Guilty Pleasures: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Last Action Hero in the Age of Trump


Time to revisit Arnold vs Donald: “In this world the bad guys can win!”

Your correspondent has long held a fondness for the term ‘half-smart’; it always seemed crisper, briefer and more pointed than the more common ‘too clever for his/her own good.’ There are, however, circumstances wherein the longer, clunkier phrase is actually the more appropriate.

Case in point: one of my all-time favourite cinematic Guilty Pleasures, in the form of AH-nuld Schwarzenegger’s 1993 box-office disaster The Last Action Hero.

On the face of it, the movie should’ve been a slam-dunk, an open goal, a triple jackpot. Director/producer John McTiernan was riding high on the success of Die Hard; AH-nee himself was, in his mid-40s, just about the biggest marquee name in the movies after a judicious mixture of big smart action movies (The Terminator; Terminator II: Judgement Day; Total Recall) and big dumb action movies (Command; Red Dawn; Raw Deal and Predator, the latter directed by McTiernan) plus a couple of gently self-mocking comedies (Twins, Kindergarten Cop). (I won’t mention the two Conan movies if you won’t.)

And talk about High Concept: the basic plot conceit must’ve seemed solid copper-bottomed gold. Consider: a mash-up of Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (just-a-poor-boy-from-a-poor-family gets his hands on a Golden Ticket which allows him to live out his most cherished fantasy) and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose Of Cairo (cinema screen becomes portal which allows viewers and players to enter each others’ worlds and mingle), generously sprinkled with powerful handguns, major explosions, heavy-duty car-chases and AH-nuld himself.

The story exists on three levels of reality: (1) ours, in which we’re watching the movie; (2) a faux-fictional reality almost like ours, except that one of AH-nuld’s key franchises is a series of flicks in which he stars as supercop Jack Slater, and the poor-boy-from-a-poor-family (played by only-moderately-annoying child star Austin O’Brien), who lives in a cramped NYC apartment with his single-parent mom, worships AH-nee as Slater, and (3) the designated-fictional world of the Slater movies into which AO’B’s character enters via his Golden Ticket and from which characters from the Slaterverse – notably Charles Dance’s haughty Brit villain, delightedly exclaiming, “In this world the bad guys can win!” – slide back into Reality2, where they even get to meet a version of AH-nuld himself. Result: a Big Faux-Dumb Action Movie which autodeconstructs and fourth-walls itself. Pastiche, parody, piss-take, what? Coolness! Hilarity does indeed ensue.

Factor in a stellar supporting cast including Dance, Anthony Quinn, F Murray Abraham and Ian McKellen (not to mention cameos from the likes of Sharon Stone, Tina Turner, Joan Plowright, Robert Patrick, Jim Belushi and even MC Hammer) … hey, what could possibly go wrong?

Ahem. Let me count the ways. For a start, there were backstage shenanigans re the script: Zak Penn & Adam Leff’s original screenplay was so thoroughly rewritten (by Shane Black ¬– who’d scripted the Lethal Weapon movies which LAH satirises, not ineffectively – and an uncredited William Goldman) that they were relegated to a mere ‘story’ credit. Then there was a release date brought so far forward by the studio that McTiernan complained that he virtually had to edit the movie in the camera; a disastrous rough-cut preview generating horrendous word-of-mouth notices …

Suffice it to say that the movie became AH-nee’s first serious flop, though not his last. It died a hideous death in theatres, though video afterlife eventually led it into posthumous profit.

We ask again: what went wrong? It wasn’t because LAH was a comedy – Twins and Kindergarten Cop were both comedies and successful (KC’s best gag: AH-nee’s megatough undercover lawman, exhausted after a day of dealing with pre-schoolers, complains about having to tell them a story concerning ‘beers who go sharping’), but then they were flagged up front as comedies. LAH ‘s poster displays an image of its star with biceps, pecs and lats busting out of a torn T-shirt (as seen nowhere in the movie), and – despite Austin O’Brien cradled in AH-nuld’s arm holding a box of popcorn – the expectation was nevertheless created that this was another Big Arnie Big Gun movie: the mixture more or less as before.

Instead, what they got was popcorn post-modernism, delivered (unlike, say, Galaxy Quest, which was adored and celebrated by Trekkies) without audience permission. Worse! In the scene when the Arnie from Reality 1 (ours) appears as the Arnie from Reality 2 (Austin’s), he presents himself as exactly the smug, callous, complacent blowhard his detractors always considered him to be.

