Last Action Hero
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.
Of course, one might see this as the natural progression for the muscleman-come-actor who had discovered an unlikely comedy niche when paired with Danny De Vito, and thus broadened his audience and appeal. Kids loved his violent action movies, but shouldn’t really have been seeing them (as Last Action Hero acknowledges overtly, without ever really broaching how suspect this is; the closest it gets is Danny Madigan showing Jack Slater a rude word and advising “You can’t possibly say it, because this movie is PG-13”). With PG-13 (or 12) certificate fare increasingly an option, Arnie no longer needed to rely on dispatching a villain or henchman in a bloody manner with a corny quip (here he dispatches henchmen in a non-bloody manner with a corny quip).
But dissecting the very iconography of his status? Was this a step too far? Didn’t he pause to consider what happened to a more nascent action star, Bruce Willis, when he similarly mocked the conventions of his macho image in Hudson Hawk? Admittedly, Hawk is the very definition of a Hollywood vanity vehicle, and Last Action Hero exhibits some of those traits, but it isn’t exactly that; Arnie is instrumental and intrinsic in terms of his status as a star, playing a star (himself), who is playing a “legendary” screen character, and also lends his name and clout as a producer (the first, and one of only three occasions to date, he would do so). In the course of which, he delivers some clever moments and astute asides (as Arnie performances go, this is right up there at the top). But this doesn’t quite unspool as a classic lesson in Hollywood excess on his part, attempting to mould a movie that directly fans his ego. He isn’t expressly impressing himself on the material in that kind of out-of-control manner; it’s more the case that, since he approved everything along the way, it highlights his own misperception of his status – a form of hubris, certainly – and fallible judgement.
One can only come to the conclusion that Columbia was suffering a form of snow blindness when they gave the picture the go ahead, dazzled by the power combination of one of the world’s biggest box office stars (his previous movie had been the number one hit of 1991) and a director who at that point had a string of hits under his belt (Medicine Man blotted his copybook, but before that John McTiernan was three-for-three) The little thing of the screenplay not being set in stone had never stopped anyone before.
The story is credited to Zak Penn (later of Marvel franchises including X-Men and Avengers) and Adam Lef (based on their script Extremely Violent, intended as an R-rated parody of Shane Black-scripted, Lethal Weapon-type fare, more engaged with the fiction world and commenting on the violence of the medium as a negative), with David Arnott and Shane Black drafted in to shape it up for Schwarzenegger. Black stood tall in Hollywood at the time, an action movie titan, and had worked on and appeared in the Austrian Oak’s Predator, but even someone as deft with plot and character could come unstuck; William Goldman came in for a reported $1m to spruce up the characters. The result: Last Action Hero’s various demands, agendas to meet, and no doubt execs to please, ended up pushing it in all manner of unintended and unwanted directions, while the ones that were desired often didn’t meet their potential or were muddled in execution.
Black commented (in an interview in the June 2016 Empire) that it was McTiernan’s input that caused the picture to spiral off in the wrong direction. The first rewrite had been met with a rapturous response from Arnie, but now “It became more heady, kind of pretentious rather than the comedy it needed to be”. Obviously, that’s biased to Black’s own stylistic preferences (while the comedy is frequently ungainly, the “pretentious” aspect is perhaps the most interesting and arresting aspect of the picture), but it can’t be denied that some serious overcooking occurred. Black and Arnott were fired, Carrie Fisher had a go, “the joke was that the producer’s gardener did a draft”. He cites the picture’s problem as “its insufferable smugness”, but again I’m not sure I agree (I’m biased there, because I tend to like the kind of thing he’s complaining about). There’s more to it.
One of the issues was meeting a date. The picture, after the script rewrites caused delays (some reports say it was still filming a week before release), previewed to disastrous responses. But, rather than trying to fix the problems, the studio baulked at the thought of lost revenue and further bad word of mouth. They pressed ahead, a classic situation of attempting to keep the shareholders happy, even if that ultimately makes the shareholders unhappy when the picture bombs and stocks drop.
