Don't mess aound with the Demolition Man

I assume it will be relatively uncontroversial when I say that Demolition Man is the greatest movie ever made. Oh, sure, there will be some Bordwells and Eberts and other buffoons piping up from the back of the class, concealing their yells of “Citizen Kane!” and “The Godfather!” with faux coughs, and maybe even some turtlenecked europhiles in sharp black glasses and shapeless brown pants sniffing “Rules of the Game” or “8 ½.” But these people are easily dealt with. How, you ask? How do we know that Demolition Man is the greatest movie ever made? I'll show you, in 48 seconds or less.

That's how we know, motherfucker.

It's a scruffy puppy of a movie, automatically and by definition more adorable – more worthy of adoration – than any of a thousand born and bred showdogs with million dollar pedigrees. Film school be damned; I just want to love you.

It's the movie that singlehandedly makes Brave New World a good book. In class the other day, I was trying to defend the aesthetic merit of Brave New World, but ended up coming clean that my enthusiasm for the book is mostly predicated on a love of Demolition Man. But since basically nobody in the class had seen Demolition Man, and since those who had seen it dismissed it out of hand, it sort of fell flat. I rhapsodized for a minute on the joys and pleasures of Wesley Snipes with a platinum-blonde hightop fade. Then somebody said, “I'd hate for you to pick the movies I had to watch.” Fortunately I was wearing a Spielberg Hook shirt at the time, and I was able to deflect with, “yeah, well, I'm wearing a Hook shirt.”

Now, I actually think Hook is a pretty fucking badass movie, but I had to let it go. It turns out, enthusiasm and disdain make worse bedfellows than Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon with an industrial tub of tractor grease and matching gag balls. Sure, I got sniped at for thinking the movies I like are bad movies, and sure, that could make me furious.

But goddamn it, my enthusiasm for Demolition Man will not be tainted by rage!

So, you may be thinking, Ye Great Unwashed Uninitiated, aside from this abstract word-sculpture about the Greatness of the film, what are its particular virtues. I refer you, in the first case, to Wesley Snipes's aforementioned platinum blonde hightop fade.

Snipes plays his sinister comic genius thing to the hilt, never deigning to ham it up, even when he's hamming it up. Even when he's unfreezing a load of “cryo-cons” and he yells, “Jefferey Dahmer?! I love this guy!” In this future – the alternate future of Demolition Man – Jefferey Dahmer was cryogenically frozen to undergo behavioral modification and rehabilitation. Which, it could be argued, is a step up in the romance department from being beaten to death, in prison, with a mop handle.

With the right scripts – and far be it from me to suggest that Demolition Man was not one of the right scripts – Snipes could have been gigantic. A fat flaming supernova of stardom. Instead, he's in prison for tax evasion and financing a black militant separatist group / kung fu retreat. Nice going, Wesley Snipes's agent. May the Lord bless him and keep him from being beaten to death with a mop handle.

At one point, Snipes lifts a futuristic manhole to the futuristic sewer and ejaculates: “Oooooh, shit! I love that smell. Reminds me of biscuits and gravy.” Talk about the right script. The future-sewer reminds Simon Phoenix of soul-food.

But if you need more – oh, there's plenty more. Take, for instance, the mid-90s dream team cast.

Courtney Cox's inept underling from Ace Ventura, Roger Pedacter, plays an inept cop who greets Stallone by saying, “I formally convey my presence!”

The warden from The Shawshank Redemption, rocking an immaculately shorn and ice-shiny dome, plays the inept police commissioner. Sample dialog: “Caveman! Let's finish with all the Rip Van Winkle!”

A pre-insufferable Rob Schneider -- if there ever was such a thing -- in his first teaming with Stallone (Judge Dredd anyone?), plays an inept cop. “We're police officers! We're not trained to handle this kind of violence!”

Benjamin Bratt plays an inept cop who becomes an inept bandito. Quoth Stallone: “a bump on the head and you think you're Pancho Villa?”
Bratt: “Who?”

("Hi, I'm Benjamin Bratt, and I'm not that famous, somehow.")

A pre-"I'll do the voice-over for a thousand commercials for products I would have told you I'd kill myself before endorsing a decade and a half ago" Dennis Leary plays Edgar Friendly, the leader of the resistance movement.

And he clearly writes his own dialog. It's weird, and it's fantastic, and it's fantastical. It would be like... like, if Shakespeare was working on a play, and he wrote a part for Emily Dickinson, and then let her write her own soliloquy, that's what it's like.

[Enter Emilia]
Bornitholio: But soft! Hark Emilia anon! What news from the Duke?
Emilia: It is a balmy ray of weight –
That circumscribes the spider door
And falls – sirroco'd – in a chain
That – not – is slanted paramour
Bornitholio: Whaaaaaa?!

