LAST ACTION HERO Was The First Film To Satirize Itself – And Is Still One Of The Best

Sony/Columbia Pictures

Ladies and gentlemen, be sure to hit the head now. Zap a couple bags of popcorn in the microwave, grab some candy, and don’t forget your beverages. Power on your television and switch on your VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It’s time to travel back to revisit movies you’ve heard of, maybe even some you’ve just given no mind to watch at all. It’s time for Be Kind Rewind Theater!

You know, as I sit back and try to watch the action flicks of today and just feel all sorts of underwhelmed. Sure, Keanu Reeves still provides us gold with each new John Wick entry that drops into theaters, but everything else these days feels overrun by green screens and fake explosions. The fisticuffs are brutal and hard-hitting, but even CG-fueled blockbusters can only go so far. Growing up, the real heroes of the screen were a totally different breed. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sylvester Stallone. Kurt Russell. Bruce Willis. Mel Gibson. Dolph Lundgren.

They were the titans that ruled the big screen from early in the 1980’s and up through most of the 1990’s. Their films are considered the foundation for what the genre lays its laurels on today. These actors were the gods of the golden age of action films. Without their presence and their films, where would we be? No Arnold? No Sly? No Bruce? Trying to compose a Mount Rushmore of Action Stars would be near impossible.

By the early 1990’s, these action superstars were starting to wane. Look at Chuck Norris, who found success with Canon Films but shifted his career to anchor Walker: Texas Ranger. (The show hasn’t aged well.) While our beloved stars tried to find ways to remain relevant during a change in their careers, only one of these legends had the stones to try something different. Arnold Schwarzenegger, his star power still bright in 1992, found himself attracted to a spec script heavily rewritten by Shane Black.

What if a character in a venerable action franchise learns that his life is just a work of fiction? And that his biggest fan, a mouthy youth, is somehow swept into a film via a magic ticket? Now, throw in the right amount action movie staples and tropes, with a heavy dose of satire added for measure, and then you’ve got yourself a movie that bombed in theaters but has become a cult classic ever since. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you from a 1993 flick that may have spawned a whole generation of films that can only wish they lived up to the final product. This is Last Action Hero!

Directed by John McTiernan
Written by Shane Black and Zak Penn
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Dance, Tom Noonan, and Austin O’Brien
130 Minutes

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Waitaminute, that’s not Nick Fury.

Last Action Hero starts off almost like any other Shane Black or Steven E. DeSouza film. (Shane Black wrote Lethal Weapon, DeSouza penned Die Hard.) Scores of cop cars surrounding on a school (but clearly a faux Hollywood locale), a gaggle of children held captive on a rooftop, and our hero stomping atop parked black-and-whites to get in front of the hysteria. Chomping a cigar like Eastwood, chucking his badge like a five-star suppository, Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger) rushes in to save the day. The first several minutes play like a bizarre world where the hero can’t be touched, a Superman with a Desert Eagle and cringe-worthy one-liners. And, as the camera pans out, we retreat from fantasy and into reality.

Danny Madigan (O’Brien) occupies the real world but is more relatable than you’d imagine. His father passed away fairly early in his life, leaving he and his mother to live in a cruddy apartment. She works evenings and nights, leaving Danny to try to stay interested in life. Madigan views reality as mundane, lacking substance and action. Life is dreary and unappealing. His escape, though, is film and he worships the path Arnold Schwarzenegger walks upon. Danny daydreams of adding Arnold to anything during his day to pass the time. For example, to spice up a a discussion on Hamlet, Danny envisions Arnold as the lead. Add some heavy machinery, boom. Just another day for Danny Madigan.

While his mom is away working, Danny sneaks out to a run-down theater run by an old coot, Nick, who serves as a peer to the young boy. Better for Danny to be in the solace of the movie theater than out on the streets surrounded by danger. See, Danny loves the Jack Slater movies. Adores them. A major chain is about to take ownership of the decadent theater, but Nick has to review the reel for the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Jack Slater IV. In fact, Danny would sell his soul to see the movie before the rest of the public. Nick extends an invite to Danny – show up at midnight and you’re in.

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If Charlie Bucket got this golden ticket, he’d be in some serious trouble.

