Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Thursday, August 1, 2013
Back Where I Started
One day in early 1993 I spent a few hours in the vicinity of Times Square near the production of John McTiernan’s LAST ACTION HERO which was using the location as part of the film’s setting, both in the climax centered around the star-studded premiere of the movie within the movie and over near the grindhouses of 42nd Street, then in its final death throes before the neighborhood was prettied up. The rows on each side of the block contained various exploitation titles on the marquees and whatever you can see of it in the finished film is nowhere near as cool as it looked in real life. In the middle of it all watching over everything was a giant 75-foot Arnold Schwarzenegger balloon holding a gun in one hand and a badge in the other, changed from dynamite after the February ’93 World Trade Center bombing. Several months later I had moved to L.A. and was in Westwood Village seeing the very first show of LAST ACTION HERO the night before it officially opened. Twenty years later a lot has changed. Times Square certainly has, for one thing, and I haven’t been back there for a long time. Westwood isn’t the hot place to go to the movies on opening night anymore, for another. By now we also have even less of an opinion of Arnold Schwarzenegger than we ever did and, particularly sad, director McTiernan is currently serving a year in prison for making a false statement to an FBI agent in relation to the Anthony Pellicano wiretapping case. Time keeps moving forward, always merciless. You can’t get away from it, no matter what movie you try to escape into.
Released one week after JURASSIC PARK changed the world forever LAST ACTION HERO opened to a negative response from critics, mediocre box office and was generally seen as an overblown misfire by all involved. The first film to feature the presumed state of the art SDDS sound process, near the very end of that first Westwood screening one of the main speakers blew so no dialogue at all was heard for several minutes. Kind of amusing since, because of the nature of the film, it wasn’t immediately apparent that a screw-up had happened but it still probably served as some kind of metaphor for the whole enterprise. Free passes were handed out to everyone after the film so my friend and I used them a few days later to see the movie again. Why not, right? All the extravagance makes it tempting to try for an ‘it’s not that bad’ argument in the movie’s favor and, in all honesty, it really isn’t. But it’s still all kinds of a mess for a number of reasons and feels like a case where the very concept of the film was never fully thought out by the people making it, maybe the result of the mad rush to completion in order to get it in theaters for summer ’93 come hell or high water. There are a number of fun things in LAST ACTION HERO. There’s lots of other stuff too. Like messes tend to be, it remains fascinating as well as sometimes enjoyable.
Pre-teen Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) lives in Manhattan with his single mom (Mercedes Ruehl) but more often than not skips school to go to the movies especially at his favorite theater, the rundown Pandora on 42nd Street where he pals around with old-timer projectionist Nick (Robert Prosky). Danny is especially excited when Nick gives him a chance to see the new action extravaganza JACK SLATER IV before it opens but a special ticket Nick gives him which he once got from Houdini does the unexpected and transports Danny into the film where he meets maverick L.A. cop Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) himself and sets off to take part in the actual movie. But assisting in Jack’s investigation arouses the suspicion of the movie’s chief henchman Benedict (Charles Dance) who begins to wonder who Danny really is and where he comes from.
