Escape Plan

escape planTwo action heavyweights compete to speak the most intelligibly attempt to escape the ultimate high-security prison in Escape Plan, another 1990s-like relic action picture popping up in 2013.  The film pairs Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as co-leads, and unfortunately, the teaming feels less exciting than it should, partly because the stars have shared a frame before in both cheeseball Expendables movies, and also because the prison thriller fails to drive outside of its outdated B-movie parameters.  Somehow, though, the buddy-flick still passes as mindless nostalgic entertainment.

If you think you’re getting an updated version of these two icons in a more modern movie, think again.  Escape Plan is just about as silly as The Expendables entries or any of the action films the stars participated in during the 1980s.  Stallone plays a prison-escape expert, Ray Breslin, who takes a job essentially off the books, under the radar, and behind the veil.  He agrees to be planted in a secret prison facility that his regular outside team members (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson and Amy Ryan) can not know about.  Ray is abducted in a van, drugged, and awakens in a glass cell. Once introduced to the serpent warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), Ray realizes he literally can’t escape this prison, as someone set him up to ‘be buried here.’  Ray doesn’t know why, and only with the help of a new trusted inmate, Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), might Ray be able to find a way out for them both.

ArnoldEscapeThe premise of the film, while silly and always rather nonsensical, deserves better execution, as do Stallone and Schwarzenegger.  Director Mikael Håfström adds very little flavor or interest to liven up what turns out to be an occasionally violent straightforward drama.  The action comes in marginal doses and Håfström has no idea what do with these two men or how to film a scene in truly exciting fashion.  The script also needed to smarter as it fails to fully delve into the idea of high-tech prison know-how.  Stallone’s character attempts seemingly simple, logical methods of escape, but the film never allows the character to pull off an imaginative trick in order to advance his evasion.

At the very least, the film should have been rewritten to better accommodate Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s personalities.  Rarely even does the dialogue poke fun at the aging stars (outside of a few token cheesy one-liners), nor do the filmmakers ever take any of the scenes particularly seriously by ratcheting up the intensity levels.  Instead, Sly and Arnold carry the entire movie on their backs, and the hope is that their mere presence is enough to make Escape Plan enjoyable.

Escape Plan 10Luckily, Arnold and Sly are pros in this sort of game and they seem to be enjoying each other’s company  even when the actual ‘escape plan’ and intelligence of Stallone’s character rarely give the film any depth or believability.  The plan is never actually all that exciting in and of itself.  Instead the confrontations set up by the two lead characters keep us watching and holding out.  Stallone is far more watchable here than he has been in his recent efforts.  Schwarzenegger adds a refreshing air to the movie as he hams up nearly every scene he can.

The excitement builds quite a bit more toward the climax which gives us fans a taste of the blow-em-up action the stars typically warrant.  It’s not enough to earn action-classic status, and Escape Plan certainly never lives up to its potential, but there’s just enough from Stallone and Schwarzenegger to enjoy it purely as a mild guilty pleasure that manages to escape callow direction and a lacking script.  If you’re a fan of these two icons, then you should at least enjoy it.  If not, there is admittedly little to love here.

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The Expendables

Fans of 80’s classics Cobra, Commando, Rambo II, Above the Law, Bloodsport, and Missing in Action should be rejoicing over Sylvester Stallone’s pool of testosterone in The Expendables, his attempt at delivering the highest-caliber shoot-em-up/martial arts/men-on-a-mission thrill ride featuring a discounted menu of Senior action icons.  Why is it that perhaps the most promising film concept of the season turns out to be such a dud?

The answer: Sylvester Stallone, the writer/director.

I’ll give the man some credit as the lead star—at age 64, he’s bringing it, botox and all.  Ripped to shreds, and pumped up with steroids (there just can’t be any other way), Stallone returns to cinemas as Barney Ross, leader of a mercenary squad hired by Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) to take out a former CIA operative, Munroe (Eric Roberts) and his drug-trading South American general Garza (David Zayas).  Stallone wants a payment of $5 million for his team which includes a list of hand-me-down single-trait killers.

