Three recent films go back to our baser instincts

November 01, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the movie theaters, when you thought the humane, the compassionate, the earnest American movie industry had committed itself to making movies that reflected the very best that we could be, the very most politically correct we could aspire to, along comes a batch of films right in a row that are as politically correct as .44 Magnums.

So you have to ask yourself: Do you feel lucky, punk?

In other words: Is it a trend or is it an accident?

Well, who knows? But taken as a mini-phenomenon, "Malice," "JudgmentNight" and "Demolition Man" are certainly endorsements of sentiments rarely expressed in publications this side of Guns & Ammo.

Their politics would be more provocative if they were better, of course. But alas, they are not. "Malice" is by far the best; its message is the boldest also, and many critics have run away from what the movie is saying. As for "Demolition Man," it's like a big stupid dog, or its star, Sylvester Stallone (is there a difference?): a bounding, oafish, sloppy thing, occasionally charming, occasionally amusing but usually merely irritating. By far the worst is "Judgment Night," which is as dishonest as it is cynical, and doesn't have the true guts to face its own dark meanings.

"Malice" is set at a woman's college in the Northeast, presumably a bastion of politically correct thinking. And its hero, when first we encounter him, is all the things we expect a male member of the genus homo politicus correctus. The dean of students -- Bill Pullman, he of the meek and friendly face, long given to roles as boyfriends or best friends -- wears his authority uncomfortably. He prefers not to rule at all but to "counsel." He leaks nurture. He beams thoughtfulness. He listens to the warm. We see a more ruthless student utterly confound him; we see, worse, that his wife really runs the marriage.

By one set of standards, he is the perfect man; by another, he is the perfectly feminized man, a weenie who has given up his masculinity and its prerogatives for "equality," which has merely earned him contempt. And in fact it is his very affability, his lack of machismo, that makes him a pawn in an elaborate insurance fraud scheme that is in turn engineered by a man who clearly has not given up his masculinity.

But fate, in the hand of Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, is about to intercede. It so happens that a serial rapist and murderer is stalking the campus and though the dean is briefly a suspect, no one can seriously think that such a wuss would be capable of violence. But one night he encounters the real criminal, is severely beaten and . . . fights back. Hey, he kicks the guy's butt.

The original text for "Malice" would appear to be Hemingway's long-forgotten safari short story, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," another politically incorrect text that I doubt gets taught anywhere anymore, that's how far down the memory hole it's gone. In Hemingway, pampered rich weenie-boy Francis finds his manhood by going on a buffalo hunt, knocking down a few of the bruisers with the old Holland & Holland .570 Nitro Express. His wife resents the new man and the change it portends in her life, and blows him away on the next day's lion hunt.

In "Malice," Pullman's physical triumph and valor lets the lion in him hunt. He is suddenly masculinized; his passivity vanishes and, after an hour of utter torpor, he gets on the case that has victimized him so vividly. Since he's not hunting a lion, he's hunting the only game available -- his wife, who happens to be the co-author of the conspiracy against him.

'Demolition Man'

"Demolition Man" also takes its inspiration from a previous literary incarnation, a fact it acknowledges by naming its heroine "A. Huxley." The text is Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," which watches as a "savage" is brought into a scientifically controlled "paradise" where each person is genetically bred for his station in life. Being neither an Alpha nor an Omega but a human being, he goes nuts and commits suicide.

The schlockmaster Joel Silver gives this moral parable an immoral edge: The savage (blond haired Wesley Snipes) is a sociopath, and he looks upon the Brave New World as a free lunch zone.

In a society of rabbit people where all violence and vigor have been engineered out of daily life, no one has the sand or the firepower to stand against him.

In despair, the authorities find the only man that can help them -- another 20th-century warrior, this one a cop. Unfortunately, it's Sylvester Stallone who, even when he's awake, seems cryogenically frozen in the ice.

The violence is largely generic and the movie's "satiric" impulses are somewhat randomly effective. I like the profanity police and the idea that Taco Bell is the only extant restaurant and that the police have essentially become social workers, but one can enjoy the notion of a society so pathologically into political correctness only so far.

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