How do you gain cult status as a singular studio blockbuster well ahead of its time? You stick around long enough for society, or just movie culture, to catch up. Last Action Hero, in essence, is a meta-commentary on the types of action movies its director—John McTiernan—helped create and subvert in the first place (i.e. Predator and Die Hard). It worked with a similar self-referential, though significantly more toned down template that Quentin Tarantino adopted in the 1990s, that Scream played with a few years later, and that Deadpool took to the extreme some 25 years afterwards. In poking jabs at and making fun of “those” action movie stars of Hollywood’s not so distant past, Last Action Hero also posed as a love letter to them. To their clichés and repackaged tropes. To their boilerplate plot points and foreign villains. To all their highpoints and blemishes.
The film centers on teenager Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), who lives with his widowed waitress-working mom, Irene (Mercedes Ruehl), in a dingy apartment somewhere in grimy, rainy New York City. Think Se7en only more neon lights. Danny’s days are spent at an equally dingy and downtrodden three-story movie theater slap dab in the middle of a busy street surrounded by other movie theaters (one that even plays Chinatown). Danny is seemingly the theater’s only patron and with the unkempt flooring and graffiti filled walls, it’s easy to see to why. The theater’s projectionist, Nick (Robert Prosky), gives Danny all the access he wants to early movie screenings but even he, and Danny’s mom, insist on the importance of attending class and going to school.
Yet, in history class, Danny can’t help but imagine Laurence Olivier’s performance as Hamlet, in Hamlet, replaced by his favorite movie star—Arnold Schwarzenegger aka Jack Slater. The fact that the class is taught by actress Joan Plowright—who was married to Olivier—is by no accident either. In his faux-Indiana Jones coat jacket, muscular physique, Wrangler jeans, and cigar puffing tendencies, Jack Slater is the embodiment of a post-Reagan era superhero. An all-American veneer coupled with unparalleled machismo underneath. In other words, the last action hero.
After Nick hands Danny a golden ticket, once owned by Harry Houdini (yeah, that guy), the film escalates. Danny uses the ticket to gain entrance to a personal, early showing of Jack Slater IV, wherein, just a few minutes in, he’s actually transported into the film. Specifically, in the backseat of Slater’s drop-top. Aside for riffing on and poking fun at 80s action flicks, Last Action Hero does its best to include contemporary works as well. Jurassic Park, for instance. Terminator 2 is shown in cardboard cutout form with Sylvester Stallone emblemized on the front. “I’ll be back” “I’ve been waiting for you to say that the whole time,” states Danny, knowing Arnold’s body of work inside out. If Total Recall and The Running Man already, shrewdly manipulated and played with Arnold’s leading man powers, then Last Action Hero ratcheted up that sardonic, winking tone tenfold.
It wouldn’t be a successful satire or an even adequate one without a character actor lineup of epic proportions. Piggybacking on Robert Altman’s The Player’s ability to include ostensibly every movie star (i.e. Sharon Stone, Chevy Chase) for five seconds or less, Last Action Hero does that but then also gives Charles Dance (as Benedict) and Anthony Quinn (as Vivaldi) time to shine and steal scene after scene as the film within the film’s mendacious duo.
Shane Black’s screenplays have often included a buddy-cop dynamic where a smart-allecky, precocious teenager joins forces with a single, divorced dad. Here, both Danny and Jack are victims of familial trauma. Danny, with his dad passing away early and Jack with his son getting killed by Ripper (Tom Noonan) in the sequel to his life as a movie star. Jack’s teenage daughter Meredith (Bridgette Wilson), like pops, is equally versed in the art of ass-kickery. She’s given just a few moments of screentime but manages to dismantle a pair of villains and transport a massive SUV to Jack when danger calls.
Amidst a quick-witted, uproariously written script, there is empathy and tenderness lurking at its core and that’s largely thanks to the fellowship its two leads develop. Concluding the plot would do less good than describing the film’s overall tone or sensibility. Though the last third is an even bigger mind-trip when Benedict steals the golden ticket from Danny and—through an arbitrary wall—teleports into the real world. Our world.
This of course leads to a confrontation, and a hilarious one at that, between Arnold Schwarzenegger (the actor) and Jack Slater (the character from the movie). “Listen, I don’t like you,” Jack tells Arnold, and it sounds like he means it. The fictionalized world, however, seems to have more consequences than the real one. At one point Benedict shoots a random pedestrian in the middle of the street and starts shouting in admittance of the crime. No cops come running and the only sound heard is a nearby apartment resident asking Benedict to shut the hell up so he can sleep. Politicians and police are openly critiqued on a number of instances throughout film. Maybe, Black was onto something.
“You can’t die until the grosses go down,” Danny tells Jack. Admittedly true and an apt foretelling of the Hollywood blockbuster model that would be status quo for decades to come. Where the sequels double and films kept getting made, as long as the box office results pointed in a favorable direction. In riffing on the genre he helped bestow, McTiernan still leans into the action scenes. They’re not played as a farce nor for the laughs. Extreme and ridiculous? Sure. But he’s still going for it. Included are scenes of a car speeding off the highway and landing upright on the LA river or a broken elevator that causes Jack to jump on a crane and then land safely into a bleak colored lagoon. It is amusing, though, when every Sicilian at a funeral scene—set on a rooftop of a huge Hyatt skyscraper hotel—comes equipped with a machine gun and the crowd begins firing at Jack within a moment’s notice.
Last Action Hero is assuredly the type of script Shane Black was born to write. Yet, McTiernan taking on this project speaks to both the director’s selfless nature and also to his awareness of the monster he—along with your Spielbergs and Camerons—helped promulgate. To appreciate Last Action Hero is to love film and the history of the American blockbuster. An ever-evolving phenomenon even at the time of the film’s release in 1993.
As if Shakespeare wasn’t enough, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal comes to life in a climactic scene involving the film’s leads. High art meets high-octane entertainment. Only Black could link these two worlds and make it feel ripe. Where Marty Riggs was reckless and suicidal in Lethal Weapon or Joe Hallenbeck was a drunkard in The Last Boy Scout, Jack is neither, if not focused and responsible. He’s a PG-13 version of Danny’s idea of a superhero.
Finding chemistry and sweetness in a story almost entirely preoccupied with showing off how many other films it could reference is a tall order. But Jack looking at a photo of him and his lost son and then despondently eyeing up Danny, leaning against the wall, strikes a chord. As does Danny and Jack moving into a crappy motel (room #69, of course) along the freeway together. Then doubly so when Jack is on the verge of returning to his movie life from the real world. Jack promises Danny that they’ll meet again, that this isn’t their last hoorah. If Arnold tells his inspector chief that he’s resolved towards blowing up fewer buildings, then Danny—the stand-in for Shane Black—has a career in writing or endless imagination, staring him in the face. Last Action Hero didn’t just break the fourth wall decades before superhero movies and prestige TV shows followed suit, it made us remember why we love movie stars like Arnold in the first place. “There are worse things than the movies, like politicians,” Nick tells Jack upon first meet-cute in the ransacked projection room. Even if Danny was smarter and already knew all the right moves, heroes like Jack give people, especially lost teenagers, someone to root for. Good can win out and look badass while doing so.
Matty B is a sometimes lawyer, writer, and podcaster (the movie talk pod) at The Third Take. He enjoys texas hold ‘em almost as much as a good 90s thriller. But he a Moscow Mule over everything else. Find him on Twitter @JagrWatch68.