Among the line-up we have Jason Statham as Lee Christmas, a blade-wielding expert, believing wholeheartedly that knives travel faster than bullets.  Jet Li plays martial-artist Ying Yang, but his sole trait is that he’s made fun of for his height.  Why don’t they call him Short-Round?  UFC fighter Randy Couture really has no traits except for awkwardly explaining his cauliflower ear.  Terry Crews is only memorable for toting an AA-12 shotgun (much like Jesse Ventura being memorable for sporting a Gatling gun in Predator).  Finally, Dolph Lundgren plays Gunner, messed up on drugs and a thirst for blood, an uncontrollable rage that gets him tossed to the curb and wanting to exact revenge.

After Ross accepts the mission from Mr. Church, he and Christmas head out to their South American location to scope out their targets and who all is involved.  The two end up launching an attack on the entire base after nearly being captured along with their informant, Sandra (Giselle Itie), the daughter of Gen. Garza.  Upon the boys’ escape, Sandra refuses to leave and gets captured by her father’s army.  Ross returns to listen to the team’s mechanic, Tool (Mickey Rourke), tell a Vietnam story about a woman he failed to save that has haunted him ever since.  That story apparently shakes up Ross clogging his brain with guilt and remorse, and he decides to return to the island and rescue the woman, but his men refuse to let him go alone.  Meanwhile, former teammate Gunner has given up his old team to Munroe and has plans to stop the ‘expendables’ from succeeding.

The Expendables has only one good scene—where Rourke pours his heart out over his Vietnam regret.  As potentially forced as Stallone’s dramatic change of heart may be following Rourke’s speal, the scene still plays out very well, and it’s the only real ‘acting’ moment in the entire movie.  I know some will be questioning about the obligatory scene featuring Schwarzenegger and Willis hamming it up with Stallone.  Well, as much fun as the scene should be, it isn’t.  It’s forced.  It’s awkward.  It’s poorly written, if scripted at all—much like the rest of the film.  Schwarzenegger plays a competing mercenary leader that used to work with Stallone, but they went their separate ways.  He tells Willis, “Give this job to my friend, he loves playing in the jungle.”  Bruce says of Arnold, “What’s that guy’s problem?”  Stallone: “He wants to be president.”  So much for what could have been.  But that’s the problem with Stallone’s entire movie.

This had all the potential in the world, and the movie disappointingly feels like a cut-and-paste assignment thrown together so sloppily because of Stallone’s desire to cram a bunch of action stars together.  He delivers zero character development, the plot makes absolutely no sense, and I hardly believe Stallone’s sudden transition in wanting to rescue this younger woman (suggesting an awkward romance between her and the action star who is 30 years her senior).  Also be sure to watch out for any of the dialogue, as it hits you in the gut so hard with its stupidity that you’ll be puking within the first 20 minutes.  I’m not talking about funny camp-style 80s one-liners.  I’m talking about terribly-written dialogue meeting awful line readings, one after the other—particularly from Lundgren and Li.

Perhaps my biggest issue with the film isn’t the bad acting, or the horrible writing, or the lacking camradery among the Expendables, but it is Stallone’s way of filming most of the scenes.  Shot almost completely in close-up the entire time, Stallone zooms in on these stars’ individual faces, even in multi-character moments, and it is beyond awkward.  Trust me, he’s not doing these old-timers any favors.  Even in scenes showcasing the location of the island, the extras in the town are shot in close-up, and it becomes unbelievably distracting.

If that’s not enough, even the fight sequences have little creativity and energy.  Granted, the final action bout on the island featuring the entire mercenary squad against a hundred or so faceless enemy soldiers works about as best as it can, if you can tell what’s going on—which is a rare occasion.  The battles also feature hilariously cheesy CGI blood and sloppy special effects surrounding the mayhem as the film’s MPAA rating was never decided on until late in the game.  Since the movie could have ended up being PG-13, I guess no physical fake blood was used during filming, and it really shows.