Tone is a tough thing. It can be even tougher when the concept of tone is as automatically precarious as it’s going to be in a movie like this, how much should be comedy, how much should be action, how much should be parody, what should even be parodied. Earlier incarnations of the basic concept of movies and real life intermingling whether SHERLOCK JR. or THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO seem more comfortable with the fanciful nature of what happens without worrying so much about ‘rules’ but even this issue is merely one single point when it comes to discussing LAST ACTION HERO, one of many problems that can be found. With a screenplay credited to Shane Black & David Arnott (story by Zak Penn & Adam Leff), the first word I think of when I think of LAST ACTION HERO is big. And then huge. And then gargantuan. Revisiting it all these years later the film still plays as if it not only wants to be the biggest movie ever made, it wants that very concept to be part of the gag. And it becomes all the more strange that this massively expensive film feels like a very elaborate in-joke of self-parody coming from both Schwarzenegger and McTiernan, not to mention co-writer Shane Black (other writers worked on it too, including William Goldman) who in some ways launched this run of action movies with his spec sale of LETHAL WEAPON. Even composer Michael Kamen brings in all sorts of jokey riffs that he had already specialized in while doing the DIE HARD and LETHAL WEAPON movies and one can easily imagine him sitting off to the side, amusing himself with classical music jokes that he tosses into the score while the rest of the production is dissolving into chaos. The range of humor is pretty inconsistent although I guess with all those awful one-liners that’s part of the point—the best and most extremely dead-on jokes are the ones we hadn’t realized were jokes until just then like how the very first line is “This is one hell of a way to spend Christmas” which I’m guessing came from Shane Black. Some are a little too obvious in comparison and others like the animated cat voiced by Danny DeVito makes you wonder just what the hell they were thinking. At times what seems like might be a joke is obscured to the point of confusion--I assume that placing the La Brea Tar Pits down in Long Beach is a comment on how movie geography never makes sense but I doubt most people would notice (some are buried even deeper--apparently there are a number of deliberate continuity errors like how in one scene Benedict is reading the Wall Street Journal and then the Financial Times just a few seconds later). And when there are split-second cameos by the likes of Sharon Stone as Catherine Trammel and Robert Patrick as T-1000 it becomes even murkier what the ‘rules’ of the film are or even what this ‘movie world’ is supposed to be. After all, why would characters from other movies show up in this one? Is it saying that all movies take place in one big universe? Part of the problem of LAST ACTION HERO feels like these things were never worked out so instead lots of stuff was thrown at the wall hoping that a laugh would somehow come.
Maybe it was parody being attempted by the wrong people as if Irwin Allen, after producing THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFERNO, decided to make AIRPLANE! to satirize himself, unable to step back and see what the joke really was. The concept of making the film Danny goes into the fourth in a series almost indicates a commentary on the nature of diminishing returns in these sequels but aside from the joke about Slater avenging his favorite second cousin, which is a pretty great one actually, the movie isn’t really that self-aware, instead reveling in the glory of the over-the-top stylistics of late 80s-early 90s action movies. Penn & Leff’s original spec script was titled EXTREMELY VIOLENT and it feels like any satirical element making fun of the massive gunplay in those films fell away during rewrites as the PG-13 was aimed for. Producer Joel Silver, who was not involved with this film, knew where to go for the laughs in his action movies during that era and in some ways the arch satire McTiernan achieved in the original DIE HARD is the greatest example of that but maybe that’s where his sense of humor really excelled as opposed to what he goes for with the broader approach in this film. I do enjoy how much he always seems to be cramming stuff into the Panavision frame and the larger-than-life kineticism of the police station is funny but it’s tough to say exactly what the overall joke is since it’s not directly based on anything in particular. Some of the skewering of over-the-top action movie mechanics does work, like Slater realizing that the numbered cards he’s turning over are actually counting down a bomb, but when it goes for a more direct reference like a joke about 555 prefixes not only had FORD FAIRLANE done this a few years earlier the way it’s written here pretty much kills the laugh. What the film needed was someone to definitively state what the concept was, what the rules were and what the jokes could be based off that. It seems strange to say that such a wild, over the top movie needed this kind of clarification but maybe it did not just to make sense but to also work as comedy.
