04 October 2013

Reexaming Last Action Hero in the Modern Age of Meta and Parody

In the Summer of 1993 there was only one movie on my seven-year old mind: Jurassic Park. As it would turn out, dinosaurs were the only thing on everyone's mind. Jurassic Park not only became the biggest film of the summer, but one of the highest grossing films of all time, a trendsetter in computer generated imagery (that still looks pretty damn good), and is beloved enough today to earn a damned decent 3-D conversion and theatrical re-release a few months ago. Last Action Hero (1993) debuted a week after Jurassic Park, but is none of those things. No one gave a shit about Last Action Hero in the Summer of Dinosaurs.

He says "I'll be back" like 50 times, and is made fun of each time

Why bring this up now, twenty years later? For better or worse, I had heard some good things about this flick but had never bothered to watch it. The premise always seemed flimsy to me, and in terms of the truly great Schwarzenegger films, we've got Commando (1985), Predator (1987), Total Recall (1990), True Lies (1993), and more Conan and Terminator movies than we could ever want. I always perceived Last Action Hero as this red-headed stepchild that was bizarrely dropped into the middle of Arnold's peak popularity and instantly forgotten. Thanks to my general laziness in paying attention to my Netflix queue, though, for better or worse, Last Action Hero was mailed to my house and I watched the hell out of it. It's one of the most meta-movies ever made for sure, but I'm wondering if, while under-appreciated and overshadowed in its time, if it had been released today, would audiences be way more into it?

It's a tricky question. It feels very much like a specific 90s action movie and a movie that came out in direct response to the glut of not only the Arnold films of this era, but of all the increasingly nutty action flicks made in the wake of Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1998) like The Last Boy Scout (1991) and Demolition Man (1993). It helps that the script for Last Action Hero was originally written by Zak Penn as a parody of Shane Black (of Lethal Weapon fame) scripts, and was later touched up by...Shane Black.

In this sense, it's very much a product of its time. Everything about it, from its heightened sense of violence, endless witticisms, and sultry L.A. setting screams 90s movies. Its core brilliance, however, stems from the fact that Arnold is game for parodying his entire film career along with the entire genre. The essential premise is that a kid who is an Arnold fanatic gets sucked into the fictional film-within-a-film, Jack Slater IV, and eventually emerges from the world with the actual Jack Slater, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's actually probably Arnold's best acting ever, expressing some real emotion when his fictional character realizes that he is fictional, and becoming upset when he meets the actual Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also exists in real-life.

A world without Schwarzenegger - now that's a scary thought!

Within Jack Slater IV, the kid continuously points out how ridiculous everything is, but the film accurately and self-reflexively depicts the insane physics and rules of its word with a consistency befitting any action film. Jack Slater's only super powers are those granted to any action hero - he never runs out of bullets, no enemy can hit him, he can drive any car like a crazy person, and every clue comes to him with little to no sleuthing. When he enters the real world, these powers disappear and the film accentuates the ridiculousness of the action genre through a deft presentation of this contrast. The kid acts as a running commentary in lieu of the audience, pointing out a constant stream of craziness (like a talking cartoon cat), convenient plot developments (like the cat showing up to save their asses), and even an inability of any character to swear (because of the film's PG-13 rating). All of this intelligent meta-discussion of genre and the implicit criticism of action movies disguised as an action movie ws lost on 1993 audiences. But would it be adored today?

There have been plenty of films since that have parodied Hollywood, although none were quite as dense as Last Action Hero. Bowfinger (1999) skewered much of the movie-making process, but wasn't nearly as off-the-wall crazy or genre-savvy as Last Action Hero. The closest film to what Last Action Hero was trying to do is possibly Tropic Thunder (2008), which also featured over-the-top films-within-the-film and a savvy commentary on life in the entertainment industry, as well as blurring multiple lines of fiction and reality (The final film-in-the-film, after all, is shot by the actors reenacting events that they actually experienced while filming another film, which was based on a book that an author made up but passed on as a true war story). Whether it be from an age of increased transparency in entertainment news which allowed potential audiences insight into the creator's intentions that allowed viewers to get in on the joke, or just a corrected perception of the talent involved (Tropic Thunder, after all, was created by comedians, rather than action stars), the film was largely understood by audiences and became a financial success.

Other films that have been successful strutting the line of homage, parody, and genuine genre flicks are the Cornetto Trilogy. The important thing about Last Action Hero is that while it clearly makes fun of action flicks, it is still very much an action flick itself. The Cornetto Trilogy, consisting of Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World's End (2013) all strut this line, not as overtly and obviously as Last Action Hero, but again, the audiences today understand and appreciate what its creators are trying to do. On the topic of Apocalyptic Comedies in the Summer of 2013, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's This is The End (2013) also relied on audience perceptions of Hollywood to "get" the core joke and premise - the riff on the public personae of a handful of young Hollywood Stars. All these films were pretty successful, culturally and commercially.

Plus - Sonya Blade!

So, in an age where this level of meta-parody and self-reflexive Hollywood criticism is both more common and more successful, could Last Action Hero have succeeded today? It's a tough pill to swallow, if only because there are only a few actors whose careers are widely enough known to skewer for the tropes to be understood, but that needs to be effectively communicated through marketing material. Picture Will Smith making an extremely genre savvy parody of Will Smith movies. I'm not sure that would work (or that Smith would be game - which is another reason why Arnold, at literally the top of his career, was unlike just about any other actor). Picture Matt Damon starring as Jason Bourne in a parody of Bourne Movies (he might do that), and you've got some idea of what this needs to be.

I really like Last Action Hero. I'm not sure if anyone else could. If you're a Shane Black fan, or at least an early 90s action movie fan, it's a must see. If you like extremely meta-films that constantly comment on themselves through a mixture of the different rules of different realities, this is the flick for you. It could possibly catch on in this age more than it did against Jurassic Park, but parts of it that are so dated towards the 90s tend to hold it back. Then again, you need to be in on the whole joke.

Jack Slater V (2015) needs to come before the next Rocky.

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