“Last Action Hero” is a joyless, soulless machine of a movie. This $ 80 million-plus mishmash of fantasy, industry in-jokes, self-referential parody, film-buff gags and too-big action set-pieces will test the clout of a humongous, superstar-driven marketing campaign to put over a picture people won’t much like , with the possible exception of early-teen boys. After the big opening, word-of-mouth will likely send B.O. down on a steeper-than-desired slide.
In a PG-13 picture that represents Arnold Schwarzenegger’s self-proclaimed attempt to soften his image and reduce the violence in his work, the body count and sadism quotient remain remarkably high. But far more staggering is the total imbalance between the amount of money and effort lavished on every scene and the utter lack of emotion or human interest to latch onto.
One of the screenplay’s more creative aspects is having found several different ways to write the picture’s epitaph.
Schwarzenegger plays the indestructible screen superhero Jack Slater, and at one point his young charge tells him, “You can’t die until the grosses go down” (a remark repeated by the star himself at the end, and likely to be quoted frequently). Schwarzenegger also says, in exasperation, “This hero stuff has its limits,” but his prophetic signature phrase to his enemies when they try to harm him is, “Big mistake.”
That’s what he’s made here. It may have been alluring to the star to give his persona a little tweaking by essentially playing himself, and the appeal of an 11-year-old boy joining in his he-man exploits can also be understood.
But the central problem is that the picture is based on a gimmick rather than a story, so the viewer is basically presented with a succession of exceedingly arbitrary scenes in which nothing is at stake because, in context, it’s almost all “fiction” anyway.
In a massive opening scene, police sergeant Slater bullies his way past his superiors during a nocturnal hostage standoff to confront the lunatic who’s holding Slater’s own son along with some other kids. Slater manages to save the day, of course, although a later flashback reveals that Slater has reason to feel haunted by what occurred on the roof.
Watching this action in a rundown Times Square movie palace is little Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), whose old projectionist friend Nick (Robert Prosky) invites him to return at midnight for a private screening of Slater’s latest picture, simply titled “Jack Slater IV.”
Before showing it, however, Nick presents Danny with a golden magic ticket, a “passport to another world” handed down from Houdini but never used by the retiring Nick. It’s with this ticket, then, that Danny passes into the world onscreen, plunked right down in the 1966 Pontiac convertible in which Slater is being pursued by some machine gun-toting baddies.
Because of what he’s already seen of the film in progress, Danny is able to lead Slater to the home of the chief mobster (Anthony Quinn) and his sinister triggerman Benedict (Charles Dance), yet another viciously cruel British villain. This confrontation leads to one shoot-out after another, each more elaborate and tiresome than the last, interrupted only by visits to the gargantuan, futuristic police station (actually the lobby of the former MGM Filmland building, now taken over by Sony) where Slater’s boss (Frank McRae) can shout at him for his unorthodox methods.
This being a “movie,” much is made of the fantasy element of what goes on in this fictional world: Slater can survive all manner of firepower without injury, cars are capable of impossible stunts, and all the women are hot babes. At one point, Slater and Danny enter a video store (heavily stocked with Columbia and TriStar product) only to encounter a display for “Terminator 2” starring Sylvester Stallone. Sad to say, this represents the virtual high water of the film’s wit.
Much more attention has been paid to the great variety of weapons on display, from the vast assortment of late model artillery to the self-assembled flying ax wielded by the rooftop fiend.
At a crucial juncture, the crafty Benedict comes into possession of the magic ticket and takes his evil ways into the “real” world of Times Square, only to be followed by Danny and Slater, who is dismayed to discover that violence can actually hurt and that his entire life has been lived in movies.
It just so happens that “Jack Slater IV” is opening in New York, which allows for the “real” Arnold Schwarzenegger, plugging Planet Hollywood, accompanied by Maria Shriver and surrounded by a host of celebs in cameos, to be threatened at his own movie premiere and saved by his fictional counterpart.
Further climaxes involve a rooftop confrontation in the rain that instantly recalls “Blade Runner” and, mostly weirdly, the emergence of hooded Death off the screen from “The Seventh Seal” (in the person of Ian McKellen) to stalk Slater and the kid.
The basic conceit of a “real” character joining “fictional” characters up onscreen was possibly done first, and certainly best, by Buster Keaton in his brilliant 1924 comedy “Sherlock Jr.” The fanciful script here, contributed to by several uncredited hands, including William Goldman, certainly leaves a lot to be desired, and director John McTiernan nowhere displays the deft, whimsical touch required to pull this off.
To the contrary, it’s all heavy, empty and exceptionally noisy. There are too many guns, too many cars, too many explosions, too many extras, too many villains (at least four prominent ones) and no heart.
Almost everything about the film has annoying aspects, beginning with the heavy metal score, which is uniquely strident, off-putting and headache-inducing. Many of the settings look murky and unattractive, and the lensing of them lacks the sort of muscular grace that best suits ambitious actioners.
Many of the visual effects were no doubt challenging to achieve, but without an involving dramatic context, they seem like exercises in a vacuum.
On a character level, Arnold is Arnold, and there’s not really much else to be said about his performance here. Everyone else seems to have checked in for a nice payday.
Unfortunately, Austin O’Brien, who is onscreen most of the time, is far from being a charming or endearing kid. Jabbering incessantly and always badgering his hero, he delivers a one-note performance that adds considerably to the already deafening decibel levels of the soundtrack, and is best characterized as a perpetual insistence upon being heard and noticed.
“Last Action Hero” is enough to make one nostalgic for “Hudson Hawk.”