Certain films are always going to be a victim of their reputation. If they are perceived as a commercial and artistic failure, that reputation will stick until it becomes a perceived wisdom. External factors that may have had much influence at the time of original release will get forgotten, and mud sticks. This is very much the case with Last Action Hero. At the time of release, Schwarzenegger was quite simply the biggest movie star in the world. These days, with no modern comparison, it is difficult to remember what a huge event the release of one of his movies was. He had achieved a run of hits that were almost unprecedented, and this movie was only going to cement his reputation.
The majority of cinema audiences, I am afraid to say, are fairly conservative. Unlike the enlightened readers we are lucky enough to have here, most moviegoers only really want to see exactly what they have seen many times before. In 1993 this meant they wanted to see Schwarzenegger blowing things up. They wanted to see him running around disabling bad guys in violent ways. What they didn't want to see was him in a metaphysical romp where the very line between cinema and reality became blurred, and where movie references were made which quite simply went above many people's heads. Oh, and their heads were also turned by a certain Spielberg and a ground breaking technology called CGI.
The external factor here was Jurassic Park which was released within a few weeks of Last Action Hero. Sony were confident that Schwarzenegger had the box office clout to fight off the Raptors. Sadly, in this film, he didn't. This is a huge shame because this film really does not deserve its reputation. It may not be the greatest film ever made, it may not even be entirely successful in its aim. But if you are looking for an action film with some smarts - and you are a bit of a movie geek, then you cannot really go far wrong. I suspect that much of the intended audience for this review may well be covered right there.
Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien) lives in the slums of New York. His mother works nights in a desperate attempt to keep food on the table, leaving Danny unsupervised. He roams the streets, seeing sights that no boy should see - and finds solace in the movies. In particular, he is a fan of the Jack Slater series of movies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger - yes he does play himself playing a character. I hope you're still with us). One night, his local cinema gains early access to a print of the latest Slater movie, and Danny is invited by his projectionist friend to help him check the print at a midnight screening. Of course, he cannot turn such an opportunity down - and as he enters the cinema he is given a magic golden ticket, which was handed down by Harry Houdini.
So far, so Purple Rose of Cairo crossed with Cinema Paradiso. But things take a completely surreal turn as Danny is watching the film. The golden ticket does its stuff, and before you know it, Danny is inside the movie and is Slater's latest sidekick. Slater is not happy with this and Danny needs to persuade him that they are in a movie, as well as get himself back into the real world. As usual, there is a villain (played by Charles Dance) who is attempting to kill Slater. But in a neat twist he ends up gaining access back to the real world, where he plans to kill Schwarzenegger at the premiers of his latest movie.
Last Action Hero has a wonderful premise, and for the most part it handles it extremely well. The film is not afraid to be cerebral when it needs to be, poking fun at Bergman, Amadeus, and many other well known filmic pieces of art. But it also delivers the action scenes in spades. There are several memorable action and chase scenes that really do stand up to the best that cinema has to offer.
The humour is quick and sharp-witted - and as mentioned before is also surprisingly cerebral. At the beginning, Danny day dreams in class whilst being taught Hamlet, imaging Schwarzenegger playing the Great Dane. We get a nice little black and white montage of said daydream which is funny enough, but the typically knowing touch here is that Danny's teacher is played by Joan Plowright, who talks sarcastically about Lawrence Olivier not being appreciated. There are many other enjoyable in-jokes like this. For example, one of the bad guys is played by F Murray Abraham - who on meeting him, Danny warns Slater not to trust:
“He killed Mozart”
Lines like this come thick and fast - and if you are appreciating them on the page, then they work even better on screen. I have seen this film many times, and it never fails to make me laugh. I find the mixture of comedy and action really enjoyable.
The director is John McTiernan - him of Predator and Die Hard fame, so it is obvious that he is going to handle the action scenes well. He moves his camera with panache, and doesn't let the pace slip at all, although he does rather seem to lose focus when the action shifts into the real world, and the tone seems to abruptly change to something much darker. He is probably less successful with the comedy, and can sometimes let jokes go on rather too long - one example of this is the police chief who rants so long and loud that steam actually comes out of his ears. Also some of the cameos (many characters appear - Catherine Trammell, Bogart, the T1000) are flagged rather too obviously. But in a film as big budget as this, a film that is as brave as this, is bound to have a few flaws. We should probably not even mention the ET gag here.
Over the years, I have seen many complaints about the performance of Austin O'Brien as Danny, but to me his performance is perfectly fine. He is not required to do any great “acting” scenes - his job is merely to be an over exuberant, slightly annoying kid. He does this well, and always seems realistic in the part. Schwarzenegger shows a welcome willingness to show himself up, and perhaps for the first time there is a glimmer than behind the muscles there really is a level of intelligence there. He shows good comic timing, and delivers his lines well. The supporting cast is also extremely strong - Dance, Abraham, Plowright, Ian McKellen, Anthony Quinn all provide excellent support and really help sell the quality of the production.
So there are a few flaws here. The slightly overdone jokes, the slowing down of the pace in the final scenes are all examples where it is quite easy to pick holes in the production. But these are not valid reasons for the film to have the reputation it has. What McTiernan has delivered is a funny, clever, sharp, exciting action movie that has a much to stimulate the brain as it does the eyes. And as such, it is actually up there with Terminator 2 amongst my favourite Schwarzenegger movies. If you have never seen the film before, then do yourself a favour and pick a copy up. You are likely to be glad you did.
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