Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: LAST ACTION HERO

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Michael Reuben, Jan 12, 2010.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

    Feb 12, 1998
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    Last Action Hero (Blu-ray)

    Studio: Sony
    Rated: PG-13
    Film Length: 131 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Codec: AVC
    Audio: English, French, Portuguese DTS-HD MA 5.1; Spanish DD 5.1
    Subtitles: English; English SDH; French; Spanish; Portuguese
    MSRP: $24.95
    Disc Format: 1 50GB
    Package: Keepcase
    Theatrical Release Date: June 18, 1993
    Blu-ray Release Date: Jan. 12, 2010


    Time has been kind to Last Action Hero. With the flop sweat gone and the overwrought marketing campaign faded from memory, the movie plays like the big-budget action comedy that it always should have been. What killed it was the attempt to sell it as something more, as the ultimate parody of Eighties action blockbusters. You can’t parody a genre you’re still trying to make. Critics saw through the pretense, and the film was deemed a disaster even before it opened. (You have to wonder how it would have turned out in the internet age.)

    The Feature:

    Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) is a kid living in New York City with his widowed mom (Mercedes Ruehl, one of various Oscar winners recruited to give the film dramatic credibility). Danny lives for the movies, especially the Jack Slater series starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a rebellious and indestructible L.A. police detective whose signature line is, “Big mistake!” And yes, they use Arnold’s real name, because it’s that kind of movie.

    One evening, Nick (Robert Prosky), the projectionist at an old Times Square movie palace that’s scheduled to be demolished to make way for a new multiplex, invites Danny for a pre-release screening of the new Jack Slater picture. As a special gift, Nick gives Danny a ticket that, according to Nick, was presented to him by Harry Houdini when Nick was just a boy and working at the theater in the era of vaudeville. (Don’t think too hard about Nick’s explanation for why he kept the ticket all these years, and don’t ask why it looks as fresh as if it were printed yesterday.) Houdini claimed the ticket was magic, but who knows?

    After watching mob boss Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn, Oscar winner) commit a “big mistake” by tormenting Slater’s second cousin Frank (Art Carney, Oscar winner), and after meeting Vivaldi’s henchman, Benedict, a marksman with a distinctive wardrobe of glass eyes (Charles Dance, having a great time in a role originally written for Alan Rickman because of the Die Hard connection), Danny suddenly find himself catapulted into the movie – specifically, into the backseat of Slater’s convertible while Slater is pursued by a bevy of heavily armed and indestructible henchmen straight from Stunts ‘R’ Us. The only person more surprised than Danny at this turn of events is Jack Slater, who didn’t know until now that he’s really a fictional character being played by “Arnold Braunschweiger”. (Jack’s inability to remember the name of the actor playing him is what passes for a running joke in this script.)

    After a suitable amount of chaos and destruction, Jack and Danny head for police headquarters, which looks more like a theme park ride and, like the movie itself, is full of cameos and references. The Sony press department gave away many of them to promote the movie, but I won’t repeat that mistake. If you’ve forgotten them, you can have fun rediscovering them, and if you’ve never seen the film before, it’s worth it just for the people (and voices and images) who show up throughout. Also on the scene is a fed named John Practice (F. Murray Abraham, Oscar winner), who served with Slater in Vietnam and strikes Danny as a shady character, because, as Danny tells Slater: “He killed Mozart!”

    Towering over the chaos is Lieutenant Dekker (former NFL player Frank McCrae), whose character’s name is surely a nod to Blade Runner and whose unintelligible stream of shouted dialogue is meant to convey the ultimate “tough boss with a soft center”. In case there’s any doubt, Danny explains it to both Dekker and Slater, as he explains every other cop, buddy and action film cliche that crosses their path.

