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.

Charles Shaar Murray (finally!) reviews LOGAN

Review of Logan, the X-Men film finale (?), by Charles Shaar Murray

(1) The Twitter-length summary for the busy cineaste in a hurry:

This is the Mad Max movie for which George Miller never got around to commissioning a script from Harold Pinter and/or David Mamet.

(2) The Proper Movie Review for the serious movie buff who never got around to seeing any previous X-Men flicks because none of them were directed by Tarkovsky or Godard:


Directed, co-written and exec-produced by James Mangold

Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Merchant, Brook Holbrook, Richard E Grant and Dafne Keen

First and foremost: Logan is a story about ageing, frailty and failure; becoming ever weaker and more vulnerable in a world turned ever more harsh and threatening. The goal for which the mutant protagonists of the X-Men franchise have worked since the series kicked off in 2000 – to demonstrate to the world that mutants are fellow-humans rather than an existential threat to the species – is in ashes. In Marvel Universe coding, mutants are the all-purpose persecuted minority, providing metaphors for (at various times) Jews, Muslims, black folks, LGBT people, AIDS sufferers … any pariah outgroup vilified, excluded, harassed  or outlawed not for what they may or may not have done, but for who they are and what they might do.

Set in the year 2029, Logan is not so much a superhero flick in the Avengers or Batman tradition as dystopian SF in the Mad Max mould. It finds its former-superhero principals, Charles Xavier aka Professor X (Stewart) and Logan aka Wolverine (Jackman) in hiding and in decline: mutants have been hunted into near-extinction by the Homeland Security Agency, a seemingly omnipotent government department, and their own powers are rapidly fading.

Their deterioration is apparent the moment we see eyes and ears on them. Logan walks with a limp: he can’t be arsed to keep his greying hair greased up into those stupid wolfie ears, or even to shave the negative-goatee out of his now-bristly beard to create those trademark mutton-chops. Xavier is no longer the elegant, steely but twinkly-eyed control freak in immaculate three-piece suits: unkempt and only occasionally lucid, he’s played as if Sir Pat was limbering up for a Lear at the National, with the Clint Eastwood character from Unforgiven as his carer.

(Or, if you prefer, their relationship is now pitched somewhere between The Caretaker and Steptoe And Son. Annoyingly, I’ve only just discovered that Peter Bradshaw made this latter reference in his Guardian review back when this movie first came out earlier this year.)

The previous X-movies have been crowded: jam-packed with characters in cool outfits wielding spectacular super-powers, perpetually barrelling from one eye-boggling, ear-splitting action sequence or SFX blow-out to the next. Logan, by contrast, is slow and sparse: focussing on a mere handful of players (including a tart, campy turn by Stephen Merchant as a solarphobic mutant whose talent is to sense and track other mutants) and set mostly in the desolate outdoors of deserts and forests.The mutant herd has been drastically thinned, leaving no trace of the extended repertory company who’ve populated Logan‘s eight predecessors: all, presumably, dead or in either exile or captivity. It carries as little X-baggage as possible: the movie’s iconic poster— I’m amazed that Momentum haven’t yet adapted it into a Corbyn meme — makes no reference to the X-Men or, for that matter, to Wolverine. Only the trademark claws provide a clue to its provenance.

A puzzled friend commented, ‘I like action movies and Inaction movies, but this can’t make up its mind.’ In fact, what Mangold has provided is a deceptively steady-paced character piece which frequently (and not always predictably) explodes into ultra-violence. Some may find the transitions jarring and the rhythms unsettling, but I reckon it works. Your mileage may vary.

Logan also parts company with all the previous X-flix by carrying an ‘R’ certificate: not because of any sexual content (the only nipples on display are Jackman’s), but because this is the first not to sanitise Wolverine’s visceral fighting style, or to shy away from depicting the kind of damage which can be inflicted on human flesh by a very strong man prone to berserker rages and possessed of unbreakable katana-sharp claws.

