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“Demolition Man”: A Movie 28 Years Ahead of its Time

Guest Piece by America’s History Teacher, Larry Schweikart

Demolition Man World

Current events have many people dredging up George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.


But the current state of America—and much of the world, it seems—is closer to the (in retrospect) great 1993 movie Demolition Man starring Sylvester Stallone as the wrongly-accused Lieutenant John Spartan, condemned to frozen hybernation for collateral damage to civilians, and his nemesis Simon Phoenix (a blond-haired Wesley Snipes). A terrific supporting cast included Benjamin Bratt, Nigel Hawthorne, Bob Gunton, Dennis Leary, and Rob Schneider not to mention a smokin’ Sandra Bullock. Spartan, who captured Simon Phoenix in 1996, is thawed out when Phoenix escapes during a probation hearing. Snipes’ Phoenix is thoroughly brutal and ruthless, yet always with a dash of Joker-esque manic humor. Stallone’s John Spartan is also quite funny, mainly for what he doesn’t get about the 21st century (especially the use of three seashells for, er, cleaning onesself after a #2). Reiner’s character finds it hysterical: “He doesn’t know how to use the shells.”

Demolition Man, though, was oddly prescient. As both Phoenix and Spartan arrive 36 years after the Big Freeze, they find a world that is nearly perfect. There is so little crime that police are armed only with stun-wands and the public is so docile that simple commands—“Stop right there!”—actually elicit compliance. All grounds are beautifully manicured. People (in San Angeles—note that City of the Angles has now become the city of Saint Angels)) walk around in long robes and fine dining is at Taco Bell, which in the food consolidation Franchise Wars beat out all competitors. It takes no time for Simon Phoenix to realize that this new, de-testicled world, is ripe for plunder. He doesn’t hesitate to beat up officers, blow up one of their electric cars by dropping a stun-wand into the fuel-charger socket, and, yes, killing people, which triggers a “187.” This code is so antiquated that only the oldest sergeant can interpret it: “MurderDeathKill.” During his cryostasis, Phoenix picked up a host of new abilities, including advanced karate and other violent skills, making him more than a match for any half-dozen of the useless London Bobbies who seek to restrain him. Soon it dawns on Chief George Earle (Gunton) that he needs something his department doesn’t possess: a cop as ruthless as Phoenix. John Spartan is taken out of the deep freeze and reports for duty to the police station where he befriends Lenina Huxley (Bullock).

The new world in which he finds himself has ubiquitous devices to dispense fines for profanity (and, one suspects, other things such as spitting on the sidewalk or not using a turn signal . . . or wearing a mask). Riding with Huxley and patrolman Garcia (Bratt), Spartan is both bemused and disgusted that their idea of fun is singing along to radio commercials of the 1960s. When finally, after displaying his manly attributes to Huxley in defeating baddies, Spartan is invited to have sex, he is chagrined to find that all physical contact is verboten. (Even in celebrating, instead of high fives, Bullock and Reiner stop their hands inches apart and “wax on, wax off” in the air). Something that seemed innocently ridiculous in 1996 has now become a reality in China Virus America.

Demolition Man Society is a two-tiered structure. The Haves and the Have-nots. The Haves live above ground, dine at chez Taco Bell, dress well, are, of course, uber clean and socially proper. They are, appropriately, led by a scientist, Dr. Cocteau (Dr. Cock Toe?) who has a “trust the science” approach to everything. The Have-nots live underground. They are smelly, deplorable urban hill-billies who eat ratburgers, bathe infrequently, speak their minds, curse, and, yes, know all about weapons. Their leader, the appropriately-named Edgar Friendly (Dennis Leary) is the symbol of freedom in the film. As powerful as the Haves are, they dare not go to Friendly’s subterranean Deplorable dwellings, for even their military might isn’t sufficient there. (This, of course, doesn’t mention the fact that their military might is an emasculated, feminized army of transgender scientifically-approved fem-bots with stun-wands.)

Ultimately, only the brutal masculinity of John Spartan can defeat Phoenix. An appropriate chase scene with Phoenix in the Tesla-electric car and Spartan in an Olds 442 ensues as they both head to a final battle in the cryoprison. (It is fitting that the future of hell is not flames, but a frozen void . . . created by a planetary response to global warming?) Sparan defeats Phoenix by firing cryo-plasm at him, then knocking his frozen head off. In the end, Phoenix was not human, but prehistoric ice.

Before being detached from his head, it is revealed, Phoenix had in fact made an alliance with Dr. Cocteau, who has programmed Phoenix in such a way that he was prohibited from killing Cocteau. Phoenix evades this command by simply having his lackeys murder the good doctor. Even the pure and seemingly noble scientist, with the best intentions for humankind, needed the thuggish Phoenix to implement perfection. And the creation turned on the creator.

For all its predictable jokes and the sometimes over-the-top cackling by Snipes (who was still basking in the glow of his performance as Nino Brown in “New Jack City”), “Demolition Man” has proven a prescient vision of the future from 1996. Let’s hope a John Spartan and an Edgar Friendly can join forces in real life to spare us from Dr. Cocteau’s perfect world.


Larry Schweikart is the co-author, with Michael Allen, of the New York Times #1 bestseller A Patriot’s History of the United States, author of Reagan: The American President, and founder of the Wild World of History curriculum website that features full U.S. and World History


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