Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It Happened That Way

The issue of commercial viability regarding the western in today’s marketplace has only gotten worse through the years. For one thing, we’re even further away from when the genre actually meant something to a large portion of the audience. For another thing, the foreign market matters more now than it did at one time and they’ve never been all that crazy about the western overseas anyway—even the few that are domestic hits these days like TRUE GRIT 2010 earn much of their money in the U.S. and, well, that’s just not how things are supposed to be done anymore. THE LONE RANGER was several years in development and budgeting and scripting and directing by Gore Verbinski and producing by Jerry Bruckheimer to fashion it into the sort of extravaganza those men know how to make and the response hasn’t been so swell. I’ve never been all that crazy about any of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films which have been embraced all through the world, not even the first one, so it’s a touch ironic that I didn’t really mind THE LONE RANGER much at all, messy as it kind of is. It’s not great but it’s not all that bad either, at least somewhat bizarre, energetic and with a climax that is as rousing as I’d want it to be. If only more of the film lived up to that but it’s still not the biggest calamity I had to deal with in Summer 2013. Although one thing I think it has in common with other would be blockbusters like WILD WILD WEST and JONAH HEX is the nagging feeling that within all the action and a certain steampunk-type approach is a film that is hesitant to be ‘just’ a western, to express love for the genre and simply enjoy that aspect of itself.
Truthfully, I don’t know if I entirely minded the bomb that was JONAH HEX all that much either but minus credits the thing only lasted about 73 minutes anyway so maybe I just felt sorry for that movie. On the opposite end of the spectrum in the past several decades is Lawrence Kasdan’s bio-pic WYATT EARP which embraces the idea of being a western full throttle, running over three hours even in its shortest cut (longer than the theatrical edit of DANCES WITH WOLVES) and didn’t do very well at all when it was released at the end of June 1994. I saw it opening day in Westwood, after what seemed like six months of the trailer playing before every single movie that came out, scored with Ennio Morricone music from A TIME OF DESTINY presented with all the pomp and circumstance to indicate that this was going to be the biggest, most important historical epic of modern times (there were actually two separate trailers but only one is on the DVD). That’s not how things worked out as everyone seemingly waited a few weeks until FORREST GUMP was released for that particular look at American history. I admit to being a little underwhelmed at the time by WYATT EARP like most everyone who actually saw it was and it sure didn’t help that TOMBSTONE, rushed into theaters six months earlier, was a good deal more fun. Looking at it now when the movie isn’t doing anyone any harm and we’re all kind of wishing that maybe we’d been a little nicer to Kevin Costner when we had the chance, WYATT EARP is still an extremely flawed film that seems to lose its own footing more than a few times but I can’t bring myself to have that much animosity towards it. Maybe because it’s a western. We need westerns. We always will.
The epic-length WYATT EARP tells the story of Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner) and his life, from growing up on a farm being watched over by his stern by loving father (Gene Hackman) to his first marriage that ends in tragedy and causing him to hit rock bottom. Almost by chance he eventually finds himself working in law enforcement leading to his eventual life as a legendary marshal in Dodge City and later on in Tombstone where his legend is solidified along with his good friend Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid). As an actress new to town named Josie Marcus (Joanna Going) enters his life to possibly give him the love he’s long been without the growing tensions between the Earp family and the lawless Clantons eventually lead to the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, an event which seals the legend of Wyatt Earp forever.
Almost twenty years after it was released the box office failure of WYATT EARP, a pretty big deal at the time, feels mostly forgotten now so all we’re left with is the film, a giant swirling ode to the western as lived through a main character who believes in the tragedy that is the world, depending on no one and perfectly content to have no one but family depend on him either. What is WYATT EARP? Is it, ultimately, an epic telling of an important life that took place during the evolution of the American West? Or is it an epic tale about epic tales about the American West as filtered down through both mythos and, ultimately, Hollywood films? Maybe it’s an epic tale of a star and director who want nothing more than to make the biggest, grandest western in the form of myth they ever imagined and had the power to attempt. That might be the answer. Whatever it is, WYATT EARP is definitely ambitious in its goals as well as earnest in its approach. It’s clear that director Lawrence Kasdan and producer/star Kevin Costner mean the passion that runs through every scene in their bones as they attempt to go beyond the simple old-fashioned thrills of their previous collaboration SILVERADO back in ’85. And I may as well be honest—for sentimental reasons and because I like westerns anyway there is something I enjoy about revisiting this one all these years later, even as I’m aware in the back of my head that it doesn’t entirely connect, that I’m not having the emotional response it’s trying to get out of me.
The scale evident in scene after scene with magnificent vistas and production value all over the place makes it look kind of sweet now as if trying to fashion itself into an automatic masterwork, not knowing that the world wouldn’t really care about this sort of thing anymore. The craftsmanship is always evident. The film is genuinely trying. More than the overriding nobility and inherent squareness to the approach which seems too much at times, one problem with WYATT EARP is that it feels so determined to craft itself into an epic come hell or high water, striving to be John Ford through a David Lean filter whether the spine of the story warrants it or not only it doesn’t contain the profundity to pull that off. There are many qualities to WYATT EARP. Is it self-important? Maybe, kinda. Is it also genuinely impressive at times? Yes, it really is. Scene after scene is exquisitely staged but whether or not any number of them really need to be there is another matter entirely and as a result the problems go beyond simple length, beyond ambition, to a point where the ultimate emotional effect feels muted or just not quite there, maybe because of choices that were made somewhere along the way in what they wanted the film to be, wanting it to span the full life of the man instead of spending more time on the really interesting stuff.
