In the 1980s, that epoch of excess and bloat, in a country run by knaves in suits ravenous for money, Hollywood’s heroes were big and brawny, meaty hunks of alpha male masculinity with bulging biceps and abs like armor toting ridiculously big guns and kicking copious amounts of ass — you know, real American stuff. The two titans of high-testosterone entertainment were Arnold Schwarzenegger (the all-time bodybuilder-turned-marquee name star) and Sylvester Stallone (an earnest indie actor and writer who put his body through hell to get shredded to become an action hero).
Their machismo, their bodies flensed of fat, the bedlam they caused were at the other end of the manly spectrum as Don Johnson, with his colorful cotton attire and silky smooth banter. (A funny coincidence: Don has a pet alligator in Miami Vice, and Arnold kills an alligator in Eraser.) During Ronald Reagan’s tenure as president, Arnold thwarted a bevy of baddies, human and not, with guns, knives, gardening equipment, cars, explosives, arrows, and his big bare hands; Sly was victorious in the ring (in the States and Russia), in the merciless mess of verdant jungle, and across the craggy beige horizon of desert, taking on helicopters and tanks and hundreds of nameless, faceless soldiers who were on the wrong side of democracy. These are men who bleed red, white, and blue.
By the summer of 1993, Arnold reigned supreme at the box office, and Sly had quickly recovered from Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (a role he took after Schwarzenegger tricked him as a lark) with the $255 million hit Cliffhanger, which had the single most expensive stunt ever: a performer traversing the gulf between a colossal precipice and a helicopter, quivering in the slipstream on a wiry rope. That year, as the first Bush administration gave way to the liberal elysium of Clinton’s ’90s, these two middle-aged manly men both released movies that deconstructed their hero personas — Arnold with Last Action Hero and Sly with Demolition Man. The two barons of beefcake cinema ushered in a new era with grand action and a pair of wry grins.
Last Action Hero is a love letter to and from Arnold Schwarzenegger
Last Action Hero, directed by John McTiernan and written by Shane Black and David Arnott, is about a boy named Danny (Austin O’Brien), who has bruises staining his hands and a varsity jacket for a sport he doesn’t play. He seeks solace, however brief, from the aches and pains of his mundane, melancholy life — sadly sitting in a riotous urban classroom convulsing with apathetic kids throwing paper balls and chitchatting insolently; an apartment without any nice stuff (a very relatable scene for far too many people in this country); a creep breaking in and handcuffing the boy to a pipe in the bathroom while berating the kid for being too poor to have anything worth stealing — in the lovely light of the movie screen.
For a little while, everything is fine. For a little while, images dance and sing harmoniously, gunshots and explosions drowning out the yowls and threats of the city and its many menaces. His favorite actor is Arnold Schwarzenegger (and what cinema-stricken ’90s kid wasn’t also a little bit enamored with the man with the baseball biceps and endearingly stalwart accent?), particularly the Jack Slater movies, in which Arnold plays a demigod of a cop who’s running out of family members for bad guys to kill. Nick (the great Robert Prosky, incredibly deft at geniality after playing an all-time unsettling criminal in his debut, Michael Mann’s Thief), the kindly old man who runs the dilapidated theater, offers Danny the chance to see the new Jack Slater flick early.
That night, garbed in old-fashioned usher’s attire, he bestows upon the boy a magic golden ticket acquired from Harry Houdini. The ticket sparks to life during a chase scene set to AC/DC and hurls Danny into the film — into the world of cinema, governed by the rules of studio escapism. Slater inhabits a Los Angeles where every woman is a babe and the sky is always blue, rows of palm trees billowing big and green alongside streets uncongested with traffic. It’s a world where he always wins.
“With every increase in the degree of consciousness,” Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “and in proportion to that increase, the intensity of despair increases: the more consciousness, the more intense the despair.” Jack comes to know that despair. The enduring image of Arnold may be the stolid, stoical machine-man with black glasses like Nietzschean voids and a vacant face in James Cameron’s Terminator movies (Robert Patrick has a cameo in Last Action Hero as the T-1000), but his best performance is right here. (Total Recall, too, which, in its existential notions of identity and purpose, has something of a spiritual kinship with Last Action Hero.)
