Monday, 3 May 2010

Last Action Hero (1993)

There are two moments in Last Action Hero that rather endear me towards it. The first is where Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger - as if you didn't know), who has stepped out of the fictional world into the real one, plays Chicken with his adversary's stolen taxi. Unlike in the movies, the two vehicles collide head-on and are left in the street like wrecks. "Damn it, that hurt!", bemoans Slater as he steps away from the bust vehicle.

It's a brave moment in an action blockbuster, a fragment of truth in a genre that thrives on superficial action fantasy. It's also the sort of movie that's in most people's heads every time they leave the cinema wondering how certain scenes - particularly in the action genre - would stretch credibility in real life.

Similarly, every film fan wonders how their hero would cope in the real world, and that's exactly what happens to precocious but plucky little Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien), who's seen a few too many Jack Slater movies but nonetheless jumps at the chance to see the latest fourth instalment, a sort of semi-fantasy cop movie blend of Lethal Weapon and Death Wish, at the delightfully nostalgic run-down Pandora cinema in New York (actually the Orpheum Theatre in downtown LA) where seedy but lovable old projectionist Nick (Robert Prosky) has a "magic ticket" (given to him in that very theatre by Harry Houdini!), a ticket "that does what it wants to".
Nick has never used the ticket himself (although he yearned to once - Garbo and Jean Harlow were his idols in those days), but Danny, like his action heroes, is much more reckless. As he sits down to watch the test run of Jack Slater IV, the ticket starts to come alive, as a stick of dynamite flies out of the screen onto the aisle of the theatre, and the terrified Danny runs away towards the screen - and into the film.

Thereafter the boundaries of Last Action Hero (as well as Jack Slater IV) are shifted, to good or bad effect, depending I suspect, on your appreciation of the action genre. Soon Danny is lucky enough to be riding in the back of Jack Slater's car in the middle of a car chase, and is therefore perfectly able to interact with the action, and to impart his own expertly garnered film knowledge ("the bad guys are in there"). But then nasty English hitman Benedict (a splendidly obnoxious Charles Dance) briefly abducts Danny and Slater's daughter (the strident Bridgette Wilson - now Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), and more ominously gets his hands on the mysterious magic ticket, from which he is transported back from the film into the real world. Slater and Danny follow, and suddenly the goalposts are changed again, as Jack realises not only that things are a little tougher in real life, but the villains are out to kill someone called Arnold Schwarzenegger. I enjoy this diversion into reality, but for many audiences it was a turn-off.

The other endearing (and prophetic) moment foe me in LAH is when Slater lands in an adventure park lake (full of tar for whatever reason), and a static dinosaur watches over. Maybe it was an intended dig at the makers of Jurassic Park - but the T-Rex had the last word; the advent of CGI revolutionised cinema in Steven Spielberg's film that same summer, and consigned LAH to a very distant second place at the box office that summer. It's also a pivotal moment in cinema history, when live action gradually gave way to computer effects, so in a sense, it was the Last Action Hero film.

Such a fall from grace seemed most improbable to Arnie and his legion of fans. Here for good measure was not only a staple actioner but also a family-oriented film with an all-star supporting cast, including the likes of veterans Anthony Quinn, Art Carney and F. Murray Abraham ("he killed Mozart!"), and loads of guest appearances (including Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick reprising their most famous screen roles.) I hadn't seen many Schwarzenegger films up to that point (the only one I could remember seeing at the cinema was the comedy Twins), but he has undeniable screen presence, from the first bravura moment when he bestrides the roofs of several police cars - you very much get a sense of "The Man".

Of all the three main action stars of that period (along with Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis), Arnold to me has always been the one most self-deprecating, which made him the ideal choice to play the Last Action Hero. Indeed, the role was written ostensibly with him in mind; he knows he isn't the world's answer to acting, and his nickname of the "Austrian Oak" is well chosen for his square-jawed physicality and thick European accent which suited him so well as the monosyllabic Terminator.

His ally in this case was his previous Predator compatriot Jon McTiernan, also a veteran of the action genre, who has always tried to break beyond the boundaries of just basic wall-to-wall action (from which he made his name), with variable results, such as The Hunt for Red October, Medicine Man, and Last Action Hero.

That it failed so much is not just because of Jurassic Park, but also Columbia's overconfidence riding on the coat-tails of Schwarzenegger, as well as I think, a certain lack of control in the balance between fantasy and reality - a little too fantastic for its own good in Jack Slater IV, and a little uncertain about itself in the real world.

In spite of its cleverness and self-mocking, the story never loses sight of the fact that this is Jack Slater's struggle for survival, including his own identity. When he is involved with a shoot-out with The Ripper (Tom Noonan) at the New York Premiere of Jack Slater IV, his mind flashes back briefly to the previous shoot-out when his son was also killed.

The nightmare of the rooftop confrontation of Jack Slater III is reprised, only this time Danny is the hostage. The manner in which he dispatches the Ripper is still a little improbable for the "real" world - but worse is to come for Slater when Benedict re-emerges, having realised that bad guys can (and often do) win, and shoots Slater in the chest.

A curious observer observes the ambulance skidding by along the New York streets - for the magic ticket has acquired another cinematic icon - Death from The Seventh Seal, played not by Bengt Ekerot, but by Sir Ian McKellen (villains with vicious knives seem to be a pre-occupation in this film, first The Ripper, and now Death itself with his scythe.) But He's only come along to watch this particular casualty out of curiosity - Slater's not scheduled to die, because he's a fictional character, and will only disappear from existence when the grosses go down. It's another curiosity in a curious action film - that has no particular big finish, other than to return its man of the movies into the fictional world where he belongs.
Of course, it tried to have its cake and eat it - as Hollywood always does - by trying to sentimentalise whilst at the same time satisfying the genre's lust for action and macho one-liners. This was possibly the other reason for its critical and commercial failure, for trying to be too clever.

Two Schwarzeneggers for the price of one: the "real" one's on the right.

Arnold himself was the most philosophical (and secretly the most wounded) by the film's failure. As he himself said, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall." I still think it's an enjoyable film, that suffered a rough ride from critics and audiences who were expecting something a little less existential than what they got. I particularly like its enthusiasm for Big Screen Cinema, and how the scenario throws up so teasingly the possibilities of bringing so many movie characters into the real world: imagine Darth Vader escaping from his cinematic intergalactic confines to strike back for the Empire in this galaxy as well as his own; or Hannibal Lector having even more fun in the real world than he ever had in his own lurid movies.

Who knows, had Last Action Hero it been the success he was hoping, Mr. Schwarzenegger would still be a full-time movie star now and not the Governor of California.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films