Worth A Look: 54.29%
Just Average: 12.86%
Pretty Crappy: 8.57%
3 reviews, 52 user ratings
|Last Action Hero
by Andrew Howe
Of Tall Poppies and Low Blows - A Defence of Last Action HeroIn 1993 I saw an action film which instantly took its rightful place in my top ten of the genre. Featuring an established action-film lead at the peak of his abilities, it blew me away with its mix of high-octane action sequences, memorable characters and truly bizarre sense of humour. It was, in a word, everything an action film should be (that's six words, but what the heck), and in a better world it would have become an object of worship for action fans the world over.
"Deserving of a major re-evaluation"
I suppose I could be referring to The Fugitive, or Demolition Man, or maybe even Passenger 57. But I'm not. I'm talking about Last Action Hero, and in so doing I invite derision, ridicule and the plagues of Egypt to rain upon my head and whatever's left of my reputation for the rest of my God-given years.
Every now and again a film appears on the scene which manages to whip up a storm of righteous anger amongst even our most right-thinking critics. Dune was such a film, as was Heaven's Gate before it, and it would be fair to say that the savaging these releases received was just a tad out of proportion to the relative demerits of the films in question. Heaven's Gate, for example, was by no means a great film, but no one can deny that it was a unique vision which contained its share of arresting visuals and memorable scenes. This meant nothing, however, to the baying hounds of criticdom, who seemed intent on crucifying everyone from the director to the janitor in their quest to prove that the film was the celluloid equivalent of a pile of week-old bat guano. Saner heads have prevailed in the years since, but at the time space on that particular bandwagon was well and truly at a premium.
For those of us who missed the first instalment, a reprise of the Night of the Long Knives was re-enacted upon the release of the above-mentioned Arnie film. You couldn't open a newspaper for fear of coming across another scathing review, and if the terms "monumental ineptitude" and "tsunami of drivel" didn't appear it's only because the reviewer in question didn't think of them. There was blood on the page, and some may suggest that Schwarzenegger's career has never fully recovered from the force of that unholy battering.
I am holding in my hands a copy of "Action! The Action Movie A-Z" (Batsford, 1996), a rather nifty tome which should be on the shelves of every self-respecting action fan. On the way to awarding LAH the equivalent of one star (putting it on a par, incidentally, with the likes of Red Sonja and Robocop 2), the usually-reliable Marshall Julius has this to say:
"Stateside reviewers were almost unanimous in their condemnation of John McTiernan's blockbusting turkey. Variety described it as a 'joyless, soulless, machine of a movie' … Last Action Hero is a wretched mess of genres and ideas which disappoints on every level … LAH devotes so much time to chaos and destruction that it forgets that a decent action movie should have at least some kind of story to go with it, and that most important of all, it needs a hero that the audience can root for. Unfortunately, Slater is as wooden as he is invincible … Add to this a failed attempt at self-parody, and it is clear that Schwarzenegger miscalculated the intelligence and devotion of his audience."
I quote at such length because this extract pretty much sums up the beefs of every other review which hit the stands, causing me to wonder if the great God of critics didn't perhaps deliver this diatribe in toto to his charges via a modern-day Sermon on the Mount. If so, I guess I was out of town at the time.
I am here to tell you that, within the genre, Last Action Hero is a fine film, and if it isn't The Third Man that's because it was never intended to be anything more than pure, mindless entertainment (and yes, that can be a source of praise as much as a criticism). In the minutes remaining before that lynch mob outside my door strings me up from the nearest gibbet, let's take a look at a few of the reasons why.
The acting is as good a place as any to start. First cab off the rank is Schwarzenegger himself, an actor who is unlikely to be making any Academy Award acceptance speeches anytime soon. However, to attack him for turning in a wooden performance is like taking a kindergarten painting class to task for failing to create a Monet - if we haven't determined that the guy can't act by now, we might as well pack up and go home. This particular truism, however, has not prevented the likes of Predator and Commando from receiving a certain measure of acclaim in action circles, so I am genuinely surprised that so much was made of the issue with respect to this film. In addition, I would contend that there is a warmth to his performance in this flick which surpasses anything he has achieved before or since - compare his scenes with Danny's mother with those awful father-daughter bonding moments at the start of Commando, or the genuine shock he exhibits when confronted with the Schwarzenegger billboard with his attempts at registering dismay during the final twenty minutes of Predator. OK, so Olivier he ain't, but I would suggest that with this film he pushes the boundaries of his (admittedly limited) range.
