Predator & Last Action Hero, Reviewed
April 7, 2020
Two movies directed by John McTiernan, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger
omewhere, in the balmy jungles of Central America: a camarilla of paramilitary men, led by the action-figure-looking Major Dutch (Arnold
Schwarzenegger), has been tasked by Dutch’s old commanding officer, General Phillips (R.G. Armstrong), to carry out a rescue mission. The people in need of a rescue, Phillips says, are a foreign leader and his right-hand man. The people who are making it so the foreign leader and his right-hand man need to be rescued, Phillips says, are a cabal of bloodthirsty insurgents who are looking to steal some classified information. But nothing, it turns out, is so straightforward in Predator (1987), the first team-up between Schwarzenegger and action-film stalwart turned convicted perjurer John McTiernan (1988’s Die Hard; 1990’s The Hunt for Red October). This is not a rote search-and-rescue-style thriller. It’s indeed an action movie, but one should note, to borrow the
construction of a popular meme, that it’s an action movie, but make it slasher.
Predator has something in common with a movie like First Blood (1982): it, too, is mostly a film-length melee set in a labyrinthine forest. But it also shares some genetics with Friday the 13th (1980). Not long after Dutch and his men land in the maze-like greenery where their targets are purportedly grouped, they find out a couple of things. The mission they are supposed to be conducting, for one, is actually something of a cover-up. And another thing: there is someone — or something — who is brutally killing people, for no clear reason, in this particular sphere. (Spoiler ahead: that someone/something is a tech-savvy alien, who is so well-armed that he [?] even has advanced healing elixirs, I guess, stored inside a metallic wrist gadget that he can inject into himself if a rare blow from either Dutch or one of his cohorts manages to break the scaly skin.)
The title foe will pick off Dutch and his men incrementally. The movie is constructed simplistically; it’s like 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game for boomers, but this time it’s not a mad tycoon hunting people for sport; this time it’s not merely ego fueling the chase. McTiernan could have directed without very much filigree — make the thing with such economy (the movie’s narrative doesn’t require much dressing up to be effective) that it might have resembled a bare-bones B movie.
And the movie is as tight and convincingly claustrophobic as a particularly competent one would be. But McTiernan still packs in as much big-budget-evoking, blockbuster largeness as he can. He accentuates the fantastically giant explosions when they arrive (the alien has more than just guns and what looks like surgical equipment); he really homes in on the cacophonies of Alan Silvestri’s score. The movie was made with a pretty cheap $15 million but to me looks like it was done with ampler Die Hard money, with extra to spare.
What’s interesting about Predator is not so much its slick action or the way it maximizes the look and feel of its limited resources but more so its messaging. Predator is escapist; it’s also anti-imperialist. It uglifies the way its outsider ensemble parachutes in and from the get-go thinks it's dominant. (In an early scene, Dutch and his crew shoot up, with antically big semi-automatics, presumptive insurgents whom they assume collectively make up one bad guy as long as they're in the area.) The villainous alien is, I think, pretty much a moral equivalent of this phalanx of military men. Isn’t the alien arriving with an intent to myopically conquer, too?
At the end of the movie, when Dutch is the only person standing willing to engage in combat with the alien, the latter and the movie’s antagonist have a hand-to-hand showdown. Inevitably, the alien is extinguished — and with that death comes a very creepy release of maniacal laughter — and Dutch and any other people left get away. But you finish Predator not feeling like all is well even though on the surface things look it — a sensation brought on, I think, by the effective delivery of its overarching themes.
Carl Weathers and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator.
n stark contrast to Predator’s one-setting freakiness, the next team-up between McTiernan and Schwarzenegger, Last Action Hero, from 1993, is memorably expansive. It jumps locales with the giddiness of a video game. The
movie is also probably the most meta feature residing in Schwarzenegger’s filmography. Technically he’s playing himself in it. The film stars Austin O’Brien as Danny Madigan, a young teen who lives in New York City with his single, widowed mother, Irene (Mercedes Ruehl). Danny doesn’t seem to have many friends, and already errs on the side of pessism, as a middle-schooler, about the prospects of life. So he spends most of his free time at the nearby movie theater, sometimes skipping the first half of his school day to escape to the cineplex. It’s suggested that his facility of choice is a first-run venue, though it doesn’t look it. It has the folksy architecture and interior design of a 1940s cinepalace; it’s visibly crumbling, always empty. Graffiti decorates the concessions area. There seems to be only a single employee — graying, kindly owner/projectionist Nick (Robert Prosky).
