For His 1993 Comeback, Sylvester Stallone Tried Something New: Acting Kinda Normal

Movies Features Sylvester Stallone
For His 1993 Comeback, Sylvester Stallone Tried Something New: Acting Kinda Normal

“Not many people get a second chance, John Spartan,” someone tells the lead character in Demolition Man, a tough-guy cop from 1996 unfrozen in 2032. This sentiment should already be lurking somewhere in the back of John Spartan’s made-up head, because he is played by Sylvester Stallone, an actor who has integrated underdog stories, victory laps and comebacks into the full-body workout of his career. Plenty of actors’ fortunes ebb and flow over the years, but Stallone rivals his paison (and one-time collaborator) John Travolta for the sheer number of comebacks he’s attempted, and often pulled off. 30 years ago, 1993 saw one of his biggest, as Stallone ascended from the zany-comedy hell of Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot to the peaks of Cliffhanger and, later that year, Demolition Man.

It wouldn’t be the last time Stallone would bring himself back from the brink. But it did arguably kick off his final run of maybe-kinda-sorta normal movies. By the standards of his then-recent comedies or dead-end ’80s sequels, Cliffhanger is a fastball straight down the middle, despite the considerable handicap of being co-written by Stallone himself. Perhaps not coincidentally, both this movie and Demolition Man feature a character who has been chastened (for attempted valor, of course, not a genuine moment of weakness), removed from his chosen field and eventually vindicated by his extra-mile heroism and refusal to quit. In Cliffhanger, this man is Gabe Walker (the nondescript name being the first clue that Stallone’s authorship on this thing may have been diluted), a ranger who, in the film’s sweaty-palmed opening sequence, attempts to rescue a couple stranded on a mountain peak. As it happens, this is Gabe’s best friend Hal (Michael Rooker) and Hal’s girlfriend Sarah (Michelle Joyner) – who falls to her death following a mishap that Gabe is unable to prevent.

Gabe gets an unexpected (by him, anyway) shot at redemption when he reluctantly assists on a distress call, which turns out to be a gang of thieves attempting to recover millions of dollars they’ve lost in the mountains. Chases, escapes, fights, gunfire and explosions ensue; rather than a stripped-down man-versus-nature thriller, this is very much in the vein of a Rambo sequel, if Rambo sequels weren’t, you know, mostly pretty bad, and if John Rambo didn’t have to overcome much in the way of psychological trauma. Gabe is supposed to be traumatized – the entire opening-sequence nightmare is premised on whether Stallone’s arms can perform superhuman feats as intended, and they fail – but after that opening, Stallone never really seems any worse than vaguely bummed out. Unsurprising, he seems most plugged into the character when he’s in immediate danger; really, his physical exertions are his character, which, again, falls in line with his lesser Rocky/Rambo work, and plenty of other movies.

It doesn’t exactly track that Stallone had been plugged into a ready-made summer blockbuster, because among its fellow summer-of-1993 hits, Cliffhanger is something of an outlier. It’s not exactly an adult thriller in the vein of The Fugitive, In the Line of Fire or even the less classy Rising Sun, and it’s not a special effects showcase on the level of Jurassic Park (few movies are, but still!). Stallone’s longtime rival Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t playing in the same arena this season, either; his Last Action Hero, released a month later, aimed for families, complete with a kid hero and a PG-13 rating. Appropriate to its release date, Cliffhanger is about halfway between the muscle-blasting Stallone of the ’80s and the coming disaster-movie trend of the second half of the ’90s (which Stallone tried out, to domestic indifference, with Daylight). For all of its impressive helicopter shots and death-defying feats (some realer-looking than others), a lot of the movie amounts to a generic sneering villain (John Lithgow, possibly impersonating James Mason) ordering machine-gun fire in the direction of a dogged action hero who just happens to be on some mountains. It’s the closest Stallone ever came to a Die Hard knockoff, from Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin no less, and he was probably the perfect secondhand action star to pull it off. Arnold had elevated expectations to include bigger, crazier spectacle, while Bruce Willis already had his actual Die Hard movies going. Stallone was past the point of being able to play unassuming in an action movie, and made a go of it anyway.

Oddly, Stallone’s role in Demolition Man is at once more tailored to his specific persona, and also easier to picture someone else inhabiting. John Spartan is a gung-ho cop in hot, throw-out-the-book pursuit of Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), a cartoonish psychopath with bleach-blonde hair and a penchant for unhinged wisecracks (also murder). Their face-off occurs in the kind of just-barely-futuristic Los Angeles often imagined by early-’90s filmmakers who apparently saw the city as just two or three years away from apocalyptic collapse. Somewhat confusingly, the 1993 movie sets up a dystopian 1996, where Spartan is put into decades-along “cryo-sleep” for the accidental deaths of Phoenix’s hostages, before jumping further ahead to a smiley, antiseptic 2032.

