'HOW would you feel if you found out somebody made you up? Your wife, your kids?' asks Arnold Schwarzenegger perplexedly in his new film Last Action Hero (15), 'Push your kid off a building, give you nightmares every night, but it doesn't count because you're just a fictional character?' That odd and slightly squelchy noise you can hear is the sound of self-consciousness (post-modernism, intertextuality, what you will) hitting the mindless action picture, Die Hard colliding messily with The Purple Rose of Cairo.
It takes time, of course, for artistic innovations to filter through to the mainstream, and it has taken 70-odd years for Pirandello to be repackaged for popcorn addicts. Irony isn't new in literature (in fact it's as omnipresent as background radiation, the problem these days being how to escape it) but for John McTiernan, directing a script by Shane Black and David Arnott, it's still a new toy. He hasn't yet noticed the irony of irony, that a two-edged sword gets blunt so quickly. Unfortunately short-term effectiveness leads rapidly to diminished returns.
Last Action Hero is haunted by diminishing returns in another sense, by the feeling that big budget action films are no longer surefire at the box office, and perhaps the genre is ready for the desperate measure of self-parody. There was already self-parody in Die Hard and the Indiana Jones cycle, but here it is the structural principle. Everything has inverted commas around it, even the inverted commas.
Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien), an 11-year-old boy with a a particular devotion to film tough-guy Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is given a cinema ticket imbued with oofle-dust by Houdini and enters the world of the film he is watching. Later, the film villain Benedict (Charles Dance) uses the ticket to cross over into the 'real world', and the boy and the muscleman follow him. Slater must come to terms with his fictional status, and is humiliatingly mistaken by the 'real' Schwarzenegger for a high-grade celebrity lookalike.
The film is a desperately resourceful piece of work, stuffed to the gills with split-level jokes. There's a parody of a trailer for Hamlet done as a Schwarzenegger movie ('There's something rotten in the state of Denmark . . . and Hamlet's taking out the trash'), but it is prompted by Danny's teacher introducing a clip from the Olivier version. She tells her charges that they may recognise Olivier from the Polaroid advert or (this with a sigh) as Zeus in Clash of the Titans, and she is played, for the benefit of anyone with a longer memory or a broader frame of reference, by Joan Plowright.
You can see this as richness of texture, or as a sort of doggedness, a determination to court every possible audience simultaneously, with references to The Seventh Seal, Amadeus and ET peppering the target pretty comprehensively. The film-makers aim at all brows - high, middle and low - with the same insistent fire power.
In one way, Arnold Schwarzenegger should be ideal as the Aryanised icon, since bodybuilding is inherently a post-modernist sport. Film actors from Buster Keaton to Burt Lancaster and beyond have brought to the screen physical skills acquired elsewhere, but bodybuilding is different. The prize-winning body is a piece of muscular development that is already in quotation marks; it wins prizes not for what it is capable of, but for what it looks like it is capable of.
But the limitations of Schwarzenegger's acting, which are still pretty drastic, put the brake on the progress of this vehicle. When in the film-within-a-film Jack Slater is trying to save a child from the villainess Ripper, we have no way of telling from his performance that the boy is meant to be his own son. Later when he crosses over from fantasy California to 'real' New York he can't generate even the pathos Christopher Reeve managed when Superman gave up his powers for love.
Arnold is still invulnerable, it's just a slightly lower grade of invulnerability, as if he were made of steel now instead of the usual platinum. When he says after a fight 'I need a hospital, I think my shoulder is out at the socket', the audience is likely to remember Schwarzenegger's role in the first Terminator and to think, 'robot, repair thy self'. His persona still admits only damage to bodywork, and excludes human pain.
In the fantasy Police Headquarters in California, where duty pairings are made on the basis of novelty casting ('You're teamed with the rabbi'), it turns out that a film clip of Humphrey Bogart is on the payroll, not to mention a trench-coated cartoon cat called Whiskers. At moments like this, Last Action Hero aspires to the hyperactive fullness of that other piece of pop post-modernism, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The difference is that cartoons are paradoxically less fragile in their childishness than action pictures. It's fine to have quotation marks round a stock confrontation or a catchphrase - such as already adorn Schwarzenegger's 'I'll be back' - but things get more problematic when there are quotation marks round a car chase or a helicopter crash. McTiernan may satirise the hyperbole of the genre but he daren't risk delivering anything less extravagant. The director has to boost the realism of his staging in a rather self-defeating manner. It begins to look, not that he's having it both ways, trading on what he mocks, but that he has painted himself into a corner.
There are also problems about making a parody of bloodthirsty films that is not itself bloodthirsty. Sequences in which we see only the firing of weapons and not the damage that they do (it's just that particular characters don't appear again) are peculiarly unsatisfactory solutions to the problem of representing violence on screen. It's as if they are there to enable the film-makers to boast about the low body count of the film. No bodies, no body count.
Heroes have always been packaged products, at least since the time that the young Abraham Lincoln was promised a block of votes on condition that he grew a beard (to appear older and more statesmanlike). But it's doubtful whether a hero can be repackaged indefinitely. A hero is supposed to have some consistency, even if only appealing to a consistent set of fantasies. The pumped-up heroes of modern Hollywood - Schwarzenegger, Norris, Lungren, Van Damme - have divergent constituencies and are not interchangeable.
Sylvester Stallone proves the point. One of the incidental pleasures of Last Action Hero is a poster for Terminator II which, in the parallel universe of Jack Slater's California, has been made starring Stallone. Though this is referred to as Sly's best performance, in fact the thing is unthinkable. In Stallone's recent comeback movie, Cliffhanger, Stallone just did what he's always done, in a somewhat different setting. Stallone might go out of fashion, but he would sweat and grunt to the last, as he always did. Somehow that's closer to the real stuff of movie heroism than Arnold Schwarzenegger appearing as himself in Last Action Hero, being told by his real wife in a cameo role how tacky it is to hype his gym and his restaurant . . . and getting his plug in anyway, post-modernism offering no resistance to self-promotion.
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