It’s the early 1990s. Arnold Schwarzenegger has successfully transitioned from his championship bodybuilding career to world-famous action-movie star thanks to the Conan and Terminator franchises, The Running Man, and the like. Director John McTiernan made his own contributions to the genre thanks to the iconic Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October. And screenwriter/multi-hyphenate Shane Black made his mark with scripts for the Lethal Weapon franchise, and somewhat lesser-known action-comedies The Last Boy Scout and The Monster Squad. The trio of actor, director, and screenwriter famously came together for 1987’s Predator, but a few years later they’d collaborate again for a different sort of film, an action-comedy satire that self-deprecatingly skewered their own work and action movies in general: Last Action Hero.
25 years later, Last Action Hero remains an underrated bit of cinematic savagery as a commentary on the inherent ludicrousness of big-budget action movies and how silly it is to take them too seriously. It’s far from a masterpiece of filmmaking due to the hectic production process behind the scenes that left little to no time for editing, adjustments, and responses to test screenings; I for one would love to see a McTiernan/Black cut of the film that trims the fat and tightens up the dialogue. It crashed and burned financially and critically, and it didn’t help that a picture by the name of Jurassic Park had opened a week earlier. But two-and-a-half decades of clarity reveal that Last Action Hero is much more than it appears to be on its surface; it’s a love letter to cinema and the theater, a cautionary tale for self-serious fanboys, and a celebration of all things “Action.”
If you’ve never seen Last Action Hero, the plot is relatively straightforward: Action-movie superfan Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) escapes his not-so-great childhood reality by spending all of his free time at a rundown movie theater. His go-to franchise is the trilogy starring Schwarzenegger’s epic action hero Jack Slater. So imagine Madigan’s delight when the theater’s projectionist gifts him a magic ticket that grants him transport into the latest movie, Jack Slater IV. Everything’s great in the movie-verse since the star of the action flick can’t be killed and Danny gets to tag along for the fun, even if he’s the slightly more vulnerable comedic sidekick. But the fun’s over once the movie’s villain gets ahold of the ticket and uses it to transport himself, and other villains from movie history, into the real world, causing havoc. The only ones who can stop him are a very mortal Slater and the returned Danny Madigan, who has to help his movie star pal navigate the real world and its life-threatening perils.
As an action movie alone, Last Action Hero is serviceable. As a movie for fans who spent the 80s and early 90s devouring every available action movie out there, it’s downright hilarious. John McTiernan pulls no punches right out of the gate as the standoff against The Ripper, who’s holding a rooftop full of children hostage and keeping a full battallion of cops at bay, occurs during Christmas, just like another famous McTiernan-directed, Shane Black-scripted film you might have heard of. That’s just one nod to a litany of action-movie tropes skewered by the script and McTiernan’s direction: Hero cop survives everything that’s thrown at him while mere mortal cops die “two days before retirement”, an extremely loose understanding and application of physics, improbable gun-play that always falls in the hero’s favor, and one-liners that would be DOA in any other genre. (It’s also probably the only time you’ll get to see Schwarzenegger play Shakespeare, though he does it with 80s/90s-flavored, machine gun-toting, cigar-smoking flair.) It’s wish fulfillment at its most imaginative and its strangest: The scene in which Danny’s apartment is burglarized and he’s handcuffed to the sink by a knife-wielding tweaker at first seems like another fantasy playing out in his mind, but it’s an example of the cruel reality of his childhood in a rough New York neighborhood, and a bit of foreshadowing for events to come.
A side plot that’s lost in all the gunfire and explosions is the theater itself, an old-fashioned and once-gorgeous entertainment venue that famously featured the legendary Harry Houdini–the source of the magic ticket, handed down by Nick (the late, great Robert Prosky), that transports Danny into the movies–that has fallen on hard times. Its ornate design, decorative lighting, lush wall-to-wall carpet and plush seating has all fallen into disrepair; it’s now threadbare, covered in graffiti, and on its last legs. A sign outside promises a new multiplex Loews theater coming to the location soon. As big-budget action films and their audiences demand bigger, louder, and more technologically advanced movie theaters, the traditional theatre with the personal touch has gone the way of the dinosaur; 25 years of hindsight have shown this prediction to be mostly on point, save the relative handful of indie theaters around the world showing niche cinematic selections.
While the first act of Last Action Hero is an interesting enough commentary on the state of action films and the movie theater industry itself in post-80s America, the meta movie really amps up once Danny’s transported into the insane Slater-verse itself. The second act spends time in Jack Slater IV and enjoys all of the typical tropes you’d expect in a blockbuster action film; this is where the bulk of the comedy and over-the-top fun comes in. But it’s in the third act, which drags Danny and Slater back into the real world, where the action hero is distressed to find that his usual heroics don’t pan out so well for him. The realization that he is in fact an action-movie hero lends some vulnerability to the previously bulletproof star, giving his final confrontations with not one but two villains and his own mortality some surprisingly grounded stakes. It all ends happily ever after, of course, which is both a testament to the uplifting power of film as an escape from the real world and as a nod to the trope of everything always working out for the hero in the end.
Dig a little deeper into Last Action Hero however and there’s much more to unpack here. Danny, a self-professed film fanboy and fanatic, tells Slater, “You can’t go through life nitpicking every little thing,” whenever he questions Danny’s knowledge of the rules of the real world and that of the cinematic. Danny’s the perfect fan here: He knows his stuff, loves the on-screen insanity, and will support the franchise until its dying day, but importantly, he knows the difference between real life and fiction, between flesh-and-blood movie stars and the bigger-than-life, celluloid heroes they play on screen.
