Retro Review: Schwarzenegger’s ‘Last Action Hero’ (1993)


 

It’s often said that the mark of a good parody is that you could take out all the jokes, and it would still play well as a straight genre film. The best parodies start with that ingredient and add a deep love for the source material.

 

Due in part to those multiple points of failure, and because comedy is the most difficult genre to write well, it’s easy for a parody to misfire. The results can be career-crippling, as no less a star than Arnold Schwarzenegger attests.

 

That’s right. Arnold himself pinpoints Last Action Hero, the 1993 parody of his bread-and-butter action film genre as the start of his movie career’s decline.

 

Last action hero - Trailer

 

 

True, the movie was a critical and commercial disappointment. But does Last Action Hero deserve its dismal reputation? Revisiting the movie three decades later puts its legacy in perspective. First, a heads up. This movie is 30 years old, so no effort will be made to avoid spoilers. Besides, if you’ve ever seen an 80s action flick, you already know the basic plot structure.

 

Last Action Hero‘s perspective character is a teenage kid named Danny. Raised in a bad New York neighborhood by a widowed mom, Danny seeks escape in schlock action movies. And he seeks a father figure in Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger), a pastiche of every trigger happy movie cop from Harry Callahan to Marion Cobretti.

 

One night after getting mugged, Danny flees to a midnight showing of the latest Jack Slater flick. The aged projectionist of the even more aged theater gives Danny a magic ticket claimed by Harry Houdini to be the key to another world. During the screening, the ticket activates and transports Danny into the fictionalized Los Angeles of Slater’s world.

 

 

In an unintended parallel with contemporary manga, this plot hook may qualify Last Action Hero for the isekai genre. It’s even unclear at first if Danny wasn’t transported to Jack’s world by dynamite that flew from the screen and which may have killed him.

 

Anyway, Danny leverages his special power–encyclopedic knowledge of action movie tropes–to carve out a niche in Jack’s world. In particular, his having overheard the villains’ plot while watching the opening scene prompts Jack’s hotheaded lieutenant to deputize Danny as Jack’s new partner.

 

While working with Jack to stop an evil yet dimwitted mob boss from killing off his competition, Danny’s bigger challenge is convincing his hero that they’re both in a movie. The stock actioner plot takes a meta-level turn when Benedict, the mob boss’ much more evil and far more intelligent enforcer, gets a hold of Danny’s ticket and escapes into our world. Jack and Danny leap back through the screen in a race to stop Benedict from unleashing a horde of other movie villains on New York.

 

 

Where Jack learns the hard way that in real life breaking glass hurts, bullets can kill heroes, and the bad guys can win.

 

Last Action Hero was panned on its first release. It’s gone down in cinema history as a career-tarnishing blunder. But does it hold up better in retrospect?

 

Nope.

 

Part of the reason the years haven’t improved Last Action Hero‘s rep much is that it wasn’t that bad to begin with. It was never awful, just middle-of-the-road when the studio needed it to be a blockbuster. They wanted Ghostbusters and got Mystery Men.

 

 

Here are Last Action Hero‘s besetting vices:

  • Inconsistent tone. The movie suffers wild mood swings from tongue-in-cheek to [actual] cartoon to maudlin. One minute Jack’s being chased by villains with an ACME dynamite kit, the next he’s distracting his ex-wife with a taped phone conversation; then we learn they’re divorced because the previous movie’s villain killed Jack’s son. The viewer’s never sure how to feel.
  • Unclear magic system. How does the magic ticket work? Does it work? The first thing that crosses over from the movies to our world is a bundle of dynamite, which may have been what really isekaied Danny to Jack’s world. We don’t see him use the ticket to enter the screen at first. Later, Benedict can put his hand through walls while holding the ticket, and it’s Jack who throws him into our world by accident. Benedict later implies he’s been going into other films to recruit movie villains, but we never see it.

    Two other screen baddies–the Ripper from Jack Slater III and Death from The Seventh Seal–appear in New York, but we aren’t shown how the former crossed over. And the latter just walks out off the screen when the ticket lands on the sidewalk outside the theater. Getting the other half of the ticket does seem to let Danny return Jack home by turning the whole proscenium arch into a portal, yet Nick the projectionist later says the magic was in Danny all along. Maybe that’s why nobody’s concerned about finding the missing half of the ticket that let Bergman’s Death into the real world. The inconsistency is handwaved as pre-Sandersonian “Magic does what it wants” mysticism. But that copout falls flat in an action movie, where tension is vital to viewer interest.

  • Broken promises. The movie sets up a compelling arc for each main character but doesn’t give satisfying closure. Danny wants a father to teach him courage. His arc is established when the mugger handcuffs him to a pipe. The movie later gives him the perfect chance to overcome his fear and redeem his failure when crooked fed John Practice similarly cuffs him and Jack. Although Danny still has the key from his previous failure, the writers thwart his rescue of Jack so they can get bailed out by a cartoon cat. Breaking a main character’s arc for such a dumb gag is inexcusable. Almost as bad, the movie drops strong hints that Jack and Danny will fulfill each other’s arcs by becoming father and son. There’s even a scene of Jack spending all night talking to Danny’s widowed mom and hitting it off.

    Director John McTiernan called Last Action Hero “a Cinderella story.” He must not have seen Cinderella. If he had, he’d know a Cinderella ending would involve Jack marrying Danny’s mom and taking them away from their crime-ridden slum to live in his idealized Hollywood world. Jack’s arc comes closest to getting closure. He kills his son’s killer–even though he already did that in Jack Slater III. His real desire is to be a regular cop who enforces laws and protects citizens, not a superhero who ricochets from one zany adventure to another. His last scene, in which he tells off his rage-head boss, suggests he might get his wish, but we’re left unsure.

Now, so you don’t think I’m just hating on the movie, it’s got quite a lot going for it, including:

  • Fun. The over-the-top action set pieces are a lot of fun. This virtue covers many sins.
  • Genre homage. Jack Slater IV‘s action movie plot works as an action movie plot. It would have worked even better if the film makers had trusted the story to tell itself instead of interrupting the flow with constant nudge-and-wink gags that range from loving teases to scathing rebukes. Their ambivalence comes through in the final product.
  • Villains. If Last Action Hero can boast any feathers in its cap, it’s the movie’s villains. Charles Dance and Tom Noonan pour all their considerable acting chops into playing Benedict and Ripper. As a result, they both manage the rare feat of being genre tropes and fleshed-out characters at the same time. Dance’s Benedict is a true threat who becomes a genuine terror when he emerges into our world with genre savvy to rival Danny’s. An often overlooked question raised by Benedict: What are the metaphysical implications of a real person being murdered by a fictional character? Pondering that one gave me a shiver.

 

Not reflecting on the movie’s inherent merits, but of special interest to members of Gen Y, Last Action Hero marked a milestone where Hollywood reached a crossroads. It bid a bittersweet farewell to the action flicks of the 80s and gave a foretaste of Cultural Ground Zero dead ahead. The movie captures a slice of the High 90s culture that turned out to be the zenith of postwar optimism before the West’s steep decline.

 

 

Perhaps it’s fitting that the fall of Arnold’s star tracks with that of our civilization.

 

****

 

A wild, crazy, electric ride

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Originally published here.


Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a best selling science fiction author and a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel., and its sequel, The Secret Kings, became a 2017 Dragon Award finalist for Best Science Fiction Novel. He's currently crowdfunding his latest work Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 Second Coming on Indiegogo. Read more of his work at brianniemeier.com or pick up his books via Amazon.

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