There are few things more disillusioning to true cinephiles than the realization that some movies just plain suck, and that their heroes sometimes stumble. In the age of the movie geek, to suggest such a thing feels like blasphemy -- especially if you ask certain Star Wars fans about George Lucas and the prequels. But when I was a kid, and I wasn't obsessing about Star Wars, I worshipped at the altar of Arnold Schwarzenegger. His early, R-rated movies, which I wasn't old enough to watch, were like myths to me; when a classmate saw Commando or Raw Deal, I'd beg for them to regale me with tales of him tearing enemies limb from limb. When I saw the scenes for myself a few years later, they seldom failed to live up to the images in my mind.
My obsession with the Austrian muscleman seemed to be fulfilled automatically in the late 1980s, when Schwarzenegger did a string of comedies before returning to adult action just as I turned old enough to get into theaters without the aid of a parent or guardian. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was essentially the be-all end-all of my young existence, and I felt vindicated for sitting through the rest of his movies and loving them unconditionally; I mean, I probably saw The Running Man 12 times, for God's sake. And then I saw Last Action Hero.
Quite frankly, I'd already discovered that some movies suck; I saw Toys on my birthday in 1992 and that was excruciating. But Last Action Hero was sort of like everything I thought I wanted but not at all in the way I wanted it; whether or not I was mature enough to appreciate its sense of self-reflexivity, I just thought it was terrible. Subsequently, I found myself less and less interested in Schwarzenegger's movies after that, even reconsidering affection previously doted upon other films such as, you guessed it, The Running Man.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment recently released Last Action Hero on Blu-ray, so it seemed time to revisit the film and find out if my coming of age as a cinephile was well-deserved. Hence, this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released on June 18, 1993 by Columbia Pictures, Last Action Hero cost a rumored $85 million to make including $15 million for star Arnold Schwarzenegger's salary. The film was meant to be a satire on action movies and was originally named Extreme Violence by story writers Zak Penn and Adam Leff, but it was rewritten by Shane Black, and later, William Goldman polished dialogue to give the characters more substance. Ironically, Penn and Leff meant it as a send-up of the movies of filmmakers like Shane Black.
The film earned a little more than $15 million during its opening weekend, and ultimately went on to gross $137 million worldwide. Although blame for its lackluster performance at the box office was largely credited to the June 11, 1993 release of Jurassic Park, it had previously received bad word of mouth after a test screening in May of '93 earned the film terrible responses. Additionally, it was more or less savaged by critics, and continues to hover at 37 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Conceptually, as a satire of a big-budget '90s action movie made by the folks who were the best at making them, it's a pretty great idea. Shane Black had already essentially deconstructed himself once with The Last Boy Scout, but this film was a virtual laundry list of action conventions that also happened to be shoehorned into a story that demanded massive set pieces.
Particularly, the early scenes work well, where Schwarzenegger is making fun of himself and indulging the spectacle of then-contemporary blockbusters to send up remakes like in his ultra-violent version of Hamlet. Even the early movie-in-movie sequences work well because they're sort of like an action fan's comfort food -- a series of clichés that fulfill our demands for "character development" while keeping the storytelling and especially action momentum moving forward.
Also, Schwarzenegger is actually pretty good in much of the film; while he's no method actor or, quite frankly, capable of digging underneath his action hero's existential dilemma once he enters the "real" world, he conveys effortless charm and was sort of at the peak of his physical perfection -- meaning he was no longer the shockingly muscular bodybuilder, but had mellowed into a buff but relatively believable leading man.
What Doesn't Work: I used to think that the movie fell apart once Jack Slater entered the "real" world, but the truth is that Austin O'Brien's character destroys the movie almost as soon as he appears. Other than his immediate, Comic Book Guy-style obnoxiousness, which is somehow meant to be charming -- or at least forgivable since he's fatherless -- the character basically functions as a verbal acknowledgment of all of the clichés that the filmmakers are referencing or sending up. This is already as annoying as if you were sitting next to someone in a theater talking through a film you were trying to watch, but once he goes inside the Jack Slater film, it gets even worse, mostly because he devotes every second to telling the characters that they are fictitious and therefore acting out prescribed storytelling conventions.
Not only does this rob the film of any sense of discovery for the audience, it fails to acknowledge a larger issue that the film flirts with but otherwise avoids -- namely, that the movie world can affect the real world and vice versa. What would audiences see if Danny was in the movie, a kid telling them what was happening or going to happen? And how would that affect the actual narrative of the Jack Slater movie, in terms of revealing or discovering information through the plot? Later, when Slater arrives in the "real" world, he's capable of ripping a cab door off in one scene, but his gun shoots regular bullets and he's not supposed to be invincible. There's no clear sense of what affects what and Danny is so preoccupied with ruining every moment by pointing out its origins that we never get to enjoy the experience of watching an action movie while it's being broken down to its component elements.
Further, the screenwriters do a serviceable job constructing a string of sequences that serve this film's needs for its own conventions, but completely fail to recognize that they're betraying them in the process. The introduction scene of Jack Slater, for example, looks more like a pre-credit set piece -- which it is in Last Action Hero -- than the climax of any major blockbuster. Not to mention the fact that we're supposed to believe a "real" blockbuster movie climaxes with the death of a little kid, which is what happens at the end of Jack Slater III.
And finally, director John McTiernan, who should have been in his wheelhouse helming this movie, is painfully literal-minded in his juxtaposition of the film's two worlds. The movie world, thankfully, is sunny and beautiful, evoking an idyllic Southern California that can only be seen in the movies; but the "real" world is a bleak, black and rain-soaked New York City where you can't see anything that's happening, and everything looks gross and grimy without achieving anything that approaches verisimilitude with any known "reality."
What's The Verdict:Last Action Hero is still a terrible movie, which means, well, technically it still holds up -- because it always was one. The truth is that in a lot of ways the film was ahead of its time -- the cinephile obsessive subgenre of self-referential films, as opposed to classic parodies or genre satires like those made by Mel Brooks and others -- and could be important without needing to be good. Of course, Edgar Wright did McTiernan and Schwarzenegger one better with Hot Fuzz a few years ago, and that film's release seemed better-timed to suit the ascension of film geeks who not only knew but discussed those conventions and clichés -- often while they were happening.
Sadly, Last Action Hero could have been a good film, because its action is pretty good, and its concept is strong. (And with all due respect to the good folks at Sony, this could have been a better Blu-ray had it acknowledged the film's sordid history, sorted through it and tried to examine those ideas -- or, in lieu of all of that, provided a single extra feature or bonus material.) But if I'm going to watch a movie with someone talking all of the way through it about what's happening and what it means, I'd prefer it be the filmmakers, not the characters on the screen.