In fact, all of the film’s flaws really show.  It seems to be an embarrassing exercise in rushed filmmaking with little substance to build on from the get-go.  I love the concept of The Expendables, and I really feel as though I wasn’t expecting top-notch quality here.  But Stallone, who actually put out a solid and gratuitous fourth Rambo installment just two years ago, ought to know how to write and direct at this point.  It feels as though he did neither here, having his film fare about the same as these Direct-to-DVD actioners we see Steven Seagal and Van Damme releasing five of a year.  For the inevitable sequel, I hope Sly stays in front of the camera and allows another filmmaker to take the reigns, perhaps Quentin Tarantino?  Hey, I can dream.

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Judge Dredd

There’s an old computer term called WYSIWIG.  It comes from the days of dot-matrix printers and non-TrueType fonts that basically means what you see on the screen is what comes out on paper (this used to be a big problem, actually).  Judge Dredd is a perfect example of this concept applied to a movie.  To explain what I mean, just take a look at the trailer:

We’ve got guns, explosions, fights, chases, tree-trunk-sized action stars, and some sweet cathphrases too.  The film is pretty much everything you see in the trailer expanded to 90 minutes, but I ask you, is that a bad thing?  My answer is a resounding “no.”  We’re not talking Dark Knight or Terminator 2 here (despite a scene with Stallone riding his police chopper that looks like was ripped directly from T2), and there’s little in the way of subtext and certainly nothing even remotely resembling subtlety.  But this is precisely why I found the movie to be so entertaining.  It’s a straight-up action movie with a ripped-to-shreds Sylvester Stallone, lots of cool weapons, and a straightforward plot that never deviates from its purpose.  And to be honest, you just don’t see that too much anymore.  There’s even a cool enemy robot that’s (gasp!) an actual animatronic creature instead of a shiny, sterile CGI creation.  Is it cheesy?  Sure, but that’s part of the fun.  Don’t take this one too seriously–just grab a busket of popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the ride.

A thousand years from now, the earth is so overpopulated that the only practical way of doling out justice is through the use of Judges with the legal authority to arrest and sentence anyone on the spot.  Entrusted with high-tech crimefighting implements like multifunction handguns, impenetrable body armor, hover-cycles that break down the instant the rider hits the throttle, and a litany of cool quips like “Court’s adjourned” and “I’ll be the judge of that,” these judges run around town responding to threats with an expediency that would make our current legal system wet its collective legal pants.

Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd: He. Is. The. Law. Don't believe it? He'll tell you so.

Stallone, basically the Master Chief of Judges, is falsely convicted of a murder and sentenced to a plane ride next to Rob Schneider and must find a way to clear his good name before he ends up in a Deuce Bigalow movie.  Several explosions later he ends up back in Mega City on a mission to find his estranged brother who, wouldn’t you know it, is the evil genius behind it all.

Somehow Diane Lane and Max Von Sydow were tricked into joining the cast, along with ex soap opera heartthrob Armand Assante, which makes Judge Dredd a somewhat anomalous compilation of A-grade acting talent (Rob Schneider notwithstanding) in a B-level script.  Don’t come to the show expecting character development either–Dredd was genetically engineered to be the perfect crimefighting tool, so he possesses none of those inconvenient traits like empathy, love, or self-doubt that so often lead to such annoyances like interpersonal relationships or romantic conflicts.  But the movie never takes itself too seriously, and even Von Sydow seems to be winking at the camera during a few scenes.  Fortunately there’s an outstanding production value to the whole spectacle, so the death-deflying stunts, high-speed chases, and human/robot showdowns are all fantastically realized.

The cheese meter is maxed out here, but unlike Stallone’s other future-based blow ’em up movie, Judge Dredd is more entertaining than embarrassing.  Walking a fine line between Michael Bay excess and Uwe Boll stupidity, it’s an outstanding guilty pleasure that gives you exactly what you would expect without overstaying its welcome.  Watching Judge Dredd is kind of like going to McDonald’s and going all-out for the biggest Angus Burger on the menu.  It’s not fine cuisine, but it sure does get the job done.  And sometimes that’s all you want.

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2010 Summer Movie Preview

I have to thank TacoGrande and his latest poll for inspiring me with the idea for this post.  As  the blockbuster Summer season is about to kick off next weekend with the release of “Iron Man 2,” I thought I’d take a look at my top-10 (sort of) most anticipated movies over the May-August frame, where studios release some of the biggest films of the year.

