Saturday, July 30, 2016
Last Action Hero -- directed by John McTiernan and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger -- was supposed to be the “big ticket” movie of the summer of 1993, but fate had other plans.
That title eventually went to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) instead, and today Last Action Hero is widely remembered as a misfire; a bomb. The film grossed little more than fifty million dollars at the American box office, and earned many negative reviews. I saw the film in the theater in 1993 (long-time Arnie fan, here…) and felt it was disappointing, if not downright awful.
But the purpose of this blog is (at least sometimes…) to re-examine those works of art that have been dismissed, overlooked, or forgotten.
So I wondered: is Last Action Hero worth a second look in 2015? Has it aged well?
Or, conversely, have I changed as a viewer since 1993, and come to better see what the film was attempting to achieve?
First, let’s focus on the negative aspects of the film and get that out of the way.
More than twenty years later, one can detect the reasons why Last Action Hero so often fails. At two-hours and eleven minutes in duration, it is simply too long for a film featuring, essentially, a lark as a premise: a real life boy ending up the sidekick of a movie world action hero.
There’s just too much baggage -- to much detritus -- weighing down those light bones.
This movie should be -- like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) -- no more than 105 minutes in running time.
Any longer than that, and one is bound to start asking questions about the inconsistencies in the premise, and the universe the film creates.
Any longer than that, and the jokes start to repeat, and the performances begin to flat-line from the repetition. Watching the film becomes a tiresome process by the third act because Last Action Hero doesn’t always seem to know where it is headed.
Secondly, the pace and tone of these two hours and eleven minutes might best be described as leaden. There are plenty of action sequences, certainly, but the plot moves at a snail’s place, and never settles on a consistent tone.
To wit: sometimes the film is a weird and wacky catch-all or satire; an Airplane (1980) type film. But then there are also those moments when viewers are supposed to feel invested in the details of the story, and in following the plot logically from point A to point B. The two approaches collide and the result is an unsatisfying mishmash. If we are constantly being told that events don’t matter, or that this is all “just a movie,” it becomes ever-more difficult to invest in the plot details.
These facts established, Last Action Hero possesses many good ideas, and even a compelling thematic through-line that I hope to enumerate. That through-line ties into the jokes about Shakespeare’s Hamlet and a movie version of the play starring Schwarzenegger (perhaps the best scene in the film…). It also ties into the characters of Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) and Jack Slater. All three heroes contend with the same “to be or not to be” existential dilemma.
In short, Last Action Hero is actually about Danny learning what it means to really live life, and to be the hero of his own lie. First, he learns that lesson in a world with the training wheels on (the movie world) and then he learns it in the real world, where Jack Slater -- his role model and surrogate father -- must learn it beside him.
And what does Danny learn in the real world? That unlike the movie world, real world virtues include not expert gunplay, but compassion, loyalty, and love.
It is rewarding and admirable that Last Action Hero tells this story, but after twenty years, it is obvious that the film doesn’t tell it with anything approaching consistency or coherence.
So what audiences end up with is a sweet, likable film that, despite those qualities, is also often dull and tiresome.
It makes me sad too. I want to like this movie more than I do.
“Here, in this world, the bad guys can win.”
Young Danny Madigan (O’Brien) avoids his real life problems (including an apartment in a bad neighborhood and the death of his father) by cutting school and hanging out at the movies with a kindly old projectionist, Nick (Robert Prosky).
His favorite movies are those involving a larger-than-life action hero named Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger) and his exploits as an L.A. cop.
With Slater IV due in theaters, Nick invites Danny to an advance screening of the sequel late one night. He also gives Danny a golden ticket given to him years earlier by Harry Houdini.
As Danny discovers, that ticket possesses magic powers, and can open a bridge between the movie universe and the real universe. Danny is swept across this bridge, and meets his hero, Jack Slater, in a movie-version of Los Angeles.
In the movie world, Jack is tangling with an evil hitman named Benedict (Charles Dance) and his mob boss, Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn). Danny helps Slater defeat the bad guys, and also reckon with the fact that he is actually living inside a movie.
Later Benedict gets ahold of the magic ticket stub, and moves into the real world. There, the villain realizes that bad guys can win, and with the help of the villain of Slater III, The Ripper (Tom Noonan), decides to set off on a reign of terror at the world premiere of Slater IV, where star Arnold Schwarzenegger is schedule to appear…
Now Danny and Jack must stop Benedict and the Ripper, and Jack must come face-to-face with his celebrity alter-ego.
