Let’s play “You Make the Call: Hollywood Version.” It’s 1992, and you’re the president of Columbia Pictures. You have the power. The juice. The stuff. In your hands is a red-hot, wink-happy screenplay that successfully pins down and tickles the stone-faced action genre that’s launched a horde of blockbusters to the top of the box office chart during the previous decade. The screenplay polish was co-executed by the writer behind “Lethal Weapon.” Your attached lead is Arnold Schwarzenegger, coming off “Total Recall,” “Kindergarten Cop,” and the world-shaking megasuccess of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” And your director is responsible for “Die Hard,” inarguably the finest action picture ever produced.And some people openly wonder how “Last Action Hero” got made.
"The maligned big gun"
A pre-teen with a colossal love of cinema, Danny Madigan (awe junkie Austin O’Brien) spends much of his day inside a crumbling urban movie palace, wolfing down as many Jack Slater films as he possibly can. Danny’s favorite fictional character, Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the ultimate screen bad-ass, mowing down bad guys, solving impossible crimes, and always quick with a quip. On the eve of the release of the hotly anticipated “Jack Slater IV,” Danny is invited by his projectionist pal (Robert Prosky, selling the stuffing out of a potentially creepy part) to a pre-screening, offering a magic ticket for entrance. Instead of passively munching popcorn and cheering on Slater’s shenanigans from his stationary seat, Danny is pulled into the movie, forced to fight alongside Slater as the vicious villains approach. Slater, bewildered by Danny’s presence, entertains the kid’s wild declarations of one-dimensional life inside a Hollywood action fiesta as he hunts down a mafia assassin named Benedict (Charles Dance). With bullets flying and bombs blasting, real trouble arises when Benedict takes possession of the ticket, permitting him access into the real world.
There’s an extended history behind the making and selling of “Last Action Hero” that’s turned this jocular film into a sobering industry punchline. Shoved hurriedly through the movie marketing obstacle course, branded the only film worth seeing during the heated summer of 1993, “Last Action Hero” took an arrogant route of publicity, exposing a rather delicate premise to a fanged reception where every man, woman, and critic took a turn caning the feature’s bare bottom, taking bizarrely intense offense to material that only aimed to please. But that was 1993. People were out to get this picture in the worst way. Granted, opening the week after “Jurassic Park” didn’t help the film’s standing either.
In 2010, the lethal reputation of “Last Action Hero” has softened some, mostly through the forgiveness of time and the miracle of hindsight. What was once labeled an obnoxiously self-satisfied, non-comedy action dud has morphed into an endurable Schwarzenegger curio, often credited as the first crack in the Austrian kingpin’s kingdom after years of box office supremacy.
Frankly, I’ve never found “Last Action Hero” offensive, embracing the picture throughout the years as a pleasurably madcap cartoon, buttressed by a clever script that smartly lampooned action film clichés while reveling in the same formula. It’s big, brawny, and noisy, but director John McTiernan merrily juggles the fantasy possibilities, bluntly poking fun at his own silver screen accomplishments while maintaining the screenplay’s wobbly event film swing. It’s mostly high-octane blockbuster cartwheeling, but “Last Action Hero” is quite witty at times, digging an elbow into the ribs of a genre that needed a good-natured poke at the time. Today, it all reads like a juicy valentine to rusted action staples.
Once Danny finds his way into the screen world, “Last Action Hero” takes off like a bullet train, mounting impressively staged car chases and shoot-outs to fulfill the promise of treacherous dealings inside a combustible Jack Slater motion picture. McTiernan stages the action briskly and bluntly, generating a mood of widescreen, stunt-silly havoc that plays into the satirical reach of the picture. The bedlam also inflates the film for its eventual marketplace positioning, allowing Schwarzenegger to do what God intended: playfully destroy everything in his path. The direction isn’t focused, but it’s engaging, delivering action beats in the best possible way, backed by an underrated soundtrack of grunge-snuffed hard rock and metal gems from bands such as AC/DC, Anthrax, Alice in Chains, and Megadeth.
Dreamily kablooey, “Last Action Hero” is also something of a time-capsule wet dream, taking audiences back to 1993, where a cameo by M.C. Hammer meant something, dammit! McTiernan encourages a “Muppet Movie” atmosphere for the picture, including supporting turns from Art Carney, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Noonan (as Slater’s deformed nemesis), Anthony Quinn, Ian McKellen (here briefly as Ingmar Bergman’s version of Death), Bridgette Wilson, and Mercedes Ruehl. Cameos come in the form of Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick, Melvin Van Peebles, Tina Turner, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jim Belushi, Leeza Gibbons, and Danny DeVito (voicing a cartoon cat detective named Whiskers -- a concept that plays into the film’s amusing mismatched buddy cop running joke). Star power counts for something, and this parade of once dazzling, extravagantly mulleted celebrities puts some spring into the picture’s step.
While I thoroughly enjoy the overall momentum of the film, “Last Action Hero” isn’t always blithe and demented. Once the action hits the real world in the final act, McTiernan applies the brakes to lend the dangerous streets of New York City some severity, effectively killing the high brought about by Slater’s world of cinematic caricatures. Notoriously rushed through post-production, “Last Action Hero” is undeniably bloated, in desperate need of furthering editing to keep the energy level up through brutal expositional pit stops and thespian grandstanding -- Charles Dance’s unabashed, fourth-wall-breaking performance being a prime candidate for a substantial running time neutering. Still, Schwarzenegger is satisfyingly loose as the titular gladiator, amazingly permitting his co-stars opportunity to nab most of the punchlines. The swirly he gives his own screen persona is humorous and well-played by the icon. The film needs more of his bewilderment and less of O’Brien’s pre-pubescent yammering as Danny. McTiernan overdoses on the character’s boyish enthusiasm, which irritates on impact. Too bad the script isn’t allowed to walk away from Danny for long.“Last Action Hero” goes meta for the final showdown, having Schwarzenegger play Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater invades a Hollywood red carpet shindig, and the twist returns the picture back to the impish personality it temporarily ignores to needlessly develop characters two acts too late. “Last Action Hero” isn’t perfect by any means, but it hardly deserves its toxic reputation. It’s a movie in love with movies, imparting a potent nostalgic grip with its depiction of bygone theatrical presentation and the whirlwind enthusiasm of matinee escapism. It makes more than its share of missteps, yet the core of this action lampoon delivers a decent portion of laughs and mischief, giving Schwarzenegger and McTiernan an occasion to make fun of themselves while raising a little hell.
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originally posted: 01/16/10 10:37:41