Last Action Hero: Man, The Real World Sucks….
For as many awesome, high grossing big budget blockbusters as Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in, it’s important to remember even he has been in some flops. The list is not short, and includes ERASER (1996), BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997), The 6th Day (2000), and Collateral Damage (2002). Now, those movies might not be complete money losers or complete stinkers, but it’s easy to argue that the whole decade after ERASER was full of week films that don’t have the staying power of PREDATOR (1987) or TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991). Sadly, LAST ACTION HERO is one of the films that falls into the former category of films that were more miss than hit. I know, it was made years before ERASER. True. But it was still an underperformer.
Thankfully, time has been kind to this film, and while it’s incomprehensible at times, it serves as a bright shinning homage to everything we, and I do me WE, love about action movies AND that beautiful bag of art called cinema. It also goes pretty deep on a few different levels in terms of our heroes, movie reality, our reality, and how we relate to each. You just need to pay CLOSE attention, cause under all that gloss and cheese is seriously a wicked commentary and the nature of cinema itself.
THE SMART AND WONKY STORY …
Normally I try and give a break down/plot summary but for this movie I’d have a freaking book written by the time I was done, so here’s the short version. Danny Madigan (played by a young Austen O’Brian) loves action movies. He’s one of us. He knows the tropes and the plot points and everything. He is in a “real” realm. He receives a “magic ticket” as a gift from a kind old projectionist/mentor. The ticket turns out to be legit and sends him into the latest Schwarzenegger film (yes, the real Schwarzenegger) JACK SLATER IV.
This is a totally normal platonic relationship we have….now smile!
This level of storytelling is where the movie get’s clever. It opens up at the end of Jack Slater III. In that opening you see how Jack Slater goes up against his nemesis the Ripper (played by an always dapper TOM NOONAN), who has taken over an elementary school and is holding Slater’s son hostage. After that scene plays out the real burns, bringing us into the “real” world where Dennis Madison is, then we get the info that JACK SLATER IV is coming out. In number IV Slater is going to avenge the death of his second cousin at the hands of the mob. It’s intentionally ridiculous and shows that Slater himself is at the end of his franchise life. The only other film I can think of off the top of my head that pulls off such a good “beginning within a beginning” sequence is SERINITY (2005). To me it’s the best way to get everyone up to speed in short order, saving everyone precious time so that we can soak in explosions and gunfire. That almost sounds comfortable.
You know you’ve made it when you get your own useless, stupid playing cards…
And then the freight train that is this movie keeps on going. It is hard to sum up everything that goes on, but it’s safe to say that the multiple levels of story work to great affect. In this Hollywood land we get thrown into we see it all. Ridiculously dressed up super women, stupid buddy cop combinations (my favorite was half cop half rabbi teamup), a cartoon cop cat (voiced by Danny DeVito), and many explosions and lots and lot’s of bullets. It’s just plain big budget fun. What makes it work is Danny. He’s constantly calling out everything, making us aware of the action movie rules, talking about the sequels, and how this movies story is going to suck because they already went through all the good ideas for the first three films. For the true action fan, it’s delicious.
It is a huge !@#%ing mess though. No getting over that.
AND JOHN MCTIERNAN
It’s fitting that the man who help build the definitive action genre with movies like PREDATOR (1987) and DIE HARD (1988) would create a movie that totally rips the genre and the system that produces it a gaping huge *expletive deleted*. It is testament to his talent that the movie manages to go deeper than that.
In this film McTiernan’s genius makes itself clear in the “real” world. It’s there where McTiernan goes out of his way to remind us what we’re watching. With one scene, towards the end with Benedict (one of the main heavy’s, played spot on by Charles Dance) McTiernan manages to make one murder resonate with incredible consequence after a whole series of comical, gratuitous killings. Just saying, he’s a genius film maker and you need to pay attention to everything going on in the film.
It’s also written with the help of Shane Black, who worked on PREDATOR and has ascended the ranks to become an acclaimed director himself (Iron Man 3, anyone?).
ACTION MOVIE REFERENCE EXPLOSION
If you want a crash course in late 80’s early 90’s action cinema this movie is it. It has more references, guest appearances, walk on’s, and cameos than just about any movie this side of THE EXPENDABLES (2010). The list of stars that make an appearance (off the top of my head, mind you) goes like this: Van Damme, Sharron Stone, Chevy Chase, Damon Wayans, Robert Patrick, Sylvester Stallone (if you count cardboard), and Danny DeVito as a talking cartoon cat. And F. Murray Abraham is in there. Oh, and Antony Quinn play’s a mob boss.
It’s just mind numbing to think they were able to get this many stars to show up on film for one movie. That alone makes this one for the history books.
The movie references, nods to action movies that came before, are equally too hard to count. One of the opening lines is an overt reference to DIE HARD. Soon after that is an obvious LETHAL WEAPON nod. And it goes on and on.
At points it feels like one big Easter Hunt of action stuff and it’s all the better for it.
CHARLES DANCE….AN AMAZING BAD GUY
This guy should be in more movies. Period. His role of Benedict is so underrated it’s horrible. He’s smart, he’s cunning, he delivers great insults and knows how to undermine anyone around him, but the best part is that by the end of the film he manages to turn into something truly terrifying. He stops being a movie character and starts being a bad person.
Slater fails to fit in but Benedict hops into our realm and starts swimming like a champ. Movie heroes don’t work in the real world, but movie villains fit right in. Pretty deep.
Legend has it the role was written for Alan Rickman (another DIE HARD alum) but Rickman turned it down for God knows what reason. Honestly, I’m glad he did. Dance makes this role sing and stands toe to toe with Arnold with no problems.
Mr. Dance in his prime. The bastard.
And again, a truly great bad guy like this makes a truly great action movie.
Check him out in THE GOLDEN CHILD (1986), the Eddie Murphy classic that might be showing up here real soon. That’s a good one for him. And ALIEN 3 (1992). Simply honest talent.
SO WHY IS SOMEONE GOING TO TELL ME IT’S BAD?
Because it’s a movie that tries to do too many things at once. As I have said, it is a mess. Maybe it just does too much too well. When it’s ridiculous, it’s really out there. When it’s being an action extravaganza, the screen is just on fire. When you go back to New York it’s so grimy and soul crushing it’s hard to stay with the film itself.
It’s like John McTiernan is laughing too hard at his own joke.
But, it’s important to remember that this was made under the most “Hollywood” of circumstances. Lot’s of big egos, rewrites, huge paychecks, and a disastrous test screening that prompted a serous edit right before the movie was released. That alone is the kiss of death for any movies opening.
That’s all over now, thank the movie gods, and all we’re left with is this fine specimen of a movie that’s fine to watch as long as you don’t expect it to make sense. And look passed the cheese.
SIT BACK, RELAX, AND HANG ON
Just do it. Watch it, pay attention, take notes, and even (dare I say it) THINK! Cause this movie will make you do it whether you like it or not.
It’s an homage to cinema, action films, the land of Hollywood, and the fans. The people who PAY to watch this stuff. The people who religiously go even though we know the story before we watch it. We know the beats. We even call the endings. But we go because, most importantly, we want to be entertained.
And at the end of the day that’s all that really matters.
Watch and enjoy, my friends. They don’t get bigger than this.
Signed with Big Explosions, Guns, Fast Cars, Speed, Scantily Clad Vixens, and Booze.
I’ll just leave these here…..