Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis on home video
On the evidence of recent star vehicles such as Sly Stallone’s Demolition Man and Bruce Willis’ Striking Distance, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s summer flop, Last Action Hero, I think it’s fair to say that the action movie has entered its Rococo Phase. The genre is trapped in helplessly escalating spirals of bigger explosions, more ornate plotlines, and increasingly swollen macho. The stars rumble through the decadence like mastodons through a gaudy landfill, trumpeting louder and louder so as not to hear approaching extinction.
The baroque has its pleasures, though, and Demolition and Distance can entertain a restless video viewer through sheer gonzo overkill. Whether the excess is intentional is another question. Demolition Man detonates an entire city block in the first five minutes — talk about blowing your wad — then shunts uberhero Stallone (playing rock-‘em-sock-‘em LAPD cop John Spartan) and ubervillain Wesley Snipes (wearing a blond Kewpie fade as snarlin’ Simon Phoenix) into the year 2032, after an interim in cryogenic storage.
At which point Demolition Man turns into a two-headed monster, a witty Orwellian spoof and a brain-dead wrestling match. The move to home video only widens the gap. Visually, Demolition offers a shiny, sarcastic world of Big Brother interactivity — the ”wired universe” inhabited by quiche eaters. But look past the toys, and the movie’s one long, leather-lunged fight scene, shot with a muddy frenzy that may have jolted the senses in theaters but that transfers badly to tape. By the final showdown between Spartan and Phoenix, it’s clear that this is basically about two guys waving something at each other — and it ain’t a white flag. Maybe if they’d stop with the sublimating and just go to bed already.
At least Striking Distance has the courage of its own absurdities. The plot is a farrago of coincidence: not only is cop Tom Hardy (Willis) apparently related to the entire Pittsburgh police force, but the serial killer that’s terrorizing the city is part of his family too, and the victims are all plucked from Hardy’s endless legions of ex-girlfriends.
In its fashion, though, Distance is good, dumb fun. As with his previous junk classics, Jack’s Back and Road House, director and cowriter Rowdy Herrington piles on the twists with kinetic conviction. He’s less interested in cranking up the testosterone than in watching his Tinkertoy plots gallop into happy implausibility. And when Herrington does indulge in a hyperthyroid action set piece — as in a nifty car chase early on — he’s able to film it so that on a TV screen you can tell who’s doing what to whom. That’s more than Demolition Man’s director, Marco Brambilla, can manage in any of his numbingly endless fight scenes. Striking Distance is just slightly more than the work of a gifted hack: There’s a demented narrative craft here that keeps the contraption afloat. In that craft lives the fluttering pulse of the action genre. Demolition Man: C-; Striking Distance: C+