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If you ate in a Planet Hollywood restaurant at any point after 1993, you no doubt noticed a strange-looking prop hanging from the ceiling: a nearly nude mannequin of Sylvester Stallone contorted inside a clear plastic cylinder. According to the Demolition Man Blu-ray commentary track, Stallone not only insisted that the mannequins be anatomically correct (showing his “very strong masculine side,” according to producer Joel Silver), he apparently loved the sight of himself as a butt-naked pretzel so much, he had dozens of copies of that prop made and installed in the rafters of Planet Hollywoods all over the world. Because really, who doesn’t enjoy staring at Rambo’s taint while eating a plate of sizzling fajitas?
Before these Rocky popsicles began ruining appetites on a global scale, the original one appeared in Stallone’s 1993 action film Demolition Man, where they stood in for the actor when his character was cryogenically frozen as punishment for a crime he didn’t commit. In the minds of the public at large, Demolition Man is little more than a footnote in Stallone’s career, a movie remembered—when it’s remembered at all—as another in a long line of mediocre pictures Stallone made throughout the ’90s as he struggled to reconnect with audiences after the (temporarily) final Rambo and Rocky sequels. In fact, Demolition Man is a good deal more than that. Besides being a superb action movie and a clever satire of cop and science-fiction movies, it’s also a surprisingly autobiographical statement from Stallone about his life and career. And it’s all summed up by that image of Stallone encased in ice.
Stallone plays John Spartan, a rough-and-tumble ’90s Los Angeles police officer Rip Van Winkled into the year 2032 via a sentence in an experimental “Cryo-Prison.” After decades in forced cryogenic slumber, Spartan awakens in “San Angeles,” which has been radically reshaped as a brave new world in the wake of a cataclysmic earthquake. In San Angeles, everything that’s “bad” for you—sex, kissing, profanity, guns, red meat, salt, etc.—is illegal. The populace is polite, wimpy, and constantly monitored by subdermal microchips. Crime is nonexistent. That’s why the San Angeles Police Department needs Spartan (a.k.a. “The Demolition Man”) to help them recapture the man who framed him for murder back in the 20th century, psychopathic gangster Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), after he escapes from the Cryo-Prison and embarks on a “MurderDeathKill” spree.
As the story of two men from one era awakening in another where they’re severely out of place, Demolition Man was conceived as a movie about relics. Now it’s something of a relic itself, harkening back to a simpler, arguably better time in action-film history when directors favored clarity over freneticism. In 2012, Demolition Man looks dated in a pleasing, they-don’t-make-them-like-they-used-to sort of way. The special effects are decidedly analog, and the way the film frequently pauses between action beats to make room for character, romance, and philosophical questions about society also makes it clear that it belongs to a different filmmaking era.
The movie was one of only two mainstream directorial efforts by Marco Brambilla, a video artist by trade whose work has been shown at museums around the world. (His other commercial film was the Alicia Silverstone vehicle Excess Baggage.) Brambilla’s recent piece Evolution (Megaplex) just screened in the New Frontier gallery at the Sundance Film Festival; The Village Voice’s Sundance blog quoted him as saying it was a “comment on the idea of film having become such a spectacle.” He could have just as easily been describing Demolition Man, which is both a testosterone-drenched dudefest and a quietly sarcastic spoof of the sheer ridiculousness of testosterone-drenched dudefests. It opens with the staggeringly impressive, staggeringly idiotic image of a man bungee-jumping from a helicopter while firing a machine gun, and only gets more hilariously absurd from there. Most of the film is played straight, but nearly everything functions as parody hiding in plain sight. Take the scene where Spartan is taken out to dinner at an ultra-upscale Taco Bell as a thank-you from the grateful head of San Angeles, Dr. Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne). The product placement is so shameless, it also functions as its own joke about shameless product placement. (On a side note: In the future of Demolition Man, Taco Bell is the only restaurant in the world, having crushed its competition in something called “the franchise wars.” Truly, this is the face of dystopia.)
