“It’s great to go into the jungle and see the big monkey,” says director John McTiernan in a fatefully contemporary featurette, “but the story starts when the big monkey goes to New York.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ape in question, was still happily basking in his natural habitat in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the top-grossing film of 1991. But the savvy producer-star, then 46, knew the ’80s were over and the He-Man game had a shelf-life. It was time for the big monkey to come to New York and bleed a little.
In the pyrotechnic hellscape of “Jack Slater IV,” McTiernan’s Skull Island, the native tongue is one-liner. Anything can be used as a weapon and, given enough sequels, will. “Iced that guy,” beams Arnold as a goon gets spiked through the skull with a vanilla swirl, “to cone a phrase.” The hero’s apartment is barren, save for spare copies of his one and only outfit, because heroes never sleep in action flicks.
To paraphrase the movie that killed this kind of movie, the studio spared no expense. McTiernan shoots for the moon, pulling every last camera trick out of his hat. Schwarzenegger’s action and comedy careers meet in the middle, playing both a dynamite-chucking myth and a Planet Hollywood-obsessed man with unprecedented nuance.
Despite all the bets that are hedged, including Arnold’s first sub-R rating for violence since “Conan the Destroyer,” “Last Action Hero” was chased out of theaters by “Jurassic Park,” a more traditional King Kong riff with more spectacular wildlife. But as an accidentally self-fulfilling prophecy, not to mention the end of and the elegy for ’80s mayhem, nothing beats “Last Action Hero.”