Benedict, on the other hand, functions as both an antagonist and a corrupted sort of fanboy in this movie. He picks at his boss’ mangled metaphors and incorrect phrasing throughout the film, sniping at every little detail. He has to have everything his way, and if he can’t, he’ll be a real grumbly dick about it. Benedict is sharp, unflinching, and unforgiving, saying that, “If God was a villain … he’d be me.” So when he gets his hands on that golden ticket, it’s not long before he figures out the rules of the real world, rules that let him become his own kingpin and crime boss without any accountability, like an invasive species taking over a defenseless land. He’ll do anything he can to disrupt Slater’s story to the point that he’ll not only bring in classic villains from film history to sow chaos, but he’ll also use the action hero’s own tropes against him, like leaving an empty chamber in a revolver only to make Slater think he’d run out of ammo. What Benedict doesn’t account for, however, is the self-sacrifice of good-hearted film fan boy, Danny Madigan. The subtext here is that movies are entertainment and art, and should be enjoyed as such, but the divide between the fiction and the real is an important distinction to maintain despite the tendency to blur them.
Less apparent but just as interesting here is Schwarzenegger’s own commentary on himself and his career. At one point, when Slater meets his real-world counterpart, he says to him, “Look, I don’t really like you, all right? You’ve brought me nothing but pain.” That’s a fascinating line and I don’t think Schwarzenegger was acting as Slater here; it’s a rare bit of truth in an otherwise fabricated tale. A few years back while talking to Schwarzenegger for his return to film in The Last Stand, he mentioned that two of his favorite films from his career were, surprisingly, Twins and Junior. The comedically slanted titles gave Schwarzenegger a chance to show off his chops as a charismatic funnyman rather than having to run, jump, and shoot people for a two-hour runtime. This line in Last Action Hero is another potshot aimed at both action movies and Schwarzenegger’s own action-packed career.
Any Last Action Hero discussion needs to mention the insane cast assembled for it. Charles Dance plays one of the scene-chewiest villain roles ever, by design, as the surgically accurate hired gun, Benedict; the part would have gone to Alan Rickman had he not apparently turned it down due to the salary offered. (Benedict’s immaculately displayed collection of high-powered rifles and taxidermied animals is second only to his variety of colorful and comedic glass eyes. And his fourth wall-breaking monologue comparing himself to a villainous God is just too good.) There’s also two-time Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn who gets to play a crime boss in Jack Slater IV, the movie within the movie itself. Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham gets a heel role who betrays the hero. And fantastic character actor Tom Noonan finds himself playing a raincoat-sporting, ax-wielding, heavily made-up serial killer as one of Slater’s many nemeses. Oh, and Schwarzenegger himself plays movie-star Arnold Schwarzenegger, hamming it up on the red carpet at the premiere.
So good-hearted film fanboys and fangirls, do yourselves a favor and revisit Last Action Hero, or watch it for the first time. If you can sit back and revel in the self-deprecating humor and skewing satire of the beloved slice of cinematic history that is 80s/90s action movies, I think you’ll find it a poignant, if messy, execution of this point of view.
I love that Schwarzenegger’s Slater, when told that the Lieutenant Governor is here to stop him from interfering, backhands him and says, “Tell me when the governor gets here.” 10 years later, he became governor of California.
Come for the movie but stay for the cameos, like Sharon Stone post-Basic Instinct, Robert Patrick‘s T-1000, Danny DeVito as the voice of Whiskers the animated cat cop, Tina Turner as The Mayor, and twice-Oscar-nominated Ian McKellen as Death, channeling Bengt Ekerot‘s own Grim Reaper from Ingmar Bergman‘s The Seventh Seal. Then there’s appearances by M.C. Hammer, Maria Shriver, Melvin Van Peebles, Angie Everhart, Jim Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Damon Wayans, all names that should conjure up some strong 90s vibes.
Frank McRae should have received some kind of award for his performance as Lieutenant Dekker, delivering a profanity-proof, glass-shatterring tirade throughout the movie, like this beauty of a line, “I got the California Raisins cast is doing an all-male version of The Diary of Anne Frank…” (I particularly like the video loop of severe weather playing behind him in his office for some reason.)
This movie will not only make you miss Blockbuster Video, it’ll make you wish it always was the way it was presented in this movie. As Danny himself says, “Where are the ordinary, everyday women? They don’t exist because this is a movie!” To which Slater replies, “No. This is California.”
Jack Slater IV was “directed” by Franco Columbu, a bodybuilder pal of Schwarzenegger’s and an actor/producer on Schwarzenegger movies like The Terminator, Conan the Barbarian, and The Running Man.
This was Bridgette Wilson‘s first feature film role, both in-movie and in the real world.
There’s a nod to Steven Spielberg‘s E.T. the Extra-terrestrial when Danny, improbably, rides his bike through the sky and across the face of the full moon. Spielberg was apparently offered the director’s chair for this movie but turned it down to direct a little picture called Schindler’s List instead.
Screenwriter Zak Penn, who made his debut with this film, would go on to enjoy great success penning movies for the early Marvel universe and more, like this year’s adaptation of Ready Player One.