Bang, Bang, Kiss, Kiss

Among other things-too many other things-Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero is the first $70 million-plus deconstructionist action movie. Admittedly, Columbia Pictures is not selling it as a postmodernist opus ("Quel plaisir! You haven't lived until you've seen Arnold decode his own text!"-Jacques Derrida, "Sneak Previews"). Nonetheless, the Big Guy's legions of fans may be a bit baffled to find, side by side with myriad explosions, machine-gunnings and cars barreling through walls, clips from Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," a "Hamlet" parody with Arnold as a not-so-sweet prince, Laurence Olivier jokes (delivered by his widow, Joan Plowright) and the weirdly masochistic moment when the fictional Schwarzenegger character called Jack Slater confronts the real Arnold at a movie premiere and announces: "I don't really like you. You've brought me nothing but pain."

Just what kind of a would-be summer blockbuster is this? The concept, as old as Buster Keaton's silent masterpiece "Sherlock, Jr." (or Woody Allen's more recent "The Purple Rose of Cairo"), is that a moviemad kid named Danny (Austin O'Brien), entrusted with a "magic ticket," is transported from the audience into an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. The thing is, the character Arnold's playing, Jack Slater, doesn't know he's fictional, and Danny can't convince him. "You can't die till the grosses go down," the movie-wise child reassures the worried action hero, which may give you an inkling of the movie's pervasive tone of inside-joke self-consciousness. When the kid sees that an FBI agent is played by F. Murray Abraham, he instantly distrusts him. "Watch it-he killed Mozart!" More amusingly, Danny takes Slater to a video store to show him old Schwarzenegger movies--only to find that "Terminator 2" now stars Sylvester Stallone.

I was rooting for director John ("Die Hard") McTiernan to pull off this gargantuan jape: at least it's attempting something different. But "Last Action Hero" fatally outsmarts itself You simply can't care about the "Jack Slater" movie you're stuck watching-some nonsense about a crime boss (Anthony Quinn), his evil British hit man (Charles Dance) and a rival gang they're planning to rub out-when everything in it is a generic joke. If the filmmakers don't believe in what they're making, how can we? By the time Slater and Danny are rescued from death by an animated cartoon cat in a trench coat, you know "Last Action Hero" has lost control of itself. Cartoon characters don't belong in Arnold Schwarzenegger movies-nor do computer-generated images of Humphrey Bogart. The film has entered the desperate, anything-goes realm of "Casino Royale." It never recovers, even when Slater and Danny, pursuing the "fictional" villain Dance, burst through the other side of the screen and into the "real" world, where good guys don't always win, and death supposedly stings. But it's too late-nothing can touch us now.

Dreamed up by two young writers just out of college (Zak Penn and Adam Leff), rewritten by action specialist Shane Black and David Arnott, then doctored by an uncredited William Goldman in a vain attempt to give it heart, "Last Action Hero" aims for so many different constituencies-little kids, action-movie fans, hip cineastes and French philosophers-that it will likely satisfy none of them. The sheer size and strenuousness of the effort tends to squelch even the best jokes: this deafening movie defines the term overproduced. And what are we to make of "Jack Slater's" last-minute mea culpa: "I don't want to shoot people anymore"? After serving up thunderous portions of screen mayhem, Schwarzenegger wants to let us know he's sorry he's the world's most popular action star? Thanks for sharing, Arnold, but we're not buying. Rarely has a movie used so much heavy artillery to shoot itself in the foot.

A not unrelated self-consciousness infects Nora Ephron's sweet but perilously thin love story, Sleepless in Seattle, in which the characters' romantic expectations are constantly measured against that classic '50s weeper "An Affair to Remember." Meg Ryan plays a Baltimore reporter who's on the verge of marrying nice but dull Bill Pullman when she hears the voice of sensitive widower Tom Hanks, a.k.a. Sleepless in Seattle, talking to a radio psychologist. Hanks's 8-year-old son (Ross Malinger) has called the radio shrink, worried about his grieving father: he wants Dad to find a new wife.

From the moment Ryan tears up at Hanks's voice, we know what must happen. The task of screenwriters Ephron, David S. Ward and Jeff Arch is to keep their destined-to-be-together lovers apart until the last scene in the movie-a task that frequently strains their invention and the audience's credulity. (The movie would be half as long if Ryan had the sense to include a snapshot along with her letter to Hanks; if you looked like Ryan you'd be crazy not to.) The funniest lines and most touching scenes are all near the end. To fill the dead time, director Ephron shamelessly relies on her nostalgia-drenched POP soundtrack-Jimmy Durante's "As Time Goes By," Nat King Cole's "StarDust," Ray Charles's "Over the Rainbow," etc.-to work up feelings that aren't on the screen. For long stretches, this feels like a morose VH-1 video. With its appealing cast (Hanks is in top form) and its refreshingly quiet tone, you want "Sleepless in Seattle" to sweep you away, but it never quite transcends its synthetic setup. For all the talk of true love and "magic," what comes through strongest is Ephron's belief in the magic of old movies about love. Such are the perils of these postmodernist times: even our love stories feed off borrowed emotion.