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FILM COMMENT : Endangered Species : The American action-fantasy epic is in danger of becoming terminally musclebound and knuckleheaded

June 27, 1993|PETER RAINER | Peter Rainer is a Times staff writer

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Steven Spielberg--Hollywood's mega-mass triumvirate--have each returned from a heavy workout at the pec deck with their challenge cups: "Last Action Hero," "Cliffhanger" and "Jurassic Park."

There's a clear winner here. In the brave new world of the Hollywood action-fantasy extravaganza, where the bulked-up and thick-necked reign, Spielberg's dinos have the biggest pecs. These movies are all keyed to the same equation: Boom = bucks. But they don't all work the same way and they don't all work.

Everything is done for you--and to you--in these films. You strap yourself in and duck for cover. The climaxes are a series of thuds and bonks, pure sensation, endlessly recyclable. If you were to return to any of these movies, it would not be because you missed anything but because you wanted to take another pounding.

A great action-adventure-fantasy overwhelms us by appealing to all our senses. It connects up with our imaginations so that we fantasize right along with the filmmakers. There's an element of flattery in the best of these films; they draw us in as co-conspirators. Movies as disparate as "The Spy Who Loved Me," "Journey to the Center of the Earth," "Batman" and "Deliverance" have all stayed with us because they didn't set out to be theme parks. Their pleasures lasted for longer than the length of a roller-coaster ride.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is practically a theme park all by himself, which is why he's emblematic of the new action-fantasy epic. His saving grace as an action hero is that he's aware of how overblown he comes across. He doesn't really resemble how most men would care to look, and that's the joke. You laugh because he makes you realize that this--this!!--is how you thought you wanted to look. His he-man exaggerations are the real thing but they're also a goof.

The problem with all this self-referential goofball derring-do is that the joke congeals awfully fast, and that's exactly what happens in "Last Action Hero." The movie's entire premise--if that's not too grand a term for this clutterbin of clonks--is that Schwarzenegger is playing himself as action star Jack Slater. Danny, the 11-year-old boy who magically enters the screen and shares in Jack's exploits, is supposed to stand in for l'il old you and me. When it's the boy's time to leave his big buddy back in the reel world, their parting has a Peter Pan-ish flavor, with Arnold as a kind of butch Tinkerbell. "I need you to believe in me," he tells Danny before he lays out the big lesson: "Life is what you make it."

Schwarzenegger is working two trendy action-movie angles here: First, he's tenderizing his image by pairing himself with a nattering peewee. When Bruce Willis muscled up for the "Die Hard" movies, he didn't see the need for a junior-league tag-along; and Steven Seagal in his films is still more ponytailed daddy-o than daddy. (He frisks with Bunnies.) But practically everybody else in the field is working the kid angle as shamelessly as any baby-smooching politician. Burt Reynolds did his tour of duty in "Cop and a Half," and, in "Sidekicks," even Chuck Norris turns soft-boiled.

Schwarzenegger has been the real pioneer in this field: In "Kindergarten Cop," he was a big besieged lug in a romper room, though the film devolved into an ugly shoot-'em-up, 'lest we think Arnold wimped out on us. In "Terminator 2," a feral rapscallion taught him how to cry.

In "Last Action Hero," Jack Slater's heroics, which Danny, by knowing all of Jack's previous movies, gleefully predicts and second-guesses, are completely juvenilized. He's a pre-pubescent boy's action-comic hero. "Last Action Hero" enshrines his current incarnation as Everykid's stand-in--for adults, alas, that means the Everykid in us all.

By making predictability the centerpiece of its scenario, "Last Action Hero" congratulates us for recognizing the very same action-movie cliches that the filmmakers are too uninspired to reinvent. It assumes that all we want from the genre is to have our expectations recycled without surprise.

By comparison, at least Sylvester Stallone's "Cliffhanger" doesn't try to play movie-movie games with us. It has the courage of its own grindingly square action movie conventions. For all its potential for cartoonishness, the starkness of the bedlam in "Cliffhanger" is a little creepy. It's as if the Roadrunner's Chuck Jones had turned survivalist.

It's a mountaineering melodrama where the mountain gives the most commanding performance. After years of trying to buck the Rocky-Rambo franchise with roles that required polysyllables, Stallone has jackknifed back into his metier. In "Cliffhanger," he's so stalwart that he's often indistinguishable from the crags he's periodically scaling or smacking into.

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