AGAINST THE GRAIN: Last Action Hero (1993)

Arnold Schwarzenegger goes meta in John McTiernan’s underrated action blockbuster. Richard gives it another play. 

Much has been said about Last Action Hero. Some have called it a failure and a black mark on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s box office record. Others think of it as just an okay action comedy, whereas some regard it as an underrated classic which deserves more recognition. Hard to believe that a film starring the biggest action hero in the world failed at the time, isn’t it? Why? Was it because of the healthy competition from Jurassic Park? Was it the fact that people just didn’t know what to make of it? Personally, I don’t really care, because I’m just going to look at the film as it is.

I think all of us have wanted to be in a movie at some point, be it the star or the love interest or whatever. But in this film, Danny Madigan played by Austin O’Brien, quite literally ends up inside an action movie. One starring Schwarzenegger no less as fictional cop Jack Slater. How does this happen? Well, by magic ticket, of course! Yeah I know this is quite silly if you think about it too much, but if you look at the ticket as the MacGuffin of the film, then I think it kind of works. How else is Danny supposed to get inside the movie? You have to admit, the magic ticket is quite a clever means for it to happen if you look at it as a wish fulfilment device. So anyway, Danny ends up inside the movie universe. The movie universe, or the universe of the movie Jack Slater IV, is a place where a talking cartoon cat exists (I know, go with it), getting shot point-blank in the chest amounts to nothing more than a flesh wound, and falling into a vat of tar is nothing a quick towel wipe can’t fix.

I think this is where the film began to lose some people. Sure, it starts out showing one of the Slater movies, but it then cuts to the real-world Danny lives in. His world pretty much goes by the same rules as ours, and everything is rundown and kind of depressing, raining constantly. Danny doesn’t have much of a life. His mother struggles to make ends meet, their apartment often gets robbed by criminals, and my guess is he doesn’t do too well in school. So, if you compare his/our world to the movie world, where everything is glossy, the criminals always get what they deserve, and the sun is always shining, then I guess the audience has to ask themselves: Who wouldn’t want to be a part of Slater’s world? Let’s face it, we’ve all wanted to visit the universe certain films present at one point or another. Which is why Danny serves as  the audience’s voice when he steps into the living celluloid.

Once we’re in the movie world, it’s basically a typical action flick that Schwarzenegger would have starred in during his heyday. But what makes it fun is the fact that, since the film is basically a satire of popular action blockbusters at the time, the filmmakers were able to poke fun at the clichés and tropes of the genre. Quite tastefully as well, I might add. Before the days of “ironic humour,” we had films like this which both poked fun at and embraced the clichés it was satirising. Whenever I watch this film, I never feel as though the production team are looking down their noses with disdain at the action genre. Which is something a writer today would probably do, but since this was written by Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black and directed by Die Hard auteur John McTiernan, masters of this genre, I can tell they’re basically poking fun at themselves.

So, the action movie world plays out how you would pretty much expect. There’s car chases, over-the-top explosions, hard rock, bad puns, and an obvious villain. But then things take a sudden turn when said obvious villain, Mr. Benedict, played by Charles Dance (yes, Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones), takes the ticket from Danny and is transported into the real world, too. Jack and Danny soon follow, and from there, the film is more or less turned on its head. Of course, the real world doesn’t work the same as Jack’s does, and he soon realises that punching through a car window will not be painless and that shooting a car will not automatically blow it up. I love how Schwarzenegger acts in these scenes. Say what you like about Arnold, but he definitely knows how to laugh at himself.

Despite the third act taking place in “reality,” it’s not really light on action. It’s just more restrained than it was in the earlier scenes. I guess this also caught people off-guard since the tonal shift was quite drastic. But I think this part is still good if given a chance. Benedict figures out that the best way to kill Slater is to go right after the source: Schwarzenegger himself. This is where the film really dips into meta territory, especially in a particularly funny scene where Slater has to save Schwarzenegger from a villain called The Ripper, the bad guy from Jack Slater 3, played by Tom Noonan. And what results is Arnold acting opposite himself, as the real Schwarzenegger asks Slater to be his lookalike. “Look, I don’t really like you, you’ve brought me nothing but pain.” Okay, I love that scene, it makes me laugh every time!

The film ends with Jack rescuing Danny from the bad guys, and Slater goes back to the movie world. I didn’t even begin to cover just how many references there are in this film. Aficionados of action movies should be able to spot most of them, but I am certain more than a few went over my head. For example, there’s a scene where there’s a lot of random celebrity cameos; I’m not entirely sure what the joke was behind that. But while I do like this film, it isn’t without its problems. I mean, the fricking Grim Reaper from The Seventh Seal is on the loose at the end of the story, and isn’t that going to be addressed? Apparently not, because it’s never mentioned again, but Ian McKellen is really good in what really amounts to a cameo and an exposition dump. But there is some clever writing in the third act, especially during the scene where Benedict says, “Gentlemen, since you’re about to die anyway, I’ll explain the whole plot to you, shall I?!” An obvious stab at OTT villains in movies always giving away their plans so that the hero can escape and stop them. But, like I said, there’s so many movie in-jokes and references that I’d be here forever listing all of them.

Overall, Last Action Hero has a pretty good story and manages to balance out the action scenes with some genuine dramatic ones. Arnold is never going to do Shakespeare or anything (there’s actually a hilarious scene which addresses this), but he’s pretty decent in the moments where he has to be a bit downbeat and emotional. I think O’Brien does a good job as Danny as he’s not too annoying. Maybe he goes on a bit too much in a few scenes, constantly pointing out the continuity errors in the movie world, but that’s all part of the joke so it’s not a huge problem. Dance is exceptionally good as Benedict and the rest of the supporting cast all do well, too. Last Action Hero is not the terrible waste of time its been made out to be. I’d even go so far as to say its one of Arnold’s best and is worth checking out if you haven’t already seen it. It has great humour, some solid set-pieces, a very clever and meta narrative, and an awesome soundtrack which includes the likes of Megadeth, Alice in Chains, AC/DC, and Buckethead. It’s probably the best satire of the action genre I have ever seen, and it definitely deserves more credit than it has gotten over the years. Oh, and it is definitely better than some of Arnold’s other comedies. Junior, anyone?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The AC/DC song “Big Gun” was specifically written for this movie after Arnold Schwarzenegger personally approached the group and asked them to write a song for it.
  • Charles Dance said in interviews that, after being told that he had won a part turned down by Alan Rickman because of the salary, he wore a t-shirt on set which read: “I’m Cheaper Than Alan Rickman!”
  • The words “A Franco Columbu film” appear on the screen at the beginning of Jack Slater IV. Columbu is a bodybuilder friend of Schwarzenegger’s, who has appeared in the following films with him: Pumping Iron (1977), Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Terminator (1984), The Running Man (1987), and Beretta’s Island (1994).
  • Has the distinction of being the first film to be advertised in space. For $500,000, the film’s title was graffiti-ed onto the side of an unmanned NASA rocket which was launched into space by Schwarzenegger.

Richard Bal

My name is Richard, I like beer, heavy metal and movies, but maybe not necessarily in that order.

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