The Franchise You Didn’t Know Existed, Part I

In 1993 Sylvester Stallone, hot off the success of the years 1995-2009 having not happened yet, made a movie about a near-present-day LAPD detective cryogenically frozen and subsequently thawed thirty years later.  That movie was Demolition Man, and it was a decent action movie.  Two years later, Stallone made another bold cinematic prediction about the future of law enforcement, a movie – nay, film – eponymously based on the comic book series Judge Dredd.  Despite their ostensible similarities – future cop, there’s a conspiracy to solve, diplomacy as a backup option for most confrontations – the movies have very different tones and themes.  Despite this, I have recently come to the conclusion that Judge Dredd and Demolition Man are actually, together, a complete work.  By the end of this journey, so will you.

Demolition Man opens in what citizens of 1992 Los Angeles thought 1996 Los Angeles was going to look like thanks to all the angry minorities who broke stuff over the Rodney King verdict.  Things have gotten so bad that the Hollywood sign is on fire, presumably non-stop.  “This well-known landmark is burning” is ’90s movie shorthand for “things are going really badly right now.”  Its use in popular film culminated in the 1996 masterpiece Independence Day, which ended its first act by systematically destroying every recognizable monument in the United States.  Michael Bay dragged it back out of the closet for 1998’s Armageddon, which didn’t even have the dignity of being the only apocalyptic asteriod movie released that summer, probably because Michael Bay wouldn’t know creativity if it took on the form of Megan Fox and blew him at an after-party.

The only reason anyone ever travels by plane or car in an action movie is so that either can crash, so Stallone’s character John Spartan (henceforth known as “Stallone” because, well, let’s be real here) flies into downtown Riotsville on a helicopter.  There is a building half on fire that’s apparently full of criminals, so Stallone bungee jumps – don’t go back, I’ll just say it again, he bungee jumps out of the helicopter, and starts blasting his way through what must have been a decently-sized middle school before things went wrong.  His nemesis Simon Phoenix, who is exactly what Dennis Rodman would have turned into if basketball wasn’t there to keep him off the streets, is there holding a bunch of people hostage in a bus or something.

Stallone’s nickname is “the Demolition Man,” which makes a lot of sense because he essentially conducts himself as if he is the protagonist of a first-person shooter.  This shows stunning foresight on the part of the filmmakers, since seminal first-person shooter Doom was not released until two months after this movie.  So Stallone makes his way from checkpoint to checkpoint, until the boss fight with Phoenix ends in a failed quick-time event that leaves all the hostages dead.  Apparently the LAPD frowns on the use of force when it ends with all of the hostages dead, so both Stallone and Phoenix get sent to cryo-prison, where your body gets frozen and a computer rehabilitates you until a parole board decides it’s time to un-freeze you and send you on your merry, compliant way into a strange future you cannot possibly understand.

California being California, Phoenix eventually gets paroled.  Los Angeles has changed so much in the intervening decades that the “Los” has been replaced with “San.”  San Angeles is a utopian paradise where everyone speaks positively, nothing is ever dirty, and nobody eats or does anything the least bit unhealthy.  Phoenix, of course, immediately starts murdering people and the police are in no way equipped to deal with that, so they un-freeze the Demolition Man and send him after him.  This is kind of like releasing genetically-enhanced super-strong ants on your farm to eat all the termites, but these people probably haven’t dealt with a long-term problem in a while so it’s understandable.

It turns out Phoenix didn’t get paroled because he had paid his debt to society, but rather because San Angeles’s dictator wants him to murder the leader of an underground resistance, Denis Leary playing himself.  If I was in charge of Future Angeles and I wanted someone to be gotten rid of I would just call in someone from Nevada, or worst-case fly in a Yakuza, but I guess this guy would rather buy local.  Good for him.  Once we meet Denis Leary and put together that the man in charge wants him dead and is only using Evil Dennis Rodman as an unwitting henchman, it becomes clear that the movie is actually about competing ideologies.

On one hand we have the 90’s liberal utopia, represented by the sitting government of San Angeles – it’s clean, everyone peer-pressures everyone else into being nice, nobody eats meat, and we’ve finally found a decent replacement for toilet paper.  It is clear that the audience is meant to hate this “political correctness” run amok.  There is even a subtle slippery-slope argument made by the filmmakers against family planning when a character mentions that getting pregnant “without a license” is illegal.

Opposing this supposed utopia are the nominal libertarians living underground.  They dress like characters from Mad Max, they eat meat, one of them has a muscle car lying around, and there aren’t any machines that issue you a fine for swearing aloud.  Obviously these characters are meant to be seen as the non-douchebags of the film, being the party that has not resurrected a frozen mass murderer for their own ends.  Since this movie is meant to be a crowd-pleaser and existentialism isn’t a common theme of Stallone’s oeuvre, the libertarians win.  The liberals are vanquished and the meat-eaters are free to deliver their message of unhealthy pleasure and internal combustion engines to the masses.  Roll credits.

Society will be better off now that the pure-seeming but wicked liberals are gone and the unrefined but pure-hearted libertarians are running things, right?

Part II, the thrilling conclusion!

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