Review for Last Action Hero (UK)
Can you picture the situation? It's summer 1993, and the next big blockbuster is imminent. It's Last Action Hero starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. On the back of a string of eighties action hits, beginning with The Terminator, and with movies like Commando, Predator, Red Heat, and The Running Man, he had become a household name. Then on the back of Total Recall, and the ultimate awesomeness that was Terminator 2, he was easily the biggest action movie star on the planet. So when his next movie was announced, I was salivating at the possibilities of Arnie taking it to the next level. After all, Last Action Hero even had the word 'action' in the title. Die Hard and Predator director John McTiernan directed it, and the writer was Shane Black of Lethal Weapon fame. How awesome would this movie be? Two hours and ten minutes later, I walked out of the cinema with my jaw hanging in disbelief. This wasn't the Arnie movie I was expecting. It was annoying, it was unfulfilling, it was ridiculous, it was taking the mick! I hated it. But it is a regular schedule filler for ITV4, and I've had plenty of opportunity to re-evaluate it over the years. I had a gap in my Arnie collection that just needed filling, and at £2, who's going to argue? The disc I'm reviewing was re-released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in 2009, but it's identical to the original 1999 release. 1999? It won't be long before DVD is able to vote!
Danny Madigan isn't the most diligent of students. In fact the twelve year old can most often be found skipping school to go to his local cinema, where the projectionist Frank shares his passion for films. Of course Danny has a preference for action movies, and the Jack Slater cop movies are his favourites. When Frank offers him the chance to see the latest Jack Slater movie before its official release date, Danny puts good sense to one side, and sneaks out of his apartment, against his mother's direct instructions. Frank has a special ticket for this movie though, one given to him when he was a child by Harry Houdini himself. It's magical, only Danny isn't expecting this much magic when a stick of dynamite comes flying out of the screen and blows him into Jack Slater IV. Suddenly Danny is in the movie for real, and he isn't even wearing 3D glasses. He's Jack Slater's new, annoying partner, trying to convince the big man that his life is actually a movie, and having a whole lot of fun predicting the clichés. But the ticket works both ways, and soon Jack Slater is in the real world, where bullets are lethal, where punching a car windshield hurts, and where the bad guys can actually win.
I can't believe this disc is 11 years old! Perhaps that has something to do with the source material. Nowadays films are made with excessive CG, shot digitally, colour-corrected, heavily post-produced, and when it comes to DVD there's added edge enhancement and so forth. Last Action Hero was shot on proper film, and given a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that is free of print damage or age, also free of edge enhancement, and the colours and detail come across strongly. The same is true of the surround audio, of which you get DD 5.1 English, and DD 2.0 Surround German, French, Italian and Spanish. It's still a stonking, reverberating audio track, fully committed to bringing across the action and excitement, and the obligatory rock soundtrack.
The disc gets static menus, and the extras comprise 3-minutes worth of US trailer, a short, 6-minute long, and ephemeral behind the scenes featurette, the Big Gun music video from AC/DC, and filmographies for John McTiernan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I didn't want post-modern irony back in 1993. I wasn't even ready for post-modern irony in 1993. I wanted my action movies dumb and predictable, I wanted them to be completely unaware of their clichés and tropes, to never once wink at the audience. I wanted to be able to popcorn chew my way through all the bad dialogue, silly stunts and cartoon physics, without having them ever pointed out to me. It's like someone explaining the joke after the laugh has died down. I wasn't ready for it, and neither it seems was anyone else, as Last Action Hero didn't exactly perform at the box office. Then in 1996, a film called Scream hit the world, and suddenly it was being lauded for reviving a flagging horror genre, because it deconstructed the slasher movie, made fun of the tropes, and was blatantly self-referential throughout. It took a while for it to sink in, but I eventually realised that Last Action Hero had done the same for the action genre three years previously. It certainly caused me to re-evaluate the film in that light, and the same was true for a lot of people; you certainly find a lot more love now for Last Action Hero than there was back in 1993.
The difference is that the action genre wasn't exactly flagging at the time, Arnold as the world's biggest action star certainly didn't need to send himself up, and it really just felt, and still feels as if director, writer, and star, McTiernan, Black and Schwarzenegger were just bored with what they had been doing and wanted to have a vacation from the daily grind. I'm also of the opinion, that Stallone's Demolition Man, released in the same year, did a far better job at deconstructing the action genre, simply because it wasn't constantly and frantically winking at the audience, and shattering the fourth wall.
But looking back at Last Action Hero with the soothing balm of 17 years to get over the 'betrayal', it doesn't feel as much of an offence anymore. The winks and in jokes have started to feel charming and familiar, I realise that the annoying kid is supposed to be annoying, he's written that way, and Charles Dance isn't trying to kill Arnold's action movie career the same way he put paid to Eddie Murphy's in The Golden Child. Watching Arnold send himself up is actually quite fun, with his cheesy one-liners taken to an excruciating extreme. Also thinking about it, the action movie genre of the time was getting seriously stale, and by pointing out the most abused clichés, the shouting police captain, the hero's dead relative to provide motivation, the bad guy that you think is dead, but isn't, and all the others, Last Action Hero may have given cinema a much needed excuse to inject a little originality back into its movie making, for however briefly that may have lasted.
Last Action Hero's most telling problem now, is its unevenness of tone, and identity crisis. It doesn't know whether it wants to be an action movie, a thriller, or a kids' film. So we get endlessly chirpy Danny Madigan, we get the magic ticket that takes him into the Dream Factory, and we get a cartoon cat in the police force, we get all sorts of silliness that is juvenile and childish, like the nerve gas fart gag. Of course we get car chases, shoot outs, explosions and stunts, like every good action movie should have. There's also a degree of darkness, particularly with The Ripper character, who is pretty gruesome even for an action movie, and really belongs in a slasher flick. Also, the real world is exaggeratedly dark, to better highlight the Hollywood gloss of the movies. We have a homeless man murdered for his shoes, we have a knife wielding burglar waiting outside Danny's door just for him to open it, it's a bleak, nihilistic New York that probably bears as much resemblance to the real thing as the Los Angeles of the Jack Slater movie does.
Yet somehow, Last Action Hero manages to hold the attention despite its shortcomings. There are obviously better action movies out there, Arnold made True Lies soon after this, McTiernan would dish up Die Hard With A Vengeance two years later, and even Shane Black delivered a pitch perfect action movie deconstruction in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. But Last Action Hero is fun entertainment, and it certainly never gets boring. It's worth it for the cameos alone, and it's a better parody than Loaded Weapon 1. And if there is one thing I can take from this film, it's Arnold as Hamlet; wish fulfilment for many a young boy stuck in an English Literature class. And in the end, Arnie does irony, who'd have thunk it!