On a deeper level, the picture is a mess of an interesting core idea compromised by a lack of conceptual rigour and external demands that detracted from that interesting core idea. As noted, Arnie saw this as reaching out to a broader fan base (hence the PG-13), illustrating that he misread his audience and appeal, but the screenplay itself is hatched from a “That’ll do” kernel. The magic ticket device smacks of the laziest of Hollywood brainstorming – or lack thereof – to the extent that Robert Prosky’s manager (who had recently featured in another deconstruction of movies, the sublime Gremlins 2: The New Batch) is given incredibly unwieldy exposition regarding why he never tried out the ticket (given to him by Houdini, no less) himself.
Accompanying gags are highly enjoyable (when Charles Dance’s Benedict examines the stolen ticket, The Twilight Zone theme pipes up behind him, with the announcement “You are travelling to another dimension”, which he’s about to do), but no one appears to have worked through the integrities of the premise. Director John McTiernan called it a Cinderella story in basis, but it’s more directly a mangled E.T. Danny, a boy from broken home, meets a visitor from another world, with whom he bonds but who finds Earth toxic. So the visitor must return home before it kills him.
As such, it’s probably no surprise Spielberg was one of the names considered to direct. As was Robert Zemeckis, who would surely have been a better fit, the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future Part II suggesting the right kind of sensibility for self-referencing. Of course, most ideal would have been Joe Dante (who was later considered for Arnie’s The Sixth Day, but backed out), for whom this kind of fare is bread and butter. Any number of names would have been more suitable than the eventual choice, McTiernan.
McTiernan’s previous stock-in-trade was expertly judged action sequences. There was much of humour in Die Hard, but it wasn’t front-and-centre, and McTiernan just isn’t a funny (comedy) guy. The result, when he’s supposed to be parodying his own methods and deconstruct his own genre, is that he’s all adrift. He doesn’t have another style, so he makes the “real” world (“our” world) big, like any of his movies “big”, and so has no option but to make the fictional movie world BIGGER (with an emphasis on Dutch angles, for want of a better signal that it’s exaggerated). It’s an essentially wrong-footed approach that occasionally works out, but through luck rather than judgement.
As a result, the picture desperately needs, but rarely displays, a lightness of touch, a facility for humour, and finely contrasted action. In respect of the latter point, Last Action Hero – unlike McTiernan’s Hollywood forays to that date, although to be fair he never really got the chance to finish it – is frequently clumsy in execution. This case of the director trying to out-excess himself is further fumbled with Arnie’s choices for Jack Slater III and IV (his fictional movie-verse character). For some reason, as far as I can tell because Arnie liked the band, Slater is followed everywhere by the noise pollution that is AC/DC. Danny (Austin O’Brien) makes it sound as if this is de rigueur for Schwarzenegger movies (“hard rock”), but it really isn’t. The result is tone deaf in more ways than one, a confluence of ill-massaged visuals and aural incontinence that seems actively designed to put the backs up of any viewers actively interested in seeing the picture.
The inability to delineate the two worlds effectively is a fundamental problem. At one point Slater announces “I think the taxis here are bullet proof” but a few scenes later he’s quite able to rip the door off a taxi. Benedict is confronted by a young prostitute, but it’s an aside the picture has no idea how to deal with, since everything about the visual approach (courtesy of Dean Semler, who was also the cinematographer on that summer’s first-out-of-the-gate flop, Super Mario Bros) speaks gloss. Early on, Danny is threatened at knife point, but as in a movie he has forgotten all about it a few scenes later (he also finds himself able to drive an ambulance with no trouble towards the end).
As noted, the logistics of the magic ticket’s abilities haven’t been thought out. Slater on the one hand finds himself battered, bruised and shot in a manner that would never have occurred in the movie world – he is, effectively, made mortal. But the arrival of Death from The Seventh Seal (Ian McKellen, in an obvious bald wig) entirely undermines Jack’s materiality. Death comes with his movie powers intact, clearly blessed with supernatural knowledge (instructing Danny that he will die a grandfather) and abilities (causing people to keel over dead).
