A Kinder, Gentler Action Hero Arnold the Barbarian- Predator-Terminator cuts back on the kill count

June 13, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

You always have to wonder why they do it.

A film star may be a great actor or a lousy actor, but his talent is pretty much irrelevant, as witness Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger, who have never demonstrated gobs of it. What counts is that he builds a screen identity that becomes his persona, that is consistent picture to picture, that represents something in which a significant portion of the public can emotionally invest, that represents, in short, some mass value. Over the years, this creation can be counted upon to open pictures, to draw the millions. It becomes the star.

And then he changes it.

I hate it when they do that!

Most famously, Woody Allen, wonderful little schlemiel, tries to turn into Ingmar Bergman. He'd have had better luck turning into Ingemar Johansson. Clint Eastwood also tried to turn himself into Ingmar Bergman with arty "little" pictures like "White Hunter, Black Heart" and "Honkytonk Man." Then he went back to being Clint Eastwood and everything was OK. Michael J. Fox tried to turn himself into "an actor" in "Casualties of War." He looked ridiculous in a helmet. Don Johnson, in "Guilty as Sin," tried to turn himself into Joan Crawford. It didn't work.

And the latest to try a mid-career modulation of identity is no one less than Der Arnold himself, in "Last Action Hero." Opening Friday, it's billed as a kinder, gentler action movie, calculated to garner a PG rating, rather than his usual R-billing.

The movie, as early reports have it, is a movie within a movie, a form-busting exercise in parody, in which a kid in a theater is somehow absorbed into the film itself and becomes a sidekick to Jack Slade, as the Arnold character is called. The movie is, as Schwarzenegger himself has said in the coded vocabulary of public relations, long on "action" but short on "hard-core."

What he means by "action" is showy, elaborate, endlessly cacophonous movie stunt-work: car chases, pyrotechnics, fist and karate fights, acrobatics and such like. What he means by "hard-core" is at the absolute root of his screen identity: It is killing.

All American movie stars do action. It's pretty much the vernacular of their existence. But beyond that, they may be separated into two camps: those who kill and those who don't. Eastwood kills; Costner does not, not really, not with wholesale abandon; Harrison Ford does occasionally, but can't enjoy it; Steven Seagal does, a lot, and seems to like it; Stallone slays in the millions, without a second thought or a moral qualm; Richard Gere can, but is too narcissistic to enjoy it; Michael J. Fox shouldn't even be allowed to think about it.

But towering over them all is Arnold, who from the very start distinguished himself by his willingness to do mayhem against human flesh. Remember, his first big role was that most primitive and instinctual of killers, Conan the Barbarian, who flexed and stabbed or flexed and hacked. He codified what was to be his most vivid identity as an actor: "The best ting iz to drive your enemies before you and hear de lamentations of dere women." Since then, he's deviated only occasionally, and usually with less than spectacular results, as witness "Twins."

The movie that really lifted him to superstar status was "The Terminator," back in 1984, where he spoke less than 50 words (most notably and resonantly, "I'll be back") and packed an arsenal. He was literally a killing machine, a robot sheathed in flesh who had not only no moral qualms but also no soul. "He just keeps coming," said co-star Michael Biehn, "that's what he does. That's all he does." For some reason, the role seemed to fit Schwarzenegger's suspiciously bulging muscles and total deadpan mug (he hadn't yet learned to act) perfectly and it de-emphasized his still thick Austrian accent, just as it resonantly played with deep Teutonic archetypes embedded in popular culture. In sum, not only was he believable, he was scary.

His other noted roles were all set on the killing floor. "Commando" (1985) was basically a cartoon that featured him as a tough special-operations pro. "Predator" (1987), with "Last Action Hero's" director John McTiernan, put him in the same role. Then there was perhaps the most pagan entertainment Hollywood ever turned out, the gigantically lethal "Total Recall" (1990), which took body count and, more queasily, indifference to body count to the highest level yet. This was the one where Arnold picks up a fresh corpse -- an innocent man -- and uses him as a shield; and then later stands over Sharon Stone, whom he has just blasted, and says, "Consider that a divorce."

Now, although the movie is mired in perhaps the most horrific pre-release buzz since "Ishtar," comes "The Last Action Hero."

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