Demolition Man, by Albert W. Vogt III

My recent review of the original Blade trilogy got me thinking about Wesley Snipes, or at least slightly more than what I would normally, which is to say never.  Why is this the case?  During the 1990s, he was as big of an actor as there was going.  He did a number of successful movies other than the sometimes ridiculous vampire series that have already been covered by The Legionnaire, like White Men Can’t Jump (1992).  Apparently, Snipes became almost impossible to work with, and combined with his legal troubles, he was cast in increasingly fewer big time Hollywood productions.  When you look back at his career, I suppose the signs were there all along.  In this vein, I give you today’s film, Demolition Man (1993).

I am not sure why Demolition Man is called what it is, other than there are many explosions and some of them seem to be the result of the intervention of Sergeant John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone), the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) most infamous cop.  I blame it more on his antagonist, Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), the city’s most powerful gang leader.  Spartan has been called upon once again to deal with Phoenix’s terror, as the criminal has taken several hostages and is holed up in abandoned warehouse.  Spartan charges in, but when he comes face-to-face with Phoenix, the cop realizes it is a trap.  Phoenix had rigged the building with gasoline to explode, and ignites it just as they encounter one another.  In the resulting detonation, Spartan grabs Phoenix, making the arrest, but the rest of the structure is destroyed with the hostages inside.  As punishment, both are sentenced to a new prison where inmates are cryogenically frozen.  While they are under, their brains are subjected to behavior modification as part of their rehabilitation.  Fast forward to 2032 and the first of the two to be unfrozen is Phoenix, but he violently escapes from his parole hearing.  He then goes on to commit several crimes, which shock the denizens of the future city where such acts had been all but eliminated.  In response, the police department of newly merged cities of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego, now called San Angeles, awakens Spartan, the man who had once dealt with Phoenix.  It takes time for Spartan to adjust, mostly due to the fact that he learns that his wife had passed away in a major earthquake, and the whereabouts of his daughter are unknown.  He is also surprised by the number of vices he once took for granted that are now illegal.  To help him get up to speed with this new, modern world is Lieutenant Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock).  They become de facto partners, and soon they are called to a disturbance at a nearby museum housing weaponry that Phoenix has entered illegally.  Phoenix escapes after a brief battle with Spartan, loaded with plenty of guns.  On the way out, though, he has a chance encounter with the political and spiritual leader of this new society, Dr. Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne).  As Phoenix is wont to do, he attempts to murder Dr. Cocteau immediately, but finds that he is unable to do so.  Instead, Dr. Cocteau orders Phoenix to kill Edgard Friendly (Denis Leary), the leader of the literal underground resistance to Dr. Raymond’s brave new world.  This exchange happens just before Huxley and Spartan arrive, and they chase off Phoenix, believing they have rescued Dr. Cocteau.  Dr. Cocteau invites Spartan to dinner at Taco Bell, the only restaurant franchise still operating, as a way of saying thanks.  Still, the situation does not sit right with Spartan, and he and Huxley examine security footage of the incident.  They also look at the prison records, and discover that Dr. Cocteau had personally arranged for Phoenix to be given extra military training, while Spartan had been taught how to sew.  Meanwhile, the footage sends them into the areas below the city where the unwanted denizens, known as Scraps, are led by Friendly.  They save him from Phoenix’s assassination attempt, but Phoenix once more gets away.  Frustrated, Phoenix goes to see Dr. Cocteau about why he has to contend once again with Spartan.  Because he cannot kill the older man, he has one of his new gang members do it instead.  Phoenix’s next move is to go to the prison and begin thawing out other prisoners, all with the goal of creating an army of hardened thugs.  Once more, Huxley and Spartan rush to the scene, but Spartan knocks Huxley out in order to take on Phoenix alone.  There is the expected titanic clash between the two, the end result of which is Phoenix being cryogenically frozen once more, but this time having his head kicked off by Spartan.  There is also a great deal of property damage because, you know, Demolition Man.  In the aftermath, people of San Angeles and Scraps emerge, blinking confusedly at one another.  They look to Spartan for advice, and he basically says that these groups need to meet in the middle before kissing Huxley and riding off into the night.

Demolition Man is a big, dumb action movie, but it raises a number of interesting philosophical points.  Many of these have an intersection with the Catholic Church’s teachings, namely questions of incarceration, punishment, and rehabilitation.  On a non-ecclesiastical level, the purpose of putting people in jail is to rehabilitate them.  They are confined in order to demonstrate to them the error of their ways, and given instructions on how not to do them again if and when they are released.  The Church does not oppose such sentences.  Indeed, in Matthew 25 there is reference to people being in prison.  It also talks about the importance of visiting those held in such places.  The Church has traditionally looked as this as a welcome gift for inmates, as well as a corporal act of mercy for those who do the visiting.  However, when you are dealing with a jail where everyone in it is an inanimate chunk of ice, there is really no point in going to see such people.  This brings me to the philosophical side of this discussion.  Clearly, with the programming fed to Phoenix, he is not given what he needs to be a productive member of society.  The intent with what they did with Spartan is to pacify somebody they deem to be a violent man.  Yet, as soon as they both get out, they revert to what one might just call their nature.  Movies like this tend not to focus on character development, and what little they do seems to suggest that heroes and villains are who they are because they were born that way.  This is the part that is not in keeping with Church doctrine.  God creates everyone as inherently good, the source of which, being love, is what leads us closer to Him.  It is society that corrupts, and Dr. Cocteau is evidence of this fact.  His hope is to create a perfect world, which is impossible this side of Heaven.  Nor does that mean we should stop trying.  The problem in the film is that power seems to be wielded by one person, and that rarely works.  Any community, no matter their size, work best because they are a communal effort.

Demolition Man is rated R for good reason.  It is quite violent, though this also sometimes gets goofy.  Snipes leans into the villain a little too much, if you know what I mean?  There is also a really strange sex scene between Huxley and Spartan.  Apparently, in this future, actual physical fornication has been outlawed.  You might think super Catholic movie reviewer would be all for such a world, and if I did guess your thoughts, shame on you for being stereotypical!  Instead, those who want to “do it” wear these sort of virtual reality headbands that allow the partners to experience all the sensations of the act without needing to be in each other’s arms.  The main problem is that they attempt to show what this experience is like, so what really is the difference?  It is not a major part of the film, but it is there nonetheless.  In this case, if you have seen it before, it might be fun to see it again for nostalgia’s sake.  Otherwise, I would avoid it.


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