“You can’t die until the grosses go down.”
There’s an amusing moment of allusion in Last Action Hero involving Charles Dance’s character, Benedict. This assassin has stolen the magical golden ticket, and discovered that it opens the doorway to another dimension; to the real world.
As Benedict’s hand lightly brushes the portal to that universe, a TV on in the background plays the opening narration and theme to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). This detail is an intriguing point of connection between productions. Like those visiting The Twilight Zone, Benedict can now travel to another dimension.
Yet, by the same token, The Twilight Zone signifies something else significant: economy of storytelling.
Each episode of the series (except for those airing in the fourth season) are just a half-hour in length. They vet their wild tales, offer a few surprises, and then finish with astonishing rapidity and grace…often before too many questions can be asked.
Last Action Hero alludes to The Twilight Zone in this scene, but takes a faulty creative approach by comparison. The film is too long, too big, and too byzantine, and it lingers on details of a whimsical story that, simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.
For instance, if Jack (and all movie heroes) are bullet-proof in the movie world, essentially, then from what source should the movie’s tension arise? If bad guys literally can’t win in the movie world (as Benedict verbally indicates) then why and how are we supposed to feel anxiety when Jack or Danny is imperiled by them?
This criticism is not meant to indicate that the movie doesn’t have fun with this idea of the movie universe, at least at points. “You know, tar actually sticks to some people,” Danny tells Slater after he falls into tar pits, unscathed. His status as indestructible is appropriately funny, but it also eliminates some aspects of immediacy from the story.
Somewhere in Last Action Hero, a really good movie is buried, and it attempts to surface several times.
For instance, the movie uses Hamlet as a kind of base-line for action heroes and action hero behavior. A high school teacher describes Denmark’s prince as the first such action hero, actually. Yet Hamlet is paralyzed and defined by his inability to act, to do something; to defeat his enemies.
Humorously, the McTiernan film proposes an alternative to this hesitating, melancholy prince: a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Chomping a cigar and blowing enemies away with automatic weapons, this Hamlet has no problems acting with terminal force, or intensity. There is nothing diffident about him at all.
The “Trailer” for the Schwarzenegger Hamlet is uproariously funny, and strikes the exact right note of absurdity. But more to the point, it is used, thematically, to let us know that Danny is -- like Hamlet -- unable to act forcefully, which is the very reason he looks up to substitute father-figure Jack Slater.
When a burglar breaks into Danny’s apartment, he gives Danny every opportunity to take his weapon, a knife, and fight him. But Danny -- like Hamlet -- does nothing. He can’t will himself to act. And while watching Hamlet on TV in school, Danny becomes invested in the action (or lack of action). He urges Olivier’s Hamlet to “stop talking” and “do something.” Clearly, this is something personal for Danny. Although he aspires to be a Jack Slater, we learn that he sees himself as a Hamlet. He is paralyzed over his father’s death (a death he shares in common with the prince from Denmark), and does not yet know how to act, or how to survive in this dangerous “real” world.
Danny then travels into the movie world, where Slater -- an action hero -- acts without thinking, without hesitation, and without deadly consequence. Slater can’t lose, and apparently can’t feel fear, so he always wins the day. But the universe itself is stacked in his favor. Danny takes baby steps towards growth and survival in this universe, attempting a game of chicken against a speeding car, and learning to operate a dangerous crane. In other words, he begins “acting” the role of hero. He emulates Jack, but does so in a safe environment; one where the good guys always win and he is no physical danger.
Then, in the movie’s final act, Danny and Slater pursue Benedict to the real world, a place with absolutely real danger, and where the bad guys can win. In this world, Slater is the child, playing by a set of rules he doesn’t understand, and therefore Danny learns the necessity of pro-active behaviors or action. He must save his friend, who is badly wounded after a confrontation with Benedict. When Slater is shot, Danny realizes that the qualities he always had inside -- compassion, loyalty, and love -- are the very things that impel him to act decisively; to be a hero. He overcomes his Hamlet dilemma and becomes the hero of his own life.
All of this material fits together in Last Action Hero, and Slater even comments at one point that “the world is what you make of it, Danny.” This is simply another way of expressing the idea that we can re-shape the world in a way to our liking if only we act, and act intelligently. That’s the film’s dedicated leitmotif, and Last Action Hero is sweet because it is about a boy who thinks he needs a father figure but then -- through his interactions with that “idol” -- realizes that he can be the person he wants to be, and needs to be, all under his own steam.