Written by Kasdan and Dan Gordon, part of the issue may simply be one of structure. With the exception of an in media res opening the approach is basically linear, beginning with a first hour that builds up Wyatt Earp’s character and the man he becomes, how his father’s outlook on things shaped him, how losing his young bride scarred him, learning the lesson that if you’re not willing to be harsh to harsh people in this harsh world that’ll catch up to you. It turns Wyatt into the cold person he is, unwilling to debate or argue, unwilling to let anyone close until his friendship with Doc Holliday and eventually his romance with Josie Marcus, the two people who will look him in the eye and he’ll look back. It all makes sense, I’m just not convinced we need everything in that first hour or at least not as much of it as we get, possibly robbing him as a character of any mystery or ambiguity from that point on. In bio-pic tradition it’s the sort of film where an early marriage goes from wedded bliss to heartbreak in a cemetery within about five minutes but that aside the first hour or so actually has the best flow of the entire film in the way it’s paced.
The conundrum is that it’s hard to avoid the feeling that almost none of it is needed and when we enter Dodge City at the 70-minute mark this is where the movie we came to see is really beginning which maybe wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it were really the case. This isn’t because I’d rather see a fun, good old-fashioned western instead of a brooding, moping character study (or is it?) but I can’t help but think that all the backstory didn’t need to be stretched out so much. Oddly, it feels like less is missing from the tapestry of the film in the early section as if when someone was making a pass through the entire picture looking for things to remove late in the game they wound up cutting more as they went along simply out of impatience. As a result it feels like chunks of the drama that we actually want to see are missing whether that’s the case or not, resulting in some occasional clumsiness like when a bartender asks Wyatt questions about why he’s left Dodge City and the scene plays out in the most Basil Exposition-way imaginable. If cuts were made maybe they were the wrong ones and as it goes on more pieces feel like they’re missing—Tom Sizemore’s Bat Masterson, a major character in the Dodge City section, is asked if he wants to go to Tombstone but doesn’t respond and then we never see him again. Isabella Rossellini gets a big introduction as Doc Holliday’s girl Big Nose Kate (I like her defensiveness when she says, “All kinds of reasons a person gets a name”), is seen once more and then that’s it. Dennis Quaid does solid work but because of his late entry doesn’t make the dramatic impact it feels like he’s designed to provide.
The Tombstone section of the film doesn’t even feel like it has a proper beginning—we’re just there at one point instead of the movie fully acknowledging the arrival and for what we would imagine is the meat of things the plot mechanics involving the buildup to the O.K. Corral sequence feel more sketched in than properly clarified so what follows never means as much as it should. The conflict between the Earps and the Clantons is merely taken as a given so it doesn’t have the necessary power, just feeling inevitable since, after all, this is what’s supposed to happen in a movie about Wyatt Earp. The problem with the entire film isn’t just the long running time but that it’s a case of a long film where the length is felt more as it goes on. Actually, while watching it this time I suddenly began to have the daydream of not cutting things down but instead making the material even more expansive to allow for two separate movies so it could all flow better, maybe called WYATT EARP: DODGE CITY and WYATT EARP: TOMBSTONE. Flashbacks could have been interspersed, details could have been dwelled on and maybe the desired effect could have been reached. For obvious commercial reasons it never would have happened, but I still think it’s a valid idea.
Comparisons to 1993’s TOMBSTONE (not to mention things like MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, which I really should have seen more times by now) are probably inevitable but still unfair—not just to the film but to people like Dennis Quaid who delivers a solid performance, one of his best, but TOMBSTONE’s Val Kilmer not only got more to work with he just seemed to become Doc Holliday. And in that film’s very title it knew where to focus on everything while ultimately WYATT EARP, even if I genuinely enjoy some of it—Kasdan does do a pretty snazzy job with the entire O.K. Corral sequence making it messier and of smaller scale than would be expected—feels like it’s so focused on the stoicism of its lead character along with making noble proclamations that the tone becomes stifling and ultimately I’m not sure what it’s really about. Family? Loss? Perseverance in the face of an uncaring world? It reaches for myth through big statements in dialogue and imagery borrowed from other places, like when Wyatt is first made Sheriff and the moment plays as an inversion of HIGH NOON’s most famous shot, as opposed to letting these themes play out naturally through the material. The score by James Newton Howard seems intent on providing the epic sweep and it’s beautiful (not Morricone but still pretty good--I’ve always liked the album) but maybe is given too much responsibility in terms of making the emotional connection.
