Last Action Hero was a film released in 1993 – a non-stop, adrenaline-pumping, two-hour rollercoaster of satire and shitty humour. Featuring a cast of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austin O’Brien, Charles Dance and F. Murray Abraham, it centres on a kid (Danny, played by O’Brien) who comes into possession of a magical movie ticket, allowing him to pass into the movie world of his favourite no-nonsense maverick, Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger). It spins the idea of every cliché action movie on its head and blurs the line between fiction and reality with ease. It’s got terrible puns, gunfights-a-plenty, and a kickass soundtrack; with the likes of AC/DC, Alice in Chains, Megadeth, Def Leppard and Aerosmith accompanying us throughout.
It bombed. It was a critical and commercial disappointment. And you know what, that’s a disgrace. It’s got Danny DeVito as an animated cat, for God’s sake. What more do you want, people?!
With much of Last Action Hero taking place in the fictitious Jack Slater universe, clichés are rife. Guns don’t need to be reloaded; girls are dressed in a lot of tight clothing; cars explode when shot at and dynamite takes a convenient amount of time to go off. The good guys never get hurt, and the bad guys always explain their plans. But it makes sense. Last Action Hero is a satire, chiefly; a parody at the non-stop, action films churned out to this day. Imagine any movie with Dwayne Johnson in it. This is poking fun at that.
Using the film’s setting to mask actual cliché in the development of the plot is insanely clever and doesn’t get enough credit. Suddenly the audience, us, aren’t barking ‘Oh, how unbelievable!’ at the screen. Because it isn’t. And that’s the point. Case in point: when Danny is engaging in a game of chicken with Benedict (Charles Dance)’s limousine, and dodges it at the last moment, screaming, ‘I’m the comic sidekick!’. He knows his life has no importance in the movieverse. In an especially powerful scene – when Benedict delivers the line, ‘If God was a villain, he’d be me.’ to the camera – we actually see the crew member manning it for a split-second, reflected in the glass. And yet, in this format, it strangely doesn’t matter. Dance is already breaking the fourth-wall, he’s already telling his evil plans to us. It’s excused in an instant.
And, notably, the film’s tension is never sacrificed as a result. The entire ‘Leo the Fart’ (more on that later) chase scene results in one of cinema’s best ‘Oh shit!’s. The movie’s embellishment actually leaves the audience in even more suspense than usual; wondering what wholly bizarre deus ex machina is going to save our Arnie this time. It provides more immersion, and I was way more interested in the gunfights throughout Last Action Hero than anything the movie parodies.
It’s why the kid isn’t annoying, either. Austin O’Brien can act, and he plays the most aware character to ever grace the silver screen (and be on the other side of it). In an instant, he becomes incredibly relatable; playing the audience when literally any cliché moment happens in an action film. It brings the audience on side and doesn’t treat us like we’re stupid. We are Danny, and that’s the point.
And speaking of phenomenal acting, this might just be my favourite role of Charles Dance. Dance plays the typical British bad guy, but times ten. The character of Benedict proves a formidable antagonist; and the various glass eyes he swaps out and interchanges throughout gives him a clear identity. He’s got a real evil about him. But logic, too. His introduction to the real world is particularly poignant – and so painfully true. It’s a bitter reminder as to how bad it really is; and that even the worst movie villains pale in comparison to what we face every day. ‘Here in this world, the bad guys can win’. So chilling.
Equally as powerful is Jack Slater’s humanity shining through in the real world; like a child maturing before our every eyes. His discovery of Mozart’s music is a great moment. And his reflection on how his life is a lie – his job, his ex-wife, his children – was executed perfectly. This movie, however stupid, however ridiculous, packs some real heart.
But, naturally, Arnold Schwarzenegger is Arnold Schwarzenegger. And that’s just what Last Action Hero needed. Without an iconic, stereotypical action movie actor, the film wouldn’t pack that punch; that added satire. Arnie plays himself, and it’s the one time that’s so integral. There’s no need for a dynamic range, or excessive monologues of expression. Every badly-accented threat, every poor pun, every show of his pure buffness only adds further fuel to the fiery nature of his character. He’s Jack Slater. He really is.
