FILM COMMENT : Endangered Species : The American action-fantasy epic is in danger of becoming terminally musclebound and knuckleheaded

Peter Rainer is a Times staff writer

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Steven Spielberg--Hollywood's mega-mass triumvirate--have each returned from a heavy workout at the pec deck with their challenge cups: "Last Action Hero," "Cliffhanger" and "Jurassic Park."

There's a clear winner here. In the brave new world of the Hollywood action-fantasy extravaganza, where the bulked-up and thick-necked reign, Spielberg's dinos have the biggest pecs. These movies are all keyed to the same equation: Boom = bucks. But they don't all work the same way and they don't all work.

Everything is done for you--and to you--in these films. You strap yourself in and duck for cover. The climaxes are a series of thuds and bonks, pure sensation, endlessly recyclable. If you were to return to any of these movies, it would not be because you missed anything but because you wanted to take another pounding.

A great action-adventure-fantasy overwhelms us by appealing to all our senses. It connects up with our imaginations so that we fantasize right along with the filmmakers. There's an element of flattery in the best of these films; they draw us in as co-conspirators. Movies as disparate as "The Spy Who Loved Me," "Journey to the Center of the Earth," "Batman" and "Deliverance" have all stayed with us because they didn't set out to be theme parks. Their pleasures lasted for longer than the length of a roller-coaster ride.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is practically a theme park all by himself, which is why he's emblematic of the new action-fantasy epic. His saving grace as an action hero is that he's aware of how overblown he comes across. He doesn't really resemble how most men would care to look, and that's the joke. You laugh because he makes you realize that this--this!!--is how you thought you wanted to look. His he-man exaggerations are the real thing but they're also a goof.

The problem with all this self-referential goofball derring-do is that the joke congeals awfully fast, and that's exactly what happens in "Last Action Hero." The movie's entire premise--if that's not too grand a term for this clutterbin of clonks--is that Schwarzenegger is playing himself as action star Jack Slater. Danny, the 11-year-old boy who magically enters the screen and shares in Jack's exploits, is supposed to stand in for l'il old you and me. When it's the boy's time to leave his big buddy back in the reel world, their parting has a Peter Pan-ish flavor, with Arnold as a kind of butch Tinkerbell. "I need you to believe in me," he tells Danny before he lays out the big lesson: "Life is what you make it."

Schwarzenegger is working two trendy action-movie angles here: First, he's tenderizing his image by pairing himself with a nattering peewee. When Bruce Willis muscled up for the "Die Hard" movies, he didn't see the need for a junior-league tag-along; and Steven Seagal in his films is still more ponytailed daddy-o than daddy. (He frisks with Bunnies.) But practically everybody else in the field is working the kid angle as shamelessly as any baby-smooching politician. Burt Reynolds did his tour of duty in "Cop and a Half," and, in "Sidekicks," even Chuck Norris turns soft-boiled.

Schwarzenegger has been the real pioneer in this field: In "Kindergarten Cop," he was a big besieged lug in a romper room, though the film devolved into an ugly shoot-'em-up, 'lest we think Arnold wimped out on us. In "Terminator 2," a feral rapscallion taught him how to cry.

In "Last Action Hero," Jack Slater's heroics, which Danny, by knowing all of Jack's previous movies, gleefully predicts and second-guesses, are completely juvenilized. He's a pre-pubescent boy's action-comic hero. "Last Action Hero" enshrines his current incarnation as Everykid's stand-in--for adults, alas, that means the Everykid in us all.

By making predictability the centerpiece of its scenario, "Last Action Hero" congratulates us for recognizing the very same action-movie cliches that the filmmakers are too uninspired to reinvent. It assumes that all we want from the genre is to have our expectations recycled without surprise.

By comparison, at least Sylvester Stallone's "Cliffhanger" doesn't try to play movie-movie games with us. It has the courage of its own grindingly square action movie conventions. For all its potential for cartoonishness, the starkness of the bedlam in "Cliffhanger" is a little creepy. It's as if the Roadrunner's Chuck Jones had turned survivalist.

It's a mountaineering melodrama where the mountain gives the most commanding performance. After years of trying to buck the Rocky-Rambo franchise with roles that required polysyllables, Stallone has jackknifed back into his metier. In "Cliffhanger," he's so stalwart that he's often indistinguishable from the crags he's periodically scaling or smacking into.