Without being disrespectful, I would assert merely that Last Action Hero could tell this story -- and make this point -- more efficiently, and with greater discipline. The celebrity cameos are fun, the knocks-against movies are funny, and the explorations of tropes (like the wrong-headed, screaming police superior) are on target, but in some sense they are all but noise that ultimately takes away from the through-line I mentioned above.
I’m a huge admirer of McTiernan’s work in film, and his serious, grounded, approach to action but he doesn’t boast a very good “light” or “whimsical” touch on this project. This feels like a film tailor made for Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis, and I feel that McTiernan expends too much time and energy on the bells and whistles -- the fights, the chases, and the pyrotechnics -- when what he really needs to focus on, front and center, is the shifting relationship between Danny and Slater, and the way the Hamlet story illuminates Danny’s story.
Tar doesn’t stick to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he was back in 1994 in the triumphant True Lies, but one can see why he was drawn to this script and this project. Somewhere, deep down, Last Action Hero is all about the way young children build-up “heroes” of the silver screen, but fail to take into account the fact that they thrive in a world unlike our own; one of different rules.
Schwarzenegger is terrific as Slater, a man who starts to realize that all his success may not be due to his own skills, but the nature of reality itself. There’s a great scene here in which Slater questions his life, and he reasons that it has gotten so weird lately. Danny sympathizes and tells him it’s a matter of the rules. “These are the sequels. They gotta get hard…”
The fickle Gods of film, right?
They give, and they take away. Even Slater’s boy was taken away from him so that he could have a “tragic past” to overcome.
Watching Last Action Hero again twenty-one years later, I knew what to expect, and so didn’t feel the same disappointment that I did in 1993.
But, oppositely, I feel that this film has so much of value to say, but is lazy and disjointed in the expression of its valid and intriguing messages. Last Action Hero demanded a light touch -- a director who would fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee -- but instead the film is played with the seriousness of a project like Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988) or Hunt for Red October (1988).
The result? “No sequel” for action hero Slater.
And honestly, that makes me a bit sad. The character is great, and deserved a better vehicle for his movie debut. At the very least, Last Action Hero’s heart is in the right spot.
It’s just too bad the rest of the movie is all over the place.
Back in 1987, the conventional wisdom about John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) was that it started out like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and ended up like Alien (1979) or, perhaps, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986).
By framing the film in this simplistic fashion, Predator could be viewed as a simple or derivative swipe at two separate genre inspirations.
It was part action movie and part sci-fi/horror movie.
And that, the critics declared, passed for originality in Hollywood.
That’s a left-handed compliment if I ever read one!
The truth about Predator, contrarily, is that it is all of a piece, and thematically consistent throughout.
Indeed, the intense film forges a debate about warriors or soldiers, and asks, specifically, what the best soldiers are made of.
Do soldiers succeed because of their technology?
Or do the best soldiers succeed because of some combination of instinct, experience, and a tactical understanding of their enemy?
McTiernan’s film sets up this debate in the film's visualizations.
Specifically, a squad of American soldiers, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch, rain down death and destruction on Third World, Central American soldiers, literally coming down to a village from a point on high to do so.
This action occurs in the first act, and establishes, per the dialogue that Schwarzenegger’s team is “the best.” We see that adjective vividly demonstrated in a siege set-piece of extreme violence and bloodshed.
The next act of the film, however, deliberately reverses that equation. It positions Schwarzenegger’s team on the ground, and puts an alien hunter at an even higher position -- in the tree-tops -- to rain down death on his “primitive” Earthbound counter-parts.
The soldiers who were the predators are now the prey.
In both cases, the technologically-superior force wins, and the perceived primitive or lesser opponent is knocked down and defeated.
In both cases, McTiernan vividly and explicitly associates that sense of superiority with a sense of geographical height; a high physical vantage point, captured by the camera's position.
The winner can, literally, reach heights that the loser can’t, and this is one important reason for his victory.
However, in the third and final act of Predator, Arnold and the alien hunter go head to head -- on equal footing -- and it is only on that terrain, one not involving technology, but rather instincts and know-how, that the best soldier is identified, and a victor is crowned.
So where many 1987 critics choose to see a film that is half Rambo and half Alien, I see a film that develops logically and consistently act to act. You can’t get to that final, almost primordial reckoning in the jungle between the Predator and Dutch unless you frame the debate in precisely the way the screenplay does, and in the way McTiernan does.
