“Real life has never been so animated.”
Directed by Joe Dante
Starring Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Heather Locklear and Joe Alaskey (voices)
Following a contract dispute, Daffy Duck is fired from Warner Brothers. In the chaos that ensues, security guard and stuntman DJ (Fraser) is also fired. Daffy follows DJ to the home he shares with his father, action star Damien Drake (Dalton) where they discover that Damien is actually a real-life superspy using his movies as cover (which is of course now the background for Amazon pilot Jean-Claude Van Johnson.)
Pursued by repentant executive Kate (Elfman) and Bugs Bunny, the pair head to Vegas to talk to Dusty Tails (Locklear, and yes, really,) the singer of most of Damien’s movie scores and, it so happens, his spy partner. She gives them a playing card which is the key to unlocking a map hidden in the Mona Lisa, which in turn points to a ruin in Africa, although first they find themselves in Area 52, a super secret science place run by Mother (Cusack), and are chased out by Marvin the Martian and a cohort of B-movie monsters right off the posters on Gonzo History’s walls.
They clash repeatedly with agents of the Acme Corporation, led by Mr Chairman (Martin), who eventually claims the Blue Monkey diamond with the intention of turning everyone on Earth but him into monkeys. DJ and Kate save Damien from the Acme train of death and Daffy ducks up to stop the monkey ray in the character of Duck Dodgers and then it cuts out to the set of the film and DJ punches Brendan Fraser in the face.
What’s wrong with it?
Back in Action is a confused mess of a movie, borrowing the ‘cartoons are made by animated actors’ idea from the more successful Space Jam and much better Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but with a singular lack of focus. The characters – especially the non-animated ones – are thrown into the action without a proper introduction, and Kate in particular never really has anything going on.
Overall, the film is more a series of skits than a coherent ongoing narrative.
There have been a lot of really sound roles for women in recent years. Kate is not one of them.
Martin’s Mr Chairman is a weird, childlike grotesque, reminiscent of his performance as Ruprecht, the off-putting fictitious brother in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Consequently, he lacks real menace.
What’s right with it?
So, the thing of it is that the story doesn’t fail because of bad writing; it’s just not the point. Back in Action is a gag-fest, throwing lines out in the hope of getting a high-enough hit rate to keep the punters laughing, and for the most part, it does this well.
The film is wall-to-wall homages to older films, from B-movie SF to Gremlins to Scooby Doo (in the ensemble canteen scene, Shaggy threatens to come after Matthew Lillard if he messes up his character in the sequel) and I’m a sucker for that.
While the cast is a bit of a boy’s club, the film is at worst sexist by omission. Perhaps because of the youth of the target audience, the ‘for the dad’s’ quotient is fairly low.
How bad is it really?
Back in Action is a bit so-so as a complete project, but made up of a great many fun moments.
Best bit (if such there is)?
The leads plunge to their deaths, saved only when their flying car stops four feet from the ground.
Bugs: Ha! Outta gas.
[fade to black]
Kate: What?! It doesn’t work like that!
[Cut back to car, which smashes into the ground; fade to black again]
Bugs: Thanks, Toots.
Alternatively, Yosemite Sam’s henchling refusing to throw a stick of dynamite out of the car because it might hurt innocent bystanders and send the wrong message to kids.
What’s up with…?
- The whole bit about DJ being Brendan Fraser’s fired stunt double? So weird.
- The ‘and this was us making the film’ ending? Never got that. Well, maybe in The Muppet Movie.
Production values – The blending of live action and cartoon characters is good, but its interesting to realise that, since the advent of CGI and the likes of Immortal, let alone the 2016 Jungle Book, it’s not as impressive as it was back in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? 8
Dialogue and performances – The performances are mostly good, the actors delivering rapid fire gags with assured panache. Martin’s character is a bit weird, however, and the quality of the jokes (from 25 uncredited gag writers) is variable. 9
Plot and execution – The plot is phenomenally weak, by design more than flaw, serving as a cord to string the jokes on. 5
Randomness – Did you see where I explained how Norville Rogers threatens to get all up in Matthew Lillard’s grill? That’s one of the more coherent sections. 12
Waste of potential – Oh, dear lord no. It’s not high art by any stretch, but it does what it does very well. 2