Perennially underrated, often unfairly maligned (even by Schwarzenegger himself) as his first real failure, ironic action movie masterpiece “Last Action Hero” is twenty-five years old this year and way overdue for a reappraisal.
Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) prefers the movies to the trials and tribulations of real life, especially the adventures of his all-time favourite hero – Jack Slater, a rule-breaking, loose cannon, get the job done LA super-cop (Arnold Schwarzenegger). When the projectionist of the local fleapit cinema gives Danny a magic golden cinema ticket, he finds himself transported right into the latest Jack Slater movie. But when evil henchman Benedict (Charles Dance) discovers a way into the real world, Danny and Slater must stop him before he unleashes cinema’s greatest monsters on an unsuspecting New York City.
Directed by John McTiernan (“Die Hard”, “Predator”) and written by Zak Penn (his first story credit) with a screenplay polish from Shane Black, “Last Action Hero” sees McTiernan and Black especially in deliciously self-deprecating mood as they set out to deconstruct and parody the genre they both had a hand in shaping through the late eighties and early nineties. Opening with a pitch-perfect self-trolling pastiche of his own “Lethal Weapon” as we watch the denouement of the fictitious “Jack Slater III”, complete with pun-fuelled one-liner (‘Wanna be a farmer? Here’s a couple of acres!’) and a guest star cameo from Tina Turner as The Mayor. It’s one of the secret strengths of “Last Action Hero”: all of the movies-within-a-movie actually look pretty good. Even Danny’s imaginary amped-up Schwarzenegger-starring “Hamlet” looks like it would be a lot of fun but maybe not quite as much fun as seeing Joan Plowright (as Danny’s English teacher) delivering a low-key withering assessment of her late husband Laurence Olivier’s later work in Polaroid commercials and “Clash Of The Titans”.
“Last Action Hero” is another product of 1993 that’s way ahead of its time. Ironic and self-aware years before it was cool to be so, “Ready Player One” owes this movie a huge debt, as does Kevin Williamson who would apply this same meta-textual approach to the slasher genre a few years later. Although never mean-spirited, the movie relentlessly mocks and teases the ridiculously bombastic nature of the action blockbusters of the day, satirising everything from the endless variations of the odd-couple buddy cops trope to the nonsensically combustible nature of nearly everything in a world of plot armour and consequence-free mayhem (Slater’s disappointment at cars failing to explode from a few bullet holes in the real world is particularly amusing). Cameos fly at the screen at a rate of knots and if you blink you might miss Sharon Stone reprising her role as Catherine Tremmell or Robert Patrick skulking past as the T-1000.
It works pretty well as a straight action movie and as a satire, even when the action moves into the ‘real’ world of New York where it evens allows its leading man to indulge in some introspection on how empty and unfulfilling the life of an action movie hero would be beyond the superficial level. There’s even a little bit of character development for Danny and his family and while it’s heavily implied that Jack Slater and Danny’s mom got it on while Danny slept, everything is kept PG-13 as Danny delights in pointing out to Slater. Austin O’Brien is great as Danny in a role that could easily have been twee or wooden in other hands. Charles Dance offers effortless menace as Benedict and Tom Noonan’s Ripper deserves a more iconic legacy spot in the pantheon of cinema villains than he was afforded. Best of all, Schwarzenegger seems to be genuinely enjoying himself simultaneously reprising and spoofing not only his most famous roles but also himself.
The understandably irresistible third-act involvement of Schwarzenegger as himself, though, feels like a metatextual flourish too far, a time-wasting ego trip which would have been better used to show Benedict assembling his rogues gallery and causing a little chaos rather than merely hinting at the possibility. Alongside all of the action movie shenanigans, there’s a sincere and abiding affection for the romanticism and escapism of cinema itself underpinning everything, especially for old movie theatres with their gilt filigrees and art-deco ostentations which were succumbing to the unstoppable rise of the multiplexes at the time.
Dogged by a troubled production which was still filming right up to the week before release – a release which took place in the all-consuming shadow of “Jurassic Park”, there was little time to polish the film in the edit and it shows. The timing and pacing are not quite right and some of the jokes don’t land quite as well as they should but the studio (Columbia) and the movie’s producers (including Schwarzenegger) believed that any delay in release would give the message the movie was in trouble, despite of (or maybe because of) a reputedly disastrous test screening. In retrospect, it was a terrible decision because there’s a witty, well-observed masterpiece in here (as deserving of cult following as “Big Trouble In Little China” or “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension”) if you’re willing to look for it and had it been given the time and resources to properly finish, it may have been one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1990s rather than one of its more notorious flops, a testament to the fact Sony’s track record of making terrible movie production decisions is also more than a quarter of a century old.