"Last Action Hero" turns out to be just what we needed least: an $80 million Pirandello play.
The latest romp through testosteroneland under the sponsorship and guidance of Arnold Schwarzenegger, "Last Action Hero" is at least suffused with enough self-deprecating wit to keep it from becoming truly annoying. Yet it remains more remote than it should be because of the disease of gargantuanism: It seems bloated on steroids, a blubbery mass of protoplasm whose lard almost obscures its meager strand of meaning. It lacks the emotional clarity of great popular entertainment.
Suppose someone gave Luigi Pirandello $80 million and said, "Make an action movie." You'd get something of the narrative dislocations, the meditation on illusion and reality, text and subtext, the musings on movie logic vs. real world logic, the sense of raucous parody that is the essence of "Action Hero." Of course, American action movies have been veering toward Pirandelloesque self-parody for years. "Last Action Hero" is simply the first one not merely to acknowledge its own ludicrousness but to celebrate it, while at the same time gamely hoping to be the ultimate action movie itself.
The conceit is less amusing than the people who invested all that money think. A lonely New York boy named Danny (Austin O'Brien) invests all his emotions in the adventures of an out-of-scale Los Angeles movie cop called Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger), a kick-butt, take-no-prisoners amalgam of Dirty Harry, Martin Riggs and Cobra who wears snakeskin cowboy boots, leather jackets and carries the biggest handgun known to man. One night, the projectionist at the run-down local theater gives Danny a "magic ticket" that by some unexplained special-effects magic enables the boy to "enter" the world of the movie. That's the film's feeblest stroke, and every time the boy pulls out the glowing sheaf of cardboard and steps between worlds, one feels eyes in the audience rolling upward on a massive scale.
He's transported from the crummy theater into the back seat of Jack's rampaging Bonneville convertible exactly as Jack is in the middle of yet another generic car chase, with bullets flying and bundles of dynamite exploding. Before you can say "buddy picture," they're buddies.
Thus the film unspools in two contrasting worlds: the "movie" world, where genre conventions are cruelly and accurately spoofed (though not with the energy or density of the Zucker-Zucker-Abrahams "Naked Gun" films) and the "real" world, where punches hurt, bullets kill and you can never find a parking spot. This is really interesting stuff, but the director John McTiernan, a great action hand (he did "Predator" and the original "Die Hard"), doesn't quite go far enough. The contrasts are played for mild laughs instead of real outrage; the movie loves the edge -- but from a safe distance.
Plot? Not! Pretty feeble stuff also. In the "movie world," a British bad guy named Benedict (Charles Dance) is busy taking over the L.A. mob. After exchanging car chases, bomb lobbings and gunfights with Jack, he gets hold of the "magic ticket" and goes to Real New York. Thus Jack and Danny have to follow him, only they don't have a magic ticket any more. How do they solve this problem? They don't! Jack and Danny walk through the same hole in the universe without a magic ticket. Movie logic, movie logic!
Actually, once the film returns to New York, it becomes a good deal more interesting. McTiernan achieves some moments of rare power when Benedict explores the ecstasies of real, rather than movie, violence while at the same time Jack, who's becoming dimly aware of his fictional identity, bumbles into real pain and confusion. The climax is engineered to place all the combatants at the premiere of the new Jack Slater movie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and here the dislocations become truly Pirandelloesque, as Jack must save Arnold from assassination, on the theory that if Arnold dies, so necessarily will Jack.
Schwarzenegger deserves great appreciation for the degree to which he allows his own off-screen self to be mercilessly parodied. In one hysterical scene, his actual wife, Maria Shriver, calls him tacky for turning an interview into a commercial for Planet Hollywood. "Always with the restaurant! It's so humiliating," she steams. And it's a curious and amusing stroke that Jack discovers a tragic dimension to life in contrast to Arnold the buffoon, portrayed as a shallow businessman who coincidentally is a movie star.
But McTiernan can't resist certain temptations. The climactic action sequences take place in the real world, but they're Hollywood hooey all the way . This undercuts the power of the film. Also, the action sequences are all astonishments, but they carry no emotional weight, they're just spectacle.
Ironically, "Last Action Hero" only approaches genius in its first quarter when Danny, daydreaming during a school showing of Olivier's "Hamlet," imagines a world in which Jack Slater/Arnold Schwarzenegger is the melancholy prince, but instead of a dirk, he carries a MAC-10. The resulting fantasy is three minutes of sheer brilliance.
"LAST ACTION HERO"
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger
Directed by John McTiernan
Released by Columbia