CINEMA / Pumping irony is not enough: Is the ferociously self-improving Schwarzenegger working out with post-modernism?

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The Independent Culture
GREED IS the besetting sin of The Last Action Hero (15). Arnold Schwarzenegger and his producers have tried to cover every market sector with a film that is

a grab-bag of genres: a fantasy-action-adventure-comedy with a film-within-the-film. Before the release, studio executives could barely contain their glee at this money machine, with its built-in marketing and sequel potential. But it's turned out to be a beef- chicken-anchovy-and-jam sandwich: the ingredients cancel each other out, and become indigestible. By offering us everything, they've given us next to nothing.

Any one layer of the sarnie might have been tasty. The opening suggests a camped-up Die Hard. The camera slides into a crowded plaza to catch a silvery sleek police car drawing up. A helicopter hovers overhead. Chains of policemen run forward in perfectly drilled, rather ominous unison. 'This is a hell of a way to spend Christmas,' somebody moans, before two patrol cars are riddled with bullets. A gun and a body tumble from a roof-top. And then, like the bugle-call of the US Cavalry, the thud of snakeskin boots on the pavement: Arnold's boots. He's coming to the rescue, face clenched in its tight scowl.

Films like Die Hard mock themselves, but Schwarzenegger could still have made an enjoyable parody. He wanted more. What we have seen is just the film-within-the-film. Schwarzenegger is playing Jack Slater, the lone cop who always saves the day in the nick of time, in Jack Slater III. Soon we leave the film for the real world: a Manhattan cinema where Jack's greatest fan, schoolboy Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien), is lapping up the movie. A magic ticket proffered by the grisly old projectionist (Robert Prosky), followed by an explosion on-screen, and Danny is catapulted from a seat in the circle to one in Slater's sports car.

You get a measure of the film's desperate disparateness by totting up the borrowings in that scene: from doting fan (The Purple Rose of Cairo), via dreamy projectionist (Sherlock Junior) with gold ticket (Willy Wonka), to fast car and ill- matched buddy (48 Hrs), with nods to Treasure Island and Peter Pan. Is the ferociously self-improving Schwarzenegger now working out with post-modernism? In a fantasy of Danny's, Slater stalks the battlements of Olivier's Hamlet, sorting out Claudius with a fist. Later when Slater is in the real world, he's greeted by Death (a wonderfully pallid, wrinkled Ian McKellen) who's slipped out of Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

There's method to this magpie. Schwarzenegger's has been a career of hedged bets. He has long used humour as a mask for his brutality, watering down his nihilistic fantasies with self-mockery. And in the comedies - Kindergarten Cop, Twins, - he uses bone-crushing as a fail-safe. The Last Action Hero is his well-titled response to the end of the Rambo Eighties: a cunning way of doing the violence but disclaiming it, having your beefcake and hating it. It leaves spectacular action scenes empty, and us confused. A terrific chase in which Jack's car careers off a bridge is undercut by another driver's comic gawp and a homily on acne. We're being asked to disown our excitement.

Schwarzenegger, who has something of Frank Bruno's eager, muscle-bound self-irony, comes out better than the film - though you wonder if attacking the action genre is in his long- term interest. His Slater has a mite more nonchalant might than his other brutes, and his Arnold Schwarzenegger (whom he plays at the premiere of Jack Slater IV) is a notch more narcissistic than the real thing. When Slater, stranded in the real world, rails at the indignity of being fictional, we get a glimpse of unexplored pathos.

The other performers fluster between genres. Austin O'Brien is a standard flop-haired, baseball-jacketed kid. An out-of-sorts Anthony Quinn, in the Slater movie, is a mafioso with a gentle peasant stupidity. His boss, Charles Dance, is miscast as the mandatory English villain, with a liquorice-allsorts supply of glass eyes: he's more a cad than a criminal. There are a few star cameos, but director John McTiernan throws them away - Sharon Stone, in Basic Instinct white dress, edging into shot - as if he had as many as The Player.

McTiernan's an action man (Die Hard, Predator), best with explosions - as when Slater discovers a pack of counting-down cards and gets the gag in time to throw himself clear of the blast. He distinguishes photographically between his two worlds - glossy, saturated colours for the movie scenes, nitty-gritty for the reality - but misses the point that the crossovers should be deadpan. That's how Buster Keaton and Woody Allen drew their distinctions between art and life. The Last Action Hero is a soulless mish-mash. And, at a rumoured dollars 120m, an awful waste of money.

Leslie Harris's Just Another Girl on the IRT (15) could be dubbed The First Pregnant Black Teenage Heroine. ('A Film Hollywood Dared Not Do' is the credits' description.) Ariyan Johnson, as 17-year-old Chantel, has a sulky pout and a questing intelligence pushing through her adolescent rap: she doesn't want to be a Brooklyn statistic. It's a portrait, by turns touching and grating, of a girl brinking adulthood: still squawking and lewd- talking with her mates and screaming at her cigar-chomping father, but old enough to conceive. Her ambition for betterment leads her to deny, even to herself, her pregnancy, right to the daring, flawed climax. This jiving, sassy debut draws comparisons with Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It. Harris lacks Lee's wit, but also his cloying romanticism.

Across New York, in Chain of Desire (18), Temistocles Lopez updates Schnitzler's La Ronde. Again sex spans society: a singer falls for a decorator whose wife is seduced by her rich employer who . . . and on, through virgins and rakes, artists and artisans, spouses and cuckolds, until we return to the singer. Early on, when the only thing that's limp is the dialogue, you feel you've wandered into a blue movie. But stamina is rewarded in the film's own poignant promiscuity, ditching characters just as we get to know them, its dirty realism and its baleful emphasis on concupiscence over consummation. The coupling carousel is the more terrifying in this diseased age: sadder than Max Ophuls' 1950 version, this is a sexual sorry-go-round.

Dennis (PG), a poor kid's Home Alone, is worth watching only for Walter Matthau. As the long-suffering neighbour of American cartoon terror Dennis (Mason Gamble), Matthau gives a masterclass in comic timing and reaction and a full range of rage: from glowers and grimaces to flat- voiced sarcasm, with a scowl behind every smile. He creates a real character amid the cartoonery: a weary fatalist, whose layers of mottled skin seem like protection against a world he can't communicate with. As Dennis, the charmless Mason is a Gamble that hasn't paid off. It'll be a close-run thing whether he or the relentlessly puckish signature tune has you screaming first.

Cinemas and times: Review, p 62.

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