio hired Marco Brambilla to direct; it was his first feature film. Originally, Steven Seagal was supposed to star, with Jean-Claude Van Damme playing the villain; Brambilla chose to cast Stallone and Snipes instead and their acting styles meshed well. The same could not be said of Lori Petty, originally cast as the plucky female cop and love interest Lenina Huxley. She and Stallone didn’t get along—Petty described their dynamic as “oil and water”—and she was ultimately replaced by Sandra Bullock.
The film opens in a dystopian version of 1996 Los Angeles as LAPD Sergeant John Spartan (Stallone)—aka the “Demolition Man” because of the major property damage that typically results when he’s on the job—tracking psychopathic crime lord Simon Phoenix (Snipes) to an abandoned building, where Phoenix has holed up with a busload of hostages. Spartan successfully arrests Phoenix, but not before the entire building blows up. When the corpses of the hostages are found in the rubble, Spartan is charged and convicted of manslaughter, joining Phoenix in “cryoprison,” where they remain frozen until 2032. That’s when Phoenix is thawed out for a parole hearing, only to escape into what is now a megalopis called San Angeles.
San Angeles is a seemingly utopian society headed by one Dr. Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), with almost no violent crime. So the San Angeles police are simply not equipped to deal with Phoenix, who commits multiple “murder-death-kills” within his first few hours of freedom. Lenina Huxley (Bullock) suggests they unthaw Spartan, since he captured Phoenix the first time. And Spartan finds himself trying to hunt down a homicidal maniac while navigating a brave new world where alcohol, swearing, eating anything that’s bad for you, and intimate exchanges of precious bodily fluids (i.e., kissing, sex), among other things, are now illegal. Plot twist: Cocteau actually masterminded Phoenix’s escape so that the latter could take out the leader of an underground group of rebels (“scraps”), Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary).
Demolition Man topped the box office in its opening weekend and went on to gross $159 million worldwide against its $77 million budget—not a blockbuster hit, but not a colossal failure either. It was widely viewed as a comeback vehicle for Stallone, whose career had flagged somewhat after a string of box office disappointments. (Stallone is currently enjoying yet another “comeback” in the streaming crime drama Tulsa King.) Critical reviews were mixed; not everyone was a fan of producer Joel Silver’s over-the-top approach to action flicks. But this is the man behind the Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and The Matrix franchises—now all classics—plus the first two Predator films. Whether you appreciate his extensive oeuvre or not, there’s no denying he was a major influence on film in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The fictional future of Demolition Man is one where the Oldies radio station plays jingles from 20th century commercials and where all the restaurants are Taco Bell, which apparently won the “franchise wars.” (It was changed to Pizza Hut in the film’s European release, because Taco Bell was less well known overseas.) The ultra-processed food served therein isn’t even remotely appetizing, but it did inspire the real Taco Bell to recreate the fictional version at the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con for the film’s 25th anniversary.
And who can forget the meme-worthy mysterious three seashells Spartan encounters in the bathroom in lieu of toilet paper? How they work is a running gag that is never explained, but one assumes it’s some kind of futuristic bidet. Waters said in a 2018 interview that initially he couldn’t figure out a good future restroom concept and started calling his screenwriter friends for ideas. He reached Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood) when Karaszewski was literally on the toilet and mentioned a bag of seashells on the shelf. “I was like ‘seashells! I’m gonna work with that,’” Waters recalled, and the rest is pop culture history.
Stallone built his career on macho tough-guy roles in films like Rambo and Rocky and Spartan is very much in that vein, but it’s nice to see him show his comedic chops in Demolition Man—sometimes poking gentle fun at his macho tough guy image. Spartan’s rehabilitation program while in cryoprison trained him as a seamstress and his bemusement at being compelled to knit Huxley a sweater is spot-on. There’s even a bit of Hollywood insider humor when Spartan learns about the Schwarzenegger Presidential Library. (Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were longtime rivals and Schwarzenegger did indeed enter politics ten years later as governor of California.) Stallone’s low-key deadpan delivery makes a nice foil to Snipes’ scenery-chewing portrayal of Simon Phoenix. Phoenix is a bit of a one-note villain, but Snipes makes him entertaining and always fun to watch, plus he gets to show off his killer martial arts moves.
Demolition Man was Sandra Bullock’s big Hollywood break, and while she was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award (Worst Supporting Actress) for her troubles, a lesser actress would have fared much worse. Bullock was perfect for the role of Lenina Huxley and her bubbly on-screen charisma easily marked her as a budding major star. (It didn’t take long. Speed debuted the following year, rocketing her to the A-List.) Huxley finds her SAPD job rather dull until Phoenix and Spartan burst onto the scene. She idolizes the late 20th century—even if she can’t get the slang quite right (“you can take this job and shovel it!”)—and learned to fight by watching Jackie Chan movies. She’s the perfect guide to help Spartan (and the audience) navigate the near future.
The film holds up surprisingly well even 30 years later. Sure, “political correctness” is now “wokeness,” and socio-political divisions are arguably a bit more hardened. But Cocteau’s San Angeles provides an always-relevant cautionary tale of how unscrupulously opportunistic “leaders” can take advantage of tragedy (in this case a devastating earthquake) to sow chaos and fear to gain and maintain power. Some have interpreted Demolition Man as being some kind of Libertarian manifesto, embodied in Leary’s epic rant about wanting the freedom to eat a cheeseburger and run naked through the streets if he feels like. I think that’s a misguided take that misses the film’s true point (although I love Leary’s rant as much as anyone).
Waters has said that he had no intention of being overtly political when penning the script; he was just having fun and it’s easier to mine schmaltzy fake peace and love for laughs than a brutal dystopian regime. The film ends with the inevitable fall of Cocteau’s dictatorial New World Order—a future that absolutely nobody wants, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. Water’s ultimate “message” is that the people of San Angeles must now figure out how to balance those two extremes (overly controlled order vs. chaotic anarchy) and build a new functional democratic society where individual freedom will sometimes give way to the greater good, and vice versa, so that everyone can thrive. That remains a timely message—one might even say it’s timeless.
You can stream Demolition Man on Prime Video.