Futuristic Face-Off

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THE BOTTOM LINE: Some sharp social satire is almost undermined by excessive explosions and careless casting.

Of the many nightmarish futures that have been imagined for us on the screen, none is more hellish than the year 2032 as envisioned in Demolition Man. It posits the total triumph of every kind of correctness that is urged on us today -- political, dietary, linguistic. It is not merely that all of San Angeles (the Southern California metro area stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego and embracing Los Angeles) has been declared a no-smoking area. It is also legally salt free. And alcohol, red meat and sex free too. If you cuss in public, you are issued a ticket by all-hearing, omnipresent machines. If you need to find out something about the past, you look it up at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Presidential Library.

You can imagine how Sylvester Stallone's basic screen character would react to an environment like that. Perhaps the word violently springs to mind. And if you're up to here with '90s cant, there is a certain rude satisfaction in watching him blow it away -- along with a wide assortment of villains.

Villains? How did they get loose in this gun-free Utopia? Therein lies the simple tale Demolition Man has to tell. For all its sanctimoniousness, San Angeles is a fascist state. Its smooth-spoken leader, Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), is annoyed by a persistent band of rebels, living where such folk always do in fictions like this, in the city's underground passages. There they cook hamburgers (well, actually, they're ratburgers), swill beer and dream of cholesterol's restoration. To deal with the outlaws, Cocteau frees a killer named Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) from cryogenic prison (they took to deep-freezing criminals as early as 1996, during the last convulsive phase of urban warfare). To deal with him, his wimpy cops, not knowing Phoenix is in league with their boss, warm up his old nemesis John Spartan (Stallone), who's been doing chilly time for overly enthusiastic police work in the bad old days.

Soon enough the protagonists have acquired heavy weapons and are going at each other as people do in films produced by Joel Silver, he of the Die Hards and the Lethal Weapons -- i.e., frequently, spectacularly, preposterously. Stallone and Snipes both play this nonsense tongue-in-cheekily. Sandra Bullock has an attractive naivete as a scholarly policewoman who hangs out with Sly. But ultimately the script's often sharp social satire is drowned out by the noise and confusion. It is also undercut by casting virtually all the psychopathically murderous criminals as minority-group members. A little political correctness in that matter would have prevented this movie from playing right into the dismissive hands of the forces it most wants to criticize.