There are, of course, myriad streaming options new and old that you can choose to binge until you lose all sense of time over whatever collection of days you deem to be a “weekend.” But sometimes you want to lean into a theme. That’s what this is, a very specific list of thematically aligned options that you can easily knock out in a few hours. In this case, sci-fi action films from the ’90s. Or, even more specifically, a trio of these films that are perfectly enjoyable but also, maybe a little middle of the road? You won’t find Independence Day, 12 Monkeys, or The Fifth Element here. Instead, we’re breaking down films that feature tough-guy cops, amazing villains, and some questionable assumptions about the future as they saw it back then. So, give this not-too-serious look-back a read and then follow the prescription to stream all three (they’re all available to rent on Prime) of these mostly mindless thrill rides in short order.
What It Is: Sylvester Stallone is John Spartan, a top cop who can’t be stopped until… he’s lumped in with madman Simon Phoenix (played by Wesley Snipes) and accused of killing 20-30 people. Unbeknownst to all of us who lived through the ’90s, cryo-prisons are a hip new thing and so Stallone and Snipes’ characters are frozen as punishment. Cut to the year 2032 and Snipes breaks out, wreaking havoc on a sanitized and supposedly sophisticated Los Angeles before Stallone is defrosted to take him down.
I don’t know that I realized the conservative wet dream vibes of Demolition Man back in the day. A civil liberties trouncing tough guy cop swings into the future to restore law and order, disproving the tenets of a society built on an exaggerated and ineffective liberal utopia where language, violent behavior, and guns are thoroughly regulated. Check out this exchange:
Fancy Lady: What would you say if I called you a brutish fossil, symbolic of a decayed era gratefully forgotten?
John Spartan: I don’t know… thanks?
John Spartan is just trying to Make The Future Great Again. Also, Rob Schneider plays a weasely cop. In 1995’s Judge Dredd, he plays Stallone’s weasely sidekick. Were Rob Schnieder and Sly Stallone best friends? Are they still? I need to know.
What The Film Gets Right: The bankability of Sandra Bullock, for starters. Demolition Man was arguably Bullock’s first mainstream breakout, preceding Speed by a year and she’s great as a ’90s culture obsessed nerdy cop and willing disciple for Spartan.
In terms of things that the film gets right about tech and futurism, contactless sex is obviously a thing in various forms in 2020 that I will not catalog as this is a family website. Also, there are sci-fi gimmes like voice control, driverless cars, and H.G. Wellsian class divide.
Dennis Rodman’s hair! It’s entirely possible you forgot all about this movie until it got a mention in the Rodman-centric episode of The Last Dance for inspiring his first dalliance with self-expression through hairstyle. That’s definitely one for the win column.
What It Doesn’t: Besides the Rodman-Snipes haircut connection, the Three Seashells endures as the film’s biggest contribution to society, but it’s not like it rose up to replace toilet paper as a preferred ass wiping method in real life. Maybe if they hadn’t been so snotty about telling people how to use it. Regardless, in our current situation… beep bop boop boop. Not making that joke.
Turning convicts into “ice cubes” also isn’t a thing, but it’s interesting to ponder if that’s merely because the technology still only lives on the fringes of science, and not because of any kind of human rights concerns.
A future world without guns and aggressive police actions seems UNLIKELY. But not as unlikely as Denis Leary playing some kind of raggedy subterranean rebel leader… well, not a leader, he just does what he has to do, and sometimes people go with him.
Verdict: It’s maybe trying a little too hard to say something but it’s fun to see Stallone punch his way into and out of trouble and Snipes has so much fun as a cartoonish villain, rocking his Oshkosh B’Gosh psycho killer series overalls and throwing people into oversized fireplaces. Beyond that, it takes big swings imagining the future, giving it a slightly goofy feel that manages to still do it some favors all these years later.