10. ROBIN HOOD (5/14):  In all honesty I have little interest in another take on Robin Hood.  But with Russell Crowe returning to his ‘Gladiator’ roots, and Ridley Scott behind the lens, maybe there’s hope for this mega-budget epic.  Ridley is trying to go the ‘King Arthur’ route and present his take on Robin Hood as the ‘real story behind the legend.’  ‘King Arthur’ was a domestic flop, and Scott’s own “Kingdom of Heaven” starring the star-that-never-was Orlando Bloom was a box-office disaster when it kicked off Summer, 2005. The previews for “Robin Hood” look a little bit like a montage of tamed battle sequences taken right out of ‘Gladiator,’ but I can’t deny being intrigued by a major epic reteaming of Ridley and Russell.  I really do want to know, however, what happened to the project’s original incarnation of “Nottingham” where the story was reversed and focused on Crowe playing a heroic version of the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Regardless, this movie looks epic, and the action should be great.  Add in the brilliant Cate Blanchett as Maid Marian, and this movie could potentially be awesome.

9. THE LAST AIRBENDER (7/2): The other “Avatar” movie hits theaters over July 4th weekend in converted 3D.  I have to admit that I know nothing of the anime series, but the previews alone have swayed me into an intrigued state, especially with M. Night Shyamalan taking a stab at the material.  While the infamous director has given us enough reason to hate anything he touches over the last few years, we can always look back to a happier time with Signs, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense.  Hopefully he’s got enough ‘bad-movie-itis’ out of his system to deliver an entertaining adventure film. I have faith in him yet, but this man seriously needs some salvation of credibility, and hopefully this movie is at least a small revival for him.  Visually, this movie looks plenty fun.

8. SPLICE (6/4): Sci-Fi has to be my favorite genre, and while I can’t tell if “Splice” is going to be a good movie per se, I can say that the premise intrigues me.  A month ago I knew nothing about this project.  After seeing a few trailers, I’m sold on the idea.  Since the film isn’t exactly being talked about a lot, I will tell you the plot centers on two scientists (Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley) who experiment on forging human DNA and animal DNA, creating a humanoid organism hybrid.  Things must eventually turn deadly, as this is sci-fi horror, but I have to say the trailers are effective, and I am very interested to find out if this is any good.

7. THE A-TEAM (6/11): Hopefully we get enough wit and laughs for all the explosions and stunts coming our way with “The A-Team” starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, and Jessica Biel among others.  The action sequences look a little heavy, but I have faith that this movie will be one of the best kick-back popcorn rides of the Summer, low on brain-power and high on thrills and humor.  This will all depend on the chemistry of the cast–if it works and audiences respond in kind–expect a franchise to form.

6. THE OTHER GUYS (8/6): Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as two cops trying to compete with Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson as two gung-ho cops in a comedy from Adam McKay (Anchorman).  Count me in.  Casting Wahlberg is an inspired choice, and I’m looking forward to him and Ferrell exchanging some great banter.  Wahlberg may be an awkward dramatic actor in Max Payne, The Happening, and The Lovely Bones.  But he was great in The Departed and very funny in Date Night.  So I can see him having a blast with this, and I think audiences will like the pairing of him and Ferrell.  With ‘Anchorman 2’ getting the axe this week, this may be the best we can hope for from McKay and Ferrell.  And as for Ferrell lately, with his last three movies finding serious hate from me (Semi-Pro, Step Brothers, Land of the Lost), this should be a sure-fire hilarious rebound.

5. TOY STORY 3 (6/18): Pixar movies have become just about as much of an event movie for me as any, and they are returning to their best film–“Toy Story” after more than 10 years since “2.”  Just think, the original “Toy Story” came out 15 years ago.  10 year-olds then would be 25 now, and possibly taking their little one to this latest installment.  “Toy Story 3” should be huge, especially with all the major voices returning (including Tom Hanks and Tim Allen), as well as the reliability of the Pixar brand.  While I don’t expect it to be as brilliant as the first film or some of Pixar’s recent movies, I imagine this being good-old nostalgic fun with a lot of heart and humor, and one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.

