Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (1993)

6. Last Action Hero

In 1993, Arnold Schwarzenegger was still the biggest movie star in the world. His previous film, “Terminator 2,” shattered box office records, cementing the reputation the action icon had been building since the early eighties. After the success of the second “Terminator,” Arnold’s next movie was expected to be an equally huge hit. That next movie was  “Last Action Hero,” a self-reflective parody of not just Arnold’s career but all the then-excesses of the action genre. John McTiernan choosing to direct the film is just another example of its self-aware quality. McTiernan had provided Arnie with an iconic hit with “Predator” and revitalized the entire action genre with “Die Hard.” The film had seemingly everything going for it…

Danny is a lonely kid, living in a bad part of New York. He doesn’t care much for school, his apartment gets broken into frequently, and his single mom chastises his behavior all the time. Danny’s only escape from his grim realities is movies. In particular, the action movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He frequently skips school to spend all day at the theater, with the help of the eccentric projectionist. While watching a sneak preview screening of “Jack Slater IV,” the latest entry in Arnold’s star franchise, that very same projectionist slips Danny a magic movie ticket. At first, the boy doesn’t think much of it. When he slips into the world of Jack Slater, he realizes it actually works. The kid has fun exploring the insane action movie universe and befriending his fictional hero… Until the movie’s one-eyed villain gets his hand on the stub and enters our world.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been one of the more self-aware action heroes of his generation. Arnold starring in a parody of action flicks is almost unnecessary. In retrospect, if it hadn’t codified many of the rules of the genre, “Commando” would play like a parody of eighties action. There was always a glimmer in his eyes and a smirk on his face. In the early nineties, “Total Recall” and his comedies showed he was already willing to play with his hyper-macho image. With “Last Action Hero,” he goes meta. The film plays with its own status as fiction. Characters cross the fourth wall. (Though if there’s a fiction inside the fiction, does that make it the third wall?) Entering Movie World is enough premise for most films but “Last Action Hero” only uses that as a launching pad. The movie is as much about a normal human entering a fictional world as it is about fictional characters entering the real world.

Despite its heavily meta-fictional story, “Last Action Hero” doesn’t engage much with the meaning of these ideas. The existential dread a fictional character must feel from discovering he isn't real is only briefly touched on. The movie begins by killing off Jack’s son. That his tragedies, struggles, and entire life are entertainment to higher beings only briefly pisses the hero off. The implication of a fictional world existing on some other level aren’t elaborated upon. The biggest joke occurs after the story’s villain enters our world. He discovers that the real world is more callous then the world of eighties action. Moreover, he realizes that crimes can go unpunished in our world. Besides that, “Last Action Hero” does not attempt to read any deeper into fiction’s meaning to us and what it means if these stories could interact with us. The potential subtext is reduced to a gimmick.

Instead, “Last Action Hero” is a ridiculous parody of action films. The world of “Jack Slater” is exaggerated beyond the point of plausibility. Recalling the “Death Wish” series, the plot of “Jack Slater IV” is motivated by the death of the cop’s favorite second cousin. Presumably, this is because they’ve already worked through the rest of his family. Danny is launched into this world during the middle of a car chase. Here, we see a mook tossed into an ice cream truck, which then explodes, killing another baddie with an errant cone. Jack drives up the walls of a canal, launching his car into the air. A game of vehicular chicken ends with a body sticking straight-up out of a dumpster. There are some funnier, subtler gags here. When the bad guys attempt to drive up the same canal, they crash and burn. During the car chase, there’s a prominently placed Coca-Cola truck, the kind of product placement a movie character must be used to. However, most of the movie’s blatantly comic scenes are too self-aware, too winkingly goofy, to be genuinely funny. Even the most ridiculous eighties flicks were never this silly.  “Last Action Hero” is too in on its own joke.

A further example of the movie overdoing its own joke is the world Jack Slater inhabits. In the movie-within-the-movie, every house in L.A. is beautiful sea-front property, a fancy Italian villa. The police station is a huge, elaborate set. “Much nicer” then the real police station, Danny notes. Here’s a good example of a potentially amusing gag stretched too far. In the movie, every woman is beautiful, statuesque, long-legged and big-busted. However, the gag’s taken too far, every female dressed in ridiculous, revealing outfits. Another gag that could have been funny if underplayed more involves the other cops. In the background of the police station, unlikely partners are paired up, each one with a more preposterous buddy. That’s a funny idea, especially when the various partners include an overweight guy, a rabbi, the ghost of Humphrey Bogart, and a cartoon cat. However, the film drills the joke into the ground, draining it of laughs. When a script seemingly congratulates itself on a funny gag, the gag stops being funny. (At least “Last Action Hero” has the balls to make Whiskers, the cartoon cat, a supporting character instead of just a cameo.)

The only joke in the movie that isn’t overdone is the character of Jack Slater himself. At first, you might not even notice the central joke. Jack always wears alligator-skinned cowboy boots, tight jeans, a red muscle shirt, a brown leather jacket, and a patriotic belt buckle. The constant deaths of family members is obviously a riff on the “Death Wish” series and its protagonist Paul Kersey. Slater’s cowboy cop behavior is a take-off on Dirty Hary and his more extreme eighties cousin Cobra. You’ll notice all of those characters have one thing in common: They’re Americans who neither look nor sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger. So “Last Action Hero” is poking fun at Arnold’s tendency to be cast as all-American action heroes when he himself is obviously not. (Another funny gag is the closest where Jack keeps multiple, identical copies of his standard outfit… And all of his guns.)