The famous last line of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE which gives the film its title is spoken by a minor character unaware of the irony in the statement which makes it all the more devastating. WYATT EARP feels like it’s constantly reaching for myth through its own poetry spoken much more deliberately by the characters. “Nothing counts so much as blood. The rest are just strangers” has weight to it particularly when spoken by Gene Hackman but the line doesn’t account for how the two people who Wyatt ultimately depends on the most aren’t that nor does it refute the idea in the end either. The statement doesn’t matter as much as how noble it sounds. It has the appearance of weight but not the gravity. By a certain point I’m gazing at the film, lost in the western imagery thanks to Owen Roizman’s Oscar-nominated cinematography more than the post-Corral section of the story or Wyatt focused on his own obsession. WYATT EARP has been compared to HEAVEN’S GATE at times not just because of how much of a flop the two epic westerns were but also because of a portrayal the loss of youth amidst Americana that goes bad, to a similar endings in a completely different locale that wonders what it was all for. There is that ending, mixed in with a flashback that strives to offer its own version of “When the legend becomes fact…” from LIBERTY VALANCE that doesn’t offer a twist or different perspective but simply a recapitulation of what we’ve already heard verbalized. What to make of the life of Wyatt Earp based on this film? Or maybe the question should be what to make of this film about the myth of his life. All we ultimately know is he did what he thought he needed to do and it somehow became myth, whatever the truth really was. It happened that way, the film states, which I suppose is what could be said about the film as well.
Kevin Costner in occupying the center of the screen with this role gradually strips away the SILVERADO persona that Wyatt seems to embody early on entirely taking him beyond the nobility of Eliot Ness to something else much darker. It’s a color that blends in with the western scenery but in some ways it’s not enough. Even with what we’d expect of the title there’s not enough of an ensemble, always making sure that’s it’s a star vehicle without enough shadings to go with his stoicism. The occasional group composition of the Earps and Holliday imply more of an ensemble piece than it ever actually is. Dennis Quaid, who lost 44 pounds to portray the sickly Holliday, is quite good and I particularly like one scene where he talks about death but there needs to be more--it’s a film about Wyatt, not Wyatt and Doc, which may be to its detriment. As the Earp brothers Michael Madsen, David Andrews, Linden Ashby and Jim Caviezel never get enough of a chance to make an impact--Madsen lost out on the chance to play Vincent Vega in PULP FICTION because of this and he doesn’t get much out of it beyond recognition that Michael Madsen is playing the part. Gene Hackman brings all the strength of his presence in his few scenes that you would expect and I wish there was a place for him to reappear later on. There are lots of familiar faces—when a door opens to reveal Karen Grassle at one point I feel like we’re in an old episode of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE for a second. Some in the large supporting cast do manage to make strong impressions, particularly Catherine O’Hara, Annabeth Gish, Tom Sizemore, Mare Winningham, Isabella Rossellini and Jeff Fahey as Ike Clanton who more than anyone is the sort of character actor who you’d think would have actually been in TOMBSTONE. Not appearing until past the halfway point, Joanna Going is very striking as Josie Marcus, a sort of Old West Morose Pixie Dream Girl who knows how to talk to Wyatt directly almost instantly, and she does give the movie a certain kind of soul that it doesn’t otherwise have and an emotional level that it badly needs.
Sometimes you can give into a movie in spite of its problems, sometimes things nag at you even if you’re not looking for them. Sometimes a movie just loses its way in terms of what its core should be and I wonder if that’s part of what happened here. An extended version running about twenty minutes longer was released on laserdisc but the DVD is the theatrical cut, the one I saw in Westwood way back which I suppose marked the point when Kevin Costner was no longer the golden boy of DANCES WITH WOLVES not to mention ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES one of the big hits of three summers earlier and which always was a lousy movie. Search your feelings, you know it to be true. But it was crowd pleasing on a level that was never at all on the mind of WYATT EARP, a film with nobility but it falters. There is something to be said for getting lost in the film’s grandeur for a little while—I imagine that walking around some of production designer Ida Random’s sets was pretty cool—and I feel all of Kasdan’s ambition but ultimately it never really stirs me. I don’t feel anything beyond the weight of its nobility, its desire to be an epic without achieving the label. But it is a western so I do feel admiration for what it’s attempting, for what it’s trying to say about the yearning within the lost dreams of its title character and for all the possibilities that are there just in trying to make such a film. As I was writing this piece we had hit the tenth anniversary of the Costner-directed OPEN RANGE, a film that I thought was just swell and one that even did solid business at the box office at the time but, maybe skewing older, was one of those hits that don’t really matter very much to those in charge. There hasn’t been another western starring Costner since then—to get the HATFIELDS & MCCOYS miniseries made, which like WYATT EARP he starred in and was a producer on, it had to be for the History Channel. Times change. I doubt we’ll get another three-hour western again in movie theaters anytime soon. THE LONE RANGER was two-and-a-half and, well, we all know what happened. But I still think there’s potential for another western to come out and be a hit. Maybe Kevin Costner could be the one to get it made to once again express a love for the genre and the unlimited potential of those wide open vistas. Something that would be remembered. Maybe I need to believe in that, to believe it’ll happen that way.

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.