It’s not easy coming out the week after Jurassic Park, but that’s exactly what happened to the John McTiernan directed, Arnold Schwarzenegger starring meta-fantasy-action-comedy-family film Last Action Hero. It tells the story of action movie fan Danny (Austin O’Brien), who gets sucked into a Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger) film via a magic movie ticket. What ensues is a hilariously ridiculous adventure that involves both the exaggerated movie world of Slater’s Los Angeles and the exaggerated real world of Danny’s New York City.
It all starts with the Columbia Pictures logo, which then transitions to the end of Jack Slater III, which is being watched for the who-knows-how-many-th time by Danny at a local movie theater. He’s the type of kid who’d rather skip class to watch an escapist action flick, and even daydreams Schwarzenegger playing the role of the Prince of Denmark in an action packed Hamlet (one of the best sequences in the film). Danny’s also got a chance to see the newest Jack Slater film early, but not before projectionist friend Nick (Robert Prosky) hands him a magic movie ticket that just so happens to get Danny into the film.
From here, the film switches over to the exaggerated movie world of Los Angeles, California, where the police station is big and clean, full of every type of cop imaginable (including a cartoon cat), a police chief who gets so angry he breaks the windows of his office, and where each and every woman is attractive. All the while, Danny’s hanging a lampshade on every thing in sight, including plot details that lead him and Jack to the film’s main villain, Benedict (Charles Dance). And once Benedict gets a hold of the magic ticket, that’s when Jack and Danny’s troubles get real.
If this all sounds a bit silly, rest assured, it’s incredibly silly. It’s also messy. One of Last Action Hero‘s biggest strengths is also one of its biggest weaknesses: it makes fun of action movies while also attempting to be an action film itself. Scenes where Danny recognizes actors in the movie world helps establish that the rules of the real world not only don’t apply, but are broken regularly. There’s many points where things just happen or are the way they are because “it’s a movie,” the sort of excuse many an action film has used in defense of whatever happens on-screen. Due to the insanity that happens, the film could be accused of using that excuse too much or taking advantage of it, which is also part of the film’s charm, as things like a cartoon cat (among other things) are “excusable” because “it’s a movie.” And due to the movie world already being so comically exaggerated, just about anything that transpires on-screen can be excused.
But what about when the film switches gears again and Benedict and Jack fall into the real world of New York City? This is where things get even weirder because now we’re dealing with action movie tropes and cliches differently. For one thing, the action now becomes more grounded, to the point where there’s very little of it, in comparison to the violence and explosions of the movie world. You could excuse a regular movie goer for finding this section of the film very boring, since most of what occurs is Jack interacting with real people, finally realizing he’s a fictional character, and getting upset over the revelation that all the pain and misery he’s received was all for the sake of an audience’s entertainment. Even in the movie world, we see that Jack isn’t just some invincible action hero, that he has feelings and emotions that make him human. So when he enters the real world and sees that he’s played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s devastating.
Benedict, on the other hand, relishes in the fact that he can transport from the movie world to the real world, thanks to the magic ticket. He loves that, in the real world, “the bad guys can win.” It’s Benedict who demonstrates the “realities” and exaggerations of this movie’s real world by witnessing and committing crimes without consequence. While Jack Slater IV is a film-within-a-film, Danny’s real world is just the film’s version of the real world. The key word here is “version”, since Last Action Hero, no matter what’s going on and where, is still all a fictional motion picture. So while the movie’s movie world has rules that are exaggerated, broken, and played with, the movie’s real world has rules that are also exaggerated, broken, and played with. New York City is ridiculously crime ridden, citizens don’t care that someone’s been killed, and it’s constantly raining. Just like in the movie world, the real world has its defining characteristics on full display, as the movie takes full advantage to contrast the two worlds through exaggeration.
While Last Action Hero dabbles in and mixes with meta humour and satire, these elements are extremely subjective and may or may not all come together for everyone. However, if there’s one thing that most can agree on, it’s the film’s soundtrack. The film’s score was composed by Michael Kamen, and features guitarist Buckethead, creating something that’s symphonic but “rocking,” thanks to the combination of orchestral and electric sounds. It blends well with the other (more popular) side of the film’s soundtrack, which is composed of licensed tracks by rock artists. Songs such as AC/DC’s “Big Gun” (a soundtrack exclusive) and Alice in Chain’s “What the Hell Have I?”, work well both in and out of the film, and the other artists featured fit nicely within the film’s soundtrack. My personal favorite is Tesla’s “Last Action Hero,” a love letter to the type of heroes Jack Slater embodies.
The film also does good on the acting front, something that may go unnoticed among all the ridiculous antics that surround the characters themselves. Austin O’Brien does a really great job, whether he’s pointing out movie tropes or explaining to Jack that there’s some things you can do in the movies that you can’t do in real life. Schwarzenegger himself does a great job playing both himself and the character Jack Slater, presenting a fun character who also has depth. What’s great about Slater is that he could have stayed two-dimensional, but it’s to the film’s benefit that it makes Slater more than just a punchline. When serious moments between Danny and Slater occur, they have more weight to them due to their character’s being more than just composites. Danny isn’t just a kid who loves action movies, but someone who so desperately wants out of his real world life and uses the world of the movies as his escape. And Slater isn’t just an action movie character, but a guy who, when he realizes what he is, decides to be better than what he was originally written as. It’s this incidental journey of self-discovery that changes the lives of both the fictional hero and the real-world fan, who both realize that there’s more to their lives than what’s been written for them.
The film’s supporting cast is also excellent, especially Charles Dance as Benedict, who plays deliciously evil both comically and threateningly. There’s also Frank McRae as Lt. Dekker, who often speaks in angrish (complete with steam coming from his ears), F. Murray Abraham as John Practice (which sort of doubles as a cameo), and Bridgette Wilson as Meredith Caprice as Whitney Slater, Jack’s daughter. Then come the copious cameos, some of which exist in the movie world as quick gags, and some of which exist in the real world as quicker gags. In the case of these cameos, one might argue they’re unnecessary, but their needlessness, like many other things in the movie, can be seen as “part of the joke.”
I’ve mentioned how the film’s greatest strength is also its weakness, and much of its dual fantasy-action-parody-meta-film-satire nature is due to the different story and scriptwriters, resulting in a film that isn’t strictly action, isn’t solely parody, isn’t too satirical, but is almost always comedic. Whether any, all, or only some of it comes together is wholly dependent on how accepting or unamused the potential audience member will be. And Last Action Hero can be seen as being ahead of its time, especially since more “family friendly” and PG-13 rated action films have come out in the years since. Yet Last Action Hero also is a film of its time, from its cameos, tropes, cliches, and portrayal of people and places. Even so, it’s wildly entertaining, funny as hell, and ultimately sweet at its core. Last Action Hero may not be for everyone, and may always struggle to find an audience, but just like Jack Slater, it’ll always be there when we need it.