Despite being a ridiculous spoof, “Last Action Hero” tries to play the relationship between Jack Slater and the kid for real emotion. As in any ridiculous action film, the mismatched partners start to care for one another. Jack watches out for Danny and vice-versa. In the last act, trapped in the real world, Jack nearly dies, causing Danny to shed tears. It’s a weird thing to see in a movie that is otherwise so goofy. Occasionally, the film explores Danny’s relationship with the fictional hero. He attempts to get Jack to say an R-rated word in his PG-13-rated world. While learning about “Hamlet” in literature class, Danny imagines a Schwarzenegger-starring take on the Bard’s story, with the required explosions and one-liners. That’s the funniest bit in the film and it comes early on. Had the film explored why young boys are so enamored of bigger-then-life movie stars like Arnold, or pursued the attachments fans can have to movie stars, it could have gotten at something deep. Instead, the story’s heart is full of schmaltz and the film’s potential is unformed.

Sometimes, the extensively self-aware action sequences produce some decent laughs. The bad guys attempt to corner Jack in his own home. They shoot huge holes in the walls, somehow missing the guy. He takes a shotgun round to the chest but survives, thanks to a magical bullet-proof vest. The best attribute to this scene is Michael Kamen’s score, which ebbs and flows with the action on-screen like a grown-up Mickey Mouse cartoon. Even this scene is damaged by an out-of-nowhere reference to “E.T.” Later on, there’s an extended scene at a mobster’s funeral. There’s some funny gags here, like everyone in the procession packing heat or the kid wondering how to operate a crane. However, I could have done without the extended fart joke. 

Apparently the first draft of the script was set entirely within the movie world and explored the consequences of a crazy action hero’s action. The filmed version of “Last Action Hero” has Slater and his archenemy escaping into our world. Weirdly, the movie gets a little better at this point. Jack suddenly discovers he can be hurt. He hears classical music for the first time in his life, loving it. Watching Charles Dance’s villain learning the callous ways of our world is worthwhile. When Jack has to confront the Ripper, a psychotic madman from his previous film, “Last Action Hero” begins to resemble a straight-up action movie. This is, oddly, more successful then the overdone comedy of the first half. Lastly, these scenes gets Arnold on-camera with the only actor to ever match him in charisma… Himself. Mr. Schwarzenegger doesn’t fight Mr. Schwarzenegger but it is amusing to see the Austrian Oak play off his real life persona, with jokes about Planet Hollywood, M.C. Hammer, and Jim Belushi. Even a last minute cameo from Ian McKellan as Ingmar Bergman’s Death is interesting in its own way. It’s easy to imagine a better version of “Last Action Hero” focused solely on the fictional characters navigating our real world. At the very least, it ends the movie on a high-note.

So how does Arnold do? Schwarzenegger has always been willing to poke fun at his own image. He had already done it twice before this, in “Twins” and “Kindergarten Cop.” Watching Arnold goof around is nothing new, as even his quote-unquote serious roles has him cracking silly one-liners. Schwarzenegger is at least convincing in the double role as Jack Slater and himself. He gets a few weirdly earnest moments to himself, like when the character discusses his dead kid or how pathetic his personal life kind of is. Austin O’Brian as Danny was fairly heavily criticized at the time but the kid does fine. He’s likable and seems to be having fun playing against Arnold.

Another high-light of the film is its villain. Charles Dance plays Benedict, the main bad guy. Though obviously a parody of refined British villains in low-prestige pop corn flicks, like Hans Gruber from McTiernan’s own “Die Hard,” Dance truly goes for it. He hams it up beautifully, having a great time as a big screen bad guy. It doesn’t hurt that Benedict gets a series of great gimmicks. He goes through a variety of glass eyes, wears a fancy white suit, wields an absurdly big handgun, and belittles his own boss. (Played by Anthony Quinn, also making fun of his tendency to get cast as crime bosses.) Tom Noonan plays the Ripper, another example of the foreboding star playing a psycho. The Ripper seems in awfully high spirits for a greasy psychopath. His collapsible axe is a really cool weapon. Another fun bit of meta casting is F. Murray Abraham as a dirty cop. Danny tells Jack not to trust the guy because he “killed Mozart,” one of the film’s few reoccurring gags that it doesn’t wear out.

Aside from noted thespians like Abraham, Dance, and McKellen, the film’s supporting cast is full of other interesting names. “Running Man”-graduate Professor Toru Tanaka also pokes fun at his own image, basically playing Oddjob. Art Carney, in his last screen role, is the eccentric projectionist that Danny befriends. Carney didn’t let his advancing age hide the obvious joy he got from performing. Frank McRae sure does have a ball screaming his lungs out as the police chief. Future Sonya Blade Brigitte Wilson plays Slater’s oversexed teenage daughter. She’s awfully nice to look at and Wilson seems to be on the film’s level. Whether or not she’s poking fun at playing a bubble-headed blonde or is just playing a regular bubble-headed blonde might be up for the audience to decide.

So the actors are having fun and there’s an occasional gag that lands. However, “Last Action Hero” is ultimately nowhere near as funny as it should have been. Perhaps McTiernan, a filmmaker better known for more-or-less serious takes on the action genre, was the wrong director for the film. Or maybe the over-hyped, over-processed film was an inevitable victim of the studio system. One suspects that the earlier drafts were edgier, funnier, and more focused. As it stands, “Last Action Hero” is an interesting failure, one full of potential, but brought down by its own smugness and an indecisive tone that fluctuates between spoofy parody and more on-the-nose satire. [Grade: C+]

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