Whenever anything’s sent to the house, it inevitably has to be vetted by my two sons, Toshi and Allen, who serve as the welcoming committee for anyone who comes to the door, including each and every UPS, FexEx, or delivery guy.
So when an envelope showed up at the start of the week containing BluRays of several Sony catalog releases, I was the last person in the house to know about it. I was walking out to the garage to get something to drink when I spotted Toshi sitting on the couch in the playroom, a BluRay laid out on the cushion next to him, studying the cover like it might unlock the secrets of the universe for him.
“Whatcha got there, buddy?” He’s just on the verge of reading words right now, so he loves to sound things out and he hates it when someone gives him the answer before he asks for it, so I’ve learned to let him tell me in his own way.
“L-A-S-T A-C-T-I-O-N H-E-R-O.”
“And what does that spell?”
He screwed his face up, studied the cover closely. “Ummmmm… superhero, maybe?”
I took a seat next to him and pointed at each word as I sounded it out. “You got part of it right. Here, try it with me, okay? Last…”
“Right! Action superhero!” Bolstered by his confidence that he’d cracked the code, he jumped off the couch and started throwing punches and kicks at the giant stuffed Mario in the corner of the playroom.
Now, Toshi’s never seen an Arnold Schwarzenegger film. There aren’t many of his films that are both age-appropriate and… well… good. And even in this case, my recollection of “Last Action Hero” was not a fond one, but I had trouble remembering why. I remember the build-up to the film’s release. It was the film that was going to beat “Jurassic Park” in the summer of ’93, and all the hype for the year pitted the two films against each other. I also remember it as being the film that cost Jeffrey Wells his job at the LA Times. Aside from that, I seem to have blocked the film almost completely from my mind.
I know that it was the movie that launched both Zak Penn and Adam Leff as writers, and I remember liking the draft that was floating around town that was called “Extremely Violent.” By the time it came out, though, it had been turned into a much tamer, and in my opinion much lamer version of the idea. Because of the film’s family-friendliness, and because Toshi kept diving off the back of the couch onto my neck until I would agree, I decided to let him watch the film and to rewatch it for the first time since 1993.
The basic premise of the film has Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), a movie-crazy kid, getting hold of a magic ticket that allows him to leap into the world of Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger), his favorite movie character. It’s basically a set-up to throw a ton of fairly obvious jokes about the conventions of the ’80s, and as a result, most of the “jokes” sailed right over Toshi’s head. He just watched it as a big silly action movie, and on that level, he liked most of the middle of the film. But the set-up took just long enough that it almost lost him completely, and the third act, where Danny and Jack make it in to the real world, was a misfire for him. What struck me anew as I watched is that the film totally flubs its own concept, and that’s what drove me crazy the first time around. If I was somehow transported into a movie, I wouldn’t spend all my time trying to convince everyone that nothing was real and that it was only a movie… I’d enjoy myself. Danny just keep repeating over and over, though, “This is all just a movie.” What a wet blanket. It doesn’t help that the film’s idea of a joke is having Arnold Schwarzenegger walk by Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick and do a double-take. Yeah, I saw those movies, too. It’s not funny just to say, “Hey, remember those movies?” If I want to see that sort of “joke,” I’ll watch “Family Guy.”
For my money, the most entertaining part of the entire afternoon was listening to Toshi try to pronounce Arnold’s name. Armer Shirtzganoma. Arrom Sashinebber. Armood Slitzininger. I started writing them down as he was saying them, and I did my stone-cold best not to laugh. But the more insane they were, the more mush-mouthed they made him, the harder that became.
It’s strange… I am a survivor of the ’80s. It was the first decade where I was allowed to see R-rated movies theatrically, the decade that saw the explosion of home video, and yet when I look back, I don’t feel the same nostalgia that so many ’80s kids seem to feel. For the most part, I think the aesthetic that is celebrated in “Last Action Hero” was a terrible one, and I’m glad its time ended. This year, we’re going to see several movies released that are going to trade on that aesthetic, like “The Expendables” and “The A-Team,” and if those movies find a clever way play off of that and update it at the same time, I think they’ll work. But if they’re just retreads, throwbacks for the sake of it, I’m not interested.
I have a theory about the people who are professed fans of this movie, and there certainly seem to be many of them. I think they were very young when they saw it, but old enough to have already seen some ’80s action movies on home video. I honestly think this was the first John McTiernan film I saw that just plain had nothing to recommend it, and I don’t think he ever really recovered as a director. This is a true PG-13, a little rougher than I expected in terms of violence, but always holding back, afraid to really follow its instincts. It’s safe to say this is the last time I’ll be revisiting “Last Action Hero.”
Toshi, though? He thinks Ermung Shitzinstabber is awesome.
Film Nerd 2.0 is an irregular column, in every possible meaning of the word.
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