Monday, July 14, 2014

Last Action Hero (1993)

Director: John McTiernan

Last Action Hero was a good idea that couldn't quite pull off the execution (cue the Jack Slater bad pun here).

The movie tells the story of Danny Madigan, a 12-year-old who's obsessed with movies, especially action flicks featuring his hero, Jack Slater. Slater is a virtual parody of the already-over-the-top action hero that dominated the box offices through the '80s and early '90s, and the character is played by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. On one particularly tough evening, Danny is given a magical ticket that transports him into the latest Jack Slater sequel, where he quite literally becomes a part of the world of the big-budget action film as Jack Slater's sidekick.

The real trouble begins when one of the arch villains in the picture - an icy-cold assassin named Benedict (played brilliantly by Charles Dance, whom you may know as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones) - finds Danny's magical ticket and transports himself into "our" world, the realistically dour and dingy New York City. Benedict's master plan involved using the ticket to go into various films and bring other villains into this world where, as he puts it, "The bad guys can win." Danny brings the fictional Jack Slater into the real world to try and stop Benedict. The problem is that Slater, no longer in his world, is now vulnerable in ways that he has never been in his own movies.

The icy-cold and wonderfully sarcastic Benedict - probably
the most consistently excellent thing about this movie.
Last Action Hero does have its moments. It was certainly a parody that was due back in 1993, as that particular style of action movie had reached untold heights of commercial success and featured no end of formulaic and often downright silly elements. These elements are spoofed in both obvious and subtle ways, in turn. A prime example is when Danny is first transported into the latest Jack Slater movie, right into the back seat of Slater's speeding muscle car. As he looks around at the ridiculous and cacophonous action unfolding around him, he takes note: "Wait a minute. The bad puns...the explosions...the hard rock soundtrack...I'm in the movie!!" And with those observations, Danny was unwittingly giving Michael Bay his formula to mindless action movies that net disgusting amounts of money (for those counting, Bay's latest Transformers movie grossed $100 million on its opening weekend, despite being labelled all but worthless by any critic worth his or her salt).

The ideas behind the movie are good, and some of the intentionally cheesy dialogue is funny enough. Among the highlights are the police station in Slater's world, where we see an amalgam of every action movie police station cliche in the book. An added gag is the pair of lines of mismatched cops who are being partnered up for their "buddy movie" pairings: old cop + young cop, real cop + cartoon cat cop, living cop + Humphrey Bogart's ghost cop, and on it goes. Such jokes border on Zucker brothers zaniness, but never quite go all the way, which is probably for the best.

While the gags are pretty good, the movie does lose steam about halfway through. I attribute this to just how much time Danny spends in Slater's movie world. Sure, a lot of the gags are pretty funny, but not all of them hit the mark. And there are actually moments when you get the sense that the director McTiernan fell into his own trap - he actually wants us to be enthralled by Slater's ridiculous exploits, rather than simply ask us to keep laughing at them. This incongruous tone is completely at odds with the point of the movie.

The Ripper - one of several uninspired elements of the film.
The idea of using villains from movies is great, but they
could have done far better than this bland parody.
This same shift into a real attempt at action movie intensity carries into the end of the film, at which point its lost any impact. The one saving ingredient is that of Benedict's attempt to draw various fictional film villains into the real world. However, even this intriguing plot device isn't used to much effect. What we end up with is simply one already-introduced Jack Slater villain and the personification of Death (in a pretty cool little cameo by Sir Ian McKellan, incidentally). Otherwise, why is the film asking me to take seriously the very thing that it just spent over an hour mocking? Poor planning, if you ask me.

To me, this is the textbook mediocre movie. I didn't feel like I wasted my time watching it, but I feel no need to ever watch it again. There's just enough merit to see you through the two-plus hour running time, but it's too inconsistent to be called anything more than a really good idea that couldn't quite live up to its vast potential.