4. KINGHT AND DAY (6/25): Finally we have the return of Tom Cruise.  While 2008’s ‘Valkyrie’ managed to keep him on the map, luckily the former biggest-star-in-the-world returns to blockbuster action territory.  It appears as though he’s playing an action-junkie spy trying to protect Cameron Diaz’s character, and the results look very funny and very entertaining.  Some of the trailer mirrors “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and it very much gives off that vibe, and I’m totally fine with that.  Cruise is playing a character about as crazy as everyone thinks he is, and I think with him having a ball playing a role like this, it should turn out to be another solid $100 million for him.  I still think he’s a great actor despite all of his negative publicity since his Oprah days five years ago, but hopefully ‘Knight & Day’ will get him back on track.  Under the direction of James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line), I think it’s possible.

3. THE EXPENDABLES (8/13): Fans of Cobra, Rambo II, Commando, and other classic cheeseball action flicks can rejoice–“The Expendables” are coming this August.  Of course I’m dying to see this throwback to 80s action flicks, if not just for the scene that finds Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in a single frame together.  Add in Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jason Statham, and a whole cast of macho superstars in a major over-the-top action flick–and this is shaping up to be the event action movie of the year.  Back to classic real-life stunt work, pre-Bourne editing, and larger-than-life action stars in all their glory.  I’m so there.

2. IRON MAN 2 (5/7): While ‘The Dark Knight’ may have shadowed the enormous popularity of ‘Iron Man’ in 2008, this year is all about Tony Stark, as this sequel looks to be the highest grossing movie of the year–I see $400 million on the horizon.  Even though TDK is the fan-favorite of 2008, if I had my choice of watching the gloom-and-doom of Christopher Nolan’s superhero flick or the hilarious, roller-coaster ride of Jon Favreau’s, I am more than likely to take the ‘Iron Man’ route.  What an entertaining surprise that film was two years ago.  Robert Downey, Jr. has ten times more charisma and chops than Christian Bale, and ‘Iron Man 2’ should have just as much wit and fun as the last film.  Don’t get me wrong, ‘Dark Knight’ is brilliant and objectively the better film, but ‘Iron Man’ is a lot more fun.  Cheers to you Mr. Stark.  I will be trying to catch this one on an IMAX screen, and not a fake one…

1. –TIE– So what if I’m cheating… I can’t decide between my two most anticipated movies of the Summer, so you’ll just have to get both.

PREDATORS (7/9): I have been pining for another “Predator” installment for a long time (I should admit 1987’s ‘Predator’ is my all-time favorite guilty pleasure movie), and I can’t believe it’s actually happening.  It’s been 20 years since “Predator 2,” and after two horrid “AVP” movies, finally Robert Rodriguez looks to deliver a proper standalone sequel to the Predator universe.  While the trailer has me thrilled just knowing a new installment is in existence, I wasn’t completely blown away by what the studio has to show just yet.  Luckily, the story takes place on a jungle planet (much like the setting of the first movie), and will feature lots of predators facing off savage human killers from Earth.  Add in some bankability with Oscar-winner Adrien Brody and Laurence Fishburne headlining the cast, and I think this could actually turn out to be the sequel                                                       I’ve been waiting for.

–and–

INCEPTION (7/16): Anything Christopher Nolan touches turns to gold.  I like that he takes breaks in between his Batman films to conjure up other original projects.  I also love the fact that he has clouded “Inception” in total mystery.  It has something to do with agents stealing people’s dreams, or entering their minds or something… and that’s all we know other than the movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, and Ellen Page.  The trippy trailers feature some crazy visuals that may become the invention of a new filmmaking style (ala The Matrix).  I think this is going to be the surprise juggernaut of the year and, if it’s as good as Nolan’s other work, may finally garner him the credit he deserves come award season, especially with 10 Best Picture nominations now.  But this is all too early to tell.  It could turn out to be a gargantuan flop, but I can’t doubt the man.  All I can say is, I can’t wait to see what’s in store with “Inception.”