In short, the film depicts the best soldiers in the world demonstrating their ability to defeat all comers, only to be defeated by an enemy better than them; one not of this world.
The first and second act are two sides of the same coin, the idea -- with apologies to Star Wars Episode I (1999) -- that there is always a bigger fish out there waiting to demonstrate superior technology.
Predator’s third act -- a glorious back-to-basics conflict that looks like it was authentically staged in a prehistoric setting -- makes the point that the greatest hunter or soldier is actually the one who understands his enemy, and trusts his instincts.
Why make a movie in this fashion?
Well, in a sense, Predator might be read as a subversive response to the militarization of action films in the mid-1980s, and the kind of shallow, rah-rah patriotism that gave rise to efforts like Heartbreak Ridge (1986), which celebrated an American military victory over…Grenada.
Was Grenada really a challenge to American domination, given our military budget and might?
Contrarily, Predator takes a group of tough-talking “ultimate warriors” and puts them in a situation where they aren’t merely shooting fish in a barrel.
They are the fish in the barrel.
In reckoning with this sudden and total change in fortunes, we begin to glean a true idea of courage and heroism.
All of the Earthly politics in the movie -- illegal border crossings, a false cover story, documentation about a possible invasion, and so forth -- add up to precisely nothing here, and there's a reason why. Those details are immaterial to the real story of soldiers who reckon with an enemy that goes beyond the limits of Earthly knowledge.
Ironically, to be the best soldier in a situation like that, it isn’t the big Gatling gun that matters. It’s the ability to adapt to and understand the kind of menace encountered.
Predator features a lot of macho talk and clichés about war (“I ain’t got time to bleed,”) but it succeeds because it cuts right through this surface, hackneyed vision of military might and suggests a different truth underneath.
There’s always a bigger fish.
“You got us here to do your dirty work!”
An elite squad of American soldiers, led by Dutch Schaefer (Schwarzenegger), is dropped into a Central American jungle to rescue a cabinet minister being held by enemy rebels.
Going along with Dutch’s team is the mission commander, the not-entirely trustworthy Dillon (Carl Weathers).
Once in the jungle, Dutch and his men launch an attack on a rebel village, and find that Dillon has manipulated his team so as to acquire military intelligence about a possible Russian invasion. The group soon takes a captive, Anna, (Elipidia Carillo).
But before the soldiers can be air-lifted out of the jungle, an extra-terrestrial hunter -- a Predator – sets his sights on the group, killing Dutch’s team one man at a time.
Anna reports a local legend: about a demon who makes trophies of humans and is often reported in the hottest summers.
And this year, it grows very, very hot…
Losing his men rapidly, Dutch must come to understand his enemy’s weaknesses and strengths, and makes a final stand in the jungle, using every resource available…
John McTiernan’s camera in Predator rarely stops moving. It tracks, it pans, and it tilts, but is seldom quiescent.
The constantly-on-the-move camera conveys a few important qualities about the film. The first idea it transmits is that the soldiers inhabit a changing and changeable world, one that only instinct and experience can help them navigate.
The always-in-motion camera reveals the soldiers -- sometimes violently -- intruding into new space, new frames, and new aspects of their world. The camera’s movement -- a kind of visual aggression -- suggests the force that the soldiers carry with them.
This movement, this force, is then balanced by McTiernan against the still-ness of the Predator’s vision or perspective. A contrast is quickly developed and then sustained.
Throughout the film, we see through the Predator’s eyes, or in Predator-vision. These shots, from high above the landscape (in the tree-tops) tend to be still, un-moving. They thereby capture a sense of the whole world unfolding before the Predator, a complete panorama or landscape.
This is an important conceit. The soldiers are always moving through a changing, shifting world that they, through their actions, impact.
But they don’t get the whole picture, so-to-speak.
By contrast, the Predator vision gives us long-shots, and shows the entire jungle terrain around the soldiers. This viewpoint suggests omnipotence and power.
The Predator, quite simply, is able to see more of the world, and see it better. He is able to strike from the tree tops with his shoulder-mounted laser cannon, and target with laser sighting his distant foes.
His sight is superior, until -- importantly -- Dutch manages to “see” through it; recognizing the flaw in the Predator’s infrared vision.
Again, this is an argument against relying too heavily on technology. Dutch’s soldiers rely on big guns, and get decimated.
The Predator relies on his mask’s vision system (infrared), and Dutch -- smearing himself in mud -- negates the advantage it provides.
