“The Last Action Hero” is smarter than you.
by Tim Doyle
I know, I know. You think I’m fucking with you. You think I’m affecting some stance so I can defend it with ironic statements, and I’m just trying to be a hip dick. But I’m not. I really, really like this film.
Now, keep in mind, I hadn’t seen Last Action Hero since it was in theaters…almost 20 years ago. I was 16 in 1993, and there’s no way I was prepared for the film I was about to see. I don’t think the damn world was ready for the film. Now, stick with me here- I’ll get to the WHY this film is so good soon enough. To prep for this article, I just re-watched it, and here’s a quick run-down/ refresher on the plot:
Kid (Danny Madigan) is a huge movie nerd, skips school to watch films in a run-down old cinema palace run by old-guy, much to the disappointment of his single-mother. His favorite movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger is starring in a new release, Jack Slater 4, and the old guy who runs the theater has a print of it before the premier and the kid comes over to watch it at a midnight screening just for him. Once there, old-guy gives kid a ticket given to him by Houdini, and during the screening, kid gets sucked into the film-world, and starts interacting with the fictional wold there. Because kid has seen the first 10 mins or so of Jack Slater 4, he knows a bit about the plot and helps Slater foil some bad-guy plans. Bad guy in the film gets his hands on the ticket and uses it to come into the ‘real world.’ Jack Slater and Kid have to stop bad guy from killing the real Schwarzenegger, which would end Slater’s life as well. The good guys win, Slater goes back to the movie-world, and Kid keeps ticket. Somewhere in there is a cartoon cat. The end.
I remember when The Last Action Hero came out. It wasn’t what I wanted to see at the time. In fact, I don’t think it was anyone’s idea of what they wanted to see. The movie is a victim of audience expectations of what a Schwarzenegger movie SHOULD be. But if this movie came out now- I firmly believe the critics would be falling all over themselves to say how brilliant it is.
Put yourself in this position- Terminator 2 was Arnold’s most recent film…the man was an action god, a stone-cold killer, and could do no wrong. And THEN- he’s starring in a film who’s main intent was to play with and make fun of the trappings of the action movies you loved him for. In essence, LAH is making fun of the very audience it was being marketed to. And not only that- the REAL story going on is one about fictional characters transcending the bounds of the stories they’re trapped in, and wanting to run their own destiny, as opposed to the one written for them to act out on the screen. No fucking way was that going to work in 1993. Hollywood didn’t know how to market this, and audiences didn’t even know how to watch it.
Holly wood still doesn’t know how to market this thing- does this looks like the DVD cover for a movie where the hero gets rescued by a cartoon cat?
But if you look at it properly, this film is chipping away at EXACTLY the kind of intellectual real-estate that films like Dark City and The Matrix planted their flags on 10 years later. In fact, this is the kind of action film you’d expect from the likes of comics writer Grant Morrison- he plays with meta-contextual concepts in his comics like a cat with a string. His run on Animal Man in the 80’s staked out this territory 5 years BEFORE LAH was released. I’d even guess that LAH writer, Zak Penn (who is a big comics fan, now working for Marvel Studios) probably was influenced by books like Animal Man going into the writing of the film. This is of course, pure conjecture, but an educated guess at least.
Let’s talk about Last Action Hero’s bonafides real quick- the film is written by Zak Penn. (Well, as much as any Hollywood film is written by just one person.) Penn wrote the excellent X2, the mediocre X3, and the surprisingly good Incredible Hulk. He’s a solid action writer, and doesn’t normally disappoint. The film is directed by the MAGNIFICENT John McTeirnan. Who’s he? Why, only the director of the two GOOD Die Hards, the ONLY good Predator film, and The Hunt for Red October. On top of that LAH had a healthy budget, good supporting cast, and some mind-blowing cameos. The only reason why you might not know who McTeirnan is the back to back one-two box-office fail-punch of LAH and Die Hard 3. In H-town, yesterday’s Speilberg is one bad film away from being tomorrow’s Shyamalan. (Ouch. Sorry.)
McTeirnan plays around with even his own film history- at one point Jack Slater is hanging off a building (saving a crowd of meatball eating mobster stereotypes from a nerve-gas fart…really) and part of the building breaks away, and Slater goes all slow-mo as he falls. EXACTLY like Hans Grueber in Die Hard. Brilliant, and hilarious. In today’s entertainment landscape, where everything is a reference to something else, a pop-culture snake eating it’s own tail, LAH stands as the first salvo in that particular onslaught. While I’m tired of that type of screenwriting NOW, back then it was freaking groundbreaking. The whole film is also peppered with comically timed musical cues from other action movie soundtracks, from Die Hard to Lethal Weapon to even Amadeus.
I understand why the film ‘lost’ a lot of people back then. It’s too freaking clever for it’s audience. I said it- you are dumb. One of the main complaints I’ve read by film critics and movie-nerds alike is that the plot of the film-within-the-film is lame and silly. People laugh at the obviously bad effects, the clearly seen roll cages in stunt cars, the stunt doubles. If you’re among them, that means you missed the whole fucking point, nimrod. Danny gets sucked into ‘Jack Slater 4’. He’s not dumped into a copy of ‘War and Peace’ at his local library. This film in the film IS BAD, and that’s the joke. Not a ‘Wow, isn’t this shitty movie great’ kind of bullshit trash-for-trash’s sake type of film-fannery you see now-a-days, but it’s got a deeper meaning in the context of the character Jack Slater’s ‘life’.
