Consider the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero, a movie bristling with playful self-reference, irony and mocking humour. Critics were obviously going to hate it and advise the masses to go see the stale, lumbering Jurassic Park instead: playful self-reference, irony and mocking humour - hey, isn't that their job? They're the ones who are supposed to point out that Last Action Hero goes beyond obvious spoof into knowing, Post-Modern parody, that the entire project relentlessly deconstructs Schwarzenegger's image of screen superman and how we relate to it, inviting viewers to see the process as a cheeky conspiracy, a shared joke.
And what a joke. It shows Arnie at his most archetypal as Jack Slater, a much-sequelised movie character, torn from the certainties of celluloid formula (good triumphs over evil, et cetera) by a young fan (Austin O'Brien) and his 'magic' cinema ticket, into the ambiguities of the 'real' world. This is a place where evil runs riot and even the quickest quip won't deflect a storm of incoming bullets - and the bullets really kill.
Which is where Last Action Hero miscalculates. Not by the traditional Hollywood method of under-estimating the audience's intelligence, (a Schwarzenegger movie trope) but by over-estimating it.
It's one thing to provide a running critique of your own work, it's quite another to demonstrate to those other purchasers of magic cinema tickets how pitiful their escapist dreams are. Movie-goers want to vanish into a airbrushed, edited make-believe world where the bad guys can't shoot straight and the good guys are invulnerable. What if viewers don't get the joke? Perhaps they'll feel their noses are being rubbed in something unpleasant, something remarkably similar to . . . truth.
For Last Action Hero, for all its fisticuffs, flashy explosions and helicopter attacks, demands of its audience, 'Why are you here?' To be entertained? Or to be lied to? You might parrot the party line about movies being too violent but, to paraphrase Sliver, you like to watch, don't you? You crave the comfort of believing that this guy who looks like a condom full of walnuts and talks like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa is a superman of sorts, able to best muggers, drug lords and hitmen. Isn't that a scream? It is - until Last Action Hero tears Slater out of his (and our) celluloid fantasy and on to the mean streets of New York. Here the villain of the piece (Charles Dance) has already discovered you can shoot a passer-by in plain sight and the only response will be turned heads and quickened steps.
Slater, on the other hand, finds that smashing a car window means bleeding knuckles and a bruised psyche. This world denies instant solutions. This world is not fit for heroes. Encountering his 'real', off-screen self at the premiere of Jack Slater 5, the manufactured persona is finally reduced to an angry child, screaming at the nonplussed Arnie, 'I hate you]' because Slater has come to the realisation that he is not just a fiction - he's just a fabrication.
It's the movie's most emotional moment (Arnie disavows himself) and it's an act of pure self-destruction, a violation of the unspoken pact between performer and paid observers. Hoping to make an instructive case for the essential nobility of a genre that always allows the forces of order to triumph, Last Action Hero becomes hopelessly muddled, indicting the viewer for swallowing Hollywood's tall tales whole. It's a mess, but it's magnificent too: a box-office bomb that blows up in everyone's faces.
'Last Action Hero' (Columbia-Tristar) is available on video from today
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