Last Action Hero (1993)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in My Childhood | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Lots of harsh violence, some harsh language, and a harsh realization that the real world kind of sucks.

If a crazed cineaste put a gun to my head – or more likely a camera – and forced me to name my “favorite” genre of film, it would be self-reflexive cinema. Not only are its volumes particularly clever, but movies about the movies are also blessed with a superb track record in terms of quality. I think specifically of Robert Altman’s The Player, Fellini’s 8 ½, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Truffaut’s Day for Night, Godard’s Contempt, Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, and musicals like A Star is Born and Singin in the Rain. I loved these movies long before I excitedly signed up for a film studies course on the subject at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and perhaps some of that is due to the first self-reflexive movie I ever saw: Last Action Hero.

To properly understand the movie, a few pieces of information are in order: 1) the $60 million movie, which was a lot at the time, was a monstrous box office flop; 2) it has been called a two-hour advertisement because of plugs for Coca Cola, Blockbuster, Planet Hollywood, and, most of all, Sony (cell phone, minidisc player, musicians); 3) the advertising scheme included a $50,000 spot on the side of a NASA rocket; 4) critics panned it, and the Razzies nominated it six times.

Now that you know those precious Last3gems, lets dive in. Last Action Hero has a similar premise to Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, which in part made it easier for critics to tear Last Action Hero down, but both owe a great deal to Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. The loner hero is Danny (Austin O’Brien), a New York City youngster with no father figure and a fear of the ever-present violence, who finds refuge in the local cinema. Danny falls in with an old projectionist (Robert Prosky), but their relationship is hardly that of Cinema Paradiso. In fact, I got the impression that Danny would skip school and stay out late to be at the movies no matter who worked there. A more important relationship for Danny involves Jack Slater, a fictional action star played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold’s character is not particularly unique, but involves a conglomeration of loose-cannon action heroes with five o’clock shadow, cigars, boots, big guns, a troubled past, and poor post-mortem puns.

On midnight, the day before the newest Jack Slater movie premieres (part four, if you must know), Danny sneaks out and catches the sneak peek. Before the show, the projectionist (in the movie’s lamest move) gives Danny a “magic ticket,” which later makes a portal for Danny to land in the back seat of Jack Slater’s car, within the film.

“The trope of film as world is responsible for much of the humor and satire,” Christopher Ames wrote in Movies About the Movies, “satire that depends on both the predictability and the unrealistic nature of the movie genre.” Ames speaks to items such as the angry black police captain, ridiculous number of weapons a hero carries, polar opposite police officers inevitably partnered together, and Slater instinctively firing at his closet to kill the people hiding in there. “The humor reminds us that films … require a willing suspension of disbelief,” he continued. Danny eventually becomes Slater’s partner because of his knowledge of the villains (Anthony Quinn and Charles Dance), based on the beginning of the movie he saw. This leads to Danny incessantly trying to convince Slater that he’s in a movie. He anticipates trademark quips (“Big mistake,” “I’ll be back,”), notes that everyone has 555 phone numbers, observes that Jack can’t kill him or swear, sees an animated cat, and recognizes figures including Robert Patrick, Sharon Stone, and Humphrey Bogart.


Slater isn’t convinced until the villain gets a hold of the magic ticket, and they follow him into “the real world.” The villain is at first shocked by hookers, vagrants, violent movie titles, and a murder that takes place over a pair of shoes. “Here, in this world, bad guys can win,” he says, after realizing that he can enter other movies and get a team of super-villains. His statement is, however true, a film convention in itself as, of course, he doesn’t win. Slater also has a rude awakening as he finds that cars don’t explode when shot, guns need reloading, vacant cars don’t always come with keys, and punches hurt.

“This is a wonderful moment for me,” the projectionist says when he meets Slater. “I’ve never met a fictional character before. How new and exciting this must all be for you.” Slater doesn’t share his excitement, however, and he proceeds to rant about a life of pain that someone just invented. “But who cares, he’s fictional!” he says. Later, when the villain plans to erase Slater’s existence by killing Schwarzenegger, the film makes fun of Arnold’s real persona as he boasts his new film that only kills 48 people and constantly plugs his restaurants. The character he created, meanwhile, complains “you’ve brought me nothing but pain,” suggesting an actor’s struggle with public image and typecasting.

Though the film metaphorically suggests the role that fictional characters play in real life, Ames notes, “the film clearly shows that action heroes offer no solution to real-world problems.” In the real world, Slater takes on a fatherly role, talks to Danny’s mother all night (“I’ve never just talked to a woman before; it’s neat”), and professes a newfound love for classical music.

Instead, Ames suggests, Last Action Hero “poses the film world as an abstract ideal worthy of faith.” This refers to Jack’s blanket sweep at the weak end of the movie, as he returns to the screen: “I’ll be here where you can always find me, but I need you to be out there to believe in me.”

In order for the movie to work, director/producer John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard) had to act as both critic and celebrant of the action genre. It’s not great, but enjoyable and clever nonetheless – especially for young boys and action movie hounds. The Hamlet trailer sequence, for instance, is a hysterically accurate portrait of how this generation would best adapt Shakespeare for modern audiences. I also enjoy Danny’s soliloquy while preparing to play chicken with the villain. “This is gonna work. This is a movie. I’m a good guy. This has to work. Wait! I’m a comedy sidekick. Oh shit!” Though it seems pretty simple and mindless (often it is, actually), Last Action Hero also poses some interesting answers for the self-reflexive genre.

“The conceit allows for a fanciful satire of genre conventions, of the unreality of screen realism, but it also probes the attitude of the spectator toward the film,” Ames wrote. “Do the moves provide diversion in an otherwise complex and meaningful life, or do the movies become the ironic source of vitality and meaning in an otherwise vapid existence?”

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