Last Call

Sylvester Stallone's Best Sci-Fi Movie Is Smart Enough to Know Just How Stupid It Is

Grab some Taco Bell and settle in.

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Warner Bros.

You star Penn Badgley recently restarted one of our most tedious cultural discourses. He demanded that his wholesome show about a man who stalks and murders women be stripped of its sex scenes for the sake of his surely stable marriage. Badgley has every right to comment on his craft — and in isolation, his thoughts would be barely worthy of, ahem, gossip. But social media has developed a bit of a Puritan streak, as its dorkier users suggest that sex on film has no storytelling purpose and serves only as actor-exploiting gratuitousness.

If we wrote an article every time someone on Twitter said something inane, we’d have to chain ourselves to our desks and nourish ourselves with hamster bottles. But it’s not a new observation to note that, even as dweebs retire to their fainting couches at the sight of a rogue wiener, pop culture is demanding ever-increasing physical perfection from actors despite fewer characters being allowed to actually enjoy their Olympian bodies. Sex on screen can shock and confuse the Helen Lovejoys among us because it is getting rarer.

Anyone concerned about the immorality of sex on film would be right at home in the 2032 of Demolition Man. A gleefully moronic shot at the excesses of prudishness, it opens in the Los Angeles of 1996, which is such a violent dump that the Hollywood sign is perpetually on fire. Police officer John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone), the loosest of loose cannons, is trying to take down notorious criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes). But Phoenix frames him for the death of hostages, getting them both thrown in a “cryoprison” intended to subconsciously rehabilitate their frozen minds.

We then jump to the future, where Phoenix is thawed out for a parole hearing and finds himself implanted with knowledge he shouldn’t have. He promptly escapes and runs rampant through what is now the megacity of San Angeles, which has become an authoritarian utopia as envisioned by meddling milksops. There hasn’t been a murder since 2010 and guns can’t be found outside of museums. The cops who enforce anti-profanity laws are about as prepared to take down Phoenix as a kitten is to fight off a mountain lion. As they express horror and despair at Phoenix’s rampage, Officer Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), an aficionado of the “vulgar 20th century,” has an idea. You need a maniac to catch a maniac.

There are smart movies, and there are stupid movies, and then there is the rare movie smart enough to know just how stupid it is. Demolition Man, a movie where Sandra Bullock’s character is named in reference to Brave New World, even as her misunderstanding of old action catchphrases leads her to confidently declare “Let’s go blow this guy,” falls into the final category. It’s technically a sci-fi action movie, but the real fun comes from watching Bullock’s gee-whiz optimist clash with Stallone’s defrosted grumpasaurus.

Spartan and Phoenix grapple with their differences.

Warner Bros.

He has a lot to be grumpy about. This is a future where handshakes and high fives are considered too aggressive, Taco Bell is the only restaurant to survive the Franchise Wars, classic commercials have replaced actual music, and vices like smoking, alcohol, caffeine, swearing, and chocolate are banned. Everything John Spartan learns about the future confounds him further, to the point where going to the bathroom becomes an irritating misadventure.

As Spartan navigates meek new slang like “What seems to be your boggle?” and “A matter of tick-tocks,” Phoenix has a blast as the only Goofus in a society of Gallants. His secret benefactor has tasked him with assassinating Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary), the leader of a group of rebels who live underground and enjoy sinful hamburgers, but his maliciousness takes a meandering route. Phoenix is nasty but amusing, full of genuine glee at the hell he can raise. He rattles off gags amid his many murders, and maybe he’s not wrong when he notes that you can’t take away the right to be an asshole.

Spartan and Phoenix repeatedly clash in explosion-heavy duels that amount to Stallone growling “You’re on TV!” while whacking Snipes with an old television. Such one-liners are clunky, and the action never threatens to elevate itself above competent, but it all works because you want to keep hanging out in this ridiculous world. Here, even telephone booths offer self-affirming statements, and everyone’s aggressively optimistic therapy-speak feels like the kind of dialogue our more Pollyannish cultural commentators want to reduce movies to.

Demolition Man, however, isn’t quite a morality play.

And what ‘90s action movie would be complete without a sex scene? Huxley blithely comes on to Spartan while musing on the connection between violence and sex, and Stallone employs his full range of grunts and grimaces as a meathead whose excitement is reduced to bafflement as Huxley turns down the lights, cranks up the “Love Boat” theme, and slaps a headset on him. Sex is now a non-contact sport, and while Stallone sells the pleasure the helmet induces, he ultimately disgusts Bullock with his suggestion of doing it “the old-fashioned way.” Fluid transfer, we’re told, is so gross that it’s been outlawed. Imagine that.

Ironically, this is all just a different breed of conservatism than that expressed by Twitter’s Junior Anti-Sex League. Won’t the meddling government just get out of our way so we can drink and smoke and eat red meat like true men who die at 60? Friendly claims he’s no revolutionary, elevating the subtext to text with a big speech that begins, “I want high cholesterol!” But, as Stallone ends the film with a plea for the moral scolds and the sewer-dwelling hedonists to find some middle ground, you at least walk away with the sense that you’ve had fun. And Spartan and Huxley, who naturally decide to celebrate their victory the old-fashioned way, are mercifully allowed to have a little fun too.

Demolition Man is on HBO Max until April 30.

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