Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Heath Holland On...Last Action Hero

by Heath Holland
Underestimating this movie is a BIG MISTAKE.

If movies had ended in 1993, I’d be okay. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that the movies that mean the most to me were made within and before 1993. I had suspected as much for a while, but F This Movie Fest 4 was one of the final confirmations that most of my cinematic passions lie in 1993 and earlier. My preference has a lot to do with my age, but it also owes to the way that movies were being made then, before CGI became widespread and everything became EPIC. Movies made in and before 1993 were allowed to be big and dumb and earnest and sweet and have a good time just for the sake of having a good time, and 1993 seems like the last year where Hollywood made THAT kind of movie. Last Action Hero is one of THOSE kinds of movies, and of course I was there when it came out and thought it was great. My affection for the film was helped by the fact that I didn’t really see many R-rated movies (unless they were on basic cable, sanitized for my protection) until I was well into high school, so this PG-13 action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of my first real experiences seeing an Ahnuld movie theatrically. Don’t worry, many more followed.

Something happened over the years, though. Last Action Hero--a borderline financial and critical disappointment—started to get beat up by a lot of my friends and coworkers. The movie and the marketing around it was definitely a massive miscalculation: there were toys and video games and a CD soundtrack, and the audience for this massive media push didn’t show up like Columbia Pictures needed them to, which is when the backlash began. I worked the video counter at a local grocery store during high school, and there weren’t a lot of good things being said about the movie. Later on, people started to watch Last Action Hero and think that it’s stupid and isn’t in on the joke, and that they are so much wiser and experienced than their entertainment (a phenomenon that’s everywhere now). I assumed the position of a Last Action Hero apologist, defending it to people by saying “it’s not that bad.” Well, I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I just recently watched the film again, and it doesn’t need my defense. It holds up just fine all by itself.

The fact is, Last Action Hero is smart. No, it’s not smart in the way that a Christopher Nolan movie is, and it’s not going to compete with Primer in the fancy book-learnin’ category, but it knows what its going for and only wants you to follow where it leads you and try to enjoy yourself. Patrick has pointed out that Arnold Schwarzenegger is frequently cast to play “the other,” a double of himself or a robot or an undercover agent, etc., and he does so here by appearing both as himself the actor and as the action movie character Jack Slade. Detractors cry “that’s stupid!” but the movie KNOWS it’s stupid and has a lot of fun with the concept. It even allows Schwarzenegger to parody the kinds of movies that made him famous and have quotable catchprashes (like “I’ll be back;” this film’s catch phrase is “Big mistake”). Last Action Hero even has the actor appearing as a machine-gun-wielding Hamlet with the trailer narration stating “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and Hamlet is taking out the trash!” “That’s so lame!” cry the cool kids in the back row. The movie knows this. It’s not just a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies; it’s a send-up of the way films were being made at the time. Remember, this was one year after Keanu Reeves was cast in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This movie understands that. You can’t dismiss it for being the very thing that it tries so hard to be.
If you haven’t seen Last Action Hero in a while and need a refresher, the premise involves a latchkey kid of around 12 named Danny Madigan (played by Austin O’Brien) who absolutely loves movies. He loves them so much that he skips school to go and see them and stays out long after he should be back home in his unsafe New York neighborhood. When he’s not skipping school, he’s fantasizing about them during his classes and forming the real world around him into an artificial one that plays by movie rules. An old man named Nick (Robert Prosky) runs the projector at the run-down theater where Danny frequents; Nick let’s Danny come in through the back door because he knows he doesn’t have much money. He’s also something of a father figure to Danny, and invites him to see the new Jack Slade movie before anyone else. As a gesture, he gives Danny a magical ticket that had once belonged to Harry Houdini. Danny is transported into the world of Jack Slade, and with it, the Hollywood action movie world of 1993, where Danny will have to help Slade catch the bad guys.

The setting of the film itself is riddled with clichés like the loose-cannon renegade who lost someone close to him, the obnoxious, foul-mouthed police chief, the cop who’s just a few days from retirement, and guns that never need to be reloaded. It’s delightful when you take into account that John McTiernan directed the movie, since McTiernan played a pretty significant role in creating the modern action film with movies like Die Hard and Predator. Furthermore, the script was written by Shane Black and David Arnott. Black, as you probably know, was something of an ction pioneer himself with scripts for films like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boyscout. It’s fair to say that both McTiernan and Black know their way around all the action movie tropes, so they’re ideal candidates to exploit them in clever and subversive ways.
All those jokes and clichés can get a little monotonous after a while. When the premise of the film has run its course (or a little later, unfortunately) the movie turns on its heel and switches things up by bringing Schwarzenegger’s Jack Slade into OUR world, which gives the movie just a little bit more life. Luckily, a little bit is all it needs, because this allows the film to speed toward a satisfying conclusion for both the character of Jack Slade (whom the movie hopes we’ve become attached to) and for Danny Madigan.

Last Action Hero has a ton of recognizable actors in it, like Tom Noonan, F. Murray Abraham (fun fact: the F stands for “Felicia”), Anthony Quinn, Mercedes Ruehl, Ian McKellen, Melvin Van Peebles, Jean Claude Van Damme, Chevy Chase, and many more. It also stars Bridgette Wilson-Sampras in her first movie role and Art Carney in his last.

There are clever little winks everywhere in the movie. There’s a Terminator 2 joke that incorporates another action icon, and there are these weird little character moments that take me by surprise, like the “real” Schwarzenegger shamelessly promoting himself and Planet Hollywood at a red carpet premiere. There’s a cute peak inside Jack Slade’s closet where we get to see his varied wardrobe. There’s even a cop that’s a cartoon cat, voiced by Danny DeVito. There are other jokes too, like how every woman in the movie world looks like a model. When Danny tries to use this evidence to convince Jack Slade that only a movie would have so many artificial-looking people in it, Schwarzenegger/Slade reminds Danny that they’re in California.