Flanked by his real-life then-wife Maria Shriver, he proudly announces, ‘In zis moofie ve only kill 48 people. In zer last one ve killed 119, but ve make up for it viz a good story, emotions, depth, dimensions. And at Planet Hollywood ve haff some incredible memorabilia. It is absolutely fabulous …’

‘You embarrassed me,’ she hisses. ‘How could you do that? Do not plug the restaurants. I hate that. It is so tacky.’

Maria, you spoke for us all.

So: AH-nuld’s crime was not to take himself anywhere near as seriously as his audience took him – and they thus felt that they were the ones being insulted.

LAH didn’t derail AH-nuld’s career (though it certainly didn’t help): he hooked up with James Cameron again and came back strong with his final classic, True Lies. The wheels did, however, come off with the DayGlo rubber-nippled turkey that was Batman And Robin, which proved, among other things, that paying Big AH-nee the Big Bucks was no longer a blue-chip investment.

As Governor of California, he found himself (much to everybody’s surprise, including his own) that he was actually a LIBRUL, at least with regard to LGBT rights and environmental issues. And he now amuses himself (and us) by regularly trolling DOH-nuld Trump (who evidently stole Charles Dance’s Golden Ticket into our reality) with YouTube diatribes which expertly and characteristically combine the heavy-handed and the light-footed.

Here’s a recent favourite: Arnold Has A Message For Trump

Never mind! Here in 2018, wrenched from its era of origin a quarter-century after the fact, LAH’s satire seems much sharper than it did at the time: indeed, with the wisdom of distance (perspective, ya dig) it seems like it was made now about then. Plus it’s stuffed with good gags: Austin warning Slater that his colleague (F Murray Abraham) is not to be trusted because ‘he killed Mozart!’ AH-nuld as Hamlet (‘To be or not to be’ … (lights cigar) … ‘not to be’ … (Elsinore Castle explodes behind him). McKellen as the robed Death from Bergman’s Seventh Seal. Frank McRae roasting the ‘shouty black police precinct captain’ trope to a turn. The Sylvester Stallone joke. Quinn and Dance having almost as much self-parodic fun as AH-nuld himself.

And many, many more, which I’ll leave you to discover for yourselves.

If you saw it at the time, revisit it: it’s one of the best things he ever did. If you’ve never seen it before, make sure you catch it the next time it’ll be baahhhhk on TV.

If you missed it altogether, trust me … BEEG mistake. There’s a more than decent chance that it’ll end up as one of your Guilty Pleasures, too.

Animal Magnetism: the life and death of Andrew Tyler remembered by Charles Shaar Murray

From NME journalist to animal rights activist, Andrew Tyler’s extraordinary life and death

If you’ve ever read a more arresting opening paragraph to an autobiography than this

If all went according to plan on April 28, 2017, I ended my life in a small village in the canton of Zurich, accompanied by officials from Dignitas. To remain within the law, I had to do the deed myself: lift the cup and drink a very large dose of Sodium Pentobarbitol, together with an anti-emetic to stop me vomiting it up.

 … then feel free to tell me about it.

The para in question kicks off My Life As An Animal (Loop Books) by a dear friend and former NME colleague named Andrew Tyler. We only worked alongside each other for three or four years, but during that time I realized that he was one of the sweetest, nicest, most generous people I’ve ever known, and that what he brought to our table – apart from solid journalistic talent and experience plus an endearing deadpan wit, expressed through a poker face betrayed only by a giveaway eye-twinkle – was a unique degree of empathy. He was a long way from being NME’s most profound critic (that would have been the late Ian MacDonald), but if you wanted an interview which would touch parts of the subject no-one else could reach, he was yer man.

It was precisely that empathy which led him first to wanting to tell the stories of downtrodden people and then to addressing the plight of animals; from vegetarianism and then to veganism, and finally to the most important period of his post-NME professional life: as director of the Animal Aid charity. Some people find it hard to identify with fellow humans less fortunate than themselves; Andrew’s empathy ultimately led him to care about worms, not to mention bigger, cuter or more seriously endangered creatures. And he managed this without ever being holier-than-thou or flaunting moral superiority, with none of the haughty implied rebukage with which smaller spirits belabour those less committed.

Nevertheless, Andrew was first and foremost not only a man of principle, but one whose warm, gentle demeanour, and an easy charm which was as uncontrived as it was effortless, could not mask his iron determination to follow those principles wherever they led, and no matter how thorny the path.

