This review contains spoilers.
7.9 Last Action Hero
Sometimes, the hardest thing about reviewing something is overcoming the expectations that you take in with you. In some cases, this is purely a result of the individual makeup of the reviewer. In others, it’s because the producers created those expectations. For me, this week, with Castle, it’s both. And that’s because a) the writers chose to title last week’s episode Last Action Hero, and b) I may be the only critic alive to have really enjoyed the 1993 John McTiernan film of the same name, starring/spoofing Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What sold me on the movie, aside from Charles Dance as a dastardly villain and its metanarrative, was its satire. As an action-movie fan who is also more than occasionally conflicted about the genre, the film Last Action Hero struck a great note. It made fun of all of the things that bother some of us about action films (I mean, how do they always know there’s a guy in the closet, and why is every woman in these movies an eleven?) and did it in a clever and sometimes insightful way, thus removing whatever guilt one felt for enjoying such a violent but simultaneously saccharine genre. The fact that it had Arnold actively making fun of Arnold was just gravy. Yes, it had plot-holes big enough to drive a bus through, but that’s as much a part of the genre as the catch-phrase-spouting hero, so it’s hard to hold that against the picture.
So last week’s episode had me expecting something similar. A metanarrative satire of action films.
Unfortunately, this was not that. To the point where I started to wonder if they’d pulled the episode title out of a hat.
Instead, Last Action Hero is about the murder of an action-film hero of Castle’s: Lance Delorca, who provided Castle with whatever “bro” influence he had growing up, is found murdered. Delorca, whose action hero cred is primarily based on this past with the Spanish intelligence agency CNI, has been strangled using a garrote, his own weapon of choice as an assassin for that group. Castle practically rubs his hands together in glee as he predicts a case that will lead the team “into a labyrinthine world of deceit, villainy, and international espionage.” And while Captain Gates suggests that he may be right (and how weird is it how often Gates has been taking Castle’s side lately?), it turns out that they are both wrong—this case is about one of the more household varieties of motives: infidelity.
It does, however, take us into the more straightforward world of action film stardom. Such as it is. Castle pulls in a cast of characters which speaks to the fate of such actors. Some, like Delorca’s old supporting star Brock (played by 80s pretty-boy comedian Ted McGinley), made the leap from largely disposable actor to director. Delorca’s wife and former co-star is struggling to put together some kind of comeback by making a straight-to-video action film that looks to be largely a retread of the role that made her a pin-up on teenage Rick’s wall. Clay Biggs has left the business entirely to open a night club and Naomi Duvray has also gone into business, although whether her job is selling her new jewellery collection or being trophy-wife to the more successful Brock is open for debate. And Delorca has, of course, succumbed to drink and drugs, before apparently turning his life around after a nearly terminal illness.
So we certainly have the right set-up for some solid metanarrative, along with some pointed humour.
And there are some funny meta-moments which work, the best probably being when Naomi admits she left the acting biz because “I was never much of an actor.” “Never stopped me,” Brock responds, the words coming from actor Ted McGinley, a man who has managed to continue working for thirty-plus years without ever winning much acclaim for his roles. However, most of the jokes that try to play the meta-game (like Ryan trying to come up with a catch-phrase) just come off as awkward and canned. If you have to come out and say “It’s so meta!” then trust me, it’s not. It’s only when the show sticks to its own formula that the humour feels really right (Like the “You are my boyhood dream/You don’t always have to keep talking” exchange between Caskett).
There are, on the other hand, some moments that really work. Kathleen York, Delorca’s ex-wife, is stepping out of her usual range to play over-the-the-hill but still-hot actress Kat Kingsley. When cornered by Caskett about having met her ex the night she was killed, York manages to let her character overact the moment just enough that it’s clear that it’s neither faking nor bad acting on York’s part: Kat has just been an actress so long, she’s not sure of the difference between acting and real emotion anymore.
And the best, of course, is that childhood dream of Castle’s: Brock invites Rick out for drinks with his heroes, only to later reveal that the team is actually going to retrieve a crucial piece of evidence from Clay Bigg’s nightclub. The group descends on the club with an overwrought plan, complete with codenames and that deadly serious intent we’re so used to in action films. The fact that they are there to steal a toy car (this is no Fast And Furious, obviously) is funny but totally upstaged by the fact that Castle is suddenly following Brock into the club wearing a combination Rambo/Predator ensemble, complete with headband. Rick never passes up a chance to cosplay.
What these moments, good and bad, do accomplish in this episode is that they do an excellent job obscuring the true killer’s identity. While Last Action Hero still suffers from Kill Switch’s mistake of giving us too much information at the last minute, none of that matters when you’ve managed to misdirect so well through the action-star-focused plot that, even with most of the relevant information, we might still not have guessed who done it. So I tend to want to give them a pass, if only because the actual motivation for the murder reminds us that filmic fantasy means far less than real life.
But even without any expectations I might have had for Last Action Hero, it’s hard to laud it in its own right. One of the common criticisms of the McTiernan film was that it couldn’t decide whether it was an action flick or a satire. It could have been good at both, but the pieces just never came together. The same could be said to be true of Castle’s Last Action Hero. Castle is best when it has a simple and straightforward focus—largely because its writers’ bench isn’t deep enough to pull off something more sophisticated. Last week’s episode lacked that singular focus, leaving it feeling largely disjointed and underthought.
Then again, that’s what a lot of critics said about the McTiernan film. That won’t stop me from queueing it up to watch the moment I’m done with this review.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Kill Switch, here.
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