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2002-04-04

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Black delights in `Demolition Man'

BY JEFF DICKERSON
Daily Arts Editor
Published April 4, 2002

"I'm sorry to say that the world has turned into a pussy-whipped, Brady Bunch version of itself, run by a bunch of robed sissies."

- Simon Phoenix

The year is 2032. Arnold Schwarzenegger is President of the United States (somehow) and Taco Bell has taken over the fast food industry and become fine dining. Guns are ancient weapons, replaced with glow sticks, and the police have eradicated fatalities, or as they refer to them, "murder death kills." Sex is a no-contact sport, and fluid transfers are out of the question. This is the sad, sad world of "Demolition Man."

The 1993 futuristic action flick starring a post-"Rocky" Sylvester Stallone, a pre-"Blade" Wesley Snipes and a pre-"Speed" Sandra Bullock found its way into theaters amid heavy promotional tie-ins and advertising. It's a harrowing tale of revenge, cryogenics and bad one-liners. Movie goers were wooed by the then state-of-the-art special effects and the promise of a half-naked Stallone, and the film earned a strong $60 million at the box office.

John Spartan (Stallone) is an elite cop whose arch nemesis, Simon Phoenix (Snipes), serves as the bane of his existence. After a mishap involving the death of dozens of innocent people in a burning building, Spartan is frozen in a cryogenic prison along with Phoenix. Years later, it's Parole time for Phoenix. Scientists unfreeze the former serial killer and let him on the streets. Smart. As one might predict, Phoenix continues killing people and Spartan must be brought back to stop him, because the modern police force is not fit to handle violence. Upon his dramatic return, Spartan spouts, "Send a maniac to catch a maniac."

Phoenix's name is used for several not-so-clever lines including, "Simon says die" and "Simon says bleed." That is great screenwriting. "Demolition Man" is filled to the brim with bad dialogue, bad jokes and bad physical humor. Sandra Bullock's character Lenina Huxley (a reference to the classic novel "Brave New World") is primarily used as a source of humor with her butchery of '90s lingo.

While the main stars of the film are disappointing, the only joy in "Demolition Man" comes from the talented supporting cast. Comedian Dennis Leary play Edgar Friendly, a rebel who sounds remarkably similar to Leary doing stand up. Former MTV stud Dan Cortese has a brief but memorable role as the lounge singer type performer at Taco Bell. A pre-Julia Roberts Benjamin Bratt plays a naive police officer named Alfredo Garcia, a role that would be the training ground for his performance in Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film "Traffic."

The real star of "Demolition Man" is Jack Black, who brilliantly fills the role of Wasteland Scrap #2. While his screen time is minimal, his presence is overpowering. His performance is subtle, but well calculated. It may take heavy use of the pause button to even see Black on screen, but those few frames are the highlight of the film.

Maybe the problems with the film can be attributed to the casting. Lori Petty was originally slated to be Lenina Huxley, but she backed out a few days into the shoot to focus on other efforts. Stallone pressed producers to get martial arts legend Jackie Chan to play the role of Simon Phoenix, but Chan turned down the role because of his refusal to play villains.

Compared to other early '90s action flicks, "Demolition Man" doesn't hold up as well as "Passenger 57" or "Judge Dredd." Bad dialogue, over the top acting and sets that look like rejects from "Timecop" make the film fall flat, aside from the remarkable acting job courtesy of Jack Black. For Stallone fans looking for a more entertaining film, seek "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" or "Rocky V." "Demolition Man" is unworthy of repeated viewings, except for the hypnotic performance of Black.


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