Saturday, March 5, 2011

So Much For The Seashells

I had planned to make my way over to the New Beverly for the midnight show of DEMOLITION MAN that played on the last Saturday of February but, well, what can I say. It was cold. I know this is Los Angeles we’re talking about but still, it was genuinely cold. And you know what? I just didn’t feel like doing that long walk from the subway station at Hollywood & Highland all the way down La Brea in the freezing weather for DEMOLITION MAN and I say that with all due respect to DEMOLITION MAN. I like DEMOLITION MAN, really I do, and have ever since I saw the movie when it opened back in October 1993. Coming in the middle of an early 90s comeback for Sylvester Stallone it sort of kicked off a mini-tradition of Warner Bros opening a new action extravaganza around Columbus Day weekend starring him over the next few years and for whatever reason I’ve always had kind of a soft spot for all its overblown ridiculousness. So I was exited at the prospect of seeing the film again in a theater particularly since I knew there was a possibility that co-screenwriter Daniel Waters (the man who wrote HEATHERS, so all should bow to him as far as I’m concerned) might turn up to discuss his involvement and maybe reveal answers to a few of the film’s mysteries that have been vexing everyone through the years like, you know, what’s the deal with the three seashells? Unfortunately I had heard ahead of time that he wouldn’t be able to attend due to the Independent Spirit Awards happening on the same day but nevertheless I had planned right up until the last minute to go because I was genuinely wanted to see it. But then I stepped outside, felt the cold and suddenly had a strong desire to remain inside for the rest of the night where it wouldn’t be so cold. So that’s the way it goes and I hope everyone who was there had a good time. Hey, it’s not easy when you don’t have a car. A few nights later I decided to take a look at the DVD—I didn’t want to do it on the same night, that would have been too depressing—which was probably my first viewing of the film in over a decade. Of course, I knew that it could in no way match the enjoyment of watching a 35mm print with a packed midnight crowd at the New Beverly but it was nice to find that I still liked the movie now just as I did then even if it is kind of all over the place. Frankly, as mishmash of tones go it’s still very much an enjoyable mishmash of tones.

In the near future of 1996, Los Angeles is a veritable war zone with the city in flames and the police helpless but one man is able to go against the biggest criminal of all, Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) and that would be John Spartan, the Demolition Man (Sylvester Stallone). But when in the search for a busload of people Phoenix has taken hostage Spartan allows the destruction of his headquarters only to learn that his scans were wrong and the hostages really were in there. As a result Spartan, like Phoenix, is arrested and placed in cryogenic storage as punishment. Flash forward several decades to 2032 after Los Angeles has been felled by The Big One (which took place in 2010—guess we got lucky) and all of Southern California exists in a veritable utopia known as San Angeles ruled by Dr. Ryamond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne) where violence is no longer a way of life. Until, that is, until Simon Phoenix is thawed out for a parole hearing and escapes with powers even he doesn’t understand as he wreaks havoc everywhere he goes. When the police realize they are totally out of their depth to figure out how to deal with Phoenix at the behest of spunky young cop Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) who prides herself in her great knowledge of twentieth century culture, they soon realize they have to thaw out Spartan to deal with him. Spartan is of course stunned by what society has become but as he begins to become aware of the special knowledge Phoenix seems to have of everything he begins to believe there is more going on than they first realize.

I think that opening shot of the Hollywood sign in flames with the title card stating “LOS ANGELES 1996” played a little silly even back in ‘93 but hey, it was only a year after the riots and the image certainly works as an attention grabber even if, frankly, it doesn’t have all that much to do with the rest of the film. The pre-credit sequence of the film directed by Marco Brambilla does actually feel a little like producer Joel Silver trying to throw us head first right into the biggest, most extreme Joel Silver action extravaganza ever made. As if it wants to outdo the typical Bond teaser it seems to pack practically a full narrative into just a few minutes of screen time with crazy stunts and an entire building being destroyed like Silver would do during those days in the LETHAL WEAPON sequels complete with Steve Kahan, the captain in those movies, making a brief cameo to complete the effect and the lack of CGI is pretty refreshing to look at now. I mean, come on, the destroyed a whole building. Even if Silver did produce a few more action movies in his patented style after this there’s something about the prologue of DEMOLITION MAN that feels very much like a big, noisy farewell to the approach he became famous for in the 80s. From that opener the movie then jumps forward into its LOGAN’S RUN-style utopia but manages to remain disarming from how instead of treating its science fiction milieu in an overly serious manner it practically becomes a full-fledged comedy, taking an arch look at how ridiculous this society really is as if to anticipate that no one would take this kind of buttoned-down utopia all that seriously. This sort of approach wouldn’t always be the right course to take—and it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we actually did get a serious science fiction movie once in a while, not something retro-fitted to insert a lot of action—but in this particular case a large part of it works surprisingly well.