Leary delivers a rant that, while being perfectly and representatively Dennis Leary-esque, also sums up every criticism I have of Kant's moral philosophy. And I'm not even joking. This movie's that good.

Edgar Friendly: You see, according to Cocteau's plan I'm the enemy, cuz I like to think; I like to read. I'm into freedom of speech, and freedom of choice. I'm the kind of guy likes to sit in a greasy spoon and wonder, "Gee, should I have the T-bone steak or the jumbo rack of barbecued ribs with the side order of gravy fries?" I want high cholesterol. I wanna eat bacon and butter and buckets of cheese, okay? I want to smoke a Cuban cigar the size of Cincinnati in the non-smoking section. I want to run through the streets naked with green Jell-o all over my body reading Playboy magazine. Why? Because I suddenly might feel the need to, okay, pal? I've seen the future. Do you know what it is? It's a 47-year-old virgin sitting around in his beige pajamas, drinking a banana-broccoli shake, singing "I'm an Oscar Meyer Wiener."


Shortly before this, this magical movie moment, Stallone buys a rat burger in the underworld from a monobrowed Mexican vagabond. A RAT BURGER!

Stallone: “Que es este carne?”

Monobrowed Mexican vagabond: “Este carne es de rata!”

Stallone: “Rat? This is a rat burger? Not bad! Matter of fact, it's the best burger I've had in years. Prego... see you later.”

He chokes down the last bite of rat burger brilliantly.

But that's all topical triviality. You want message? Demolition Man has message. It's a Message Movie. It's actually a perfectly orchestrated allegory of the Dionysian vs. the Apollonian, and the impossibility of mediating between order and chaos. It's rife with aporia and undecideability. But you know what the upshot is? A little bit of Bacchus isn't such a bad thing.

Stallone: “This isn't the wild west – the wild west wasn't even the wild west! Hurting people's not a good thing... well, sometimes it is... but not when it's a bunch of people looking for something to eat!”

It turns out, according to this movie, you're supposed to have sex! You're supposed to blow shit up! But you're also supposed to honor thy neighbor and give peace a chance! This movie's fucking awesome!!!

When you finish the movie, and the lights fade, and the credits roll, and you're sitting there bathed in and beaming with a positively orgiastic afterglow, you think there are no treats left in this Halloween bucket. But then, a racket kicks up. Not just any racket. It's Sting. Sting from the Police! Performing a song called “Demolition Man,” complete with lots of falsetto gospel wailing! A little deep searching in the credits reveals that Sting released an ep called Demolition Man.

Are you fucking serious?! Sting!! “Demolition Man” by Sting!!!

Right now I bet you don't believe me. I bet you think I'm making shit up about Demolition Man, because you buy that it's great, but there's no way it's that great. But you're wrong, sucka!!!

What a fucking great song! What a fucking great Sting! How do you not have tantric sex with that guy? Plucking his bass with his thumb, trying to look all tough... just adorable.

I first saw Demolition Man in the theater, on a road trip with my mom, as a nine year old. We were on our way to WWF Summer Slam in Detroit. It was the epochal Summer Slam in which Lex Lugar body slammed the formidably hefty Yokozuna to assert, in symbolic terms, America's socioeconomic and cultural dominance over Japan. After he did it, red white and blue balloons fell from the rafters and everyone chanted “USA! USA!” as large groups of congregated rednecks are wont to do when sweaty men in skin-tights hug each other sweatily. Sadly, I didn't see any of this, because my mom was falling asleep, and badly wanted to beat the traffic before the main event. I had to read about it the next month in the WWF Magazine.

(I was THERE! Right before this...)

It seemed, at the time, like a lost opportunity. Like THE lost opportunity. But what I lost that day, I more than gained. It was like losing your penis and finding the lord. Like dropping a slice of pizza cheese-down in New Jersey, bending to pick it up, and suddenly finding $20 in anywhere other than New Jersey. Like drinking poison Kool-Aid only to be taken by space aliens to another, wonderful world.

I kept coming back to Demolition Man.

I bought the novel. Not, you understand, the novel upon which the film is based. The novel which is based on the film. There's a gag in the movie – the three seashells. There's no toilet paper in the future. Instead, on the shelf where they're supposed to have the toilet paper, they got these three seashells. Stallone can't figure out how to use the three seashells. Rob Schneider mocks him -- “he doesn't know how to use the three seashells! Heheheheheh!” The last line of the movie is, “How's that damn three seashells thing work?”