There’s a scene, which I think is one of the most important in the film, where Slater and Danny go to Slater’s place after a crazy action-sequence. And the place is EMPTY. There’s no furniture, no pictures- only a bed, and a closet full of exactly the same jacket and shirts that Slater always wears. And why is this apartment so bare? It’s because Slater is a cardboard cut-out, no depth, no personality- because that’s all the writers of “Jack Slater 4” have GIVEN HIM. He and Danny have a little conversation that from a meta-contextual standpoint is really a discussion about his fictional existence. Slater bemoans the fact that his life keeps getting harder and harder, and despite all the ‘crazy adventures’ he keep surviving, while the people around him keep dying. Danny brushes it off with “It’s the sequel, it’s always going to get harder!” But when you really stop to think about it, this fictional man is bumping up against the cage that he’s been put in by the writers and by us, the viewers. We make these characters go through hell and back for our entertainment, and these guys don’t even know why. Slater is a guy mad at a god he doesn’t even know exists.
Earlier in the film, Danny makes some lighter jabs at the movie reality, but mostly for comedic effect. They walk into a Blockbuster Video (remember those?) and every Schwarzenegger film role is replaced by another actor, every girl in there is ball-burning hot, and they all have phone numbers that start with 555. At one point later, a bad guy is ‘caught monologue-ing’ (an idea not really nailed home again until ‘The Incredibles’) and he’s shot in the back- by a cartoon cat-cop, voiced by Danny Devito. Corny? Hell yes. Brilliant? Also yes.
It’s not until the villain, Benedict, gets his hands on the ticket that the fun really starts. Seeing the possibilities in the dimension hopping abilities the ticket gives him, he kills off the main mobster in “Jack Slater 4” (played by Anthony Quinn) and starts talking right to the audience, smashing the shit out of the 4th wall, and says “If God was a villain, he’d be me.” When he does enter ‘our’ world, and starts causing havoc, we get some real social commentary: He’s almost immediately approached by an underage prostitute, he witnesses a murder for a pair of tennis shoes, and at no time does anyone seem to care, and no cops are called. It’s almost a jab right at the moralists and MPAA, saying- “You think movie sex and violence is such a bad thing? Look right out your damn window.” During the final show-down between Benedict and Slater, he says he’s finally in a world where ‘the bad guys can win.’ Our world. Ouch, Zak Penn, Ouch. But, good point.
The best bit of all, the little bit of dialogue that set every nerdy kid’s brain on fire was this- right before that, on the rooftop, Benedict says- “You want Dracula? I’ll fetch him. Dracula? Huh. I can get King Kong! We’ll have a nightmare with Freddy Krueger, have a surprise party for Adolf Hitler, Hannibal Lecter can do the catering, and then we’ll have christening for Rosemary’s Baby! All I have to do is snap my fingers and they’ll be here. They’re lining up to get here, and do you know why Jack? Should I tell you why? Hmm? Because here, in this world, the bad guys can win!”
That’s some heavy shit. And, I would pay a kidney and half a liver to see THAT movie. But forces such as copyright, trademarks, and licensing will make that a dream. Good thing South Park did it 15 years later with ‘Imagination-Land’, because they don’t GIVE A FUCK about copyright, and I can keep my kidney and my liver, guaranteeing several more years of successful alcoholism ahead for me.
Just looking at this can get you sued.
There’s the inevitable scene where Slater meets Arnold at the premier of “Jack Slater 4”, and instead of a straight fight, there’s a meaningful bit of dialogue. Arnold is trying to ‘buddy up’ with Slater, and Jack stops him short and says, “Look, I don’t really like you, you’ve brought me nothing but pain.” Schwarzenegger by acting in his films is putting his fictional counterparts through the wringer, time and time again. He can ONLY cause these characters pain each time dons a costume and reads his lines. And we eat it up.
There’s one last little bit of brilliance from this film, and it comes right at the end- Slater is shot and dying in Old-guy’s theater and Danny is trying to get the magic to let Slater enter the film world again where he’d be safe. Earlier the magic ticket had landed outside a showing of ‘The Seventh Seal’ and Death, as played by Ian Mckellen, exits the screen and follows the Ambulance to the theater where Slater will be. (There’s seriously like 10 cinemas on this block). Death enters the theater and Danny, without missing a beat, picks up a gun points it a death, and says, “I’ve had enough of you!” Now, hold on a second- no one, as far as Danny knows, has died in this movie. Death hasn’t been on screen at any point before this. What’s he talking about? Wait…where the fuck is Danny’s Dad this whole time? Why is Danny so emotionally invested in whether Slater lives or dies anyway? And then I realized one of the unspoken themes in this film- Danny’s dad is FUCKING DEAD, and Scwarzenegger’s film-persona is the perfect substitute father. For all those nerdy kids obsessed with film in the 80’s who’s parents got divorced or Dad just plain wasn’t there- Arnold is your guy. The subtext is here, it’s all over Terminator 2 and T3- if you don’t know your Dad- Arnold will do. He’s handsome, he’s strong, he’s rich. He tells a bunch of bad puns, and is good with kids. And, just like you secretly always wished your dad would- Arnold will FUCK THE BAD GUYS UP. The 80’s were the decade of divorce and the latch-key kid. For a lot of young boys, Dad just plain wasn’t there. And as Slater tells Danny as he leaves the real world- he’ll always be there for him. It might be a bit of a stretch, and again, yes- it’s corny as hell, but it’s there if you look, right up on the screen. And it’s great.
So, OF COURSE this film bombed. It’s a big, ambitious mess that pokes fun at it’s audience and makes a meta-contextual statement about celebrity and reality and fiction affecting us on a real emotional level. And for an audience of teenage boys walking into the darkened theater in 1993 that just want to see Arnold FUCKING MURDER some psychos…they were horribly disappointed. But here, almost two decades later, seeing the films that have come since, I know Last Action Hero was just a little ahead of it’s time. Or I could just be affecting a position to be a hip dick.