And the puns really are dire. Which, again, is the point. But you can tell the screenwriters had fun with them anyway. Schwarzenegger echoes what’s to come in 1997’s Batman & Robin with lines like, ‘I iced that guy. To cone a phrase’ after an unnamed henchman takes an ice cream to the back of the head. To be honest, the whole ‘Big Gun’ scene acts as the perfect introduction to the movie.
Last Action Hero doesn’t take itself seriously; and milks that aspect to the best of its ability. One of the characters is called ‘Leo the Fart’. Why? Who knows? Who cares? But when Charles Dance, in a serious British voice, utters the line, ‘The Fart goes off in seven minutes’, I know it was worth it. As Arnie says, ‘He was a good man. A flatulent man’ before shouting, ‘My god! The man’s not dead’, picking the dead Leo from his coffin and slinging him over his shoulder, I’m thinking it was the best goddamn decision ever made.
The film also has its share of references to please the film buff crowd. From Terminator to Die Hard, the whole ‘Action Movie Checkbook’ gets a cheeky mention. Danny warns Slater not to trust F. Murray Abraham’s character because he killed Mozart in Amadeus. I love it.
John McTiernan (who directed Predator, Die Hard and 1990’s The Hunt for Red October) gets to explore his latex kink in Last Action Hero, too, as pretty much every female character is shown squeaking in the stuff. I don’t know why, I guess it’s to get them in the tightest stuff possible; but it proves an odd, slightly science-fictional spin to the universe of Jack Slater.
Then again, it’s not the last time the film shows shades of the futuristic. Last Action Hero echoes Back to the Future in a lot of ways; particularly in the intricacy of its plotline. As the fictitious Arnie crosses over into the real world, chaos ensues; when he meets Real Arnie. The scene when one tackles the other is legendary; and makes me so glad that Schwarzenegger was up for doing this film. He’s taken the piss out of remorselessly.
We also get to see Ian McKellen make an appearance, as literal Death – who does a really brilliant job with the entity, by the way. Why in the Hell was this film a disappointment?
That seems to be a bit of a mystery, actually. There are various factors; the film was released on the 18th of June, 1993… seven days after Jurassic Park. Schwarzenegger later commented that the film would have done better if not for such fierce competition, and he very well might have been right. But a poor review from test screening critics resulted in cataclysmic word of mouth before the finished thing was even released. Last Action Hero seemed doomed to fail. It even experienced technical problems in theaters where the newly-introduced Sony Dynamic Digital Sound system wasn’t set up.
Schwarzenegger also stated that in the film’s quest to appeal to both action and comedy fans, it alienated both; but I can’t quite see why. Whilst it satirizes the genre of action to high Hell, there’s plenty of pointless firefights, explosions, crashes and gunshots to please the inner Michael Bay in all of us. And the puns, whilst awful, still elicit many a wry smile. It succeeds in both areas whilst simultaneously parodying them. At least to me – and what do I know? I thought Wild Wild West was a good film.
Variety dubbed the action-fest, ‘a joyless, soulless machine of a movie, an $80 million-plus mishmash of fantasy, industry in-jokes, self-referential parody, film-buff gags and too-big action set-pieces’. And to Variety I say, kindly, ‘what the f**k do you know?’. It is all that, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I judged the aforementioned Will Smith western to be a genuinely awful movie, but so awful it’s good. Last Action Hero, on the other hand? It’s just good. It’s brilliant. It’s got a clever concept, a clever plotline, and some five-star acting where it needs it.
Either way, the declared financial loss for the movie was estimated at $26 million. And that’s exactly why you should watch it. Make the verdict for yourself. There’s gotta be a reason it slumped right? Or maybe it’s an underrated, overlooked cinematic gem? Surely that alone makes the two-hour runtime worth it. I promise it’s not an experience you’ll forget. And if you do, well, big mistake.