The screenplay, credited to Daniel Waters and Robert Reneau and Peter M. Lenkov (story by Lenkov and Reneau) features a story that is more than a little all over the place but the recognizable style of Waters makes up for a lot of that, giving the film a somewhat unique vibe that helps it stand out from other such action-sci-fi things of the time—the humor is goofier than the satire in Paul Verhoeven films like ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL but its tone is just as distinctive in its own right with a good amount of dialogue (‘Greetings and salutations’ from HEATHERS pops up a few times) and even a few character names pretty clearly coming right from Waters. It’s just about the best thing the film has because while the action is pretty decent at times, as mammoth as it all feels the overall production comes off as maybe a little more earthbound than it should. Even with the expected matte work used to depict the world of 2032 where most people seem to be outfitted in pan-Asian fashions it still feels pretty blatantly like a tour of a certain kind of ‘futuristic’- type architecture sprinkled throughout Southern California—one building I worked at on Wilshire years ago turns up and now that the San Diego Convention Center has become more familiar with the rise of Comic Con they might not be able to get away with using that if the film were made today. Maybe because the emphasis seems to be so much on these actual locations the nature of this future is never quite completely sold--all the glass and steel used throughout, even in sets that were built, makes the right impression but it still feels like there’s a design element missing to give it all full life. What stood out to me more than anything on this viewing about this particular future it how much of it actually resembles parts of the later ESCAPE FROM L.A., another film set in a post-quake L.A. where many earthly pleasures have been outlawed, outcasts are doing battle with those in charge and even contains a reverse shot of the Hollywood sign in flames. The approach John Carpenter took when he made his film is certainly more overtly political than DEMOLITION MAN’s humor which comes off more as a gentle tweaking of political correctness but the resemblance still seems undeniable and makes me wonder if the writers of this film ever thought they deserved residuals or something.

Much of it plays a little like a Daniel Waters-ization of what began as a more serious science fiction idea, a thought which makes me imagine how other famous screenwriters with similarly distinctive tones would have approached writing this kind of movie. Weirdly, on the DVD audio commentary director Brambilla says that Waters wrote “the original draft” which doesn’t quite jibe with the credits but who knows. Regardless, the sharp nature of the humor is a big reason why the film works as well as it does even if there’s frankly never all that much suspense or tension and the revelation of why Phoenix has been engineered the way he has doesn’t really have much impact. But with digressions like the luxury dinner at Taco Bell (the only restaurant to survive the “franchise wars”—gee, I wonder what that movie would be) I kind of doubt things like suspense or tension was really at the top of their list. A few bits even give it all a slight in-joke feel, like the comment about President Schwarzenegger which plays as a quid pro quo for the Stallone gag the same year in LAST ACTION HERO and it could even be argued that much of what works about Stallone’s performance could almost be read as if the star is playing all this as annoyed that he isn’t getting to star in the serious version of this film like he was promised. The clever running gag of people being fined when using swear words works nicely and I kind of admire the indisputable logic used by Phoenix when he wonders where all the phaser guns are since he’s in the future. Not all of the speculation of things to come works of course, like a Jeffrey Dahmer mention that wound up becoming dated about a year after the film opened and Bullock’s line, “That was better live than on laserdisc!” is probably wishful thinking on somebody’s part that the format would still be around so many years later. Bullock’s explanation of “Jackie Chan movies” when she’s asked where she learned certain moves definitely played a little hipper back then when he wasn’t quite as well known in the states but the actress still sells the moment anyway.