Unlike Schwarzenegger, Stallone has never lampooned his action-movie heroism. The comedies he has attempted--such as "Rhinestone" and "Oscar" and "Stop or My Mom Will Shoot!"--were designed as clean breaks from Rocky-Rambo. (They had the opposite effect.) Stallone's stock-in-trade is shamelessness. He is just as aware of our movie-fed preconceptions as the "Last Action Hero" spoofmeisters but for the most part he plays not to our sense of japery but to our sense of unrequited pride. He has reworked the same formula in movie after movie: He is the underdog who goes boom. Righteous and wronged, he rises from the ashes by turning others to ash. This played well in the early Rockys and Rambos but then, even though Stallone didn't really do anything different, it started to sour: In the Reagan-Bush era, top dogs preempted underdogs in the audience's imagination. We wanted winners from the get-go.

In "Cliffhanger," Stallone is reaching for a new action image. The film is, in a way, even more elemental than the "Rambo" movies. There's no paleo-right-wing breast-beating, just (apolitical) good guys vs. bad guys heaving each other into ravines and impaling each other on stalagmites. (The extraordinary up-close brutality of some of these scenes must be the filmmakers' way of differentiating their product line from the rest of the summer actionwear.) This pulp is perched in an aerie far from civilization in order to eliminate any whiffs of the here-and-now. This is how you make an action star whose persona has lagged behind the times appear "timeless." Stallone's new pared-down kill-or-be-killed guise acts as a prophylactic against a fickle public.

Steven Spielberg's first feature was "Duel," a TV movie entirely about a man in a car being terrorized by a faceless driver bearing down on him in a huge truck. In the course of his producing-directing career, that truck has mutated into a shark, gremlins, and now, dinosaurs. This is the gleefully grisly Spielberg, not the bliss-out artist of "E.T." and "Close Encounters." But pure edge-of-the-seat action, not bliss, brings out Spielberg's wickedness. The greater the opportunities in his movies for technical virtuousity, the more likely he is to try to zap the audience.

It's possible that Spielberg has so mastered the pyrotechnics of moviemaking that he can't resist using those skills to make us squirm. The subtext of "Jurassic Park" is the old cautionary sci-fi chestnut about thou-shalt-not-play-God but, of course, what is Spielberg doing here if not playing God? (That's what big-shot directors do .) He's scorched the ecumenical niceness that gummed up such recent family fare as "Always" and "Hook." (Well, almost: The Brachiosauruses exude dewy-eyed New Age googliness; they're vegetarians, you see.) In its place, at least whenever the carnivores are onscreen, is a walloping scariness.

Unlike his work in "Jaws," however, Spielberg's control over his audience in this new film doesn't have much lilt or grace or wit. "Jaws," for all its thump and holler, was essentially focused on those three cut-ups aboard the fishing boat. "Jurassic Park" is pure mechanized fright--the ultimate theme park attraction (set, ironically, in a theme park that has self-destructed). Spielberg may be fed up with his canonization as the man who gave us cuddly aliens--a pique that first surfaced in the sadism of "Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom," where he dangled broasted human hearts for the pipsqueaks in the audience. He was rightly scored for cruel excess in that film and "Jurassic Park," by comparison, plays down the gore.

But if it has more drive than anything Spielberg has done in years, it could be because he's been saving up for the time when he could once again scare the bejesus out of his "E.T."-blissed fans. The propulsion in "Jurassic Park" comes from that pent-up poisonousness. The letdown comes from our realization that, for Spielberg now, playing God means exchanging your magic wand for a magic cattle prod.

Is this crassness an indication of the best--and worst--that we have to look forward to in action pictures? The stratospheric price tag on these films practically ensures gigantism. Action movies are supposed to be scaled to our fantasies, but our fantasies are not always so poundingly obvious and humongous. The American action-fantasy epic--as represented by these films as well as by the "Die Hard" and "Terminator" and "Alien" series--is in danger of becoming terminally musclebound and knuckleheaded. Nothing is really felt in these movies.

There's been a lot of blather in the media about how the future of entertainment lies in virtual reality. Our most powerful movie titans may have decided to preempt the upcoming onslaught by staging their own Dolbyized wraparound zap-o-ramas featuring virtual emotions. When a jillion fiber-optic options await our fingertips, will our only alternative turn out to be Schwarzenegger and Stallone co-starring in Spielberg's "Godzilla Meets Mothra--Part Deux"?

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