The Postmodernator

Yikes. Just when you thought Arnold was nearly as invincible at the box office as the on-screen characters he's been playing, along comes Last Action Hero to put his survival skills to the test.

Last Action Hero has the feel of a movie that can't make up its mind what it wants to be when it grows up. One minute it's an action flick, the next it's a comedy or a love story. And by reaching for a little of each genre, the film comes up short on all counts.

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The producers should have seen it coming. There were three very bad signs early on:

1) Five writers worked on the screenplay. The last of them, William Goldman, received a cool million to do the final rewrite. Multiple authors and last-minute script changes are almost as negative a harbinger for a film's success as...

2) Bad word-of-mouth from a closely monitored sneak preview, which led to the ultimate desperation move on the part of panicked filmmakers...

3) Reshooting footage just weeks before the release date.
As if all of these leading indicators weren't ominous enough, first-time executive producer Schwarzenegger reportedly brought the picture in some $30 million to $70 million over budget. Even by Arnold's bigger-than-life standards, that's a lot of money. It suggests faulty planning, monumentally bad luck, or a combination of the two.

But the film has the lines of a thoroughbred when it breaks from the starting gate. Hot Shots! A Part Deux could have used a few more scenes like Last Action Hero's opening send-up of Die Hard (Hero director John McTiernan's biggest hit to date). Schwarzenegger, as fearless film detective Jack Slater, swaggers into a hostage situation atop an office building with a perfect blend of Eastwood macho and Willis sarcasm. He unceremoniously dispatches the Ripper, a prototypical rotten-toothed, disfigured bad guy who has been holding hundreds of regular cops at bay for God knows how long.

The twist: Slater doesn't realize he's a fictional character. Eleven-year-old Danny Madigan, convincingly played by Austin O'Brien (he wasn't half-bad in The Lawnmower Man, either), is Slater's biggest fan. He has seen all the Slater movies and knows the macho man's moves by heart. When Danny falls asleep in school during a screening of Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, he dreams of Slater as the Prince of Denmark. The muscleman lights his trademark cigar, pulls out the automatic weapons, and blasts his way out of Elsinore. It's inspired anarchy, comedy with an action kicker. Unfortunately, nothing that follows matches the segment for inventiveness or bedlam.

Danny spends more time at the movie theater than he does in the classroom. The nickelodeon's aging projectionist, Nick, takes the kid under his wing and one day presents Danny with a magic ticket originally given to Nick's father by Harry Houdini himself. The enchanted ducat transports the flesh-and-blood boy into Slater's celluloid domain, where good guys never die and bad guys always lose. Teamed with his hero, Danny gets to live out his wildest fantasies, flying through windows, dodging bullets and crashing cars. The filmmakers come up with a few funny inside jokes here A the first time Danny enters the police station with Slater, Sharon Stone (wearing the minidress she made famous in the interrogation scene from Basic Instinct) and Robert Patrick (Arnold's nemesis in Terminator 2) are exiting A but not enough of them to qualify as an outright comedy. And some of the attempts at humor fall embarrassingly flat, such as the introduction of a cartoon tiger cop that verges on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? territory.

In fact, the whole undertaking suffers from a lack of focus and seems stitched together like a patchwork quilt. There are long stretches of listless shtick, punctuated by the odd scene that reminds you what these talented people are capable of when they're hitting on all cylinders. The film has too many explosions and too few moments like the one in which Slater's daughter, Whitney, screams and gasps like a damsel in distress while she kicks the beejeezus out of a would-be captor.

The plot, such as it is, thickens when Danny's magic ticket falls into the hands of an assassin named Benedict, menacingly portrayed by Charles Dance. (While Dance is a capable actor, his presence seems to be a bad omen; his recent credits include The Golden Child and Alien 3.) Benedict uses the ticket to cross over into the real world, with Slater (who is suddenly vulnerable) and Danny in hot pursuit.

Screenwriters Shane Black and David Arnott were shooting for a cross between The Wizard of Oz and 48 HRS. The result is more like Hudson Hawk meets Cinema Paradiso. Schwarzenegger and company are going to have to pull out all the promotional stops to avoid comparisons to Ishtar.

Last Action Hero relies far too heavily on the Arnold-as-instrument-of-self-parody gimmick. The constant toying with the line between reality and movieland gets old quickly. It's one thing for the bulky actor to wink at the camera once in a while in the context of a tightly constructed action picture, it's another matter entirely to build a directionless, episodic movie around the concept of poking fun at his persona. (That persona has, after all, been putting enough people in theater seats to merit Schwarzenegger the highest asking-price of any actor in Hollywood.)

But is the ticket-buying public ready for a two-hour wink?

 
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