In the past, I’ve been fond of describing superheroes as ‘brightly-coloured metaphors on legs’: this distinguished pair of thesps (who’ve now been playing these roles for the best part of two decades) now find their characters decidedly less brightly-coloured and on their last legs (or, in the Prof’s case,wheels). This is a very different animal, as is Wolverine himself.

When we first encountered the paraplegic, wheelchair-bound Xavier back in 2000, he was the most powerful telepath on earth, leading the world-saving X-Men from his Westchester mansion. Now in his 90s and ravaged by dementia, he is prone to seizures during which his mighty brain becomes a destructive weapon capable of killing hundreds of people at a time: one such seizure caused the catastrophe which itself triggered the anti-mutant holocaust.

Wolverine was once near-immortal and near-invulnerable: born in the mid-19th century, he possessed a healing factor which enabled him to recover almost instantly from any conceivable injury (in earlier movies, we saw him regrow a severed arm and sit up almost immediately after being shot through the forehead) and extrude lethal bone claws from his knuckles. At one point, he fell into the hands of a nasty US government programme which coated his skeleton (including the claws) with the unbreakable fictional metal adamantium as well as inducing both psychosis and amnesia, thereby conscripting him into service as a near-unstoppable assassin.

Now, the adamantium is poisoning him. He can no longer instantly heal himself; his eyesight is failing, he medicates himself against constant pain with booze and his sole remaining purpose in life is to earn enough money as a limo driver on the Tex-Mex border to pay for the heavy-duty tranqs which keep the raving Professor X’s potentially lethal seizures at bay whilst saving up to get the pair of them to permanent safety. In all other aspects of his existence, he’s reverted back to the selfish, grumpy, dangerous loner he was when the X-Men found him back in the first movie. He’s no longer fighting giant robots or fellow-mutants, but ageing and himself.

‘This is all about family’ is often a teeth-grindingly twee Hollywood trope, but here it makes sense: Wolverine, the quintessential loner, an orphan whose parents were murdered and whose only living relative is a brother who periodically attempts to murder him, finds himself caring for an enfeebled surrogate father (Xavier) whilst protecting a surrogate daughter (an 11-year-old female escapee from the Horrible Government Lab, vat-grown from Wolverine’s own DNA, equipped with her own lethal claws and played to a turn by Dafne Keen, an equally dab hand at acting and martial artsing) and simultaneously fighting off a surrogate son (a conscienceless clone of his younger self). Sentimental, but this, too, works.

Mangold and his co-writer Scott Frank previously worked with Jackman on The Wolverine, the Japanese-set solo adventure which sort-of-bridges the gap between XIII: The Last Stand and Days Of Future Past. That, too, begins with an isolated, scruffed-out, traumatised Logan in retreat from the world and deprives him, for much of the story, of his healing capabilities. Clearly, Jackman felt that Mangold was the director who could help him reach further beyond the character’s basic schtick of claws, cockiness and catch-phrases as he and Stewart say goodbye to roles they’ve played throughout the current millennium.

Yes yes yes, but what’s it fundamentally about? Weeelllllll …

You might be old, knackered, half-crazed and bent on nothing but survival (for yourself and your very, very closest) in a hostile and deeply fucked-up world … but sometimes when others desperately need you, even when a deafening inner voice is screaming, ‘Don’t do it!’ … you have to step up.

And be heroes, just for one last day.

Not all of us can do this. I can’t guarantee that I would. Nevertheless, those who can do it actually are heroes. Capes, tights, masks and helmets optional but not recommended.

(2) Some note-comparing for seasoned X-geeks. May contain spoilers, and could well be incomprehensible to civilians.

So: X-closure? Of a sort. It’s certainly closure for Jackman and Stewart, who see off their Beloved Character alter-egos with all the dignity, elegance and quality thesping that anyone who’s followed the series could possibly want and expect. And if it actually represented the dying fall of the series, it would be a nigh-on perfect farewell.