Danny’s favorite actor is Arnold Schwarzenegger. The latter is best known, in the film’s universe, as the lead of the popular “Jack Slater" franchise, whose fourth entry is about to be released as the feature opens. (In Last Action Hero, the Terminator movies are headlined by Sylvester Stallone.) Jack Slater is an unimaginative action-movie stock character; the film knows it. Slater is an exorbitantly biceped cop who doesn’t play by the rules but always saves the day; who is exteriorly unbothered and always with a one-liner itching in his throat but is also secretly tormented. (In “Jack Slater III,” the character’s toddler son is killed by one of his nemeses, a mad slasher type played by Tom Noonan.) The conceit of Last Action Hero is that through literal movie magic, Danny is transported into “Jack Slater IV” just after he’s watched its opening sequence unfold on screen.
In the world of “Jack Slater IV,” Danny rigorously stirs up trouble after quickly acclimating to its limitations. Not only does he ingratiate himself, to Slater’s chagrin, in the latter’s professional life (Slater’s boss laughably decides to make Danny the policeman’s partner). He also mucks up the plot of “IV” and the line between cinema and reality. A little into Last Action Hero, a henchman character (Charles Dance) inside “Jack Slater IV” realizes what’s going on mostly because of Danny’s interruptions — and conspires to venture out into the real world and do bad there too.
Last Action Hero, which tanked (by Schwarzenegger standards) upon release but has since been recharacterized as a cult classic, has a lot of fun with its reality/movie-within-the-movie dichotomy. When we’re living in “Jack Slater IV,” Danny is incessant about convincing his fictional hero that he is, in fact, a movie character. He points out that the women, whether they’re walking through a grocery-store parking lot or at the front desk of a video store, are beautiful and well-dressed in a way they could only be in a blockbuster. When action sequences defy death to a freaky degree, Danny points out that it’s way too coincidental for things to always work themselves out.
Slater, eventually, is brought to the “real” New York City streets; there, Last Action Hero pointedly makes it so that Slater sustains injuries much easier. Ambitions that would be pretty simple in an orthodox action movie — like tracking down a bad guy running amok inconspicuously in a metropolis — suddenly become time-consuming and tedious. When Schwarzenegger delivers a trademark one-liner in Last Action Hero, his affect shows us that he’s been reading some of the movie reviews which have noted the cliché. The inescapable self-referentiality of the movie could grate. But to my eye, screenwriters Shane Black and David Arnott find a comfy middle ground between affection and glibness. It makes a mockery out of action-movie platitudes but manages not to accidentally insult the viewers, like Danny and like myself, who also love them.
The final stretch of Last Action Hero, which admittedly drags in the moments where Danny and Slater are ambling around New York, has in store the kind of subtle seriousness that adds weight to the film’s doubled way of seeing. The climax of the film is set at a glitterati-packed premiere of “Jack Slater IV"; cameos from Leeza Gibbons, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Tom Noonan (as himself, not the mad slasher he plays in "Jack Slater III"), and others abound. In these scenes we notably get to meet the “real” Arnold Schwarzenegger, tuxedoed and with a look in his eye that suggests he’s a little bored with all the fanfare. He’s attending the screening with his then-wife, Maria Shriver, who seems a little tired, too. The portrayals of the “real” Shriver and Schwarzenegger are played for laughs: Shriver urges Schwarzenegger not to bring up his business aspirations during red-carpet interviews, for instance, though he does anyway; they innocuously and quietly have a tiff as they walk toward their assigned seats.
This contrast with Schwarzenegger’s screen persona, paired with earlier scenes during which Slater remembers aloud that he’s just a movie character, suggests a frustration with being married to a false, publicly adored image of oneself. The “real” Schwarzenegger is to be trivialized even more than his already joked-about albeit beloved persona. Of course, Schwarzenegger would expeditiously evolve as a screen performer and a public figure in the next couple of decades in ways far weightier and less sympathetic. Still, Last Action Hero is a fascinating mid-career statement. It finds the humor in its star’s professional accomplishments,
but it also educes an ambivalence about the future, and the limitations of being Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action star.
Last Action Hero: A-