Written by Zak Penn, Adam Leff, Shane Black, and David Argott
Directed by John McTiernan
The concept of a film within a film is an idea that provides for truly interesting cinema. Films that are self-referential, satiric, and make fun of their own genre are often hilarious, thought-provoking, and downright fun. 1993’s cult favorite Last Action Hero is an action-fantasy that pokes fun at the action film genre in more ways than one. It stars the incomparable blockbuster movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger who is playing himself. Last Action Hero pretty much has it all and if you are a fan of the Austrian star or just action cinema in general, then this is the perfect film for you.
The film focuses on Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), a 12-year-old troublemaker obsessed with movies, in particular those of action hero Jack Slater, a fictionalized version of Schwarzenegger. The Slater films are your typical good guy/bad guy junk and Danny eats it up constantly. The latest installment, Jack Slater IV, is set to be released soon and Danny’s friend and proprietor of an old-time movie theater, Nick (Robert Prosky), invites Danny for a special advanced screening. Before the screening, Nick gives Danny a special magic ticket originally given to him by Harry Houdini. Soon after the film begins, the ticket begins to sparkle and soon transports Danny into the movie! He then goes on an adventure with Jack Slater to find the bad guys, confront danger head first, and save the day.
Danny knows what’s real and what’s not and the movie world he bursts into is like a dream to him. Slater reluctantly allows Danny to tag along and the two embark on a wild adventure. Hilarity ensues as Danny comments on the many movie cliches and inside jokes. The entire film within the film idea is brought to the forefront and provides for some really funny moments. There are even cameos from Robert Patrick as T-1000 (the villain in Terminator 2: Judgment Day), Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell (the femme fatale in Basic Instinct), and Danny DeVito as the voice of a cartoon cat. Mercedes Ruehl is also in fine form as Danny’s concerned, street-smart mother. Anthony Quinn, Art Carney, F. Murray Abraham, Ian McKellan, and even a video of Humphrey Bogart make an appearance, so you can see that this is a film where pretty much anyone can show up and anything happens.
Film within film scenarios are sadly not done too often. It is a tricky thing to tackle and director John McTiernan has pulled it off masterfully. The man is basically responsible for the modern action movie formula, having directed the revolutionary Die Hard in 1988. Not only that, he directed the pulse-pounding sci-fi/actioner Predator the year before. Both films put McTiernan on the map and established him as the action film director of the late 80s and early 90s with the claustrophobic submarine thriller The Hunt For Red October in 1990. These films are the quintessential action threesome and McTiernan really rode that wave. When Last Action Hero came out, people were sort of tired of seeing the typical good vs. evil formula. They wanted something different and in 1993, McTiernan gave us a clever tongue-in-cheek thrill ride that both respects and mocks the action genre simultaneously.
By 1993, Schwarzenegger was kind of running out of steam. In 1984, he made a splash with The Terminator and had a very successful run with the action films Commando, Raw Deal, The Running Man, Red Heat, Total Recall, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. These films solidified Schwarzenegger as an action movie icon and he has the one-liners and elaborate villain death scenes to prove it. Last Action Hero is an homage to the Austrian bodybuilder-turned-actor’s body of work and you can see Schwarzenegger is having a good time perpetuating the stereotype he has so elegantly created.
Danny is also the perfect yin to Slater’s yang and their constant bickering is genuine, hilarious, and at times, heartfelt. He is a great sidekick because he knows the movie world inside and out and has some insight Slater does not possess. Their partnership (and friendship) grows as they go after the main villain Mr. Benedict (Charles Dance). Some of the film’s best moments occur when Slater and Danny enter the real world and go after Benedict. There is one scene where Slater even encounters the real-world Schwarzenegger at the film’s premiere. Schwarzenegger thinks Slater is just a look like wherein Slater says “Look, I don’t really like you. You’ve caused me nothing but pain.” This and many scenes like it are what make Last Action Hero truly great.
The British Charles Dance is an excellent, rather creepy, villain with an assortment of glass eyes, each with cute designs and nefarious purposes (i.e. explosives). He has elements of the typical bad guy we all know and hate and at the same time, offers something fresh and original. He catches on to Danny quick and the blurred line between the movie world and the real world is beautifully explored. Another villain, The Ripper (Tom Noonan), also provides adequate creepiness and his screen-time offers nothing but pure fright.
Last Action Hero may not be Schwarzenegger or McTiernan’s finest work but it is a damn good example of self-referential humor. The jokes and cameos are so funny, not to mention Slater’s confusion when he enters the real world. Schwarzenegger actually demonstrates some decent acting here and his self-parody is just delightful, bordering on genius. Basically, Last Action Hero is a visual treat, comprised of funny performance, brilliant bits of dialogue, and a story concept full of enormous potential. With its release 21 years ago and a cult status honoring its brilliance, Last Action Hero is a film like no other and would be right at home in any DVD player on a late weekend night.