Sunday, April 20, 2014

Last Action Hero


Joseph, my manager, and Madame Rose, my publicist, have informed me that everything is ready for the big event this weekend. I am so pleased to announce that I, Mrs. Norman Maine, candidate for governor of the great state of California, will be hosting the first ever 'tap off' for celebrity candidates in the race. Our carefully selected contestants will have a five minute tap solo to the music of their choice in which to explain their vision for California's future. Tickets, which benefit the MNM foundation for underprivileged families, have been going fast and there should be a full house tomorrow night at the Shrine auditorium. Some of you may be unaware of the MNM foundation. I tend not to publicize it very much as our resources are somewhat limited, but it exists to provide fashion make-overs and interior decorating tips to those who cannot afford a trip to Jose Eber or subscriptions to Architectural Digest. Nothing makes those dreary Section 8 project apartments sing like a scattering of throw pillows made from GlamourPuss seconds.

Gary Coleman's people have inquired as to whether he may use elevator tap shoes to his rendition of Randy Newman's Short People. I don't see why not as long as he has appropriate safety restraints to keep him from injury should he fall off of them. Gallagher is doing something to the theme from Watermelon Man and Arianna Huffington is importing a group of bouzouki players to get the appropriate ethnic feeling. The wild card is Arnold Schwarzenegger. His representatives have been very close mouthed about his routine and, as he's currently leading in the polls, I'm very interested in learning more about his platform, political and shoes, so I may respond properly in my piece - a medley of California, Here I Come and Edvard Grieg's Hall of the Mountain King.

In order to learn more about Arnold, the man, I went to my film collection to find a film in which he plays Arnold. I was unable to locate a copy of the documentary, Pumping Iron in which Arnold plays himself and first came to major attention. I had to settle for John McTiernan's Last Action Hero from 1993, a rather peculiar mess of film in which Arnold plays both an action character named Jack Slater and himself as an actor. The whole thing is supposed to be a satire/send-up of the he-man action genre, but falls flatter than yesterday's soufflĂ© a good deal of the time.

Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien), is a pre-adolescent irritation from New York who loves action movies, especially a series about a rogue LA cop, Jack Slater. He hangs out with his projectionist friend (Robert Prosky) in a pre-Disneyfication seedy Times Square theater. One day, when Nick, the projectionist is screening the print of the latest Schwarzenegger opus, Jack Slater IV, he admits Danny with a magic golden ticket that he received as a boy from Houdini. The ticket, which has a puckish sense of humor, whisks Danny from New York into the sun drenched world of the film, where there's a continuous rock soundtrack, exploding cars, and an over the top Anthony Quinn as the bad guy.

Danny spends his time, trying to convince Slater that his life is all a movie by pointing out all of the inconsistencies and idiocies that Hollywood perpetrates in the name of creating reality. (Tina Turner is the mayor, Sharon Stone (as Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct and Robert Patrick (as the T-1000 from Terminator 2) are on the steps of an impossibly lush LA police department, a cartoon cat (voiced by Danny DeVito) is a crack undercover officer etc.) This leads to a lot of action set pieces, most of them completely over the top, and some extraneous plot involving drug dealing and evil henchmen.

Eventually the most evil henchman, Benedict (Charles Dance in a Vincent Van Gogh hairdo), steals Danny's magic ticket and escapes from film world back to the reality of New York. Danny and Jack follow him, trying to stop him before he can release villains from other films on an unsuspecting world or from committing crimes whence he can escape back into celluloid and fantasy. Everything culminates at the fancy NY premiere for Jack Slater IV where Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver and other celebrity guests assemble in black tie, not expecting Jack Slater to show up in their midst chasing Benedict and the nefarious ripper (Tom Noonan-also doing double duty as himself.) Eventually everything works itself out, with a little help from Death (Ian McKellan), making a cameo from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Young Danny learns the differences between fantasy and reality and the proper place for both in the world.

The film is full of good ideas. Early on, there's a scene in Danny's school with Joan Plowright (Laurence Olivier's widow) teaching Hamlet using the Olivier film. Danny reimagines it as a Schwarzenegger epic and it's a scream. The endless cameos and tongue and cheek pokes at Hollywood are also fun to spot and some of the dialog (courtesy of screenwriters Shane Black and David Arnott) is quite clever. I really liked the way Maria Shriver kept telling Arnold 'Don't plug the restaurants' and her sighs when he couldn't help himself. There are also some very bad ideas, like a very strange funeral for a gangster named Frankie the Fart and giving dialog to Angie Everheart.

The film ultimately fails because it belittles it's audience. Those who go to cop action films of the Bad Boys or Die Hard type go because they're either adolescent or wish to escape into adolescent fantasies. Having those myths exploded as adolescent fantasies by directly pointing out what tripe they are just serves to alienate and insult the very people you need to win over if the film is to succeed. The film makers learned this to their cost when the film was originally released (against Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park). The word of mouth was bad from the outset and the film sank like a stone. Schwarzenegger had one more huge hit in him, with True Lies the next year, but, beyond that, most of his further projects were, at best, disappointing.

Hollywood learned lessons from this film's failure. There has never been another big budget attempt to deconstruct the action genre, even though it needs to be tweaked badly, witness the witless films of Michael Bay. It might have succeeded with a different lead, one who could have made the delicate balancing act of he-man and spoof work. Schwarzenegger is just too simplistic a performer. None of the other 90s reigning action heroes could have done it either so it remains a misguided project that should never have gotten the green light. It's still interesting to see for the way in which people at the top of their game (director McTiernan, star Schwarzenegger) can go horribly wrong.

The DVD is in widescreen with a Dolby soundtrack and good print and soundtrack transfers. It's a bare bones release with little other than the film. I found it at the local discount house for less than $6 so I don't feel in the least bit cheated by it.

Ticket ripping. Apartment burglary. Gratuitous starlets in underwear. Exploding ice cream truck. La Brea tar pit swimming. Gratuitous Mercedes Ruehel. Child falling from rooftop. Gratuitous E.T. moment. Nuns with machine guns. Target eyeball. Canine pyramid.

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