Like many cinephiles who are of a certain age and the proper disposition, I enjoy action movies from the 80s and 90s. And there was certainly a lot to choose from this period: Rambo, Lethal Weapon, Commando, Sudden Impact, and, of course, the flawless Die Hard, just to name a handful. These movies are all extravagant, violent, and silly to one extent or another; but while some criticize that, I believe that it’s all part of the fun. This is genuine escapist cinema. Given their immense popularity (for a while, they were probably the most bankable type of blockbuster), it was only a matter of time–in the post-Mel Brooks age– before this genre would receive its own affectionate satire.
Enter The Last Action Hero in 1993, a send up to the action genre, directed by John McTiernan and written, in part, by Shane Black. Neither of these men were strangers to action; McTiernan helmed not only the aforementioned Die Hard, but also the underrated Predator; while Shane Black was a writer for the first two Lethal Weapon films. Certainly if anyone understood the cliches of the genre, it was them.
I can honestly say that The Last Action Hero is a more ambitious film than one might expect. At this point the standard procedure for a genre parody was to present a movie that, in terms of skeletal plot, would be somewhat archetypal of the style being parodied, and then fill it with exaggerations and gags. To clarify with an example, Blazing Saddles is, all hilarity aside, still in the mold of a classic Western: a sheriff helps a small town defend itself against bandits and a robber baron. Similar assessments can be made of the likes of Airplane and The Naked Gun. The Last Action Hero doesn’t quite follow in that tradition. It’s not merely attempting to present a cheesy version of one of the movies it’s making fun of (although that is a part of it). Rather, it takes a more layered approach.
The film starts by introducing us to young Danny Madigan, a boy from New York whose favorite pass time is watching movies at a local theater. His favorite films are the Jack Slater action pictures, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger; although he seems well-versed in just about every film that was then-recent. It’s revealed that Danny’s mother is a widow; and is often too busy working in order to spend much time with him*. It’s apparent from this that going to the movies really is a deeper form of escapism for Danny than it is for others. It truly allows him to leave his underwhelming life in New York behind for a bit and go exist somewhere more exciting; and in the case of the Jack Slater films, it even gives him something akin to a father figure to look up to.
This escapism becomes quite literal one night when Danny is given a magical ticket while getting a sneak preview for the upcoming Jack Slater IV. Whilst watching the movie he literally gets blown into the film and becomes a part of its story. Danny must now work with Jack Slater, played by Arnold Schwarzenneger (which the movie will remind you of many times) in a cliched and over-the-top buddy cop picture. Now we are inside a film that resembles the kind of archetypal-story-with-exaggerations-on-top that I described earlier, only this time we have someone actively commenting on the ridiculousness and tropes presented in front of him. That’s a nice, fresh approach; particularly since the movie-parody itself was becoming somewhat stock at this point (although you can’t exactly do a satire of a satire).
Anyways, though; this stretch of film–when Danny is inside Jack Slater IV–is easily the best part of the picture. It’s funny to see Danny calling out the movie on all of its silly action movie qualities; both the obvious cliches–like cops being paired up with ridiculous partners or overly angry police chiefs shouting at the protagonist–as well as more clever observations–like Danny’s remark that the women who work at a video store are far too attractive to be there (they must be actresses). There’s even some fun illusions to more specific movies; like how, in the universe of Jack Slater, Sylvester Stallone starred in Terminator 2, since no one named Arnold Schwarzenegger exists. It’s cute.
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater, is pretty entertaining here as well. At this point, he had been in a number of action movies and learned their cinematic language to the point where he knew just how much to stretch his performance to make it slightly cornier than normal. It’s subtle, but appreciable. Another, surprisingly poignant, part of the film involves the revelation that Slater, himself, wishes only for a normal life; and he is troubled to keep being pulled into wilder, more dangerous situations (a reflection on how sequels in action films always need to outdo the previous entries in terms of stakes and spectacle). I really feel for the guy when he laments that his life isn’t what he wants it to be.
If there’s one criticism to be levied against this section of the film, it’s that Danny himself seems to accept far too quickly that he magically showed up in a motion picture; there’s never the moment of shock and awe on his part that I would expect there to be in a story with this premise. I realize that this is all a movie and it’s more fun to get to the meat of the narrative; but, as we’ll find out a little later, one of The Last Action Hero‘s themes is the discord between movies and reality; so having Danny displaying oddly non-realistic emotional reactions is a questionable move. As it turns out, this problem will show up again in reverse down the line.
The part of the movie where Danny is inside Jack Slater IV takes up about two-thirds of the total running time– and, as I noted earlier, it’s solidly entertaining and an affectionate roasting of the action genre. However, there’s a major shift during the last third. Eventually, one of the villains in Jack Slater IV, Benedict, takes Danny’s magic ticket and is able to use it to travel to the real world. Danny and Jack are forced to follow him. Now Jack Slater is out in the real world; where Danny warns him that life doesn’t happen the way it does in a movie.