Of course, it’s nothing of the sort. Actors age (or get bored, or become too expensive), but franchises keep going as long as they remain lucrative and there will continue to be X films (and I’m old enough to remember when that meant something entirely different) until they start losing money. Unfortunately, the X franchise has painted (or scripted) itself into a temporal corner. The alternative cast introduced in X-Men Origins:  First Class are, by definition, the younger selves of the originals led by Sir Pat as the Prof and Ian McKellen as his frenemy Magneto; so — equally by definition — any future movies must take place before the original movie and should therefore be considered prequels.

(And can we say here that while James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender  — the junior editions of, respectively, Xavier and Magneto — are both fine actors, it requires a massive suspension of disbelief to accept that they will age into Sir Pat and Ian Mac? I mean, we’re not talking Robert DeNiro as a younger Don Corleone in Godfather II or Zachary Quinto as a younger Spock in the Star Trek reboots: the high-water marks of such generational recasting. We’re not even talking Josh Brolin and Tom Hardy shadowing (respectively) Tommy Lee Jones in MIB III or Sir Pat (again!) in Star Trek Nemesis. Jennifer Lawrence, who replaced Rebecca Romijn-Stahl as Mystique, gets a free pass because the character is a shapeshifter and therefore can look however she wants to look, but Fassbender and  McAvoy’s performances flat-out don’t work. Actually, Fassbender would have made a better fist of Young Xavier than McAvoy.  All this shouldn’t matter any more than it does when a comic-book changes artist — which is quite a lot if we’re talking Don Heck replacing Jack Kirby — but in practice it does matter. Bigly.)

Like most of its predecessors, Logan makes sense in its own terms, but slovenly and over-hasty retconning means that if you try to combine the entire series into a single coherent narrative, it falls apart. A few frinstances: nowhere in the original movie did we get any clue that Mystique and Xavier were childhood friends, or that Sabretooth is Wolverine’s even-more-psychotic older brother. There are also major plotty potholes concerning exactly when in the saga Xavier sustained the injury which confined him to his trademark wheelchair: we see Stewart on his feet as Professor X in the flashback intro sequence to XIII: The Last Stand and in his unbilled cameo at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, both of which chronologically post-date what we see in the later-shot but earlier-occurring movies. SF/superhero geeks are touchingly willing to accept the impossible, but they — WE — do demand internal consistency and convincing characterisation.

Just to complicate the above yet further, X-Men: Days Of Future Past introduced the idea of diverging timelines, so technically the 2029 of Logan represents only one possible future for our heroes and villains. Other possible futures, though, will have to be explored without Jackman and Stewart (unless, of course, they are offered truly obscene sums of negotiable currency).

One final thought. In the original metaphor, Professor X and his X-Men represented the Dr King of mutants, seeking to defuse human fear and resentment in the interests of peaceful coexistence, whilst Magneto and his Brotherhood Of Mutants were the militant Black Muslims, seeking to subjugate or exterminate ‘normal’ humans. Magneto and his sect are nowhere to be seen (or even referenced) in Logan. The inescapable conclusion is that while Magneto may have lost his earlier battles with Xavier, he was nevertheless the one who was finally proved right. Humans, rather than mutants, were the most dangerous predator species of all.

Postscript (1): As in every X-Men movie since the launch of the franchise, Professor Charles Xavier’s surname is pronounced ‘ECKS-avier’, which has been a perennial annoyance; presumably it was to forestall the domestic audience from asking, ‘WUHHH, if his name’s ZAVIER, howcum they’re not called the Zee-Men?’ It’s enough to make a Brit person feel somewhat ECKS-enophobic. On the other hand, this X-ccentric pronunciation now has a new resonance: Professor X is, in his dotage, an EX-saviour. However, though Wolverine himself only barely survives to the end of the movie, he nevertheless becomes a saviour in his own right.