The overall result from all this is a film that remains consistently enjoyable while at the same time being one that has kind of a scattershot feel to it all, making me wonder if this was a production that never had one specific person in charge. It’s easy to imagine that Silver was a prominent force with the two stars offering a lot of opinions as well. Well known editor Stuart Baird (many credits for Silver as well as directing EXECUTIVE DECISION for him after this) cut this film and I kind of wonder how responsible he really is for the final product. For his part, director Brambilla made only one other feature after this (the forgettable Alicia Silverstone vehicle EXCESS BAGGAGE), followed by some TV as well as extensive work in the art world involving video installations but, maybe most surprisingly considering that background, there’s not all that much of a strong visual style here that feels evident in any way and the amount of real locations used ultimately makes it seem like a cheaper production than I suspect this Warner Bros. extravaganza actually was. Though it all comes together for the most part there’s still a feeling that a piece is missing. The film’s own story never quite lives up to the setting, humor and characters so it falls slightly short, like how a key character is disposed of near the end just a little too easily.

As things move into the second hour there’s a definite feel of a film that had multiple rewrites of rewrites as if they were trying to get away from the Waters approach back towards a more standard action film. Familiar character actor Bill Cobbs is prominent early on as the older version of a great helicopter pilot Stallone knew in the past but as soon as there’s a big mention of how he’s long since been grounded—an indication that’s going to come into play during the climax if there ever was one—Cobbs is suddenly never seen again. Some interesting science fiction concepts like how Spartan still had a form of consciousness which in cryo-freeze are never really dealt with and though late in the film there’s a nod towards observing how both Spartan and Phoenix might be on some common ground in this future which each objecting in their own way to how Cocteau wants to “take away people’s right to be assholes” the film pretty much disregards all that in favor of the pummeling and gunplay. Ultimately, it’s all strictly good guy vs. bad guy in a way that doesn’t really live up to what the characters seem like they might be at first. Not that there’s anything wrong with an action movie choosing to focus on the action and what’s here is even very well done but by a certain point in spite of all the cleverness it still feels like there could have been a little more meat on the bone.

Easily one of the best parts of the film is the adventurous score by Elliot Goldenthal that comes off very much in the same vein as his work on ALIEN 3 the previous year. Eclectic in all the right ways, it continually utilizes a variety of approaches by the composer while still managing to tie the various elements together, giving the film a sense of grandeur and mystery it never quite achieves otherwise. Of course, even Goldenthal couldn’t really make the movie more than what it is—on the soundtrack album the cue for the car chase is amusingly titled “Obligatory Car Chase” which is cute yet also says something about the oddity of this sci-fi epic containing a car chase at all, not to mention how it takes place on what looks exactly like a Los Angeles freeway circa 1993. Even if part of the gimmick is that Spartan is driving a vintage 1970 Oldsmobile in the future they couldn’t come up with something a little less obligatory than a car chase? Simon Phoenix asked where all the phaser guns were since he’s in the future so they couldn’t come up with something a little more futuristic? It’s this sort of thing that keeps DEMOLITION MAN from being more than it is, as big as it obviously is. But in spite of all this the humor and unique tone keeps a lot of it going all the way to the end. Frankly, there are plenty of movies that probably hold together better than this one does and aren’t as genuinely enjoyable. So at least it has that.

Sylvester Stallone does what knows how to expertly do in the action scenes but more importantly this may be one of the very best examples of his comic timing ever seen, certainly more so than in some of the actual comedies he made a few years before this—here he’s funny, he’s genuinely funny and it really lifts up the film every time he rolls his eyes at somebody listening to one of those ‘mini-tunes’ on the radio. For Wesley Snipes, this film came during that period when he was in about half the movies released and, sporting blond hair, he clearly knows how to play the live wire style of Simon Phoenix and his skill with martial arts makes him a formidable adversary but as much as he gets built up he’s ultimately not much more than just the bad guy and doesn’t really get to do anything more than be that. For whatever reason, the eclecticism of having Snipes play scenes opposite the fussy Hawthorne as Dr. Cocteau doesn’t really pay off as well as it should and while Hawthorne has some sly moments that work nicely he never quite sells how power hungry he’s supposed to be which leaves kind of a blank spot in his portion of the film. Sandra Bullock, who replaced Lori Petty several days into shooting, was just emerging at this point and completely charming as the 20th Century expert Lenina Huxley (although I always thought that instead of a LETHAL WEAPON 3 poster in her office she should have had one for a fictional LETHAL WEAPON 5 or something). She sells the comedy and the true earnestness that is at times needed as well as acquitting herself admirably during all the action as well. Plus, I’m not sure Bullock has ever been as undeniably cute in her entire screen career as when she sings that Armour Hot Dogs ad. Benjamin Bratt (who later starred with Bullock in MISS CONGENIALITY) plays the chipper Alfredo Garcia who surprisingly never literally loses his head although someone else in the movie does, Bob Gunton is a more lightly comic version of the officious prick he’d become legendary for in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION while Glenn Shadix, also in HEATHERS, is Cocteau’s assistant. Denis Leary plays the key role of Edgar Friendly, clearly hired so he could come on late in the game and do his Denis Leary thing, much of it presumably ad-libbed. The tirade kind of stops the movie cold now just as much as it did back then but when Leary pulls back from that into his character he’s pretty good. Jesse Ventura gets nice billing considering he doesn’t really have any dialogue and Rob Schneider, the comic relief next to Stallone in JUDGE DREDD, is uncredited as one of the frightened SAPD cops. Jack Black is in there too as one of Leary’s men.