Spartan’s partner in 2032 is SAPD Officer Lenina Huxley (a pre-stardom Sandra Bullock, playing a character whose name contains two references to the dystopian science-fiction novel Brave New World). Huxley is bored by the uneventful life of a policewoman in a utopia, and excited by the prospect of teaming up with a legendary supercop like the Demolition Man. “What I wouldn’t give for some action!” Huxley moans on one beautiful, boring San Angeles morning. Cut to Phoenix at his Cryo-Prison parole hearing; he quickly obliges her request.
Huxley’s wish is nostalgia of a peculiar sort: a nostalgia for contemporary culture.
Demolition Man is set in a future consumed with its own past, which was actually the present as far as Demolition Man’s theatrical audiences were concerned. The only movies Huxley cares about, judging from the posters on her office walls, are Joel Silver movies, which is either another sly joke from Brambilla, or a staggering display of narcissism on the part of Demolition Man producer Joel Silver. Either way, Huxley voices the point of view of the action fan: Happiness is boring. Bring on the spectacle!
It seems a little strange for a 1993 movie to wax nostalgic about the very recent past, but Stallone himself had plenty to be nostalgic for in 1993, too. He was only 47, but he looked a lot closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He’d retired his most popular creation with Rocky V, which tanked at the box office in 1990. In the years between Rocky IV and V, he released one flop after another: Cobra, Over The Top, and Rambo III combined to gross less in the United States than Rocky IV did all by itself. Stallone was still an international superstar, and still in phenomenal physical shape—see exhibit A, dangling in Planet Hollywood—but cracks were beginning to show in that remarkably sinewy facade.
Beyond superficial cosmetic alterations, Stallone hadn’t changed. But audiences had. When Lock Up grossed just $22 million domestically, Stallone began to look like John Spartan: a man out of place in his own time. The words hurled at Spartan as he first enters the San Angeles Police Station—“fossil,” “caveman,” “savage”—were the sorts of words that were beginning to pop up in reviews of Stallone movies. Spartan’s quest to catch Phoenix and regain some respect for his old-school police tactics mirrors Stallone’s quest to regain some respect for his old-school filmmaking tactics.
Action fans circa 1993, like the residents of San Angeles circa 2032, were beginning to look for new, more relatable action heroes. In 1996—the same year in Demolition Man that Spartan gets arrested, convicted, and frozen out of society—Jackie Chan broke through at the American box office with his martial-arts-film import Rumble In The Bronx. By the beginning of the ’00s, Stallone’s movies were getting relegated to the direct-to-video ghetto, the Hollywood equivalent of cryogenic imprisonment. No wonder one of Spartan and Phoenix’s key battles was staged in a museum. More and more, Stallone himself was starting to look like an antique.
Stallone isn’t just fighting his career trajectory in Demolition Man, he’s also fighting his own age. That nagging feeling that he might be getting a little too old for this shit is the none-too-subtle subtext of many of Demolition Man’s scenes. One of the funniest lines played like a throwaway back in 1993 but sounds different now. After Spartan saves Dr. Cocteau from Phoenix, Huxley quips “Not bad for a 74-year-old,” as if it would be crazy for someone that old to do the things Stallone does. Stallone will be 66 when The Expendables 2 comes out this summer, and he’s still chugging away.
The theme of mortality cuts right to the heart of Demolition Man, and to the all-important image of Stallone inside the block of ice. In the continuity of Demolition Man, cryogenic imprisonment is portrayed as a fate worse than death: Spartan sleeps for decades, outlives his wife, loses his child, and winds up in a world he doesn’t understand. But in Sylvester Stallone’s mind, I suspect the idea of cryogenic imprisonment is a bit more complicated.
Though his career has rebounded remarkably in the last few years, Stallone’s age can’t be denied. Even if his stuntwork in something like The Expendables is impressive for a 66-year-old, there’s no way he can keep making this kind of movie forever. In recent years, he’s become a vocal advocate for anti-aging treatments like human growth hormone, which he’s used to help get in shape for his physically demanding roles. I wonder if a legendary fitness nut like Stallone thinks of the idea of freezing himself—and therefore preserving his remarkable physique against the ravages of age—as less of a nightmare and more a fantasy. Why else would he hang those things from the rafters of your restaurant?