In those NME days we didn’t talk too much about our personal histories: living in the continuous present as we did, we took each other as we were on the day. Thus Andrew’s book tells me far more than I’d ever gathered about his life from the odd dropped-here-and-there reference or anecdote: dumped into a Jewish orphanage as a small child after his parents split up; falling in love with music; leaving school at 14 and educating himself virtually from scratch; learning his journo craft on small trade magazines and exploring the wider world via three years hitching and odd-jobbing around the Americas, from Canada to Mexico and all points in between, including San Francisco in 1967 …

Andrew had a few years’ worth of rockanroll fun at the NME before setting off to explore a bigger world of proper grown-up crusading investigative journalism for mainstream national publications. However, it was animal activism which occupied him for the next few decades. He’d still be doing it now (and would have been far too busy to write a book) had he not been laid progressively lower and lower by Parkinsons Disease and a degenerative back disease … to the horrifying point where even as physically undemanding an activity as lying in bed reading became an agony.

A lively mind and a passionate spirit trapped in a disintegrating body … Andrew just wasn’t having that. In his letter to Dignitas, he wrote, “The alternative, because of my condition, was to eke out more years without purpose, without the work that means so much to me, shrinking into pain, infirmity and indignity. I do not want that! I want to be free of that dread prospect …”

And now he is.

Since Andrew left the building, and since I first read this memoir, two more of our former colleagues on the NME – or, as master photographer Joseph ‘Captain Snaps’ Stevens used to call it, ‘The Old Gazette’ – have also gone missing. The planet is poorer without Andrew, and also without certified good guys and stalwart companions Roy Carr and Bob Woffinden. To all three, a heartfelt ave atque vale

It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with all of those guys. I’m particularly happy and grateful that I knew Andrew Tyler, and I regret only that I didn’t know him better. My Life As An Animal goes a formidable distance towards redressing that deficiency: it’ll make you wish you’d known him too.

Rules are all right if there’s someone left to play the game

All my friends are going, things just don’t seem the same.

Nick Gravenites said that in a song he wrote for Paul Butterfield.

We only meet at funerals

Fewer of us each time

At every stop somebody leaves

As we get closer to the end of the line.

 I said that.

PS: the link for Andrew’s book takes you to the Animal Aid bookshop — which may cost you a little more than Amazon would charge, but it means that more of your hard-earned stipend goes where Andrew would want it to go … to his family and to the organisation to which he committed so much of his energy. A word to the wise guy (or gal) … you know it makes sense.

Presidents Donald Trump and Lex Luthor: separated at birth?

Did Superman writers create President Donald Trump? NOT FAKE NEWS!

What becomes a super-villain most? Or: who becomes a supervillain most?

In the Oxford University Press anthology Our Superheroes, Ourselves (2013), edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and dealing with the social, political and psychological aspects of those brightly-coloured metaphors on legs, an essay by Robert J. Sternberg offers a handy guide to the common characteristics of super-villains like Lex Luthor, Dr Doom, The Green Goblin, Magneto and various James Bond bad guys.

Some of these characterics seemed eerily familiar, so I’m taking the liberty of quoting Dr Sternberg’s checklist in the hope of solving the mystery

  • Massive egocentrism. They believe that they are the centre of the universe and literally try to place themselves at the centre of the human universe. They see others as tools to serve them.
  • Lack of conscience. They really do not care what happens to others as long as their ego needs are met. If anything, they enjoy seeing others suffer [ …]
  • Exploitativeness. They exploit people shamelessly to their own ends. They have no qualms about using other people for their self-glorification and in the service of executing their plans.
  • False omniscience. They believe that they are either all-knowing or so hugely knowledgeable that there is little they can learn from anyone else. They often fail to learn from experience, which can further lead to their doom.
  • False invulnerability. They think that they are all-powerful, failing to recognize their own weaknesses.
  • False omnipotence. They believe that they are, or at least should be, all-powerful.
  • Ethical disengagement. They leave ethics to others; they have little or no sense of ethics of their own.

Hmmmm … the mists are clearing … all this definitely reminds me of someone …

Phun Phact # 1: Back in the 1980s, when the illuminati of DC Comics decided to reboot their flagship character, Superman, writer/artist John Byrne, to whom the future of the Man Of Steel had been entrusted, also decided on a makeover for Supey’s nemesis, Lex Luthor. Formerly a genius-level mad scientist in and out of jail so often that sometimes he didn’t even bother changing out of his prison greys, he was now reinvented – in the wake of Gene Hackman version from the Christopher Reeve-era Superman movies – as a megalomaniac billionaire tycoon whose superpowers were unlimited amounts of money and malevolence.

He thus became DC’s incarnation of Bad Capitalism, as opposed to the Good Capitalism represented by billionaire philanthropist Bruce (Batman) Wayne; just as, over at Marvel, Norman (Green Goblin) Osbourn was the evil twin of Good Capitalist and reformed arms dealer Tony (Iron Man) Stark. Byrne later revealed that his model for the ‘new’ Luthor was New York property developer Donald J. Trump.