Like I said, my impression of returning to the movie would probably have been different if I’d made it to the New Beverly that night so and who knows how the crowd’s response would have affected things. I guess I’ll never know. For now, my own take is that ultimately my soft spot for DEMOLITION MAN remains, as messy and inconsequential as some of it is, with a script that offers just the right tweak to this kind of material in its own bizarrely energetic movie-movie way. “Silver Screen Kiss” is the final track title on the score album and when the piece is heard in the film it lends a nice sense of scope to this goofiness as the final shot plays out, giving it a certain kind of majesty and showmanship that I honestly miss from these movies. It somehow helps keep DEMOLITION MAN larger than life for me, even if I was only watching it in my apartment, and maybe even a little mysterious as I think about just how odd this movie really is anyway. And along with that mystery, the question of the three seashells will have to remain. But maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.


JeanRZEJ said...

This film probably remains larger than life for me than for you because my family still owns the laserdisc version that I watched as a kid. I still feel like the laserdisc is more futuristic than DVD or blu ray. The future is supposed to be as big as Stalone plays on TV, or so my childhood impression says. In reality Stalone isn't very tall, and blu rays are more high tech than laserdiscs, but I don't trust the truth. It's full of lies.

My favorite part about this film is how the film is set in the distant future where violence is a relic, so in order to create the action film that the actual film is they have to go into a museum, break the relics out of a glass case, and stumble onto a recreation of a street from the 'distant past'. I don't know whether it defeats the point of setting the film in the future or whether it is some unnecessary attempt at justifying the existence of such a film in a less sterilized society, but it's funny regardless. It has a sort of reverence for a time that hadn't yet passed that by now is more relevant - not that I necessarily want to go back. I usually prefer the comedic reworkings of genres to the genre films themselves.

le0pard13 said...

Another of your fine genre film examinations, Mr. Peel. While it's not a best-of-breed film, it does have a lot good things going for it (especially Stallone and Bullock's comedic timing). I certainly will put up with its matte work so I can revel in its old-fashion stunt action any day of the week. If a studio attempted a remake of this today, you know how they'd screw it up: the ritual use of cartoonish CGI. Yeah, we all have to put up with it, but it can really interrupt some really good stuff (cough... DRIVE ANGRY ... cough). Enjoyed reading this, my friend. Thanks.

Marc Edward Heuck said...

I should add that I've always had a fondness for the hilariously overproduced re-recording of the song "Demolition Man" that Sting provides for the closing credits. It's so bursting at the seams with excess, it's as if he's in on the joke; the 45 release even had a great image of Sting positioned between Stallone and Snipes.

christian said...

Wow - you've acuallty made me want to see the damn thing. I always thought Stallone was too underrated with comedy, even though he's very funny in ROCKY.

Matt S. said...

Chalk me up as another one with a soft spot for this film, even though it certainly is a bit of a mess. It has always been my opinion that the film really loses steam once it gets to that inevitable final act when the Hero must fight the Villain in an Epic Clash. The real joy of the film, as you describe, is watching these two late-20th c. cowboys run afoul of staid utopian cultural values. Not much in the film was particularly original, but there was undeniable verve to it, and once Spartan and Phoenix stopped running amok in society and just whaled on each other, it got a bit boring. I was heartily disappointed by the climax, and I think it precisely because there's no room in the CrashBangBoom title bout at the end for the wit or humor that enlivened the rest of the film.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading your writeup of this minor, but thoroughly enjoyable film.