    At the home of Slater’s ex-wife, Jack and Danny meet Slater’s daughter, Whitney (Bridgette Wilson), but they’re interrupted by the arrival of Benedict and a slew of henchmen. During the ensuing battle, Benedict ends up in possession of the magic ticket, and he gradually discovers its ability to open portals between his world and the world from which Danny arrived. After Jack and Danny disrupt Vivaldi’s plot – an elaborate plan to massacre rival gangsters at a rooftop funeral leading to a giant action set piece involving a crane, an elevator, countless guns of every conceivable caliber, nerve gas and the La Brea tar pits – Benedict uses the ticket to escape to the New York City of 1993, where he makes a startling discovery: When you kill someone, nothing happens. (Mayor Bloomberg wishes me to assure readers that this is certainly not the case today. )

    Jack and Danny are right behind Benedict as he passes between worlds (it’s best not to think too closely about how this works), but they lose him in Times Square, because in the real world Jack isn’t a supercop. Now Jack has to learn how to function in a world where the good guys aren’t guaranteed a victory. Meanwhile, Benedict, remaining true to his character, hatches a fiendish plan to eliminate Jack permanently by killing the man who plays him: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Apparently he hasn’t been in our world long enough to learn about re-casting or alternate characters. To assist him, Benedict brings over The Ripper (Tom Noonan), an ax-wielding villain from a previous Slater film. Everything comes to a head at the gala premiere of Jack Slater IV, where Arnold gets to play both himself and Jack Slater, Tom Noonan gets to play both himself and The Ripper, and Arnold’s wife Maria Shriver gets to play just herself (and has one of my favorite lines in the film).

    Just when you thought it couldn’t get any stranger, Ian McKellen (not yet “Sir”) makes a brief appearance as Death from the film The Seventh Seal. Through the magic of Houdini’s ticket, he briefly exits the screen during an Ingmar Bergman festival and, as it were, takes a holiday.

    Last Action Hero was directed by John McTiernan, who directed the first Die Hard (and would go on to direct the third), Predator and The Hunt for Red October. McTiernan is one of the great action directors, and he can find the comic moments even as he’s ratcheting up the tension. (Who can forget the SWAT team in Die Hard getting stuck with thorns as they approach the Nakatomi Building, or the cold-blooded killer waiting for them who looks around guiltily before snitching a candy bar?) But McTiernan doesn’t have the right touch for satire, and the screenplay, which had four credited writers and many more uncredited, never achieved a consistent focus; so McTiernan did what he knew best – he made an action picture with jokes. And because McTiernan is a superior craftsman and had ample resources, a lot of the material is great popcorn entertainment. If only someone at the top had been willing to suck it up and say, “Let’s scale back our ambitions a little”, a solid but more modest film could have emerged from the editing room.

    Screenwriter David Koepp once summarized all the criticisms of his Jurassic Park screenplay in a single line: “It took too long to get to the island.” Last Action Hero repeatedly takes too long to get to the island, i.e., to the next spot where the audience already knows it’s heading and wants it to reach, so that the fun can start. If the film were being made today, the filmmakers might have been more willing to make painful but necessary cuts, knowing that these expensive sequences could show up later on disc in a director’s cut or as deleted scenes. For example, they could have dropped out the elaborate but unnecessary sequence where Danny falls asleep in class while the teacher (Joan Plowright, Laurence Olivier’s widow) is showing Olivier’s Hamlet (another Oscar winner!), and Danny dreams the Jack Slater version – in glorious black-and-white except for the flames, as Jack lays waste to medieval Denmark (“To be or not to be? Not to be!” BANG!). It’s wild, madcap and features Arnold riding a horse in ridiculous costumes, but everyone’s waiting impatiently for Danny to get thrown into Jack Slater 4. As soon as he does, the film picks up steam again, but you can only slow down and speed up again so many times before an audience loses interest.


