’90s Action Movies, Part III: “Last Action Hero” (1993)

Although this series is yet young, this may be the most important movie I’m going to analyze. Why? Because in addition to being an action movie, it’s about action movies. It is a meta-commentary on action movies.

It’s also a departure from Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park in that it was not a box office success. In fact, part of the reason it was not a success was because it came out right after Jurassic Park. Which, as we have established, is a great movie, so I can’t even indulge my snobbish side by complaining the masses have no taste. It’s just a bit of bad luck, that’s all.

Last Action Hero is about a young boy named Danny Madigan who loves the movies. In particularly, the Jack Slater series, about a tough cop played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film begins with Danny watching the climactic battle with the villain The Ripper at the end of Jack Slater III. 

Let me pause here to tell you: I was that kid. I loved Schwarzenegger movies when I was 10, MPAA ratings be damned. (My mom was thrilled about that, let me tell you…) So, I can identify with Danny, and when the projectionist at his local theater gives him a ticket for an advance screening of Jack Slater IV, he reacts the same way I would have as a ten-year-old.

But the ticket is a magical device, and transports Danny into the world of Jack Slater, where everything operates according to action movie logic: cars explode from a single bullet hit, a main character can suffer grievous physical trauma and walk away with only a scratch, all the female characters wear skimpy outfits, and Slater casually fires a round into his closet every time he enters his apartment, knowing without checking that there will be a bad guy lying in wait to ambush him.

And then, of course, there are all the Easter eggs, like when Danny and Slater enter a video store (remember those?)  and see an ad for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, starring… Sylvester Stallone. Slater’s assessment: “It’s his best performance ever.”

Eventually, when confronting the main villain, Benedict, the ticket sends Slater and Danny back into the real world, along with Benedict. Here, Slater is baffled by the rules of this strange reality. “Something’s wrong with my gun,” he mutters when it fails to blow up a car.

Benedict, however, is right at home in the real world:

Think of villains, Jack. You want Dracula? Dra-cool-la? Hang on, I’ll fetch him. Dracula? Ha! 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 a 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!

Benedict, you see, has been busy exploring the gritty underbelly of New York, and has learned that drugs, prostitution, and murder run rampant on the streets, with no larger-than-life heroes swooping in to save the day.

Slater does ultimately defeat Benedict, but in the process sustains wounds. Real, mortal wounds, not the fake kind he is used to getting in the movie-world.

The only way to save him, of course, is to send him back to the world of Jack Slater IV, where his fatal stomach wound just needs a quick bandage. And then, with a fourth wall breaking wink to Danny, Jack Slater rides off into the sunset.

The film is packed with references, in-jokes, parodies and meta-humor. But most of all, it’s a love letter to the movies. A love letter full of good-hearted teasing about all the ways in which action movies are silly, of course, but at its heart Last Action Hero is about why we love these movies. Because the real world is full of ugliness, and it’s pleasant to visit a world that’s not ugly and nasty, but instead ruled by hope and heroism. Yes, it’s “escapism,” and yes, it may be true that if people focused on translating the virtues of their cinematic heroes into actual, real-world actions, it might not be a place that we so urgently wished to escape.

But stories are the seeds that eventually bear fruit in deeds, and that is why heroic stories are important. Last Action Hero confesses openly that there is something silly and juvenile about the whole concept, but it doesn’t do it out of malice or with contempt. Ultimately, despite poking fun at many action movie tropes, it’s a defense of the genre.

Because the world needs heroes, just as Danny Madigan needed Jack Slater. And that fact is the central emotional core of Last Action Hero.

9 Comments

  1. Spot on with Last Action Hero, it was a great big affectionate hug to the Action Movie…. Of course the critics hated it, but it was going up against Jurassic Park, which was a tough gig.
    Happily it is now basking in Cult Status and will not go away. I’ll have to visit it again.
    ‘Thanks for The Memory’

  2. OMG – I didn’t even know this movie existed?!? And I thought I’d seen all of Arnie’s films. You’re right about the timing. This movie should have been HUGE. In fact, I’m going to see if I can find it. Great post, thank you. 🙂

    1. I hope you can find it. And if you do, I hope you like it. It is a bit polarizing, but as you can tell, I am a fan! 🙂

Leave a Reply to Joy V Spicer Cancel reply