Is it an homage? Is it a parody? Last Action Hero is both. It is also a film whose idea was better than its execution. From 1993, Last Action Hero was released two years after Terminator 2. In the interregnum, Arnold directed a TV movie, Christmas in Connecticut (which I will NOT be watching), did a little voiceover work, became a restaurateur, appeared as himself in Dave (another film I’m choosing to skip), and slept on a mattress filled with Krugerrands. I’m not totally sure that last bit is true, as, sometimes, facts which we find on the internet turn out to be less than truthful. What I do know is that two years was an awful long time to wait for Arnold to build on the success of Terminator 2. I’m also not convinced that Arnold’s sabbatical from starring roles was unrelated to the decline of the American action star.
By the mid-1990s, the formula of the action film had become so familiar to viewers that most action films were stale and unoriginal. The genre was changing, emphasizing the spectacle more, and introducing different types of stars. Action movies themselves never suffered from audience apathy, but the two-dimensional tough guy lead began to seem like a bit of a dinosaur. Arnold, Sly, Jean-Claude, and Steven Seagal gave way to someone like Will Smith, and other action superstars of a decidedly different bent.
Last Action Hero was an attempt to make an action film with meta levels of self-awareness. In it, Arnold plays Jack Slater, a Los Angeles cop who only exists in the movies. Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) is a kid who is very much into Jack Slater flicks. He skips school to watch them at a raggedy movie theater in the old Times Square. The projectionist, Nick, played by the always delightful Robert Prosky, gets hold of an advance copy of the newest Jack Slater movie, and invites Danny to the theater for a midnight screening. Nick decides to play a bit of a part, and gives Danny a magical ticket, once given to him by Harry Houdini. The ticket is not just a prop. It really is magic. As Danny watches Jack Slater kick some ass on the gigantic theater screen, he is suddenly transported into the movie. The ticket works.
The Los Angeles of Jack Slater is different from real life. This is on purpose, of course. The movies are supposed to be a place as magical as the ticket which brought Danny there. Everyday lives have glitz and glamour. There are no regular people, or ugly people, anywhere. The painted lady behind the counter at a video store has supermodel looks. When Danny first arrives, he is plopped down right in the middle of an outrageous car chase/gunfight. Vehicles fly through the air in unbelievable jumps. Bullets blow things up. Bad guys can’t hit the broad side of a barn and Arnold never misses, even while he’s driving his Bonneville with no hands. The point of this scene, and one other with Jack Slater earlier on, is to establish the action movie clichés and bona fides. They are exaggerated beyond what other movies in the genre have done in order to separate them further from real experience.
But, in this, director John McTiernan may have gone a bit too far. I get that it’s silly to see a bullet explode a car’s gas tank and other such nonsense, but there were plenty of actual clichés to draw from without turning the film into something of a costumed ball. By that, I mean the presence of an animated cat detective and a superimposed Humphrey Bogart as members of the cast lend a desperate taint to what otherwise was a good joke. The character of the screaming police Lieutenant didn’t need to descend into gibberish, or have actual smoke pouring out of his ears for me to get that it is an overused character trope. Its unnecessary in the same way that the constant stream of movie parodies like Scary Movie and its ilk are not funny. I think this movie would have done better staying in the realm of satire, rather than parody.
I was surprised at how well this film is holding up, however. Despite the film going too far with its total lack of subtlety, it has a very strong story. Danny, for some weird reason, is not content to live out the fantasy of being in a Hollywood movie. He has to spoil it. He’s running around constantly trying to convince Slater that they are in a movie, that everything they see isn’t real. Honestly, if I were him, I’d let it ride. He’s a kid sidekick in an action flick. No matter how many bullets fly or cars explode around him, he’ll never be hurt. The worst that could happen is he gets written out in a sequel after he grows into an adult and audiences turn on him. Hmm, maybe finding a way back home is a good idea.
The bad guy in this movie is Benedict, played by Charles Dance, he of House Lannister of late. Benedict is one of those smart, calculating, foreign evildoers that Hollywood loves so much. Benedict takes Danny’s magic ticket and travels to the real world. A movie villain released into reality is a bad thing, so Danny drags Slater along after Benedict, where Slater is first exposed to actual physics.
The possibilities for this film were endless. One half exists in the fake world of Hollywood action flicks, while the other is a depressing glimpse of New York City in an era when it had over 2,000 murders a year. Themes of reality versus fantasy are touched on throughout, but never in a way that reaches its full potential. Last Action Hero was a much more interesting film than I was expecting, despite its shortcomings. I think it is worth watching, if only because it comes from a time when the industry, and Arnold, was fully aware that an era was coming to a close.