I’m nine years old and in my favourite place in the world – the toy section of the Petts Wood Woolworths. Scattered in amongst the rows of toys I know and love – Mighty Max, Monsters in my Pocket – are unfamiliar action figures. I know I will never be able to buy these, my mum will never allow them in the house due to some arbitrary religious declaration of toy morality. If I’m lucky, I may get to play with them one day at a friend’s house. My only knowledge of Ghostbusters (1984) comes from other people’s playthings.
On the shelves today are some action figures to a film coming out shortly. Three-inches tall, red t-shirt, jeans, brown leather jacket and all kinds of destructive plastic accessories. I pick them up and memorise the packaging, my remedy to having no money to buy toys I’m not allowed. The muscle-bound man is leaping off the packaging. What on earth is this film about?
They are the merchandise of a movie studio convinced they have a hit on their hands. It will be many years before I get to see Last Action Hero.
It’s an absolute mess of a film…I think I liked the toys more.
* * *
The magic of the movies – Last Action Hero (1993)
There’s a theory in popular music that decades don’t actually begin and end on tenth years. What we identify with as ‘The Sixties’ doesn’t actually start until 1966. As much as we want to separate the nineties from the eighties, the truth is cinematically we could stretch the nineties all the way back until 1987. In 1987, mainstream cinema steps up a notch. In mainstream cinema in 1987 there is the one-two punch of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard.
These two films provide much of the ur-text that comes to define our decade. Their heroes come to dominate our landscape. Their talent weighs heavy on us all. Confined locales, smart-arse protagonists, buddies and lens-flare are all set down in these two films. And in the director of Predator (John McTiernan) and the writer of both (Shane Black) we get two of Hollywood’s most confounding talents. It is rare that such ability can be financially overpraised and culturally underwhelming simultaneously.
(Poor Richard Donner, director of Lethal Weapon. He is a spectacular widescreen director who as has a genuinely interesting approach to sound design, liking a cacophony of surrounding chatter, backgrounded half-hearted scores and the creativity of the foley artists to patter around dialogue. But he contributed little of worth to the nineties outside of his Lethal Weapon sequels – a prime case of diminishing returns – and I’ve always resented the high regard he was held in by Superman nerds when his film is infinitely inferior to the Richard Lester films.)
McTiernan was making a name for himself as one of the top-tier action directors. He had an extraordinary eye for widescreen composition and was able to immerse the viewer in well-defined spaces, be they jungles, skyscrapers or submarines (part of Last Action Hero’s failing is its inability to situate itself within a coherent location). But unlike his contemporaries, such as James Cameron, McTiernan did not seem that interested in originating material. He was a hired hand, and as such, his films teetered on the precipice of failure.
(Part of the reason McTiernan has been so cruelly cast aside by Hollywood is in part due to his failure to convince people of his auteur status. There are a thousand-and-one hired hands in Hollywood. There’s only one James Cameron.)
McTiernan was bruising from the failure of Medicine Man (1992). An enjoyable dance through the rainforest, the film features McTiernan’s swooping camera at its best. The film takes its constantly bickering romantic leads (and casual, thoughtless, representation of indigenous peoples) from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), but lacks the set-pieces that pummel that film onwards. Sean Connery with a ponytail was not proving to be the attraction McTiernan had hoped for. So instead, he pinned his success upon the biggest movie star in the world.
* * *
Hadley Freeman has pointed out that when writing about films, men tend to throw around a lot of French phrases to prove how clever they are. This endemic man-splaining (homme-splaining) seems to reach its zenith in the auteur theory. Auteur theory was a useful device when talking about films made within the studio system. That system has not existed for many years, and whilst the principles of the director as author of the piece, the co-ordinator of the mise-en-scene (I know, I know) were easily applied to the director-originated films that were created well into the seventies, by the 1980’s, auteur theory has spluttered to a standstill. Who authored Alien (1979)? Well Ridley Scott, but that ignores Dan O’Bannon’s script and Walter Hill’s essential revisions (including making Ripley female). Yaphet Koto imprints himself on the film (he was arguing his character should stay alive until his last day of set.) Sigourney Weaver makes herself a star. Imagine the film without the designs of Giger?
Cathedrals are pieces of art without an author. They are built by committee. Actors can be the author of the film (and the work of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in our decade shows how effective this can be.) So can studios. So can writers.
Shane Black is the auteur of many films. He’s only directed three films, but his voice was so distinctive by the time of Last Action Hero. He had created the definitive buddy-cop film in Lethal Weapon and performed uncredited rewrites on Predator whilst running around a jungle. His writing is a distinctive stamp upon a film. He has ideas that belie his signature of involvement:
- Children who are smarter than the adults that look after them.
- The movies are set at Christmas.
- People fall off rooftops.
- Unlikely friendships are formed between our protagonists.
- Henchmen are often highly self-aware.
Black was mainlining a vision of cinema. Movies would be constantly entertaining. Action would drive the movie forward; in true Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) style every ten minutes or so there would be a spectacle on the screen. When there aren’t, characters would be talking with a level of wit that could be just as thrilling as an explosion. Oddly for a writer (this one included) he isn’t interested in showing you how clever he is, he just wants to make you laugh. His films are true entertainments, streaked through with a level of misanthropy and nihilism. The brutal truth of existence is that people are garbage. Movies are wonderful because they allow us to escape the garbage for a short while. Black does not allow his characters to grow or change to any significant degree; instead, they demonstrate a complacency with their essential nature as trash.
Black was talented, distinctive and expensive. But totally worth it. He could guarantee a hit…
* * *
Despite this Last Action Hero is not a work of collaboration. It is a number of different voices all competing, and oftentimes conflicting, against each other. This film was no ethereal choir; it was a selection of dissonant voices each attempting to drown the others out.