Ostensibly, this part of the film is meant to establish how very unreal action movies are compared to everyday life**. We see this when Slater punching through glass actually hurts his hand, while bullets actually do more credible harm to him. However, in a parallel issue to Danny’s lack of awe over winding up inside a film from earlier, Jack’s reaction to being out in the real world is surprisingly placid. He’s not showing the requisite emotion in order to tell you that he’s really shocked about the new laws of reality he has to deal with. Again, it’s strange for a movie that wants to stress this discord between fiction and the real world to not have the emotions of the characters back that up. That is until he sees a poster for Jack Slater IV and breaks down when he finally sees that his entire life has been a lie; again, I found myself feeling for Slater, even if Schwarzenegger’s acting can’t quite sell that level of sadness.
Moving on, though, this theme of contrast between film and reality is actually best seen with Benedict, who learns that shooting innocent people or causing other crimes won’t immediately attract cops; and thus deduces that in this dimension the bad guys can win. It’s a painful truth, but an important one. I’m glad this movie acknowledges that.
But, that all being said, this is about as far as this attempt to show reality in the “real” world of The Last Action Hero goes; because, frankly, the rest of the time it still plays out like a movie would. Danny and Slater wind up tracking Benedict to the premiere of Jack Slater IV, which the cast of the film, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, is attending***. Benedict’s plan is to assassinate Schwarzenegger, thus killing Slater for good. I won’t recap the entire last act; but Danny and Slater proceed to stop him and save the day in what can only be described as a Hollywood ending. It involves shootings and explosions and car crashes and people finding their way up to rooftops that they shouldn’t be able to so easily access and not nearly enough people investigating any of it and many other, for lack of a better term, movie tropes that earlier we were told didn’t exist in the real world.
In short, it still feels like an action movie even when we’re told explicitly that reality isn’t like that. It’s an odd choice for the film to make such a point about how real life doesn’t work the way action pictures do and then for it to seemingly back pedal on that point by showing all these things happening in (what the movie tells us is) real life.
It’s so odd that I almost wonder whether or not it’s intentional. The part of me that thinks it is remembers Slater’s emotional breakdown after learning that his life is a lie; coupled with the fact Danny no longer believes in his abilities in this world (in some sense Slater ceases to be the father figure to him that he once was); and so having the ending play out in a filmic fashion is a way of saying that sometimes real life does play out like a movie; that you can learn important lessons from anyone, even an action hero; and believing in fiction is not always silly. Sometimes it’s quite important.
That’s the optimistic take. The pessimistic part of me that thinks it’s not intentional believes that the ending is mostly just there because, for as much The Last Hero wants to talk about real life, it still is a movie, and everything it shows us in both realms is all movie and it’s still obligated to function as one. Or put another way, motion pictures, by their very nature; can never show real life. You read a lot into that if you want.
I really do hope the optimistic point of view is nearer the mark; but either way, I think the film needs to be clearer about whatever angle it was trying to take with the ending. It’s a little frustrating. Adding to that is the much maligned and often criticized cinematic tease of Benedict, with the magic ticket, claiming he can go to any film and grab an villain–from King Kong to Dracula–to bring into the real world; a point that, annoyingly, never reaches fruition.
Well, almost never, one non-Jack Slater character is brought into reality– Death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. He’s played by a pre-X-men, pre-Lord of the Rings Ian McKellen. He shows up very briefly to help out Danny and Jack; and all I can say is that, while his time in the film is short, it is satisfying; McKellen knows how to deliver.
I think I like the majority of The Last Action Hero. It’s certainly fun and quite insightful in parts. But the last act, while not horrible, suffers from a lack of clarity that hurts its message; or, depending on your perspective, it abandons its message near completely for a time. In my opinion, this movie should either have been strictly about Danny being trapped in a Jack Slater film or strictly about Jack Slater going into the real world; but not both. There’s just not enough time to explore both ideas properly; and the last act really does suffer from that. That all being the case it’s still entertaining. And that’s worth something.
The film does not have a great reputation amongst many; personally I think it’s better than it’s been gotten credit for in recent years, but not without its problems. There does appear to be a growing movement, though, of people who are coming out of the shadows and expressing their admiration for the movie; and I’m fully supportive of that. It’s good to give movies another chance and view them from a new perspective. And again, as an affectionate tribute to action movies, it mostly works. And, to paraphrase Danny, perhaps it’s best not to nitpick the rest.
*While I’m pointing out cliches, the single mother with the rambunctious child is another common one from this period.
**Keep in mind, I’m already giving the film a break by ignoring the irreality of magic tickets
***As a side note, there are admittedly some good celebrity cameos during this bit of the film; and it’s certainly amusing to see Jack Slater meeting the actor who plays him.