I know the movie doesn’t work for some people, and that’s totally cool. For me, it works for a couple of reasons: first, there’s a lot of heart in the film. It’s a kid’s movie (by 1993 standards, not today’s) that shows that life can be really hard for young people. It depicts the escape from reality that movies offer, which is something every member of the audience can appreciate and get behind. Without the heart and the innocent nature of Danny, the film would feel like a National Lampoon comedy and probably wouldn’t work at all. It’s only because we get the occasional glimpse that the film is acknowledging the absurdity that we are able to have fun with the movie. And that’s really the key: the movie wants you to have fun with it, not at it. It’s in on the joke. In fact, it might be one of the first postmodern action films.
As much as I appreciate what it tries to do, Last Action Hero is not a home run, and not everything works. Some of the jokes fall flat, and at over two hours, the running time is too long for this kind of movie. I’m also not sure that things work tonally as well as they could have. Then there’s the question of the timing of the film. Last Action Hero made back its budget and a modest profit, but it’s not considered a financial success. Is that because it came out the week after Jurassic Park and therefore never even stood a chance, or is that because movie audiences didn’t want to see this in 1993? Would it have fared better a couple of years earlier? What about a couple of years later? Would the parody and self-deprecating elements have played better when the action bubble had completely burst?

It doesn’t really matter now. It’s something of a cult classic now and has found its audience. Sure, that audience may be a narrow, but for those of us who grew up with muscle-bound action stars with foreign accents, Last Action Hero plays like Cinema Paradiso for machine gun kids. Looking back on it, the movie was a big gamble for everyone involved; it’s unconventional and--at times--kind of a mess. In fact, it’s kind of hard to believe that the movie exists at all, but I’m glad it does.


  1. I saw this movie so much growing up in the mid-90s. It was on cable all the time, I always liked it. It's been a while since I've seen it, caught part it on TV late at night a while back and realized that Tywin Lannister is the villain, makes me like it even more.

    1. Holy crap! The fact that I didn't write about the Game of Thrones connection shows how long it's been since I've actually watched that show.

  2. Nice article Heath- I like a lot of what this movie does (the Hamlet trailer alone is a laugh riot) its one of those movies that has enough great moments to reccommend but not enough for me to do so without some reservations. Speaking of which the cartoon cat and the farting mob boss who's about to blow was just ridiculous (not in a good way) and to my knowledge wasn't really riffing on any action tropes where as the scenes that do always land.
    It's a crying shame that no directors can come up with any good Arnold lines anymore- I think his heart is still in it but he wants some new material.

    1. I'm probably giving the movie too much credit, but I assumed that the farting mob boss was a riff on the scatalogical humor that was becoming mainstream at the time. It's not funny, but then through the sheer length of time that the scene plays, it somehow becomes funny to me. It's like 15 minutes long, which is so ridiculous that I find it amusing. There's a whole action scene built around Leo the Fart passing gas at the mob funeral, complete with a helicopter razing a building and a dive into the La Brea Tarpits. It's a groaner, but if nothing else, it commits!

  3. On another quick side note- i would love to see a sequel that takes place in the Jack Slater world that has him changing things up and people their being either sick of it or just like WTF is up with Jack Slater?

    1. The premise definitely lends itself to an ironic sequel. I don't think we'll ever see that sequel, but if I heard that Hollywood had given the greenlight to one, I wouldn't be that surprised.

  4. To praise or not to praise is the question?

    I LOVE this movie. Lets start there. It is everything I love about these types of movies. Arnold is so good in it, hes kinda perfect in this movie just like Keanu Reeves is with his particular slightly robotic or some say slightly wooden style that works perfectly in The Matrix, Great casting, Arnolds acting style works just as perfectly here,
    We have heard lots recently about people saying its a turn off you brain action movie about some recent blockbusters, so its ok if its dumb, I think we mainly dissagree here? This proves you can be a great Funny action movie that is made really cleverly, Cheers Heath. Great column

    I only dissagree on one point for the similar personal reason, the movies I mainly care about are all pre 83, the magic years of Pre-Certification Video, Thats my Pre Video Nasties magic Era. ERA

  5. I quite enjoyed this movie when I saw it in the theatre back in '93. I recognized its flaws for sure, but appreciated that it was trying for something new.

    I think my absolute favorite visual gag is right after the opening chase scene when the kid ends up in Slater's car. After landing a huge jump, the camera is in front of their car while they are talking. In the background, you see the villains' car (featuring the legendary Al Leong, of course) go flying off in the background.

    There are a lot of obvious jokes at the expense of action movies, but I always appreciated the subtlety of that one. Anyway, thanks for the article Heath. :)

  6. Being as though I was only seven when it came out I didn't know it was a box office dud. I've always loved this movie and I've never understood the hate for it as I grew up. Funny thing is I feel like if this movie were to be released today in limited release and VOD the pretentious indie hipster movie crowd would swear it was the best movie ever and praise it as a throw back to classic action movies. Then start making all kinds of claims on how its commenting on today's Hollywood and movie making.

  7. I love this movie with all my heart and mind. But I think the kid does a weak job. He´s plain annoying and hard to feel sympathy for.
    When Jack crosses over to our world, the movie starts falling apart, they are just all over the place. With Arnold listening to Mozart, Death coming out of the Seventh Seal, the Empire State, etc.

    Thou I dig the scene where the villain catches up to our world.

    -Hello? I´ve just shot somebody, I did it on purpose!
    -Shut up!

    The entertainment factor of the movie is just 10/10. Stallone as The Terminator? Priceless, tells you about the amount of cool and charisma that was going around in those action days.