Never kid a kidder, the proverb says, to which those who survive "Last Action Hero" will want to add, never parody a parody. An awkward mixture of overproduced action and underwhelming comedy, this ponderous joy ride is more notable for how strenuously it's been promoted than for how much pleasure it delivers.
Which is especially a shame, because under all the unnecessary hardware that too big a budget inevitably guarantees there are traces of an idea that was appealing once upon a time. Like the very different "Cinema Paradiso" of a few years back, the original story by neophyte writers Zak Penn and Adam Leff must have been something of a mash note to movies, a valentine to the emotional attachment we can feel for what's seen on the screen.
But once an entity of Arnold Schwarzenegger's dimensions became attached to the project, any chances of it being done on an appropriate scale went south. In came big-deal action director John McTiernan ("Die Hard," "The Hunt for Red October") and the flagrantly commercial rewrite team of Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon") and David Arnott ("The Adventures of Ford Fairlane") and everyone started to anticipate grosses that would cover the Earth.
But in their attempt to cleverly corner all the action market money, the filmmakers made some fundamental mistakes. They misunderstood the nature of Schwarzenegger's considerable appeal, and they misjudged the effectiveness of the audience attack weapon they felt they were building.
Though we aren't let in on the news immediately, "Last Action Hero" begins with a film within a film, the newest action movie to focus on Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger), a monolithic L.A. cop who is part Rambo, part Dirty Harry, and all business.
Watching Slater in a nearly deserted New York theater is his biggest fan, 11-year-old Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien). A movie junkie who regularly cuts school to check out his heroes, Danny is aided by his friendship with Nick (Robert Prosky), the theater's kindly old projectionist.
Nick turns out to be a duffer with clout, able to offer Danny the chance to be the first on his block to see the newest Jack Slater movie. He also gives Danny a special magic ticket he has been hoarding since Harry Houdini himself gave it to him when he was a boy. "It's a passport to another world," Nick says reverentially, and so it turns out to be.
For just as "Jack Slater IV" starts to get going, with Jack fated to take on the villainous team of Anthony Quinn and Charles Dance, the ticket starts to vibrate and turn colors. And a dazed and confused Danny suddenly finds himself right in the middle of the movie, riding in the back seat of Slater's trademark '66 Bonneville convertible as the big guy trades lead with some unidentified desperadoes.
The notion here, one that films ranging from Buster Keaton's "Sherlock Jr." to Ralph Bakshi's "Cool World" have played with, is that film exists in a kind of parallel universe, one that can be entered, with a little help from unspecified forces, by just about anyone.
But though Danny knows he's in a movie, Jack thinks he's acting out in the real world, and a lot of "Last Action Hero's" time is spent in Danny's stubborn attempts to persuade him he's wrong. Finally, events force the two of them to cross back over and the boy and the hero have to cope with New York City's nominally more realistic set of problems.
While this is certainly an acceptable premise, "Last Action Hero" does not manage to live up to its potential, and its biggest asset from a commercial point of view turns out to be one of its problems.
Arnold Schwarzenegger's success as an action hero, as indicated by trademark one-liners like "I'll be back" and "Hasta la vista, baby" is based partly on the way he winks at the audience at the same time he's thrilling them. To turn that implicit mockery explicit, to have him do the kind of out-and-out spoofing much straighter actors like Charlie Sheen and Leslie Nielsen can manage perfectly well, is to simultaneously misjudge and squander the qualities that make Arnold Arnold.
Speaking of letting Arnold be Arnold, it seems at times that this movie, which is filled with cutesy homages to "Basic Instinct," "E.T," "Amadeus" and a whole lot more, has too many Arnolds to go around. Schwarzenegger not only plays the fictional Jack Slater, he also plays the Arnold who plays Jack Slater, which means playing himself, complete with real-life wife, Maria Shriver, as a fictional character.
If that isn't enough to give you a headache, the movie's loud and tiresome stunts are sure to finish the job. Things explode in "Last Action Hero" with a predictable regularity and cars almost never stick to the road, but none of the fuss is up to the standards James Cameron set for Schwarzenegger in the "Terminator" films. And, like someone who shouts English at a foreigner in the hopes that the volume will make him understand, the filmmakers appear to believe that the more assaultive the sound, the more effective the sequence.