    As the old ad campaign went, it’s a Sony! There are two distinct palettes for Last Action Hero: that of Danny’s “real” world, which is darker, grittier and filled with John McTiernan’s trademark anamorphic lens flares; and that of Jack Slater’s world, which is bright and uniformly well-lit, even if you can’t tell where the light is coming from. Sony’s transfer wonderfully captures these two palettes, rendering each one with solid blacks, excellent detail and an appropriately differentiated sense of color. Film grain is evident but never excessive. Certain effects shots look artificial (e.g., when the two worlds are visible together in the same shot), but the effect is deliberate.


    Even though Last Action Hero was one of the earlier films released with discrete 5.1 sound, it has one of the most interesting mixes I’ve heard in a long time. In fact, I don’t remember it being nearly this good in prior versions, and I’m not sure if that’s attributable to a new mix, the lossless encoding or the fact that I just haven’t seen the film for a while. Rear-channel use is aggressive and elaborate, especially when we’re inside the Jack Slater film. Bass extension is solid, though perhaps not as deep or powerful as might be the case in a film mixed today. Dialogue is clear, and the lively score by the late Michael Kamen (which deftly echoes his scores for such films as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard) is reproduced in all its glory. It’s an engaging and entertaining track.

    Special Features:

    MovieIQ: This pop-up source of trivia and background information, which is available through BD-Live, is the disc’s only special feature.

    Trailers. A rather large assortment, but unfortunately none of them are for the feature itself. The bulk have already appeared on numerous Sony Blu-rays. It’s time for some new material. Here’s the list: The Da Vinci Code Extended Cut, Ghostbusters Blu-ray, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Edition, A River Runs Through It, Angels and Demons, Michael Jackson: This Is It, Armored, The Stepfather, Soul Power, It Might Get Loud (and if I see that trailer on another Sony Blu-ray, it definitely will get repetitious).

    BD-Live. To my surprise, this feature was was active before street date. Other than MovieIQ, there were no features at the Sony site for Last Action Hero.

    In Conclusion:

    It would take James Cameron to fully exploit Arnold’s daffy side in an action film in 1994's True Lies, just as it took Cameron to make him a movie star in the first place with The Terminator. But Last Action Hero can still be a lot of fun if you treat it as the overwrought goof that it is, instead of the witty sendup that it wanted to be. On Blu-ray, at least, every expensive action set piece packs the requisite impact, and the film can finally do what it does best, which is to be loud, silly and entertaining.

    Equipment used for this review:

    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
    Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    SVS SB12-Plus sub
  2. Neil Middlemiss

    Neil Middlemiss Producer

    Nov 15, 2001
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    Neil Middlemiss
    Thanks for the review, Michael. It is rare to find a review that appreciates what this film is at its core. I have always appreciated McTiernan's style, and he zips his action styling up and really has fun with his subject, making Last Action Hero a guilty pleasure for years...and after your review, not quite so guilty.
  3. Cees Alons

    Cees Alons Moderator

    Jul 31, 1997
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    Cees Alons
    The marketing campaign in the US was something I completely missed, apparently, and indeed that may have been one reason the film did better at the box-office in Europe, perhaps. I've always believed that the names of Schwarzenegger and McTiernan attracted many of the usual action movie crowd - who then got disappointed by this film.

    Anyway, it has been something of a pleasure in my family to watch this one - and nothing guilty about it.

    I understand what you're saying about the Hamlet sequence, and indeed the film has several hardly connected episodes. I read somewhere that they actually didn't have (or took) time enough to do some proper (re-)cutting. But that Hamlet sequence at least gave us the line "who said I'm fair?".

    And we always thought they could have made a tiny bit more out of that nice conversation between Jack Slater and Danny's mom.

    Thinking of this movie, it's not just a few funny lines that stick in one's mind but also something special like the bright colours. The movie parts are nice and shiny (while the real world in contrast to that is darker and less attractive) and it adds to the over all feeling of the film.
    (My children also liked the cameos of Sharon Stone and the T1000.)

    In short: my VHS version is of 1994, my DVD of 1997, I ordered this Blu-ray without hesitation.

    Thanks for a great review!


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