This being, unlike Gremlins 2, a star vehicle, and so a movie burdened with a message, the deconstruction has to be dressed in a salutary point, which is, unironically, a paean to the power of the motion picture. Benedict wants to stay put in reality, “Because here, in this world, bad guys can win”. Slater must be willing to sacrifice himself to affirm the magical bond between unassuming audience member and star (“I’m just an imaginary hero, Danny. You have a real life”). To Last Action Hero’s credit, it doesn’t indulge the maudlin in a manner that would have been overt if someone with Spielberg’s capacity for sentiment had shepherded it, but “Hey! The world is what you make of it, Danny” and “I need you to be out there to believe in me” is fairly ripe as such things go. It is, at least, diffused somewhat by Jack’s leading next line (“I need you to take care of your mother for me, because I would love to…” – what, bone her?)
Danny: I’ll teach you to be vulnerable. You’ll teach me to be brave.
More than its uneven approach to moral and parody, Last Action Hero comes unstuck simply in its central character dynamics. E.T. and Elliot may work (overtly referenced, and clumsily so, by Danny playing chicken on a bike and sailing past the Moon), but Arnie and Danny Madigan simply don’t. O’Brien can act – this isn’t some kind of abject horror, like Jake Lloyd’s display in The Phantom Menace – but the makers make the core mistake of allowing the kid to be annoying. O’Brien may have Corey Feldman’s haircut, but he’s no Corey Feldman.
You really need a winning performer to get away with know-it-all commentary throughout (the early scenes viewing Jack Slater are particularly irksome, with “Jack Slater, can’t lose. Never has, never will” and “Oooh, you’re gonna pay”). Arnie may have scored with family audiences, and interacting with kids, a couple of years before in Kindergarten Cop, but he evidently didn’t take away the right message. There it was the incongruity of a massive muscle man struggling to deal with tiny tots that sold tickets (something since repeated by the likes of The Rock and Vin Diesel). There’s no connection between Arnie and Danny, and their relationship never really gels – it’s not quite as inept as Stallone and his boy in Over the Top, but it comes from a similar cluelessness over what viewers want from their action hero, and how far they are willing to let them stretch.
As Slater says to Danny at one point, “No one likes a smartass”. That’s exactly the problem with Danny in Last Action Hero. His constantly trying to convince those around him that they’re in a movie is rather trying, and the scoffing and superior attitude grates almost as soon as he starts with it. In contrast, Black would get this kind of thing almost exactly right when he revisited the icon and the kid team-up concept in Iron Man Three (the clash of adult and child perspectives obviously appeals to him; he also explored it in Last Boy Scout, and it looks like he is doing it again, however briefly in The Nice Guys); you have to be very tonally confident, and very sure of your cast, to even contemplate going there, though.
Jack Slater: Hello Mrs Madigan. Arnold Braunschweiger.
It speaks to what might have been that, for all that the Danny-Slater relationship flails, the interaction between Jack and Danny’s mom Irene (Mercedes Ruehl) is cracking. Arnie really is good value in Last Action Hero, and he gives off a disarming genuineness with Ruehl that makes you wish he had someone he could have sparked off as effectively throughout (“I never just talked to a woman before. It’s neat”). His response to whether he likes Classical music is marvellous (“I don’t know. I think I will. Wow!”)
Arnie shows a facility for different gradations of performance that, while in no danger of exhibiting titanic thespian skills, are more than adequate. Be it Danny’s daydream version of Arnie as Hamlet (“Hey, Claudius. You killed my father. Big mistake”), to dispensing jaded wisdom as movie Slater (“Sorry, you’re going to have to live to enjoy all the fruits life has to offer. Acne, premature ejaculation, shaving, and your first divorce”), to deadpanning his own once unpronounceable name (“You think you’re funny, don’t you?”; “I know I am. I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger”) this is a long way from the hulking boob we we’re wont to associate with the actor.
Jack Slater: Look, I don’t really like you, alright? You’ve brought me nothing but pain.
Perhaps best of all is the strangely sincere meeting with his real self (this might be the pretentiousness Black rails against rearing its head), in which Arnie essays a preening, self-absorbed version of himself at the Jack Slater IV premiere. Slater is a thoughtlessly conveyed puppet on a string, written for convenience and follow-ups, provided with character depth in a casual, flippant manner (as a result of which he suffers from nightmares, offspring and relatives having been offed for the sake of cheap motivation, the memories of which flood back when he sees a photo of his dead son in a desk drawer).
