Last Action Hero recently turned 20, and it’s time to reexamine it. Two decades later, it’s still largely misunderstood. Holding only a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, it was critically panned upon release and was a box office failure. It’s too bad, because Last Action Hero is an incredibly smart film which was just one step ahead of its audience. The truth behind this picture is that it’s just too honest. I do believe it’s worth some substantial analysis.
It’s quite hard to say what exactly Last Action Hero is about — it’s one of main criticisms of the picture — but I’ll try and put it succinctly: Last Action Hero is an action-movie satire that takes the macho-male power fantasy icon and molds him into a caricature of 80s optimism. The film deals with the relationship between fiction and the real world, escapism and reality and morality. It can even be said to somewhat embody a feminist flavor in some of its themes. Certainly it’s much more than an explosions montage with tacked on character development.
Last Action Hero is about a kid called ‘Danny’ who gets a magic ticket and falls into the world of an action-fantasy film called ‘Jack Slater’. The eponymous Jack Slater is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is utterly perfect, who goes about throwing explosions and bad one-liners at people while descending into psychological hell. Yes, psychological. Yes, hell. Yes.
Last Action Hero has moments of genuine comedy and some great action set-pieces, but as the film goes onwards it then descends into seriously dark territory. You have people being murdered for their shoes, a scythe wielding psychopath and a psychological hell for Jack Slater who is doomed to explosions, explosions, and more explosions until, according to Danny, the “grosses” tumble. There’s a moment when Jack laments about how terrible his life is and how he is tormented by his dead child along with visions of his daughter’s inevitable death.
This is an incredibly self-aware film. Danny points out lots of disjointed moments such as the explosions, how every woman in the film-world is incredibly attractive, how a cartoon cat just walks around the police station and how the Chief, so warped with consternation, is but “comic relief” to take Jack’s badge away every picture. That’s what Danny sees, he sees the tropes and labels and the cliches. Jack himself is trapped inside the action movie persona. At one point he comes home and shoots his own closet, knowing full well that there’s “always” guys there. His life, which appears so exciting to us, is tormentingly dull.
The main thrust of criticism revolves around the way the film’s tone constantly changes. The beginning depicts a Los Angeles just one step away from Blade Runner’s 2019 neo-noir dystopia. Danny is burgled, his city is full of crime and his education holds no hope when compared to the action films he can escape into. At one point he sees an adaptation of Hamlet starring, instead of Laurence Olivier, Schwarzenegger, who then goes on a medieval explosive rampage.
I don’t think this is an entirely valid criticism though. The film uses tonal shifts to show the allure of the fictional world. Once we delve into the film world, full of comedy and color and wonder, it makes sense that the tone would change. It’s, above anything, about the psychology surrounding our love for action films. Danny is nothing but a cipher for the audience to experience that youthful feeling of wanting to experience these power fantasies and to escape from a dull, dangerous environment.
Charles Dance, who plays the main villain, ‘Benedict’, is truly perfect in his performance throughout. When all goes wrong and the magic ticket transports him into the real world (yes, magic ticket), Benedict sees a man murdered for his shoes with no law enforcement in sight. He then “tests” a “theory” by killing a mechanic in cold blood and waiting a few seconds for the police to show up, which they don’t. In the film world the sirens would be blaring in no time. Benedict’s glass eye, which like Oddjob’s hat and Jaws’… jaws, is the gimmick to which he holds on to. It represents his skewed perception and place in the world. The film shows however that his disjointed morals and ‘wrong’ perception somehow fit perfectly into our immoral world. A world in which we have already escaped. There may be an incredibly complex post-modernist message under the skin of Last Action Hero; that fiction has taken life from life.
It’s again a marker that the film is about this wonderful sense of escapism and its true genius comes through the character Danny. The psychologically haunted Jack Slater and the moral unraveling that Benedict does compare nothing to what the film does with its kid protagonist. Danny represents the audience’s expectations, both about action films in general and about Last Action Hero too. His world is awful and so when that magic MacGuffin comes about to take him away from his nightmares and into this fantasy then everything seems fantastic. All seems hopeful. What follows is an utter subversion of expectations, in just over just a few scenes, and it is some of the greatest filmwork I have ever seen.
The film was marketed as another Schwarzenegger romp. Explosions, guns and attractive women. The usual fodder. I think that entirely misses the point. Last Action Hero can be said, in some of its character, to be an incredibly thoughtful meditation on the value of action films. Danny, even after gaining the ticket and entering the world of Jack Slater, finds his hero isn’t all is cracked up to be. The explosions and bullets suddenly seem very real to him as he realizes he’s the “comic relief” and thus utterly mortal. The post-modernism is back; people can die just based on their character type, is that the truth about all of us?
When Danny exits the film-world to pursue Benedict, the film then dives in to some harsh celebrity critique. Arnold jokes throughout the picture about politicians, ironic considering what he’d go into, but when we see the real Schwarzenegger in the film’s ‘reality’, he plugs Planet Hollywood and pushes the film, and more importantly pushes ‘the film’. This was Last Action Hero is; the very idea of what ‘the film’ is and what it does to us. The action film fantasies are depicted as colorful and full of a working justice system, even though the protagonist is ultimately haunted psychologically and the world feels ‘plastic’ at best. The ‘real’ world however appears just as broken but without vibrancy, without law and yet it’s the reality we all choose. ‘The film’ is the line between these worlds and Last Action Hero uses its characters, genre tropes and other devices to cleverly ask you whether or not this is a completely ‘healthy’ thing.
Yes, the film is (tonally) all over the place. I think this is largely deliberate. It’s showing two worlds and how they intersect, and asking the audience about the root value of escapist fiction. This film released at the tail end of the 80s new wave optimism in which the idea of the American hegemony was becoming very much real. More importantly the film used Schwarzenegger, an icon of the bombastic genre, to critique the genre itself. The film questions the value and humanity found in our escapism and indeed ultimately seems to think that all of the optimistic projected invincibility that these films depicted is ultimately worthless and far away from reality.
The film has its problems, absolutely. Charles Dance’s depiction of Benedict is pitch-perfect to a scary tee but the film suffers from a general lack of ‘good’ performance. Danny Devito bizarrely cameos as the cartoon cat who actually saves the protagonists at one point, possibly a jibe straight at Roger Rabbit and indeed another jab right at the reality/fiction psychology but his vocal work just evaporates. Danny is played by a kid, and early 90s child actors are, well, early 90s child actors. I would’ve preferred a teenager or young adult to perhaps play the main role given the youthful optimism and hope seems a lot more relevant to someone fast approach adulthood. Schwarzenegger himself seems energized in the picture if otherwise giving the same exaggerated performance which doesn’t exactly fit some of the ‘dark’ moments.
The film was directed by John McTiernan of Die Hard fame. He described the last leg of production as “utter hell”. His directorial ‘wit’ definitely shows throughout. Die Hard itself somewhat represented the antithesis to the eighties action flick. A regular guy with regular problems finds himself trapped inside of the claustrophobic metallic innards of a high-rise skyscraper while fending off a terrorist organization, which is actually a front for a simple heist. Last Action Hero seems more of a deliberate incision into the genre and the psychology surrounding it and Tiernan seems to shine in driving the film forward and keeping its tone entangled with pace.
In All, Last Action Hero is a brave but flawed piece of work hammered by critics and audiences alike who were expecting something completely different. With Die Hard now devolving into the some bombastic cheddar we’ve come to expect from the eighties sludge, it’s clear that Last Action Hero’s thoughtful commentary has been lost to time.