What It Is: Denzel Washington is Parker Barnes, a top cop who can’t be stopped until… a political extremist blows up Barnes’ wife and daughter, throwing him into a rage-fueled massacre. His prison? Not an ice cube tray, but hard time in a penitentiary with field trips into a virtual world where he battles an amalgamation of some of history’s worst killers in the form of SID 6.7, who is played WITH VIGOR by Russell Crowe. And then it all becomes a bit Weird Science-y as SID takes humanoid form outside of his program, wreaking havoc on Los Angeles.
Denzel Washington is good, by the way. He’s always good. This is a bedrock truth. Crowe is… un-f*cking-tamed. Which was a gamble considering he was just establishing himself with US audiences at the time. This is like Pacino on PCP big. It’s the “GREAT ASS!!!” gif mixed with Max Headroom.
What The Film Gets Right: The magnetism of Crowe. He’d soon make his mark saying the loud things quiet while brooding, but while he is over the top here, you can’t look away. Especially at his eyes. Say what you will about moments like when he taunts an ultimate fighter to “lick it” while waving his severed stump in his face, but his eyes, throughout, portray a mix of zeal and vacancy. It’s captivating.
Also, we aren’t extracting fully functional, walking talking lifeforms from VR, but the ambition to create scaled to the max wholly immersive virtual worlds has come to fruition and 3D printers allow us to easily conjure things from our imaginations. Sadly, the lust for viral infamy also exists.
What The It Doesn’t: Nanotech that allows people to heal from nearly any wound by rebuilding body parts in seconds isn’t quite a reality.
The Verdict: This film plays to people’s fascination with the mysterious and seemingly pervasive internet of 1995 as well as the wild frontier of virtual reality. As such, it’s very 1995-y (even though it takes place in 1999) and it’s probably the most dated of the films on this list. But that’s all just window dressing for a fairly standard tale of revenge, justice, and chaos. It’s Ricochet with dial-up static, basically. Not bad, but come for the memorable performances, not the story.
What It Is: Jean-Claude Van Damme is Walker, a top cop who can’t be stopped until… actually, he can’t be stopped. His wife dies and he walks through life as a metaphorical zombie as a result, but despite cultivating a grief mullet, he’s still functional and not imprisoned, zipping back in time to stop rogue time travelers from screwing with the past to manipulate the future.
Ron Silver plays the bad guy, but he stands out against the pack here by being more slimy than psychotic. He just wants to make it easier for himself to win the presidency, making tweaks to give himself the bank to do that. At one point, he says, “the country is going down the drain because of special interests. We need someone in The White House who is so rich he doesn’t have to listen to anybody.” And then he shoots a guy and JCVD says, “maybe he’ll calm down after the election.”
Do you think?
What The Film Gets Right: It’s very cool how very traumatizing the experience of time travel is. They’re basically careening toward a wall and a Stargate looking thing with a questionable safety record, screaming and having their faces contorted while trying not to swallow their tongues. If time travel ever was a thing, it’s easy to imagine it being more like that then some cool car and flame trails.
JCVD being unf*ckwithable. Do a split, Jean-Claude Van Damme!
What It Doesn’t: Set in 2004, the cars of the future hurt my heart. They look like rejected Transformer prototypes.
The Verdict: Honestly, this film is pretty tight. I had a different memory of it, but for a dopey ’90s action sci-fi film, it seems to take the supposed rules of time travel rather seriously while concocting a story that feels grounded enough to feel interesting. Like, nevermind the fantasy, wouldn’t time travel lead to exactly these kinds of things? An underfunded branch of the government fighting with the bureaucracy and grubby thieves looking to use the world’s most amazing tool as a get rich quick scheme? Sure, the writing is a little lame and it’s got ’90s movie problems when it comes to the depth of virtually every character, but this stands up rather well as a popcorn film.
It also has a weirdly pop-heavy tie-in music video featuring JCVD deriving almost as much joy from simple button-pushing as I’m getting while telling you about this music video.