Though not as irksome as “Last Action Hero,” “Demolition Man” is a similar kind of film: a noisy, soulless, self-conscious pastiche that mixes elements of sci-fi, action-adventure and romance, then pours on a layer of comedy replete with Hollywood in-jokes. With Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes toplined, and a woman in a major role, this incoherent concoction aims to appeal to all viewers but ultimately may fall short of satisfying any. Pic will enjoy a strong opening, but long-term prospects may be inhibited by lukewarm word of mouth.
The impressive pre-credits sequence, set in L.A. in 1996, gets right to business by contrasting LAPD Sgt. John Spartan (Stallone) with his nemesis, Simon Phoenix (Snipes). Nicknamed “Demolition Man,” Spartan is trying to save 30 hostages held by the psychopathic Phoenix in an armed compound. As a result of their fight, the whole area goes up in flames and Spartan is convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 70 years of “rehabilitation” as a frozen inmate of CryoPenitentiary.
Story then jumps to 2032, when Phoenix, who has also been imprisoned, is thawed out for a mandatory parole hearing and orchestrates an ingenious escape. He finds himself in San Angeles, a kinder and gentler L.A., now run as “a beacon of order.”
Most of the solid, absurdist jokes are situated in this subplot, which depicts L.A. as a clean, safe city where the police are ill-equipped to deal with violence and the worst offense is graffiti that defaces Ethical Plaza. In this “perfect” future, life is sterile and devoid of joy — people eat no meat, refrain from smoking and have no sex. Communication is mostly impersonal, via computers that have soothing voices, and there are severe penalties for using foul language. The place to spend a nice evening is Taco Bell, “the only restaurant that survived the franchise war.”
In this boring world, feisty, attractive cop Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) is desperate for some action. An expert on the past, she is convincedthat only the “barbarian savage” Spartan is a match for Phoenix and arranges to spring him from prison.
Some of their romantic exchanges are genuinely amusing, including virtual-reality sex and a scene in which Stallone, spoofing his macho image, knits her a sweater. Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau and Peter Lenkov’s uneven script also contains one nasty, somehow ironic quip alluding to “Schwarzenegger’s presidential library.”
Underlying it all is the usual nostalgic right-wing ideology that clings to the good ol’ days, when a kiss was a kiss, men were men, and strong old-fashioned avengers like Stallone could resolve all societal problems with physical force and heroic personality.
First-time helmer Marco Brambilla reveals his TV commercials background in both the positive and negative aspects of the film. The screen is flushed with blue lighting, the pacing is swift and there is a lot of montage and fast cutting. However, most of the action set pieces are poorly staged: Keeping the camera too close to the fights and chases allows viewers no sense of space or where the antagonists stand in relation to each other.
Snipes, who has proven his versatility over the last three years, is too gifted to be playing such a one-dimensional villain. Yet sporting short blond hair and given one blue and one green eye, he brings his customary vibrant energy to the schematic role.
As for Stallone, he is not as embarrassing in delivering his comic lines as he has been in some previous outings. But as “Cliffhanger” recently demonstrated , the less Stallone talks the more effective he is as an action hero.
Ultimately, the real star is neither Stallone nor Snipes, but the high-tech, metallic look created by production designer David L. Snyder and his accomplished team. The new film is a veritable compilation of such landmark sci-fiers as “Aliens,””Star Trek” and “Blade Runner,” and also seems inspired by the imagery — and some ideas — of Fritz Lang’s expressionist masterpiece, “Metropolis.”
In terms of its humor, “Demolition Man” works better as a comic-book adventure than did “Last Action Hero,” but the witty lines become progressively scarce as the story moves along. If the design and look of the film (aptly lensed by Alex Thomson) is always fun to watch, what’s badly missing is a guiding intelligence to lift this disjointed pic from its derivative status.