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‘Last Action Hero’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 18, 1993

"Last Action Hero" certainly feels like the last of something. A self-conscious parody of action movie formulas -- and of the image of its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger -- the movie has a note of finality about it. It's a long, ironic, ostensibly witty farewell, at least for now, to all that "Terminator" stuff, a goodbye to Dirty Harry and the "Lethal Weapon" guys and all the antiheroic cops and all the jokey gunplay and glib, soulless killing.

It also feels like a farewell, of sorts, to Arnold. Or at least to the action hero Arnold. There's a curious incident near the end of this clumsy reality-fantasy game, which toggles back and forth between the world in front of the movie screen and the one inside it. It occurs at the "real-world" premiere of "Jack Slater IV," the latest in a series of blockbuster action-adventures featuring an inner-city Indiana Jones character played by the world-famous mega-movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Naturally, the gregarious media personality -- along with his lovely wife, Maria, and a passel of other stars -- is in attendance. But so are a handful of uninvited guests, among them a savage ax murderer named Ripper (Tom Noonan) who has been sent to assassinate Arnold.

Except that at the last instant the actor is saved, rescued from this mad killer by none other than ... himself -- or rather himself as Jack Slater, who has come across from the fantasy world of the movies into the real world.

Obviously, there's more to it than this. But first, in the fateful moment when the "fictional" Arnold and the "real" Arnold come face to face, the "faux" Schwarzenegger asks his real-world counterpart to can the chatter. He doesn't like this actor jerk one bit and he tells him so, adding, as a parting shot, "You've caused me nothing but pain."

This isn't quite what we expected, but then a lot of "Last Action Hero" is rather curious and, at least at first, pleasingly out of the blue.

The key to the story -- and its weakest link -- is a magic movie ticket, given to a young boy named Austin by the projectionist (Robert Prosky) at an old Times Square movie house. An only child who takes refuge from the rough squalor of his life with his waitress mother (Mercedes Ruehl) by losing himself in the movies, Austin is Slater's biggest fan, and when the old man invites him to a private screening of the latest of the Slater slaughter-epics, he jumps at the chance. Soon after the picture begins, though, the magic ticket does its work and Austin is transported "inside" the movie he's watching -- right smack into the back seat of the hero's speeding convertible.

In the unreal, alternate dimension of "Jack Slater IV," everything is as expected. (It's probably the movie most fans will wish they were watching.) There's Jack's blustering, loudmouthed superior down at the station house, and the usual buddy cop horseplay.

All this is very confusing for Austin, who can't seem to convince Slater that he is a merely a character in a movie.

Slater doesn't like the idea of being "fictional." But later the ticket comes into play again and Jack and Austin follow the movie's symbol of evil incarnate, a suave, glass-eyed killer named Benedict (Charles Dance), across the threshold into the real world. And now, stuck in a reality where he has limitations (he has to reload his gun, for example, and his hand hurts when he rams it through a window) he starts to see the advantages of being imaginary.

It's during these "reality" scenes that Arnold is funniest and best suited to his role. And who better to debunk Arnold than Arnold himself? Hasn't that always been his saving grace -- that disarming ability not to take himself or his stardom too seriously? Conceptually, the setup is perfect. It can make use of all the old cliches, and have loads of action and killing (though, thankfully, less scarlet) and get away with it because it's a spoof, a knowing, sophisticated satire. The thinking-person's Schwarzenegger movie, and the star's most personal, most introspective film. His postmodern "Hamlet."

But that's just on paper. In reality, there are serious problems. As it turns out, both movies in this summer's face-off for box office Valhalla are about dinosaurs. Except that in "Last Action Hero," the creature that seems headed for extinction is the hero.

By now, all you can do with these formulas is what director John McTiernan (and screenwriters Shane Black and David Arnott) have done -- poke fun at them and play them as comedy. This is far from new, especially in Schwarzenegger's case. Arnold has always been a cartoon. And so Jack Slater, invincible in his snakeskin boots, T-shirt and bluejeans, is a cartoon played by a cartoon, a parody of what was already self-parodic to begin with.

The other problem is, who wants an ironic summer blockbuster? McTiernan is a first-rate (though not inspired) action director. But because the action is intended to be tongue-in-cheek -- Pirandello by way of Buster Keaton's "Sherlock Jr." and Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" -- the filmmakers take a step back from the action and don't apply the usual hard sell to churn it up. As a result, "Last Action Hero" isn't much fun as an action picture or as a satire. Somehow, in trying to be both, it succeeds at neither. The movie isn't mindless; it just has a mind that's a bit junky and muddled. And to their credit, Arnold and his collaborators (the star is the executive producer) haven't played it safe. "Last Action Hero" is a stretch. Unfortunately, it's a stretch that proves the star wasn't that elastic to begin with.

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