But again, what’s important is the way that all this material is visualized.
The soldiers, on ground level, cut through and move through the frame, violently interacting with the world on a tactile, aggressive level.
The Predator, like some great vulture, sits still in the trees (until he strikes), silently hanging back and taking in the lay of the land. He has the luxury to operate from a distance, from up on high, unobserved.
The film sets up a battle between these two perspectives, and one might even argue that the Predator ultimately loses because he abandons his best perspective -- the tree tops -- in order to get down to (and enjoy combat on…) Dutch’s level.
Over and over again, however, McTiernan’s gorgeous, moving compositions suggest that the soldiers don’t have the full picture. Not only is the Predator cloaked, but he has access to the world above the soldiers, the world that they can’t see. A brilliantly-orchestrated shot mid-way through the film sees Dutch hunting for Hawkin’s missing body. He can’t find it. After capturing imagery of Dutch trudging through the brush, McTiernan’s camera suddenly moves upwards, and keeps doing so.
It goes up and up, past a bloody fern frond, and then continues its ascent, until we see Hawkins’ naked, bloodied corpse dangling from the tree top. The Predator is operating in, metaphorically a more fully three dimensional environment, this shot reveals.
Dwight and the other soldiers can’t compete on that level. They literally can't even see to that level.
Those who don’t appreciate Predator tend to watch the film, listen to the macho tough talk, and consider the film a kind of stupid, macho action/horror movie.
Yet in its own way, Predator glides right past such clichéd dialogue and situations. In doing so, it comments on them. These cliches are not points of strength, the movie informs us, but points of weakness. When the Predator uses his duck call device, for example, he apes the men at their most verbally simplistic. “Any time…” Or “Over here.”
Then he is able to trick them using their own words. Their mode of expression becomes a tool to use against them.
As a whole, Predator sort of tricks the audience with its appearance too -- as a macho war movie -- and then treads deeper to examine our conceits about the military, and military might.
When Arnold finally defeats the Predator, he does so not as a twentieth century soldier with high-tech weapons, but as a mud-camouflaged cave-man, relying on his instinct, his knowledge of the land, and hard-gleaned information about his enemy.
Even then, Arnold barely wins.
The Predator sacrifices his superior technology, comes to the ground, and takes off his mask because he wants to fight like Arnie; he wants to experience battle like a human would. That desire proves to be the alien's undoing, a sense of vanity about himself, and an unearned sense of superiority to his nemesis.
And again, this quality reflects dynamically on the first act of the film. Everyone keeps calling Dutch's team "the best,: and the team itself wipes out the Central American rebels while hardly breaking a sweat.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall, right?
Dutch, by contrast, demonstrates qualities that our culture doesn’t always value, especially in terms of our military men. He shows compassion and decency with Anna, a prisoner. He trusts her when the situation changes instead of continuing to treat her like a foe.
He also rejects Dillon’s approach to war (that the ends justify the means), and does his best to get his men out of a situation in which they are not really fighting for their country, but acting as pawns in someone’s illegal agenda.
Finally, Dutch is curious -- intensely curious -- and flexible enough to understand that he is being hunted by something inhuman. He doesn’t reject the possibility that this could be true, and instead contends with the facts.
“If it bleeds, we can kill it” Dutch concludes, and that is a perfectly logical and sensible argument in the face of what seems an irrational conflict: a battle with an invisible alien.
Dutch is lucky, of course, too. He discovers the secret of defeating Predator-vision by accident, by ending up in the mud. But he also makes the most of his opportunities by demonstrating flexibility rather than rigidity. He changes his very identity to win. He goes from 20th century high-tech soldier to primitive cave man, to carry the day.
Predator still dazzles, in part because of McTiernan’s often-moving camera and approach to visuals, but also because of that incredible final sequence in the jungle.
Arnold and the colossal, frightening alien duke it out on a little parcel of land, surrounded by water. The setting is picturesque, but more than that, it seems to evoke some kind of genetic memory, a feeling for the day when humans didn’t understand the world and were prey to saber tooth tigers or bears, or anything else that might find us when we ventured out of our caves.
The film’s final battle -- shorn of high-tech military hardware -- gets down to the bloody basics and is incredibly satisfying on a human level.
Today, we have military drones, smart-bombs, and other incredible technology to help us win when we wage war, but Predator is a remarkable reminder from another movie age that the biggest, best guns don’t necessarily make great soldiers.
If they did, the Predator would have won his battle with Arnie, right?