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Demolition Man

Demolition ManSome bad movies are guilty pleasures, and some are just bad.  Demolition Man, unfortunately, lands with a resounding thud squarely in the latter category.  Despite so many elements that could have worked in its favor, the movie ultimately falls apart due in no small part to a woefully convoluted, meandering script combined with some incredibly bad acting. Now, I enjoy me some brainless action movies, but sometimes I come across one that is just too awful to recommend to anyone.  And even though I had high hopes for Demolition Man to be, at the very least, enjoyable or fun if only for its value as mindless entertainment, it turned out to be so terrible that only a good Deathstalkering could save it.  Oh Mike, Crow, Tom Servo…where art thou when I need thee?

The opening fifteen minutes of the movie are a paint-by-numbers of action movie cliches, but True Lies this is not.  Demolition Man actually seems to take itself seriously, even as Sylvester Stallone, playing John *cough* Spartan, rappels from a helicopter into a building where insane evil mastermind Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) is holed up with a couple dozen hostages.  And like a checklist, the action movie cliches begin to pile up like the bodies of evil henchmen:  Spartan the loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules, thinking Phoenix is bluffing about having hostages in the building, fights through hordes of expendable bad guys, meets and spars with Phoenix, accidentally starts the building on fire, and runs down a hallway while the whole place explodes around him.  Having taken Phoenix into custody, Spartan finds out that the hostages (why had Spartan kidnapped them?  What were his demands?  What was he trying to accomplish?  Such things matter not to director Marco Brambilla.) were in fact in the building and he now responsible for the death of over 30 innocent people.

John Spartan

John Spartan, the Demolition Man. Subtle this movie most certainly is not.

The only fitting punishment for Phoenix?  Freeze him!  That way he can be rehabilitated over the next 70 years by machines that say really nice things to frozen dudes for decades on end so they will mellow out and be able to re-enter society free from violent tendencies.  Conveniently, this is also the best way to deal with Spartan–the movie’s namesake–because, you know, his totally unorthodox methods of fighting crime get lots of stuff blowed up.  But gosh darn it, 30 years into Phoenix’s rehabilitation, something goes wrong and he is accidentally unfrozen!  He begins to wreak havock on Future Los Angeles, a place where violence has been virtually eliminated and the police, grown soft after not fighting crime for decades, have no idea how to deal with an Insane Criminal Mastermind.  The solution?  Thaw out John Spartan, of course!

The ridiculous plot only gets worse from there on out, as the movie wanders from being a paper-thin exploration of how people can become so dependent on technology that we risk losing what makes us human to an all-out ‘splosion fest in various Future Locales.  In Future World, physical touch is considered taboo so people experience pleasure by wearing virtual-reality helmets.  Cursing is outlawed and individuals are fined “one credit” for each instance (an insufferable joke that overstays its welcome almost immediately).  But this James Cameron-esque attempt to add a bit of depth only results in a handful of awkward scenes that do not advance the plot and only serve to create an uneven pacing throughout the film.  Even the barest attempt at developing a relationship between Spartan and Lt. Lenina Huxley is forced and entirely unbelievable.

Simon Phoenix

Somebody forgot to tell Wesley Snipes that yellow hair and blue overalls are the opposite of intimidating.

And so what we have left is a film that is one poorly-staged shootout after another between the well-nigh invincible John Spartan and his nemesis Simon Phoenix, the stark-raving-mad evil genius computer hacker (not kidding) with Kung Fu skillz.  And even this silly premise might not be such a bad movie were it properly directed, but every fight or shootout is so poorly blocked and mindlessly executed that it looks as though you’re watching a ninth-grade home video project.  After a shootout in a museum, Spartan is chasing Phoenix across a clearing when his quarry jumps down an embankment…and Spartan just stops running.  It’s as though writer Peter Lenkov didn’t know how to end the scene, so he just, well, ended it. Even worse, the climax has Stallone swaying slowly back and forth on a giant mechanical arm in the freezing chamber while Snipes laughs like an Evil Maniac and unloads clip after clip while hitting everything in the room but Stallone.  It’s madness, I tell you.  Madness.

In short?  You know a movie is terrible when the best thing about it is a Rob Schneider cameo.  And Demolition Man is that movie.

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