Phun Phact #2: In several early-2000s storylines, Luthor actually became President of the United States, ruthlessly exploiting the powers of his office to pursue his various and nefarious schemes and agendas before being driven from said office by the revelation of high crimes against not just the USA but Planet Earth and much of the galaxy. (Marvel’s Norman Osborn had to content himself with becoming Secretary Of Defence.) Well, fancy that …

So maybe there’s still hope. In the meantime, despite my fondness for the nickname ‘Mafia Don’, I may start referring to him as ‘Lex Looter’. Or, better still, ‘Lex Loser.’

Charles Shaar Murray mourns the passing of the NME print edition

The NME of my NME is …

David Bowie, NME, Charles Shaar Murray

Guess who got THIS scoop

Don’t start me talkin’ … I’ll tell everything I know. Because there’s so much things to say …

The news that the NME – where, during my twenties and half of my thirties, I worked and played and did my best to mess with the culture for fun, profit and the chance to make the world, in small and peculiar ways, a better place – has ceased to exist as a printed thing after many years of slow and steady decline gives rise to a plethora of remixed emotions.

Is it like seeing a dear old friend, braindead and paralysed after a protracted illness, having life-support finally switched off? Nahhhh … way too morbid, not to mention too melodramatic. I guess it’s more like passing somewhere you used to live and, even though you’re well aware that different people live there now, that the locks have long been changed and that you’re glad you moved, it’s still a shock to discover that it’s now been converted into a branch of Poundland.

Nevertheless, the NME is still a part of me, and some aspect of me is still a part of the NME. It was where I discovered that – despite all evidence to the contrary – that there was something I could do which people liked, and seized, with both hands and both feet, the opportunity to be part of an attempt to reboot an ailing and obsolescent music paper on the brink of potential cancellation into a mass-market underground-press rock rag capable of capturing the imagination of a significant chunk of the nation’s smartest and most inquisitive yoot-dem.

Long story short: we did it. And when I say ‘we’, I mean those who were there when I arrived in the summer of ’72 (Alan Smith, Nick Logan, Tony Tyler, Roy Carr, Julie Webb, Robert Ellis, Fred Dellar and others), those who arrived soon after I did (Nick Kent, Joe Stevens, Pennie Smith, Neil Spencer, Ian MacDonald) and them what came along in the next few new waves (Andrew Tyler, Mick Farren, John May, Pete Erskine, Chris Salewicz, Tony Benyon, Kate Phillips, Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, Paul Morley, Ian Penman, Paul du Noyer, Anton Corbijn, Danny Baker, Chalkie Davies, Mat Snow, Barney Hoskyns, Chris Bohn … the list goes on and continued to do so long after my own departure ). No single one of us ‘was’ the NME. None of us ever could have been. We all were. And we all made contributions to building this … thing … which were as irreplaceable as was the thing itself.

If it hadn’t been for the NME, I have no idea what my life would have been like (apart from grievously bereft of sex, drugs and rockanroll). And I know that the demise of Printed Stuff is about as inevitable as a very inevitable thing can get, and that there’s no use crying over spilt beans and the passing times.

So let’s raise a glass and/or spliff for those no longer on the set: I.Mac, the Terrible Tyler Twins, Micky Farren, poor old Pete Erskine, Fiona Foulgar, the recently departed and already massively missed Cliff White.

Most of us had fun. A few of us (not me!) got rich. All of us made a difference.

Songs? Try The Beatles’ In My Life, Dusty Springfield’s Goin’ Back and Johnny Cash singing Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down for how I feel now. For how it felt then … compile your own playlist, depending on when your own zeitgeisty NME ‘then’ was. Mine would run from Starman and All The Young Dudes to Ghost Town and The Message.

NME was a perfect storm, coming together from a set of social, cultural, technological and economic conditions which had never coincided before and will never coincide again. One of our distinguished alumni recently suggested bringing together the survivors of the 70s team for ‘one more issue’ but hey, fugeddaboudit … you can’t dip into the same river twice, or expect to look into the mirror of your teenage bedroom and see the same face again.

(Unless, that is, you could bring back I.Mac, the Terrible Tyler Twins and Micky F from wherever they’re currently hanging out …)

We only meet at funerals

Fewer of us each time

At every station somebody leaves

Approaching the end of the line …

These we have loved, these we have lost along the way … and the stars look very different today.

Charles Shaar Murray NME

Pic Pennie Smith