This was, in the immortal words of Michael Cera, an awesome mind puzzle for me as a child. How does the damn three seashells thing work? I think I am, in some respects and for all my skepticism, hopelessly na├»ve. Now I understand that the three seashells thing probably does not work. It is merely there to sucker rubes like myself. And I can accept that, the same what that I accept that there is probably not something called The Force, which is stronger in some than in others. But the book, Demolition Man: The Novel? The book is even more infuriating. After John Spartan has kicked Simon Phoenix's cryogenically frozen head off (“Heads up!” which is a genius callback to a line from the first scene in the movie – Phoenix: “I swear I'd lose my head if it wasn't attached.” Spartan: “I'll keep that in mind.” Then Phoenix flicks a cigarette into some gas and all this C4 blows up, and I'm like, dude, C4 only blows up when an electrical charge passes through it and fire is not electrical, and why is all this C4 in motherfucking barrels? Who has barrels of C4?​​), and everything is in chaos, Spartan is walking away with Lenina Huxley. And, like in the movie, he asks how the damn three seashells thing works. But this time, the novel tells us, she leans in and whispers in his ear. She WHISPERS in his EAR, says the omniscient narrator, and we are not told what she says. And he says, “Well, I'll be damned.”

I was so pissed.

I still get a little riled up when I think about it. Suffice it to say, I only read Demolition Man the book once. Which was for the best, because when it came out on VHS, it was mine – the same copy I own to this very day. It's one of those nebulous VHS tapes. I have no idea how I got it, where it came from, if I stole it, if it was bought for me, if I bought it with paper route money. No idea. All I know is, that for as long as I can properly remember anything like an itemized list of my possessions, this copy of Demolition Man has been my constant companion. (And lord willing, will be for many years hence.)

In high school, an entire summer went by wherein I watched at least part of Demolition Man every day. First Leno, then Conan, then Carson Daley, then an hour cop drama the specs of which I've totally forgotten, then The Hughleys, then an hour of Bernie Mac. Good TV trailed off at about 4:30 a.m. Then, every morning, without fail, I'd pop in Demolition Man and drift off to the most beautiful, beatific sleep you can imagine. This is undoubtedly why – or at least part of why, though it might not be crazy to go the whole way – I am the well-rounded, fully functional member of society you behold today.

The genius of the movie is that at no point can you tell whom the joke is on. It fulfills every requirement of the Great Terrible Movie. The strange thing about it – and the truly, unprecedentedly great thing – is that, I'm pretty sure it knows it. Normally, that's grounds for immediate dismissal from the Great Terrible Movie sweepstakes. You can't try to make a bad movie, and make a bad movie, and have it be a good movie. The reason Breakin', or Bloodsport, or Mighty Ducks is so great is, you get a pretty solid sense that the people making the movie were absolutely sure that they were on to something. Any bad movie that underachieves is just a bad movie. It takes talent, to paraphrase Ebert, to make a titanically bad film.

But just as sure I am that Demolition Man knows it's a terrible movie... I'm pretty sure it thinks it's pretty great. It resides in the same anti-genre of affection-parody as Hot Fuzz, but is, at the end of the day, vastly superior, for all Hot Fuzz's greatness. Because Hot Fuzz is knowing. Demolition man isn't even thinking. It's the filmic equivalent to getting hit in that spot in your knee that makes your leg kick, and having your leg kick, where Hot Fuzz is getting hit in that spot in your knee, realizing your leg hasn't kicked, and then kicking your leg because your leg hasn't kicked. I appeal directly to the court: which evinces a healthier nervous system?

Plus, it's got one of the Top 5 weirdest sex scenes in movie history, wherein Stallone proposes to have “Bony... the wild mambo... the hunka-chunka...” with Sandra Bullock. “Fluid transfer?!” she squeals.

Fucking Demolition Man rules.


nickbujak said...


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Anonymous said...

I thought for sure you would have uncovered the mystery of the three seashells somewhere in your research.

With that being said, I want to add one more thought about those fucking seashells- Most movies about the future explore the future of cars and fashion and speech and gadgetry. Demolition Man not only explored the future technique of asswiping, but did it in a way that caused a generation of kids to toil over it for years. I didn't even know that brilliance like that existed.

D said...

boatfish: Mark C. Taylor has this line that's always stuck with me. "What has Hegel failed to think? What is his system constructed not to think?" But I don't care about Hegel or theology. I care about asswiping. And you raise an excellent point -- our entire society is constructed on the premise that we not ask these questions, for if we do, we will only be stifled and left to fume about our own ineptness. Our generation, like Hegel, must know what cannot be known. For him, it was God; for us, it's something even more mysterious. Many men strive to fill the God-shaped hole -- we, on the other hand, strive to find the hole shaped like the three seashells.

Also: Nick, I was specifically thinking about how that line would piss you off when I wrote it, tittering like a schoolgirl.

CircleGetSquare said...

...and then i found $20 in new jersey..

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