Elsewhere things are even better. I would need both hands to count the number of child actors I've fantasised about throttling over the years, but Austin O'Brien's performance is definitely on the right side of capable. His portrayal of a socially retarded kid who takes refuge in the fantasy world of the silver screen is suitably over-the-top, and his facial and vocal expressiveness brings a certain measure of charm to the proceedings. (Many reviewers, incidentally, favoured the words "obnoxious" and "brat" when describing his character, but I find "eminently" and "likeable" to be considerably more appropriate.)
However, the true highlight of this film is Charles Dance's wonderful performance as the chief villain. I would go so far as to say that his efforts here are on a par with Alan Rickman's in Die Hard, and if you think that's too lofty a comparison I would ask you to consider what passes for a memorable villain in some other, highly-praised, action films before you speak (check out Dennis Hopper's paint-by-numbers nutcase in Speed, then we'll talk). Such is Dance's screen presence that he somehow manages to eclipse the performances he is meant to be parodying - his deadpan style is a constant source of amusement, and if he never truly manages to exude an air of menace it's simply because the film never calls for it.
Which brings us to the next bone of contention, being the much-savaged storyline. Much has been made of the plethora of in-jokes which pepper the film, and the accusations of hubris resulting from Schwarzenegger's decision to play himself were heard loud and far. However, it seems to me that Wes Craven did exactly the same thing with Scream and New Nightmare respectively, and somehow wound up attracting praise for his efforts. It is patently obvious, therefore, that LAH fell foul of what we in Australia call the "tall poppy" syndrome, being an inexplicable desire to cut anyone who achieves a measure of success down to size. At the time of LAH's release Schwarzenegger was a bona fide mega-star, having appeared in a string of high-grossing action flicks. This doubtless irked a number of critics, since films like Kindergarten Cop could never be confused with "high art". I would therefore suggest that said critics were just waiting for a chance to put Schwarzenegger in his place, and a misreading of the basis for LAH provided a sterling opportunity.
I say "misreading" because the script (by Zak Penn and Adam Leff) is by no means a conceit. I found it to be inventive, pointed and delightfully bizarre, and to suggest that it insults the audience's intelligence is way off base. Let's get one thing straight – Dumb and Dumber insults your intelligence. Johnny Mnemonic insults your intelligence. LAH, on the other hand, takes a reasonably novel idea and makes it work by virtue of the fact that it doesn't shy away from the difficulties inherent in such a concept. I believe it took a certain amount of bravery to bring this film to the screen (given that it is, in effect, parodying itself), and that's something to applaud, not deride.
And let's not forget that this is, at its heart, a very funny movie. It could have been permitted to slide into farce (à la Blazing Saddles), but the film's slightly-twisted internal logic ensures it always remains marginally believable. So it is we are left with a string of great moments, and if a few jokes fall flat (a gangster named "Leo the Fart", for instance, or that bloody cartoon cat) it really doesn't matter much when there's so many other scenes which bring an easy smile to the face. (Personal favourites - the exchange between Slater and Benedict in the driveway of Vivaldi's mansion, Slater punishing Benedict for the crime of blowing up his ex-wife's house, the assassin in the closet, and many others.)
Of course, I haven't even mentioned the actual action sequences, which are on a par with any other big-budget actioner you care to name. The initial car chase is the obvious set-piece, but the rooftop funeral scene ain't too shoddy either. It's also worth mentioning that the film manages to achieve all of this without resorting to gratuitous violence or profanity, which is definitely no mean feat.
Given the points mentioned above, I am therefore incapable of understanding why a hugely enjoyable, amusing and inventive comic-book action flick such as this has raised so many hackles. The Schwarzenegger backlash is definitely a factor, and the inexplicable fear many critics possess of going against the majority (a.k.a. The Bandwagon Syndrome) is probably another. But I think, at its core, the major reason for this film's critical failure rests with the fact that too many people have forgotten that it is no crime for a movie to be fun, pure and simple, and to hell with those pesky notions of relevance, art and serious entertainment.
And in closing, I'd just like to mention that I finally purchased a DVD player a few months ago. I immediately put in an order for four discs, the first three being Glory, Excalibur and The Matrix.And the fourth? Well - let's just say I'm out to prove a point.
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originally posted: 04/30/00 03:04:22