Last Action Hero (US - BD)
Gabe Powers revisits John McTiernan's misunderstood little blockbuster in HD...
Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien) is the child of a single mother living in a less than ideal section of New York City. Danny passes most of his time watching free movies at his friend Nick’s (Robert Prosky) cinema, and has a special affinity for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popular Jack Slater series. Nick invites Danny to a free midnight showing of the latest film in the series, and gives him a ‘golden ticket’, which was given to Nick when he was a child by real life magician Harry Houdini. It turns out the ticket is in fact magical, and Danny is transported into the film, directly into the back seat of Jack Slater’s (Schwarzenegger) car, and directly into a shootout. Slater disbelieves Danny’s insistence that he’s living in a movie world, but it’s soon clear that the kid knows more than he should about the plot, and Slater’s latest enemy, Mr. Benedict (Charles Dance).
Ah, Last Action Hero, the notorious flop (that actually made money) that was sold on false promises. Sold as a relatively straight Arnold Schwarzenegger action picture, from the director of Die Hard, John McTiernan, Last Action Hero was actually a comedy in disguise. There are many reasons the film didn’t do gangbusters with audiences and critics, and chief among them was Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which was the film event of the year. Spielberg’s film broke all the records (it’s still pretty far beyond both The Dark Knight and Avatar in the US when inflation is taken into account), and Sony released McTiernan’s film within a week of the juggernaut. But I think the mix of genres and styles is what endured as a disappointment for audiences, who were likely done with Jurassic Park after that first month. Last Action Hero is certainly an original mash-up, blending late ‘80s and early ‘90s action into a kids’ adventure flick, and then spoofing the whole thing. The script clearly passed through a few too many hands, and the final effect is a little overwhelming (it kind of feels like watching three movies at once), but on the whole these duelling elements work well with each other and on their own.
I adore the mega-meta moment where Danny uses the real world key to unlock the movie world handcuffs, and wish that the two worlds interacted a bit more in similarly clever ways. If the script had embraced its own weirdness just a little more it could’ve been some kind of Charlie Kaufman masterpiece of post modernism. It would’ve still been a financial disappointment in 1993, but it would be a better movie for it. Still, the seriousness of the real world is a pretty extreme change-up, and the impact of that first car crash is almost genuinely frightening. It’s actually probably the closest Arnold has gotten to real pathos. I’m not a fan of spoof, so I don’t think I’m out of line when I say that Last Action Hero may be my favourite major Hollywood spoof. It works for me because it doesn’t only depend on referencing other movies for laughs. McTiernan, who was chased back to familiar ground with Die Hard with a Vengeance following the one two box-office disappointment of Last Action Hero and Medicine Man, proves adept with the meta balance, creating a genuinely exciting atmosphere, while tweaking his visuals just enough to look a little cartoony. The cast is the key ingredient, however, as the script isn’t quite clever enough to be read by just anyone. Charles Dance as Benedict is the real star, and the one element I’m guessing even anti-fans can agree works in the film’s favour.
Good throwaway jokes include: Slater having run out of relatives to kill at this point in his film series (they have to off his second cousin to make it personal), Danny warning Jack that F Murray Abraham ‘killed Mozart’, Odd Job being the evil butler, Benedict harming a hair on Jack’s daughter’s head, all the car crashes behind Jack as he nonchalantly drives, and the deep darkness of Benedict shooting and man in the real world and trying to confess. But the best joke in the whole thing? Jack turning to the real Arnold Schwarzenegger and saying ‘Look, I don’t really like you. You’ve brought me nothing but pain.’
Apparently Sony did release a widescreen DVD version of Last Action Hero, but I’ve never seen a copy myself. Not that pan-and-scan is ever a good thing, but the Last Action Hero pan-and-scan was dizzying in its sheer quantity of artificial whip pans. Fans unwilling to drop $15 or $20 on a used copy of the OOP widescreen DVD now have another option. Overall this is a basically acceptable transfer, but definitely an upgrade over the standard definition release (which is where these caps were taken from). The problem is consistency, which is lacking from scene to scene. Sometimes the quality difference is clearly meant to make the real world look drabber than the hyper-stylized movie world, but there are plenty of moments of average quality peppered into the movie world as well. When the transfer’s good, it’s very good, including incredibly sharp close-up facial and hair details, even wide angle details, and some very bright colours. The movie world details and colours mostly impress during daylight scenes, but falter a bit during night-time scenes, and the bulk of the real world scenes take place in desolate darkness. The black levels are occasionally a bit muddied during these scenes, and colours are a bit over-warmed, and awkwardly blended. Sometimes the colour quality of the daylight scenes is a little off too (skin tones can be especially flat), but the range of colours can also be especially effective. The whole transfer is relatively grainy, and the grain definitely increases with the darkness. The climactic scene where Jack and Danny face the ripper in the real world (which looks more like Ridley Scott’s world at this point) looks pretty great though, including sharp, pin-point low-light details, rich blacks, and solid neon highlights.
Last Action Hero isn’t quite the surprise Sony’s same day release of Cliffhanger, but this DTS-HD Master Audio track works well enough. The film was the first SDDS release, and was produced the same year as DTS’s first release— Jurassic Park. Sony had something to prove, and in the early years of the 5.1 format (I believe Batman Returns, from 1992, was the first movie shown in Dolby Digital), directional effects were all the rage. For your surround sound dollar check out the first car chase scene where Danny finds himself in the movie world. The chase itself works itself out directionally, while the scenes of Danny watching the scene realistically place the sound of the film behind the viewer. When Danny appears in the car the sound is briefly sucked out of the film before being rocketed back into the mix with a shot of Jack’s gun. The rest of the scene is filled with cartoonish dynamite explosions that rock the LFE. The music is delegated mostly to the front stereo speakers, with rear channel echo support. The music runs a pretty wide array of styles, from Mozart and John Williams, to AC/DC and Megadeth. Composer Michael Kamen does a pretty good job of spoofing himself too, specifically his Lethal Weapon and Die Hard work. The pop and rock music that plays over the credits actually sounds pretty awful, and is over-produced with annoying echo effects.
How's about nothing? Zero? Zilch? A personal check for bupkis made out to the first nation bank of skidoo. Well, there’s a MovieIQ mode, and a few trailers for other movies, but otherwise Sony’s got nothing for you. Would it kill them to include the AC/DC ‘Big Gun’ video?
I never noticed that Ingmar Bergman’s death was played by Sir Ian McKellen in Last Action Hero. I suppose I could’ve just looked at the credits, but I never thought to. It was a nice surprise. Coming back to the film after so many years away I’m happy to report things are just as fun as they were when I left them as a teenager. If it wasn’t for True Lies, Last Action Hero might’ve ironically been Arnold’s last good movie. The film is begging for a real retrospective look, complete with documentary and commentary, so this Blu-ray release is hopefully far from the last word on the subject (there are really no extras), but the disc is widescreen, clean, and the sound is an improvement over the DVD release.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 12th January 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 French, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Portuguese, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Easter Egg: No
Director: John McTiernan
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, F. Murray Abraham, Austin O'Brien, Art Carney, Charles Dance, Frank McRae
Genre: Action, Adventure and Comedy
Length: 131 minutes
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