Schwarzenegger is genuinely moving as Slater, a character who, bereft of autonomy, must reconcile with his own fictitiousness. He’s at first cocky, charming, invincible, supercool, with his chiseled face lightly swathed with stubble and his kick-ass cowboy boots. He’s so confident that everything will work out (at one point he lists a comprehensive list of “courses” he took to be trained as a cop: a hostage negotiator, fingerprint analyst and, psychological profiler), spitting out lame one-liners like watermelon seeds. Then, with the burden of self-awareness, he’s afflicted with an ennui previously unimagined, the very real pain of knowing that the tragedies of his made-up life repeat endlessly for the entertainment of others.
Moviegoers pay to watch Tom Noonan’s ax-swinging psycho kill his son over and over while cramming fingerfuls of butter-slick popcorn into their mouths between smiles. Charles Dance (who had a hell of a year, also appearing in David Fincher’s almost-great Alien 3) brings a sinister suavity to the one-eyed killer who finds in the lurid real world, where the bad guys can win, a kingdom to conquer. Oscar Wilde wrote in De Profundis, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” But Jack takes control of his own existence at the end, saving Danny and vanquishing both villains before returning to his realm as a man at ease with his celluloid existence.
Demolition Man is the ultimate Sylvester Stallone movie
Demolition Man premiered three months later, situated between the blockbuster summer slate and the end-of-year awards-contenders. At the incendiary end of the 20th century, in a Los Angeles half-eaten by fire, the Hollywood sign adorning the curvaceous face of the hills gnawed at by flames and huge swaths of city blackened and burned down, John Spartan (Stallone) attempts to rescue hostages from a vicious madman named Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes, deranged and dangerous in a way that makes you wish he had played The Joker). Phoenix looks like Dennis Rodman would just several years later and rails coke in a room doused in gasoline.
Things go awry, and Spartan is found guilty of 30 counts of manslaughter. They freeze Spartan, then thaw him out 36 years later when Phoenix escapes and begins to terrorize the antiseptic, wimpified future. Spartan, a Ripped Van Winkle, unravels a conspiracy and shows the future how to kick ass 20th-century style. Bob Gunton’s stick-up-his-butt police chief calls Spartan “a muscle-bound grotesque,” which is exactly what Stallone wanted so badly to be for years. Here, he gets the honor of being the most infamous muscle-bound grotesque in history, a man so reliably rogue and rough that they thaw him out so he can stop the bleach-blond lunatic, against whom the wimpy future cops, with their genial intimations and plastic smiles, are useless. The only person who appreciates Spartan’s forceful tactics is Huxley (Sandra Bullock, who ravishes her zingers and bungled attempts at common phrases), a young cop infatuated with the turmoil of the 20th.
Demolition Man pays close, playful attention to the English language — MurderDeathKill, a car is a “conveyance,” a problem a “boggle.” Vulgarities are a fineable offense; the mechanical voice says, pleasant and authoritative, that Huxley has violated the law “sotto voce,” as ta very unpleasant alarm yowls. Like Last Action Hero, Demolition Man has pre-Scream pop-culture savvy. Huxley’s office is chockablock with knick-knacks from the 20th century (her wall is adorned with a Lethal Weapon 3 poster — not the first or second film, but the third), wonderful relics of a vulgar era. And characters have clever names: There’s Benjamin Bratt (who would later join Law & Order as a conservative cop) as Alfredo Garcia, a warden named William Smithers, a Huxley unhappy with the brave new world, a Cocteau.
Some names have a Dickensian literalness — Spartan as the noble, unwavering warrior and Phoenix rising from the smoldering ashes of the city he burned down to a pretty and pristine future ripe for ruination. Phoenix calls a mannequin made up to be a soldier “Rambo,” and Spartan is flummoxed (you can sense Stallone’s unfeigned frustration) to find out that there’s a library named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was, he learns, president despite not being born in the United States. (Slater praises Stallone’s performance in Terminator 2, making Schwarzenegger look like the nicer guy, surely a calculated move.)
There’s a quote from Jean Baudrillard, a much smarter man than I, which encapsulates the essence of these two films: “And so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality. And so art is dead, not only because its critical transcendence is gone, but because reality itself, entirely impregnated by an aesthetic which is inseparable from its own structure, has been confused with its own image. Reality no longer has the time to take on the appearance of reality. It no longer even surpasses fiction: it captures every dream even before it takes on the appearance of a dream.” In 1993, while riding high on box-office success, Schwarzenegger and Stallone flexed a different muscle: their brain, lending their manly personas to stories that would please Charlie Kaufman — and they didn’t skimp on the good old-fashioned action.
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