Lots of money is up onscreen, that’s for sure, so the movie certainly succeeds in coming off as extravagant as possible and occasionally a joke absolutely nails it—the eruption in the Westwood Village Theater at the line “No, this is California” to answer Danny’s protest when he points out that there are no normal looking women so this has to be a movie is still one of the loudest laughs I’ve ever heard in a theater. And having him call out that F. Murray Abraham showing up in SLATER IV is a sure sign he’ll turn out to be a bad guy (since why else would he be in the movie?) nails that sort of casting beautifully. But having the kid spend so much time trying to convince everyone that they’re in a movie feels like some sort of mistake on a very basic level, making him out to be a killjoy unwilling to enjoy his own experience and it’s almost puzzling why they spend so much time on it as if it was one of many things the production lost track of during rewrites. All the stuff about Houdini’s ticket also feels like empty Hollywood feel-good flash to somehow make the McGuffin pay off. Too many things bug me—the presumed ending of SLATER III that we never get to see would be way too downbeat to ever actually occur in one of those films not to mention how it seems to set up an ending that never happens, maybe one that reunites Slater with his son in the celluloid world. And too much seems to be not completely thought out so even the pacing feels off before we enter the movie, down to the protracted sequence of Danny waiting to leave his New York apartment. Charles Dance as Benedict wandering around Times Square is impressive in how depressing it gets for a few moments but the tonal shifts don’t really work so the real-life scuzzy New York clashing with the glitzy SLATER world never feels satisfying—it’s just a lot of rain. There’s lots of potential all over the place but maybe they needed more time to explore the concept in the writing to really bring out what was intriguing about the concept, like the blankness of Slater’s apartment which I always wondered if that meant it was a set we were never supposed to see. And one joke it always felt like was missing was addressing the intended plot of JACK SLATER IV, maybe even featuring a running appearance by some new partner or comic relief that gets left behind. Really, what was the actual plot of JACK SLATER IV supposed to be?
At the very least some of the movie does have a certain flair like the kinetic nature of the rooftop funeral at the Hyatt Regency down in Long Beach, a pleasure to watch now not only because of how this was all clearly filmed up there in the actual location but in how the larger than life dreamlike logic of this movie world suddenly seems to come together in an odd, baffling sort of way. Or maybe I just enjoy the ridiculousness of Arnold Schwarzenegger shouting “Elephant!” to distract a crowd of people. John McTiernan brings every ounce of his visual prowess to this sequence and all the action throughout the film so even though I don’t know if he’s necessarily satirizing his fondness for elaborate camera movements and lens flares it at least feels of a messy piece. I also can’t stress enough how much all this is stylistically unified, as much as it ever could be, by Michael Kamen’s score which not only balances out the action with whatever emotion there is, he’s also the only person involved with the film who seems to understand the concept of ‘nimble’. The movie-in-a-movie nature of it all means it’s not that big a deal when the bad guy essentially turns to the camera and explains his plot to us—on the other hand, that he does so still seems kind of weird, as if the film was desperately searching for a place to insert all this exposition to clarify things and never came up with another way. The climactic mayhem centered around the premiere and its celebrity cameos never really comes together beyond the size of it all--an appearance by the real Tom Noonan who plays The Ripper, bad guy of SLATER III, is one of those jokes that might have gotten more of a laugh if Noonan was more known to the general public. One cameo that unfortunately didn’t happen was an appearance by Sam Neill (who had starred in McTiernan’s THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER) in JURASSIC PARK garb wandering around the dinosaurs in the La Brea Tar Pits which in June ’93 might have played as the most HELLZAPOPPIN!-style joke in the entire film. Maybe part of the problem was that the concept never got clarified enough so it could overtake the in-joke nature of the whole thing. Or maybe it needed to be more committed to something for that concept to be clarified, I don’t know. LAST ACTION HERO is never bad at all, it’s just a case of a movie being too overblown while at the same time forgetting to focus on its own story, even if that story is meant to be a joke about never knowing whether to care more about movies or real life. Which, as Jack Slater himself might say, is a big mistake.
