Noisy and hurtling and chaotic as it is, LAST ACTION HERO doesn’t slide off the rails for about 45 minutes. Early on, Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), a mop-topped 11-year-old action-film fanatic, is seated in a grimy Times Square movie palace watching his favorite hero, the brawny Los Angeles police sergeant Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger), when he’s suddenly propelled into the movie. We’ve seen this gimmick before, of course (in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo), and there’s no reason to think it couldn’t work with Arnold. For a few minutes, it does. Transported to the back of Slater’s speeding vehicle, Danny finds himself in the middle of a wildly hyperbolic chase scene. The action is so fast and exaggerated-cars flying with such cartoonish abandon, explosions so explosive- that we seem to be in for a high-trash good time.
But then a strange phenomenon sets in. Since Danny worships Slater, you’d think he’d be thrilled to find himself in the middle of one of his movies. Instead, the kid grows a bit disgruntled. Rather than going with the fantasy, he starts trying to prove to Slater that Slater is just a movie character. This twist has a peculiar — and deadening — effect: Instead of experiencing what it’s like to be inside a Hollywood action movie, we’re placed even further outside it.
Last Action Hero is a perverse spectacle: a stupid, generic slab of action bombast that keeps reminding us it’s a stupid, generic slab of action bombast. It’s a lead balloon of a movie, so top-heavy with self-referential cuteness that it never begins to levitate — or even make sense — as a fantasy. When Danny leads Slater into a Blockbuster Video store to show him a shelf full of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, you can practically hear the audience let out a collective ”Huh?” After all, we knew Arnold was goofing on his image as a world-famous action star, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was playing ”Arnold Schwarzenegger.” By the time Arnold (I mean Jack) shows up at the New York premiere of his latest movie and says to the real Arnold, ”I don’t really like you-you’ve given me nothing but pain” (is this Schwarzenegger’s way of telling us it’s lonely at the top?), Last Action Hero has deconstructed itself to the point of insanity.
The Jack Slater film is intentionally garish nonsense — car crashes and shootouts and a villain (Charles Dance) distinguished only by his collection of gleaming false eyes. There’s a deep cynicism at work in making the film-within-a-film such a deliberate piece of junk. On some level, the creators of Last Action Hero are saying, ”Of course this is just packaged mindlessness — that’s all you dunderheads really want.” Like Hudson Hawk, Last Action Hero makes such a strenuous show of winking at the audience (and itself) that it seems to be celebrating nothing so much as its own awfulness. In a sense, the movie’s incipient commercial failure completes it aesthetically. For even if the filmmakers don’t go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, you can’t say they didn’t try.