The Real World Needs JACK SLATER
According to the press release that accompanied my copy of Last Action Hero on 4K UHD, Sony ran a poll to see what film from their library people most wanted to see in the new format, and this film was the winner. That’s pretty impressive for a film that was notoriously one of the biggest flops of the decade (suck it, Hudson Hawk!*). After Terminator 2 became the biggest film of 1991, Arnold Schwarzenegger was on top of the (box office) world, and chose this as his next project. Naturally, expectations were high for its success, and Sony pulled out all stops in hopes it would be the biggest movie of the year, if not ever.
Alas, it ended up making a paltry 50 million in the US, with worldwide numbers only helping it inch closer to breaking even. The concept was terrific: a fan of silly action movies gets sucked into one and gets to pal around with Arnold Schwarzenegger (who gives one of his best performances in the film, for what it’s worth), but the execution was a little wonky, and audiences were left cold. For years, it was a punchline, until everyone found other punching bags (Cutthroat Island, for example) and left it kind of forgotten except to its small but loyal group of defenders.
Revisiting now, it’s hard to tell if the film would have ever hit the heights Sony was hoping for. Jurassic Park is certainly to blame for some of its misfortunes (Spielberg and his dinos arrived on the scene a mere week before, and continued to fight off competition all summer), but the uneven script was no help. Worse, it was an odd choice to send up Arnold’s big-screen excess in a film that carried a PG-13 rating, which ensured his usual mayhem would be somewhat reigned in when it should have been exaggerated. It’s a fun flick to be sure, but (as director John McTiernan points out several times on his new - and candid - commentary on the disc) the story kept getting lost in all the noise.
But who cares about any of that. I’m here to talk about a key moment in the movie that made me realize the world its young hero came from is much more tolerant, and how I wish audiences today could be more like theirs. It happens pretty early on; Danny (Austin O’Brien) is watching Arnold in “Jack Slater III” at a second run house when the projection goes out of focus during the climax. Said climax concerns an axe murderer named The Ripper (Tom Noonan), who grabs Slater’s kid as he falls over the ledge of a roof, killing them both. Now, that might fly as an *inciting* incident for a movie like this, but that’s literally how it ends! Danny instantly goes upstairs to tell the projectionist (and his only friend) to fix it, and when the man does, the end credits are rolling. There couldn’t be more than two minutes between the brutal death of a young child and the final cut to black.
Now, that’s the sort of thing that would cause a film to flop instantly in our real world (see: The Mist), but in the world of Last Action Hero, audiences ate it up, apparently. Later that night, Danny gets to attend a sneak preview of “Jack Slater IV” (the film that he is sucked into), and later learns that a fifth film is already in production. What we see of the new film suggests it’s not as grim as its predecessor, but that too, suggests a more open-minded audience than we have now, as tonal shifts within a franchise are apparently no more welcome than cartoonish nonsense. Just this past week I saw a number of complaints that Spiral, a spinoff of the largely humorless Saw movies (of which I am a big fan, to be clear), had some comedy in it courtesy of Chris Rock, and how it had “no business” being in a Saw film.
Well, why the hell not? I’m sorry, is a Forrest Gump joke too much of a stretch for a universe where a man was so sure of his impending death that he had not one, not two, not even three, but (at least) FOUR accomplices in training who would carry on his life’s work (via pre-recorded videos and audio cassettes, no less)? “Jack Slater III” was apparently a horror movie (the axe-wielding Ripper didn’t seem to have a crew for Slater to engage in more traditional action scenes with, like the villain in Cobra, about the closest real movie I can think of to what “JS3” resembled), and no one seemed to mind when “Jack Slater IV” had him take on the mafia; why can’t we be more like them? Why can’t we have actual jokes in a series that is inherently kind of silly without anyone acting like it’s some kind of betrayal?
Danny doesn’t know how lucky he is to be in a world where horror and action can not only coexist, but also contain humor (Slater has a few one-liners on his way up to stop the axe murderer villain) and still be the top draw at the box office. Whenever someone adds a hefty dose of comedy and/or action to their horror movies, audiences tend to skip buying tickets and discover them later on video (kind of like, er, Last Action Hero). There are some exceptions, of course (Zombieland, the Resident Evil and Underworld franchises), but more often than not, cross pollinating the horror genre with any others results in a flop. Just ask Tremors, Slither, Night of the Creeps, Jennifer’s Body, Army of Darkness...
And I really don’t understand why that is. At the end of the day, all three genres (and any combination thereof) are the best ways to provide a bit of escapism for two hours, so doubling/tripling those elements is only going to make it more entertaining, if you ask me. Indeed, part of what leaves me slightly cold on Last Action Hero is that I end up wishing I was just watching one of those ridiculous Jack Slater movies for real, because whether it’s about the mob or an axe murderer, I’m bound to have more brainless fun with that than anything attempting “reality”.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with realism and/or a minimalist approach (especially if you do indeed want to be scared), but scoffing when they dial it up to 11 in the opposite direction strikes me as a disservice to the genre. Let’s face it, few of our favorite horror movies could exist as presented in the real world (even those allegedly based on true stories), so holding this or that lapse in logic against them is, quite frankly, stupid. As long as there is an internal logic, I think movies can and should get a pass on the “there is no sound in space” kind of errors that humorless whiners harp on because they would seemingly rather complain than just have fun.
It’s time to just accept that all movies (save documentaries) are asking you to buy into a reality that is not our own. If it’s a world that Freddy Krueger can kill you in your dreams, then it’s also a world where smoke won’t always come out of the window of a burning house (yes, that’s a mistake someone took time out of their life to point out about The Dream Master). It’s one thing for big name critics to be snooty about this sort of thing, because they’re joyless and shouldn’t be listened to when it comes to these films anyway. But let’s face it: it’s not Richard Roeper submitting goofs to the IMDb, complaining about an action movie where someone fires seven bullets from a six shooter without reloading, or that a slimy monster was able to get into this or that area without anyone hearing or seeing it. Last Action Hero’s Danny Madigan would never care about that sort of thing, and that’s why the Jack Slater franchise can include elements as disparate as cartoon cats and axe murderers.
Happily, recent box office reports suggest audiences are coming back around and being a little more open to goofy plots and outlandish characters. After a year of not being allowed to go to the movies, I find it interesting how two of the year’s silliest movies (Godzilla vs Kong and Mortal Kombat) are around the top of the year’s chart despite being available at home, while other, more serious films (including Spiral) continue to score single digit openings. To me this suggests after a year (and counting) of such dread and misery, we are ready to embrace the sort of things that even Arnold might consider a stretch. People are going to the movies again, but they’re being choosy, and the message seems to be “the sillier, the better.”
If I’m right, and it’s not just a fluke, hopefully the studios are noticing. Perhaps the time to get audiences to reset their attitudes and just enjoy cartoonish spectacle is now, and we can maybe get some high concept, bigger budget “horror” movies out of the deal before everyone gets all high and mighty again. Give us the insanity and big budget spectacle that Danny Madigan was starting to take for granted, instead of movies that are even less exciting than the (purposely low-key) “real world” scenes of Last Action Hero. Not only do we want escapism given the state of the world, we kind of need it. Give us “Jack Slater III” for real!
...just don’t kill the kid off in the closing minutes.
* I love Hudson Hawk, please release it on 4K UHD as well, thanks.