The teaser trailer which played in theaters months before the release called it “the big ticket for ‘93” which turned out not to be the case although Gene Siskel’s comment in his review that “it may be more significant than it is entertaining” is interesting. Calling him the last action hero in a film that opened right at a point where CGI started its domination headed towards where it is today seems somewhat prophetic not to mention that the concept of a movie which completely exhausts you as the endless climax keeps going was still relatively new in ’93. And much as I may genuinely not say very much good about Schwarzenegger I genuinely liked his recent action movie THE LAST STAND which did zero business when released in January of ’13. It’s a good movie, pretty much a modern day western and one that knows what it is. That’s never a bad thing. In LAST ACTION HERO Schwarzenegger plays it as Schwarzenegger parodying Schwarzenegger which I guess means that he plays it as Schwarzenegger and the parody element works best when he’s willing to play things for straight comedy more than parodying himself so when he talks about how great Stallone is in TERMINATOR 2 or playing ‘himself’ during the climax it comes off as a little too cute. Still, maybe there’s more truth in Jack Slater telling his doppelganger that he’s brought him ‘nothing but pain’ than we know. There’s energy provided by a lot of the people who turn up, way too many to mention here, with strong, knowing bits by the likes of Anthony Quinn, F. Murray Abraham, Frank McRae, Robert Prosky and Mercedes Ruehl. Bridgette Wilson is Slater’s daughter in her first film appearance—was she going to have the co-lead before Danny showed up? Among the many cameo appearances by familiar faces playing themselves, Maria Shriver of all people seems the most willing to bring a little edge to her brief portrayal. Particularly good is Charles Dance as Benedict, the one wild card in how he doesn’t have to play his role as parody but as someone genuinely curious about what’s going on and by a certain point deciding to take deadly advantage of it. I’m hardly the first person to say it, but Dance really is a terrific actor. Austin O’Brien as Danny, is, well, a kid. The way he’s written doesn’t help. Maybe someone younger would have worked better, I don’t know. Extremely random trivia: this was the first film to feature the new Columbia logo, still in use today, although the previous logo opens SLATER IV. The last film to use that one was LOST IN YONKERS, also featuring Mercedes Ruehl, which opened the previous month.
If it’s going to be a wildly overblown summer action movie with huge shifts in tone at least it’s one that contains a sequence centered around an Ingmar Bergman film (that’s where the speaker blew, incidentally, so we didn’t hear a word of Ian McKellan’s dialogue as Death). There’s lots of things I could say about LAST ACTION HERO and a surprising amount of them are weirdly personal, like my memories of going down to Long Beach a number of times years ago and always taking note of the Hyatt Regency as I drove by or passing the Village Theater again the night after I saw it seeing Sylvester Stallone and Joel Silver, then presumably filming DEMOLITION MAN, going in to see it which is a memory that remains so vivid in my head even now I wonder if I’m making it up. Back to that first screening in Westwood the previous evening, another friend of mine was there as well and even though I didn’t speak to him that night spotting him from a distance now feels like a key element of my own personal narrative in this town for reasons I won’t even get into. Ten years after the film was released (which, come to think of it, means ten years ago now) there was a 70MM screening at the Arclight Hollywood which featured a Q&A with Zak Penn and Adam Leff, there to talk about the spec sale that launched their careers and in the process were fairly merciless in making known all the things about the movie that they felt didn’t work, saving their biggest disdain for McTiernan and Black. Of course, they didn’t claim to have all the solutions either. The mix was off in a few of the reels of the 70MM print causing the dialogue to be too low which was even commented on during the discussion afterwards. I guess I’m fated to never get a problem-free screening of this film. One thing they stated was their belief that part of the reason the movie turned out the way it did was that McTiernan and Black actually hated the action genre. Whether this may have been overstating the case is open to debate but you can make the argument that some of the most successful examples of parody ever, like Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, are clearly steeped in an absolute love of the genre that is being tweaked. LAST ACTION HERO, instead, makes a mantra out of stating that the hero can’t die until the grosses go down. Which doesn’t say much about art. Which also doesn’t say much about love for these movies. Twenty years after it was made even the concept of LAST ACTION HERO has been rendered obsolete considering film prints are about to die. And I’m still in this town. Wondering just how far I’ve really come.