The picture never really makes much of this, probably wisely as its footing is so uncertain, but the arrival of “real” Arnie, blithely discussing exactly the sort of audience-friendly, appeal-broadening tactics actual Arnie is indulging through making Last Action Hero (“This movie I only kill 48 people instead of 119”), is striking. And the less-than-indulgent relationship with wife Maria Shriver is most amusing (“Don’t plug the restaurants, I hate it when you plug the restaurants. It’s so tacky”, before Arnie starts inevitably plugging the restaurants). Joe Dante would riff on the star and his doppelganger with Brendan Fraser in Looney Tunes, but it has to be said that Last Action Hero does this at least better.
Jack Slater: You’ve seen those movies where they say, make my day, or I’m your worst nightmare. Well, listen to this one: Rubber baby buggy bumpers! (To Danny) Hah, you didn’t know I was going to say that, did you?
And for sufficient stretches, Last Action Hero is both clever and funny. For all its legion of faults, it’s a picture that is constantly thinking on its feet, even as it’s falling on its arse doing so. Its least effective gags are the obviously self-referential ones, where Benedict announces he will “tell you the plot” or Danny says “You can’t die til the grosses go down” (partly as that wouldn’t happen anyway; they just wouldn’t do another sequel).
The riffing on Arnie quips and terrible gags (“Iced that guy… to cone a phrase” as he takes out one of the terrorists from Die Hard via an exploding Mr Whippy van) is already too creaky at this point anyway to really work (“No sequel for you!”) but at times (undermining Danny’s pronouncements of predictability with something really random; explaining driving with no hands – he practices a lot, and “never, ever drive in heavy traffic”) it has an off-the-cuff flair that’s quite successful.
Jack Slater: Le Fart goes off in seven minutes.
At about the midpoint, within the Slater-verse, there’s a laboured, unnecessary 20-minute spell of frequent dead (and gaseous) air as Jack follows the lead of a gangster stuffed with explosives, Leo Le Fart (“He was a good man, a flatulent man”). But even there, the oddness of Arnie “improvising”, trying stuff that’s not really him (“My God! This man’s not dead!”, distracting the mourners with “Look! Elephant!”) appeals.
And, as annoying as Danny is in trying to point out the fictional world, it does reap its own “Right back at you” logic; his movie-buff comment on 555 numbers limiting the number of potential telephones per person yields Slater’s irrefutable logic “That’s why we have area codes”. His proclamation that the women are far too attractive to be working in a video store is greeted with the leveller “No, this is California”, and pointing out the incongruity of De Vito’s cartoon cat meets with a complete lack of recognition (“The cat is one of the best men I’ve got”).
Elsewhere, there are references to Wylie Coyote on TV, just as the Slater-world explosives are all made by ACME. Jack lands in a tar pit with a model T-Rex looming overhead (an ominous harbinger there) and Frank McRae, having already sent up his shouting boss from 48 Hrs in Loaded Weapon 1, does so again as Lieutenant Decker.
Red Heat’s James Belushi, as himself at the Slater premier, advises “I’m not really a big fan of Arnold’s”, while we see someone who really wasn’t a big fan of Arnold’s (Sharon Stone, as Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell) at the fictional precinct, along with Robert Patrick’s T-1000 (already having essayed such a cameo in Wayne’s World; it’s not like Last Action Hero cares if its jokes are fresh).
Some are extra-sweet, playful ripostes, though; Stallone raised his eyebrows at the thought of President Schwarzenegger in Demolition Man, and here Slater extols the virtues of Sly in Terminator 2 (“He’s fantastic. It’s his best performance ever”). F Murray Abraham, “the guy who killed Mozart” (“Mo who?”) is always welcome, if eternally underused (naturally, he has to play a villain). And if that doesn’t float your boat, there’s always Chevy Chase getting poleaxed.
It doesn’t really matter that some of this is just random, taking in cultural decay as Joan Plowright, the widow of Sir Laurence Olivier, despairingly instructs her class of his performance as Hamlet, “Some of you may have seen him in the Polaroid commercial, or as Zeus, in Clash of the Titans”. Humphrey Bogart is also grafted into the action, just because he can be.
Benedict: If God was a villain, he’d be me.