In 1993, this version of Los Angeles with gun-free cops, automated graffiti clean-up, and fines issued for swear words was taken as a clever goof on then-nascent “political correctness,” and its surprising contrast with L.A.’s hellhole rep. 30 years later, it plays a bit like a faux-libertarian’s unproduced screenplay titled something like Cuckworld, where all the snowflakes have frozen the world into paralysis, unable to cope when Pure Evil rears its ugly (and, somewhat discomfitingly, Black) head. At the same time, Demolition Man’s world isn’t pure white savior fantasy; those whom this Brave New World labels “dangerous,” dwelling underground and resisting the orderliness of new laws, are largely minorities, with many given the appearance of stereotypical homeless folks, allowing Demolition Man to also satirize the corporate-minded scrubbing of messier, more authentic living. (One of the film’s funniest asides: Following the “franchise wars,” peace was reached in the form of all restaurants becoming Taco Bell. Disney box office domination with the veneer of corporate charity by another name!)

The ideological muddiness makes the movie a little sharper and funnier than it looks at first. It’s also perfect for Stallone’s shruggy, self-consciously “old school” conservatism. For all of the reactionary impulses in his work, his persona isn’t typically fueled by hotheaded anger; more often, it’s anguish, albeit not always convincingly brought across. That’s the case in both of his 1993 efforts; Demolition Man has Spartan awkwardly, belatedly grieve a dead wife and missing daughter after he’s roused from cryo-sleep to help the future fight an escaped Phoenix; it’s as if he didn’t pay attention at his sentencing and only did the math of 40 years of stasis after the fact. With strange convenience, the family stuff is eventually dropped. (His now-adult daughter was apparently in the movie at some point, only to be excised.)

As with Cliffhanger, what’s unique and most interesting about Demolition Man is eventually sacrificed to a hail of gunfire, as Spartan and Phoenix hurtle toward a final confrontation. Before that might makes right, Stallone gets winkingly referred to as a “muscle-bound grotesque,” and of course his old-school meatheadedness is his true superpower in this politely neutered world. It’s the kind of reassertion of comforting action heroics that would, of course, become more commonplace (and more explicitly tied to age, not just attitude or ideology) with the old-man-vengeance echo-boom of the 2010s.

That’s about where Stallone himself would wind up after the mixed ’90s track record, with a bunch of failed studio movies enabled by his twin hits in 1993. He mounted several more comebacks, but they always had a meta-narrative dimension, whether reviving Rocky Balboa in, uh, Rocky Balboa (2006) and later Creed (2015), or John Rambo in Rambo (2008) and Rambo: Last Blood (2019); or creating ostensibly new character Barney Ross in the Expendables series, whose whole deal was to remind aging action fans of their familiar faves. While there are some post-2000 Stallone theatrical releases that don’t in some way trade on Rocky, Rambo or his other past triumphs (or drop him into someone else’s cinematic universe for a cameo), they don’t add up to much in the way of normal movies.

By comparison, that’s what Cliffhanger and Demolition Man are: Movies that could kinda-sorta blend into the 1993 multiplex. It’s not as if Stallone disappears into his roles, or fails to hold attention using his familiar go-to shtick (the male joshing, the blatant yet aw-shucks flirting, the temporary guilt over not pushing his muscular frame hard enough or far enough). It’s just that this is about as close as he got in the whole of the ’90s and ’00s to playing a regular (albeit still jacked-as-hell) guy, outside of his excellent work in the non-blockbuster Copland. That Oscar-era professional chastening may not have been the equivalent of watching a woman plunge to her death or assuming the responsibility for dozens of murders by your archenemy, but it seems to have brought about the same (and similarly temporary) effect. Another taste of success in 1993, and Stallone is back making The Specialist and Judge Dredd (which Demolition Man superficially resembles) and Assassins, turgidly squandering his goodwill again.

His ability to do this is kind of likable unto itself (though the movies made in the process are still mostly not). Cliffhanger and Demolition Man stand out in part because they’re relative anomalies in his work. We’re supposed to wish for more of these, whether in Stallone’s filmography or, now, in movie theaters generally: Sturdy, efficiently entertaining genre pictures with some big-budget panache. Too much of this, though, might dilute Stallone’s weird power. The character-actor path he never really pursued, sure – that’s something worth wishing for. More normal movies, well, I don’t know if he could stand it; hence his recent elbowing his way into a developing Cliffhanger sequel, presumably to turn Gabe Walker ever Stallonier and ruin (or at least complicate) some of that vintage goodwill. Even when he’s making more Cliffhangers, he’s a demolition man at heart.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

Share Tweet Submit Pin