Of course, to see a movie, you need a ticket. In this case, Nick doesn’t just have any ticket. He’s got a real golden ticket, a ticket bestowed to him as a youth by Harry Houdini. As Nick says to Danny, the ticket is magic that was gifted to Houdini himself and passed along from the depths of Asia. Once activated, the ticket can have a mind of its own. Not even Houdini knew what the ticket was capable of. But, as this is Nick’s grand hurrah as the proprietor of the theater, the elder man rips the ticket and gives Danny his half as receipt.

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With large popcorn in tow, Jack Slater IV kicks into high gear. On the screen, the villain’s plot is revealed. Slater must stop a Mafia don’s plot at wiping out another West Coast clan. The henchman utilizes a variety of glass eyes and talks about his boss behind his back. Then the ticket ripples the screen. As action unfolds on the screen, a stick of dynamite from the scene pushes through into into the theater. Madigan, facing fight or flight, rushes towards the screen. The dynamite explodes – the force of the blast pushing Danny through the screen and into the movie itself.

Yes, a fish out of water story. The idea has been used before but there’s a charm in having a film buff thrust into his favorite franchise. How would we react exactly? Would we want to take charge of the unfolding plot or aid our hero in his quest? The novelty of the film within the film is how director John McTiernan isn’t afraid to make Jack Slater IV break every rule of any action franchise. After all, McTiernan did direct 1988’s Die Hard, the defacto action thriller of our time. All of the missed edits and gaffes are present in almost every shot. Boom mikes, shadows from cameras or the production crew, gratuitous cameos. The stunt actors’ faces can clearly be seen.

After all, in the world of a movie, everything is just about perfect. The stunts and special effects are all timed out on purpose to feel planned. We suspend disbelief. If a protagonist has been shot, we know their harm won’t be fatal. The hero can’t be hurt after all. They need to grind their teeth and stick to the job at hand. After all, they’re the star. The comedic sidekick can’t be hurt either. Nothing can go wrong!

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That’s what makes Last Action Hero a treasure is how we’re really Danny Madigan. We live and breathe action films. We know they’re silly and fictitious and bombastic. Placed into the absurdity of such a film, we would react just like Danny would. We know we’re in a movie, yet to the characters, this is reality. We’re so shocked at what we’re witnessing, we try to convince our hero otherwise. Go on, say this cuss word. (You can’t – this is PG-13!) The woman are all perfect. The phone numbers are phony. And the witty one-liners, hoo boy, where do we start?

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The actual quote is “achers,” not a tract of land.  But you get the gist of the pun.

But halfway through, despite the fact that Jack Slater IV breaks every rule in the Action Film Handbook, we actually see a whole other side of the main character. Think about John McClane. Martin Riggs. John Spartan. We never see the more human side of these machismo manly men, just slick one-liners and plenty of fighting know-how to kick all sorts of ass. What makes Schwarzenegger the best candidate to lead Last Action Hero is his range. Yeah, Stallone already won accolades for portraying Rocky Balboa, but Arnold was underrated up until this point. Slater may know how to command the screen, but deep down is a man racked with guilty and disappointment.

He’s divorced. His son is dead. His daughter is a gun-loving adrenaline junkie. His wife has moved on. So what more is there to life? And, as much as I wish I could delve further, I draw the line there. The more I watch Last Action Hero, the more I’ve come to appreciate the absurdity of the story. Jack Slater IV could easily be predictable but, with Danny’s interference with the plot, the entire script is turned upside down. And, even when you think the film’s over, there’s a whole half hour to go that you don’t see coming.

That’s the beauty of this gem all these years later. The film is a mish-mash of the tropes and stereotypes that the genre was built upon, yet isn’t afraid to exploit those fallacies either. Hell, as the film arrives at its conclusion, Arnold even breaks the fourth wall slightly by turning to the screen – not just to Danny, but also to the viewers themselves – and winks. He knows his world’s a cartoon. The characters are all a work of imagination, so are the ludicrous stories and set pieces. We’re just along to enjoy the ride.

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Oh, I see what you did there.

Hell, you can find Last Action Hero for dirt cheap these days too. The film plays routinely on all the major pay movie channels like Cinemax, Showtime, and StarzEncore. Catching the film on cable may be hit or miss. Then again, you can do yourself a favor and just spend $8 on your own Blu-ray copy to add to your library. Just go here to Best Buy’s website and be sure to mention that I sent you their way. (You can also go to eBay and find the film for even cheaper. Buyer beware, of course!)

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So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye!

And please remember to be kind and rewind after watching – or we’ll have to revoke your membership. Until next time faithful Fandomize fam, you keep reading them and I’ll keep writing them!