Without doubt, though, the highlight of Last Action Hero in performance terms is Charles Dance’s Benedict. Quite a feat, coming amid a heyday of the Brit villains, initiated by McTiernan casting Alan Rickman in Die Hard, and then Rickman providing repeat duties in Prince of Thieves. Dance suggested they wanted Rickman himself for the Benedict role, but I’d like to think they weren’t quite that bereft of inspiration, although that could feasibly play in perfectly to the post-modern tone, so quite possibly they did (it’s also been said that Dance replaced Timothy Dalton, which is more likely, and would have come with the added bonus of Bond gags). Dance’s Hollywood profile clearly wasn’t sufficient for gags about his own roles (Alien 3, The Golden Child?) Notably, Benedict’s also the only character who actually breaks the fourth wall, albeit only within the Slater universe (if he had done so in the “real” world too, that would have been quite something).
Not only striking in his Bond henchman disfigurement (“Sir, are you a henchman? No, I only go as far as lackey”), with an assortment of glass eyes including a gun sight, a reptilian eye and a smiley face, he’s given a delicious line in superiority (Anthony Quinn’s Tony Vivaldi, the first in a series of Hollywood veterans of Arnie movies during the ‘90s that would include Chuck Heston and James Coburn, continually mangles the English language; “as easy as cake”; “Pie, you Sicilian shmuck”, Benedict responds, before embellishing his wanton xenophobia with “stupid, spaghetti-slurping cretin”).
Dance knows the only way to go here is to whole-heartedly embrace Benedict’s cartoon villainy and he does so with gusto, informing Danny “I should tell you, that I have killed people smarter and younger than you”. And, on arriving in the real world, he guns someone down as an experiment (to see if it will bring the authorities); “Hello? I’ve just shot somebody. I did it on purpose!... I said, I have murdered a man, and I want to confess”.
In contrast, Noonan’s Slater III psycho killer is entirely generic (he’s even called Ripper), going to the lengths of casting an actor only really known on the big screen for his psychos (Manhunter, Robocop 2). Which may be precisely the point, but there are ways to get that across provocatively or subversively (the closest they get is the soft-spoken real Noonan at the Slater IV premiere).
Next to nothing is made of Benedict’s yen to unleash big screen villains on the world (he’s seen considering Gary Oldman’s Dracula), further emphasising that the writers and makers didn’t quite know where to go with their third act. That said, the reintegration of Slater into his movie universe, and miraculous recovery (“I wouldn’t even call this a flesh wound” pronounces an on-scene doctor), before informing his boss, with new awareness “I am the hero, so shut up” and “I don’t want to shoot people any more and blow up buildings”, suggests the tantalising prospect of movie fictions taking their “lives” in their own hands.
Last Action Hero, the definition of scattershot, ultimately resists the temptations of a Purple Rose of Cairo-esque exploration of the effects of such awareness of fictionality on the screen characters and their cyclical, reel-based reality, but it’s questionable if it would have been beneficial to do so (it would certainly have been more pretentious!) Neither does it really explore the nature of idol worship as part of communicating an effective buddy pairing between star and sprog (at which it flounders anyway). Its action is frequently bombastic and inelegant, and plotting distressingly slack and unspun. And yet, for all its problems it’s something to be celebrated, witty enough, reaching enough, trying just hard enough, to be something at least different and distinct.
Arnie apparently said that, in retrospect, it marked the beginning of the end of his film career. Meaning as a star, and he’s remarkably insightful to recognise that. It’s doubly ironic, almost as if he brought that upon himself, through unravelling his screen persona in such an unconditional manner.
Last Action Hero stands as a testament to Hollywood moviemaking excess, what with the rumours it would carry an ad on a space rocket, it’s $20m Burger King promotion, and $36m theme park ride. Alas for Sony, the tie-ins failed to ease the pain of a $26m loss. It made a fraction of the amount the much-celebrated, and recently re-galvanised Jurassic Park did, but it’s nevertheless a much more interesting picture. The general maligning isn’t as unwarranted as Hudson Hawk’s, which is now, in discerning circles, recognised as an unsung classic; there’s far too much here that is just plain aesthetically at-odds with itself to foster such a glowing reappraisal. Nevertheless, Last Action Hero is far more rewarding than its reputation suggests.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.