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COVER STORY : Hollywood's Big-Bang Theorist : On the set of 'Demolition Man' with producer Joel Silver as he pushes his Whammo Chart to the max with Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes and a whole lot of mayhem. So, when is too much enough?

August 01, 1993|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Even the walkie-talkies, which sing all day like canaries in a coal mine, have fallen silent.

It is a rare, quiet moment on the futuristic set of "Demolition Man," the Warner Bros. action film that has been shooting forever--well, since Feb. 8--here on the Burbank back lot.

All the expensive smoke machines and fancy lighting rigs have been shut down. The crew is off to lunch.

It is time to decide how to stage a climactic fight scene between the film's 21st-Century adversaries: Sgt. John Spartan, played by Sylvester Stallone, and his psychotic criminal nemesis, Simon Phoenix, played by Wesley Snipes.

Standing with "Demolition Man's" rookie director Marco Brambilla, veteran stunt coordinator Charlie Picerni Sr. and producer Joel Silver, the two film stars watch as their stunt doubles rehearse the fight: flipping over huge barrels, smashing into walls, leveling each other with upper-cuts and roundhouse rights.

Everybody seems to like the fight--except Stallone. Shaking his head, he circles behind the stuntmen, retracing their route, like a golfer walking the course before a big tournament.

"This is all pretty good," he says diplomatically. "But the hand motion gets a little too frenetic. I know something about pacing. (My character) comes in for the kill too soon. We're not building enough momentum."

Brambilla shrugs. "We can tone it down," he says. "Don't you think it has a nice feel to it?"

But Stallone is already blocking out a new version of the fight. He bounds across the set, bobbing and weaving, pantomiming a flurry of punches, the Hermes Pan of fight-to-the-death choreography.

"Pow! Pow! Pow!" he grunts, delivering savage blows to an imaginary adversary. "We should have such a flurry of punches that we actually look tired of hitting each other. We need things we haven't seen before. I'd like a different geometric angle. Something bizarre."

He turns to Snipes. "Like you jumping on top of me, coming right down on my throat, going for the \o7 coup de grace.\f7 "

"That's good, Sly," says Silver, who's been nervously checking his watch. "But we aren't that far into the fight yet. I'd rather hold that idea till the very end."

The brainstorming session continues with Brambilla standing on the sidelines, deferring to the real powers on the set--Stallone and Silver. After three stints as "Rambo," five as "Rocky" and a high-wire act in "Cliffhanger," Stallone, at 46, could be the world's longest-running action hero.

But if anyone can match Sly dollar for dollar at the box-office, it's Silver, who has produced the hit "Lethal Weapon," "Die Hard" and "Predator" action franchises.

They are the Twin Towers of action movies, working together for the first time. With Stallone coming off some box-office duds ("Oscar," "Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot") and Silver still bruised from the mega-flop "Hudson Hawk," both men may have needed a little psychological reassurance. Embarking on a $45-million movie, perhaps it was time to share the high-rolling risk with a heavyweight partner.

Seeing them on the set, Stallone's rippling muscles encased in a tiny tank top, Silver's couch-potato girth hidden under baggy pajama-style shirts and slacks, they even look like the classic Hollywood buddy movie team--Sly supplies the brawn, Silver brings the big mouth.

On the set, the fight rehearsal continues. With their doubles watching, Stallone and Snipes try out a new move, where Snipes slashes at Stallone's arm with a knife. Sly roars like a wounded lion, leaping forward, rocking his adversary with a furious punch to the jaw.

Stallone flicks his arm, as if casually brushing away a huge glob of blood. Then he squares off with Snipes.

You know it's time for the special moment that defines Hollywood Tough Guy cinema--the action hero's epiphany--when a man can voice the depth of his rage in only one way: with a wisecrack.

Nowhere to be found in the script, the line sounds so right that you wonder if Sly has just thought it up himself.

"OK," he says with a menacing scowl. "Now I'm \o7 pissed.\f7 "

Asked how long "Demolition Man" has been behind schedule, a crew hand says with a laugh: "Only since the first week of shooting." The film's budget was originally set at about $45 million but has climbed steadily as shooting continues.

Initially scheduled as a 72-day production, the film passed its 110th shooting day last Wednesday, with shooting slated to conclude on Friday. Three days into filming, the film's female lead, Lori Petty, was replaced by Sandra Bullock. Stallone also missed nine days with a pinched vein in his shoulder.

By mid-July, the film had gone through five assistant directors and innumerable crew members, many whom left because of prior commitments to other films.

"Hiring five assistant directors has got to be a record," said one crew hand. "There's probably only a dozen original crew left (from a main crew of 160). Joel and Marco don't even know anyone's name any more. They just yell out, 'Grip! Gaffer!' "

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