Thursday, October 08, 2015
The Films of 1993: Last Action Hero
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.