McTiernan was concerned with making an action movie. The film bristles with the occasional set-piece, even when it is a slightly impotent face-off on a rain-drenched roof-top. For McTiernan the film presents an opportunity to define the importance of cinema. Movies are explicitly magic. Celluloid has value. Roadrunner cartoons are the highest form of art. McTiernan takes the opportunity to underline the impotence of theatre – Hamlet is made more interesting with the addition of gunfire (should’ve listened Mel Gibson…) – even one of the finest Shakespearean actors (Ian McKellen) is given a largely silent part in Death. McTiernan takes every opportunity to use the full widescreen image, even when the scene can’t quite justify it. Movies surround and envelop you in McTiernan’s world – he understood that the thrill of action movies is the suspension of the impotence of the real world. In action movies, things happen. Violence is prevented. Bad guys are punished appropriately. Nothing like that happens in the real world.
(They also casually ignore the concept of rehabilitation…)
The original writers (Zak Penn and Adam Leff) were seeking to write a knowing parody of the action movie. Parodies are notoriously hard to pull off, and it is far easier for a filmmaker to perniciously criticise cinematic ideas than perform them effectively – this is why Cabin in the Woods (2012) is so detestable. It’s hard to tell what satirical edges are left in the film, so concerned is the movie in selling the Schwarzenegger myth (both fictional and real). We only see tiny swipes against the film culture of the nineties, such as the cardboard cut-out of Sylvester Stallone as the star of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).
(It’s worth reflecting what that movie would be like. Stallone is likely to have performed more in John Rambo mode than Rocky Balboa mode. Silent and haunted. Its success would have sustained his career into the early nineties, when in reality it was beginning to sag. It’s hard to imagine Stallone portraying the awkwardness and emotional vulnerability of the T-800 in that movie; Schwarzenegger was always quick to send up the ridiculousness of his stature and celebrity, Stallone more reticent. Every character Stallone plays is an undisputed hero and mentor to those around him, regardless of evidence to support that proposition. It’s hard to imagine how Stallone would have worked well with James Cameron, given his own prodigious directorial abilities. He lacked the essential prop-like nature of Schwarzenegger. Stallone was always quick to throw out someone else’s idea if he didn’t like it.)
Shane Black took a pedestrian script and made it his own. He inserted the hero child and made the film about his relationship with movies and the relationships he desired with fictional fathers. Black knew that the hero would have to be a boy; boys fantasise about the world but one where things are just a little better, girls fantasise about entirely alien situations. Black can suffer from occasional sexism. Ultimately the idealised viewpoint that ‘women are better than men’ is just as pernicious as ‘women are worse’ because neither present the reality of humanity. But there are lines that fizz and buzz and bring the movie to life…”That cat is one of the best men I’ve got.” is a personal favourite.
For Schwarzenegger this film could hope to combine everything he wanted out of a career. His continuation as the biggest movie star in the planet working simultaneously with his desire to send up that persona. In this movie, Arnie is the man who can do anything. But the film falters when it asks us to seriously consider Schwarzenegger’s death as probable. We are never convinced that our hulk could be threatened, and the film itself undermines the concept of death at every turn.
It’s more interesting to consider the concept of four Jack Slater films. These would have been made at the actor’s discretion (and no doubt he would have been in receipt of substantial financial reward for each successive instalment.) In the nineties, the actor would still have had some choice in making these movies. Nowadays, actors are contracted to three, four, five, six films (regardless of whether they will ever get made or not) before they have even shot a second of footage. It’s a kind of cinematic serfdom, one that removes from the individual the right to determine their own career path. I know it’s ridiculous to talk about employment rights for the fantastically wealthy, but rights are rights because they apply to everyone. If they didn’t, they’d be hobbies. Freedom of movement in employment is essential; Olivia de Havilland knew this, Arnold Schwarzenegger knows this, Tom Holland will come to know this.
Last Action Hero can never reconcile these voices; it is a living contradiction. Sometimes it can move them into interesting ideas, such as when it presents New York as the real world and L.A. as the fantasy (though it’s a New York completely out of Taxi Driver (1976)). But mainly it becomes a discordant set of sounds. Not even the combination of the greatest action director, writer and star of this era, could make this mess work.
* * *
For McTiernan the film just underlined that the master had lost his touch. He disappeared into television movies and the security of a Die Hard sequel (the enjoyable and Samuel L. Jackson celebrating Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)). Whilst The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) has moments of charm, particularly in its heist scenes, his true late period neglected masterpiece is Basic (2003) where McTiernan applies the widescreen, lens-flare aesthetic to a twisting, isolated drama. He would eventually be made a scapegoat for wiretapping and perjury charges and end up in prison. He hasn’t directed a movie since he has been released.
Shane Black sold another script in the form of The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)…prime Samuel L. Jackson, Renny Harlin magic…and then seemed to disappear. There was a level of resentment around the amount of money he was making for his deeply populist vision of cinema. He has reappeared as a writer/director with all his tropes intact. Yet now he is celebrated as a distinct, much-needed voice in amidst the calamitous cacophony of mindless Marvel movies each playing to the lowest, most easily-digestible, desire of an inane fanbase. He has not been able to avoid making one of those movies.
And we’ll pick up Arnie’s story in Chapter IX.
* * *
Immediate reviews of movies are ultimately irrelevant. The sheer number of films that were panned upon release that are now considered to be masterpieces is endless. Vertigo (1958) is apotheosis of this. Redemptive reading is what keeps cinema alive, as nuggets are mined from the past and brought to the light of the present day. Every inch of me wanted to provide a redemptive reading of Last Action Hero…but the text just does not support it. It is a film that wants to be everything…and ends up being nothing.
New voices needed to be heard.