`LAST Action Hero," the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, is such a megaproduction that even the rumors about it are grabbing major press coverage.
Is it true the budget mushroomed to nearly $120 million, a walloping amount even by big-studio standards? Was the picture really completed long after its target date, in a race to the wire for its premiere last week? Did an alarming number of spectators really turn their thumbs down and their noses up when a rough-cut version was test-marketed last month - suggesting that legendary bombs like "Howard the Duck" and "Hudson Hawk" may have new company soon?
Whatever the answers may be, Columbia Pictures has a lot riding on Mr. Schwarzenegger's supercharged project, which certainly cost a bundle even if it hasn't set an all-time record. Like many a production outfit, Columbia has been in this position before. In 1977, for instance, its survival hinged on the success of "The Deep" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," both of which turned into instant hits and propelled the studio into a new era.
Will history repeat itself? The answer is "yes," if Schwarzenegger's track record is the deciding factor. His movies have reportedly grossed more than $1 billion during the past decade, capped by the big-buck success of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" two years ago. The answer is "no," however, if the actual quality of "Last Action Hero" has anything to do with it.
True, movies I don't enjoy often turn into box-office bonanzas, which is one reason I'm a critic instead of a studio boss. But those movies usually have something that I can identify as a marketable commodity - a thought-provoking plot, a lovable star performance, an ability to stir up powerful feelings.
By contrast, "Last Action Hero" has a gimmicky plot and a monotonous star performance. As for feelings, the strongest emotion it whips up is an overwhelming desire to stop your ears against the stupid dialogue, bombastic sound effects, and atrocious music that assaults you every second - courtesy of Dynamic Digital Sound, a diabolical new development in technological overkill. Surely no good movie would feel the need to be so loud.
In fact, everything about "Last Action Hero" seems overdone, beginning with the fact that it serves up Schwarzenegger in a dual role: as Jack Slater, an action-movie star, and as himself playing that character in real life.
The story begins when Slater's biggest fan, a preteen boy named Danny, gets hold of a magical "ticket" that transports him into the latest Slater picture. He and Slater battle various villains, winning every fight and conquering every obstacle because, hey, it's only a movie.
Then the two heroes find themselves together in the real world, where good guys can lose, gunshots can kill, and fistfights really hurt. The movie makes a stab at poignancy here, but that has never been Schwarzenegger's strong point. There's also some foolishness about Slater and Schwarzenegger meeting up with each other.
During the first few scenes, I thought "Last Action Hero" might poke enough fun at its own genre to succeed as a self-mocking satire. There's a hilarious vignette with Joan Plowright as a schoolteacher trying to convince her pupils that "Hamlet" was an action picture and Laurence Olivier was a super-cool star; and Schwarzenegger does an amusing bit as Jack Slater on the loose in a Shakespearean world, blasting through Elizabethan intrigues with Hollywood-style weapons.
But the cleverness quickly palls, and the movie's promising signs turn out to be highly misleading. Most of the parody is aimed not at lofty icons like Shakespeare and Olivier, but at easy pop-culture targets like Schwarzenegger's own image, which is close to self-parody anyway. The reflexive play with illusion and reality sinks into nonsense so far-fetched that the legendary Houdini has to be dragged into the story to give it some logic. The film-within-a-film is apparently supposed to be a bad movie - yet we're forced to watch enormous amounts of it, as part of the movie we came to see.
And don't be gulled into "Last Action Hero" by its excellent cast. Schwarzenegger is all over the screen, but Ms. Plowright disappears after one scene - and Art Carney, Anthony Quinn, Robert Prosky, and Mercedes Ruehl don't do much better. Only the talented Charles Dance and F. Murray Abraham, both playing conspicuously nasty characters, stick around long enough to make an impression. Cameos by everyone from Maria Schriver to Little Richard also don't help much.
The film's violence puts the carnivorous "Jurassic Park" to shame. If this summer's movie fare does nothing else, it should spark a vigorous debate over the PG-13 rating, and how ineffective the guidelines are in shielding young spectators from mayhem-filled epics like these.
Action specialist John McTiernan directed the picture from a screenplay by Shane Black and David Arnott, with Schwarzenegger as executive producer. Dean Semler did the gaudy cinematography and Michael Kamen composed the aggressive music.
* "Last Action Hero" has a PG-13 rating. It contains vulgar language and a large amount of extravagantly filmed violence.