This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
“A man who fought in World War Two made a Christmas movie called It’s A Wonderful Life … our Christmas movie is Die Hard. It’s got to say something about what is happening with our culture.” No, this is not Billy Graham or the Archbishop of Canterbury, but John McTiernan — the guy who directed Die Hard.
Nick de Semlyen quotes that line in The Last Action Heroes, his gossipy account of the hunks and lunks who dominated Hollywood cinema in the 80s and 90s. Having quoted it, he writes not one word of comment on it. Given that de Semlyen is the editor of the movie magazine Empire, I think Chuck Norris’ Colonel James Braddock could justifiably call him Missing in Action.
Don’t get me wrong. I love watching Chuck defeat half a dozen army platoons single-handed. I laugh along as Bruce Willis leaps off a flaming skyscraper whilst bandaged to a firehose. Like de Semlyen, I regret that a scene in Commando in which Arnold Schwarzenegger axes off an enemy’s arm before slapping him about with it didn’t make the final cut. I’d be a bigger fool than I am, though, if I never stopped to wonder why I get a kick out of such apocalyptic slapstick.
De Semlyen never stops to wonder. Not once does he ask himself why he thrills to pictures that, as he riffs on Schumpeter, “destroy creatively”. Granted, in his prologue he makes a drive-by reference to America’s search for heroes after its national pride was “dented [by the] cataclysmic defeat in Vietnam” — but this one-off acknowledgement of the world outside the movies is just so much historicist flimflam.
The model for the book is Peter Biskind’s bestselling joint biography of Scorsese, Coppola, Altman and the other so-called movie brats, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Alas, Biskind had the bulge on de Semlyen from the get-go, not only because he knows his cultural history but because he had a cast of genuine characters to work with. De Semlyen’s heroes are as dull as their egg-centric diets. Where Biskind had Dennis Hopper streaking through the streets of LA for an orgy with 50 young girls, de Semlyen has Sly Stallone elbowing Richard Gere for spilling mustard on him.
Where Biskind had William Friedkin hanging a portrait of Idi Amin in his office, de Semlyen has Norris comforting a five-year-old fan who’s dying of leukaemia. By the time de Semlyen starts telling you about Arnie ribbing Bruce over his “toothpick arms”, you’re craving a punch-up.
No such luck. De Semlyen’s story only gets vaguely racy whenever Arnie is out to belittle Sly. Since Stallone is sufficiently short that he kicks up whenever anyone suggests casting an actor taller than he is, belittling him isn’t hard to do. In First Blood Part II, when Sly’s Rambo is asked what brings him luck, he pulls out a 9-inch Bowie knife. In Arnie’s next picture, he carried a 9.5-inch blade. By the end of the Rambo series, Stallone was carting about a knife almost as long as a claymore.
This is fun as far as it goes, although that’s nowhere near as far as De Semlyen believes. Once he started affecting to find it hilarious that Arnie, who had successfully made the move from beefcake to buffoon with Twins and Kindergarten Cop, gulled Sly into starring in the laugh-free comedy Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, I was reaching for my .44 Magnum.
De Semlyen’s biggest problem, though, is that he’s polishing turds. Whilst Biskind had some of the greatest pictures in movie history — Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Nashville, Chinatown — to write about, De Semlyen has the likes of Tango and Cash, On Deadly Ground and the Cannonball Run series on which to descant. Whatever you think of such movies — and to repeat, I enjoy them as much as anyone with an IQ above single figures can — there’s no defending them on artistic grounds.
In his epilogue, de Semlyen argues that action movies are “spiritual successors to the Greek myths … tales of derring-do to stir the spirit and excite the soul”. He has a point, although he throws it away a sentence later: “Except Homer never wrote a scene where someone punches a snake.” No, he didn’t, but I think Perseus beheading Medusa and then using her bonce as a weapon gives Jean-Claude Van Damme’s rattler rap a run for its money.
Reading this book, you’re constantly suspecting that de Semlyen, like so many young writers on film, knows about nothing but Hollywood pictures made in his lifetime. Movie history, for this generation, starts with Star Wars — or even The Phantom Menace. Is it just me, or does that say something about what is happening with our culture?