Postscript (2): Principal cast: one Australian, three Brits, two Americans. Don’t tell Trump.

Postscript (3): the bonus disk in the package contains a ‘Logan Noir’ version in crisp monochrome. Maybe that’s the one to slap into the machine for the Tarkovsky buffs.

CSM’s Choice: Cadillac Records, a Game of Chess – review


Charles Shaar Murray reviews

Written and directed by Darnell Johnson
Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Beyonce Knowles (also executive producer)
Sony DVD

The crucial clue is right up front in Darnell Johnson’s cinematic riff on the legend of Chess Records, the label which recorded the music which defined Chicago blues in the 1950s: a card telling us that it’s ‘based on a true story.’ Key-word: BASED. Cadillac Records is emphatically not a historically-accurate drama-doc: it’s a Hollywood fantasia which may indeed be set in dusty Mississippi and grimy South Side Chicago, but which actually takes place in a parallel universe where important characters either don’t exist or fulfil roles often markedly different from the ones they played in our world.

In other words: the less purist-picky you are about yer actual factage, the better a time you’ll have. Johnson has taken hammer and chisel to a vast, craggy lump of cultural history and carved from it a more-or-less comprehensible slice of movie story-telling. Musical director Steve Jordan supplies uncanny recreations of the epochal original recordings — men of the match: former fabulous Thunderbird Kim Wilson for his scarily accurate evocation of loose-cannon harp genius Little Walter’s harmonica work, and Howlin’ Wolf’s late guitarist Hubert Sumlin for his glorious resurrection of the riffs of his younger self. Art-directed to the back teeth, it’s frankly as gorgeous to look at as it is to listen to. Too gorgeous, if anything: label founder Leonard Chess was a stocky, stubby, cigar-chomping sweathog rather than the lean, sensitive, liquid-eyed dreamboat portrayed here by Adrien Brody. And, while Beyonce Knowles — without whose major crowd-pulling prowess (plus her financial commitment as executive producer), the movie probably would never even have gotten made — delivers an admirably gutsy, committed performance as the label’s leading lady Etta James, she’s at least four times better-looking than the chubby, moon-faced real thing and sings about a quarter as well.

So the story simplifies out into the tale of how the trajectory of vernacular music was changed by the team-up of two ambitious young men: a Polish-Jewish would-be entrepreneur (Brody’s Len Chess, of course) and a talented Delta sharecropper/musician who join forces in the late 1940s. Jeffrey Wright (recognisable to many as Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig 007 movies) is efficient and effective as Muddy Waters despite rarely evoking the full majesty of the Big Mud’s gravitas and charisma. If they’re the daddies, they have troubled kids (and their Daddy Issues) to deal with: Knowles’ insecure, addiction-prone Etta James and Columbus Short’s febrile evocation of the gradually disintegrating Little Walter. Cedric The Entertainer is massively stolid as bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon (though his character has far less influence on the Chess story than his real-life counterpart did); Mos Def does a lovely turn as Chuck Berry, whose verging-on-rockabilly R&B/country fusion breaks the label through to white kids; and Eamonn Walker comes within a nose-hair of stealing the whole movie with his gravel-voiced, gimlet-eyed Howlin’ Wolf, powerful and commanding enough to credibly challenge Muddy’s Godfather status.

The title, by the way, derives from Chess’s habit of buying his stars flash Cadillacs (and bunging them the odd wedge of cash) as opposed to paying proper royalties. The label’s formal accounting veered between dodgy and non-existent: that much, at least, is accurate. To enumerate the outrageous liberties (of both omission and commission) which Johnson’s screenplay takes with historical verity would have us all here for most of the night. Suffice it to say that, if appreciated for what it is rather what it isn’t, Cadillac Records is Big Fun: a failure, (not least because of its absurdly melodramatic daytime-TV climax) but an honourable and enjoyable one nonetheless.

Have moicy!