‘Last Action Hero’ needn’t be at the top of your list

October 1, 2012

Arnold Schwarzenegger has played the lead in any number of action films. Of the ones I’ve seen, Last Action Hero, the 1993 feature helmed by John McTiernan, is probably the least impressive.

Which isn’t to say that Last Action Hero is bad. It’s not. There’s just nothing that really stands out about the film, despite an interesting premise and some humorous touches.

This is an offbeat buddy movie in which Schwarzenegger, as Los Angeles supercop Jack Slater, provides the brawn. The brains are mostly supplied by his pint-sized sidekick, Danny Madigan, played by Austin O’Brien. The two normally wouldn’t join forces to investigate either the killing of Slater’s favorite second cousin or a bloody war between Southern California drug gangs. But this is, of course, a movie.

And that’s the running joke of this film: Most of the action occurs in Jack Slater IV, a movie within a movie, after Madigan uses a magical ticket to insert himself into the action during an advance screening.

After surviving a pursuit through the streets of suburban and industrial Los Angeles — as well as what I believe is the flood control system featured in Terminator 2 and many other movies — the pair drop by the swank (movie) headquarters of the Los Angeles police department.

This is probably my favorite location in the film: The enormous open-air squad room resembles the lobby of a luxury hotel or convention center. It’s also filled with outlandishly dressed cops and visitors. The sergeant assigns cops in oddball pairings, teaming a lecherous cartoon cat-detective (voiced by an uncredited Danny DeVito) with a female officer and a male officer with an Orthodox rabbi. The sharp-eyed viewer can glimpse Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick (the bad guy in Terminator 2) quickly moving through the frame.

Afterward, Madigan leads Slater straight to the house where a drug lord interrogated his cousin — because that’s how it works in the movies. Slater fishes for evidence by questioning one of the bad guys. Bragging that the palatial home’s attack dogs are extremely well trained, the villainous Benedict (the wonderful Charles Dance) snaps his fingers; the camera cuts to the dogs standing in pyramid formation.

Later, Madigan runs around Los Angeles shooting Slater’s gun into the air and taking control of a construction crane that he maneuvers wildly as he and Slater seek to foil a plot to wipe out a drug mafia during a rooftop funeral featuring a tampered corpse. Then the pair follow a villain who escapes to “real-life” New York City (Danny’s home) using Madigan’s confiscated magic ticket.

Matters come to a head at Slater IV’s world premiere. The event is packed with real celebrities, including Schwarzenegger playing himself alongside his amusingly shrewish real-live (then) wife, Maria Shriver; she cuttingly tells the future Governator that it’s tacky when he promotes his restaurant and gym chains when he’s being interviewed about his new movie. Actors Jean-Claude Van Damme and James Belushi are also on hand, along with musician Little Richard and Tom Noonan, who plays both himself and a Slater villain.

There’s plenty of spritely humor embedded in the script, which is credited to Shane Black and David Arnott with assists from Zak Penn and Adam Leff. Madigan all but preempts Schwarzenegger’s catchphrase, “I’ll be back,” explaining to a baffled Slater that Schwarzenegger always utters the trademark sentence. In an attempt to prove that he and Slater are in a movie, Madigan takes the detective to a video store, where the child is baffled to find a promotional display for Terminator 2 featuring Sylvester Stallone. The fact that everyone’s phone number has the prefix 555, which Madigan explains makes it mathematically impossible for more than a few thousand distinct numbers to exist, leaves Slater unfazed.

But ultimately, this just isn’t a really good comedy movie or a really good action film; instead, it’s a perfectly competent middle-of-the-road feature. It will leave relatively few viewers either thrilled or disappointed; virtually none will feel highly rewarded by the experience of having seen it.

(An exception may be precocious children who will identify with the appealing and whip-smart, though friendless, Madigan. Be aware that this film is rated PG-13 due to violence.)

Two notes about movie stars: Schwarzenegger here seems to me to be at the height of his acting powers. He exudes confidence and power, but he aptly plays both light-hearted moments and poignant ones, such as his realization that Madigan has indeed told the truth about Slater’s being a fictitious person. By contrast, Schwarzenegger seemed to me to be past his physical prime in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which was released in 2003 when its star turned 56.

Also, Ian McKellen (Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the upcoming Hobbit trilogy) is marvelous in a bit role as a character from a classic movie who is accidentally summoned to New York City. This small performance by no means makes Last Action Hero worth watching, but it certainly makes the experience that much more enjoyable.

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