Last Action Hero is One of the Most Unfinished Movies Ever Released
This title should not be news to anyone who knows about its troubled production but it also shouldn’t be as invisible to anyone who has actually seen John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The rough cut test screening was a disaster that damned the movie and forced a last-minute attempt by Richard Harris and John Wright to re-cut it literally days before its June 18th premiere. The movie is undeniably alongside Eyes Wide Shut and The Wolf of Wall Street as an extremely unfinished movie. And unlike Eyes Wide Shut, this really dooms Last Action Hero to ruin (I don’t think Wolf of Wall Street is aided by its really really rough editing, but it’s still a fun movie thanks to the energy of its cast).
Before I break into that, though, let me elaborate for those who haven’t seen Last Action Hero (and take this time to warn that this will have SPOILERS so go run if you haven’t seen the movie and are interested): it is about a kid named Danny (Austin O’Brien) who is extremely enamored with movies… especially the fictional Jack Slater series starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Upon being invited to a personal screening of the upcoming Jack Slater IV (although the movie is really messy in explaining how this is possible when the actual premiere is the final climactic setpiece of Last Action Hero) by his friend and local theater manager Nick, Danny jumps at the opportunity, and for a really endearing but strange sort of purpose, Nick hands Danny a ticket belonging to Harry Houdini for the screening.
Because it’s Houdini, the ticket turns out to be magic and catapults Danny right into the film himself where he is involved with Slater’s (obviously Schwarzenegger) latest investigation.
The movie runs 131 minutes, keep that in mind. For what should feel like a brisk comedy and action picture, the movie is more than two hours long and it feels every minute of that.
Part of that comes from the fact that the movie takes too long to actually get started with its premise. It is almost half-an-hour before Danny enters Jack Slater IV and what do we have before then? We have a home robbery scene that adds nothing to the plot whatsoever, a whole day of nothing going between Danny’s viewing of III and IV, and a jarring inability to figure out what the hell time of day Danny is at the Pandora (the dialogue explicitly claims he is skipping school in those scenes, but it’s clearly night when he leaves!)
The movie is overtly a parody of action movie tropes, but the script (which had gone through so many damn drafts, it’s almost impossible to figure out who to truly credit) is so unconfident in its wit that it has to have Danny elaborate on every single joke that occurs without allowing any of the audience to actually catch it themselves, which feels extremely punishing. The bits that are most enjoyable are the ones where Danny doesn’t have room to actually point out the movie logic or when he’s absolutely trumped (The Terminator 2 poster made me guffaw, Arnold’s smugness with the Area Codes line, the entire “Mozart” gag is my favorite — also I really need to note that the Region 1 DVD ruins some of the best visual gags with its pan and scan, most notably the Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick cameos). But when Danny has to keep explaining why something ridiculous happened, we already know why and would have been glad to sit down by ourselves with realizing the heightened scenario.
Scenes take longer than they need to with an incidental purpose that could be reapplied elsewhere (eg. Benedict didn’t need to attack Slater’s daughter’s home to get the ticket, Danny and Benedict still encounter each other at Fat Tony’s funeral) that the whole thing felt like a first draft (and the amount of rewrites the movie got show that was clearly not the case).
And then once Benedict and Slater make it to the real world, the film still takes its time getting to the climax even though it should almost be immediate — we have to sit through Jack watching the skyline, Jack meeting Danny’s mother — and moments are watered down by the theatrical cut’s glut. I really think it would have been much stronger to reveal Benedict brought the Ripper at the premiere of Slater IV rather than have the diner scene. The premiere feels like a self-congratulatory waiting game for us to see Jack stop the villains from killing Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie stops where it’s going to say “Look! Jean-Claude Van Damme! Jim Belushi! MC Hammer!” (and man, these are some of the most dated cameos) Arnold’s self-portrayal as a one-track-minded blunder drunk with his own celebrity is enjoyable, but Last Action Hero spends so much more time on it than it needs that our mind is waiting on what Jack will find on the rooftop than anything else.
And these are only a few of the things that make Last Action Hero feel like a slow slog rather anywhere near fun for me. It has a lot of great ideas (the whole Fat Tony funeral is ludicrously brilliant — from everyone having guns to the impossible heart-stopping moment when Jack falls off the world’s most paper mache elevator onto the crane — it is my favorite moment in the movie that isn’t “Moe who?” “Zart!”). While much of the cast (Anthony Quinn, Art Carney even for two seconds, Robert Prosky) feel like they regret doing a John McTiernan action flick, Schwarzenegger and co. (Wilson, Noonan, Abraham, and most of all Charles Dance) have enough zeal to their characters to really keep the energy of the movie up. The main players clearly have a lot of belief into both the magic of Jack Slater as an action picture to end all action picture and Last Action Hero’s parodic concept to let the audience a little bit in on the real context. But, it’s got all this unnecessary blubber in its way to the point that I’m surprised people claim it has gotten better with age. I liked it as a teenager, but watching it as an adult is where all this watering down became obvious to me and made it harder to love the more and more I grow older.
I think Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, another Shane Black picture (contrary to popular belief, Black didn’t write the original draft of the script — he was one of the script doctors along with William Goldman, who I’m usually a fan of but this time I feel Goldman did more harm than good), was actually the movie that did with its premise all the things Last Action Hero wanted to be — a mixture between a sleek enjoyable piece of action entertainment while being extremely aware of its obnoxious violence and less-than-believable story and scenarios without ever thinking the audience isn’t in on the joke.
But Last Action Hero doesn’t feel that way. It feels like it’s just nudging you asking “do you get it?” almost every time. “Do you get it?”
Do you get it?
P.S. The soundtrack is the bee’s knees, though. All my favorite metal artists — Megadeth, Queensryche (before the Geoff Tate split), Buckethead, one of my favorite Alice in Chains’ songs of all time, Aerosmith, and all with Michael Kamen (who had proved before with Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime AND after with Metallica’s S&M that he could match the heavy undertones and screeching melodies of metal with his own compositions) freely entering with his own musical phrases to mix cinematic grandeur to the raw inelegant thrust of these band’s sounds.
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