Last Action Hero

Forgotten gem is the First Action-Art Movie

Released in 1993, certified UK-PG. Reviewed on 27 Jul 2003 by Craig Eastman
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When is a movie not a movie? Why, when it's a movie within a movie. And when is a movie within a movie not a movie within a movie? When it's you within the movie within the movie of course! Now if all this sounds a little post-modern (and it should well do since the likes of Scream and it's sequels have invoked a trend for self-referential movie oh-so-cleverness) bear in mind that we're talking the cinema of 1993, and more specifically the oft-neglected gem that is Last Action Hero. A full three years before Wes Craven was being worshipped for disappearing up his own arse, Arnie was beating everyone to the punch in a much-derided attempt at more family-friendly fare, and rather criminally he was given scant credit for what is in retrospect quite the little corker.

Having completed the phenomenally successful T2, Big Arnie was taking a considerable amount of fire from the press and parent groups for the popularity of his often violent films with young kids. Quite why said parents were allowing their kids to watch these films is beyond many rational minds, but to his credit The Big A made quite an effort to appease them when he really needn't have bothered. The result was a stab at director duties on 1992 TV movie Christmas in Connecticut and this PG-13 hokum. Somewhat naively outraged by Arnie's decision not to mercilessly slay anyone in a gruesome manner during it's 2 hour running time, many, many people turned their backs on Last Action Hero proving you can't please some of the people any of the time. Their loss as it turns out, since closer inspection reveals LAH to be a cunning and humorous beast.

Whereas the Scream trilogy tried to be a little too clever in having the audience guess what is fantasy and what is fiction, Last Action Hero keeps it simple and is all the better for it. Young Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien) lives with his single mother in a cramped New York apartment. With few friends and a whole lot of spare time on his own, Danny regularly visits his friend Nick (Robert Prosky), a nearly-retired projectionist at his local cinema. With Nick's help, Danny loses (or rather finds) himself in the world of action films, chiefly the 'Jack Slater' series starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a clich?d maverick cop in a clich?-ridden Los Angeles chasing clich?d bad guys whilst spouting clich?d pay-off lines with each frequent demise. "I iced that guy, to cone a phrase!" he chuckles as an exploding ice cream van plants a sub-sonic Cornetto in the back of a bad guy's head.

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Offered the chance to see 'Jack Slater IV' before even the world premier, Danny arrives at the cinema late one night to find Nick waiting with what he claims to be a magic ticket. The movie begins and we are introduced to evil drug lord Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn) and his sharp-shooting henchman Benedict (Charles Dance); a target pistol-toting maniac who never misses and who has a nice line in decorative glass eyes. They're in the process of torturing Slater's second cousin for information, the remainder of his close family presumably disposed of in the first three instalments. Turning up at said cousin's house, Slater finds two clearly expendable cops about to make a drugs bust. Brushing them aside he enters the house to find his cousin at death's door, bound to a chair and muttering Vivaldi's name with his final breath. A notepad stuck to his chest reads the numbers 5 down to 1 on successive pages, heralding a house-leveling explosion that leaves Slater with "minor flesh wounds" and the two cops wasted. "Two days until retirement..." mumbles one as he passes, giving some indication as to the pastiche-laden direction we'll be taking from here on in.

The ensuing car chase as Slater chases down the hoods responsible sees the stirring in Danny's pocket of his magic ticket, the activation of which results in a bundle of TNT shot from the sky by Slater on screen passing from the film and into the cinema where it lands next to our young protagonist. Blown through the screen by the explosives, Danny finds himself in the back seat of Slater's car, somewhat understandably bemused by his resultant participation in the action. Just as surprised is Slater, who has no idea where his young stowaway emerged from. After mopping up the bad guys amongst many cheesy one-liners and the odd sight gag, the two embark on an unlikely journey of mutual understanding as Danny tries to convince Slater he's really just a movie character whilst the Austrian Oak deflects the continual attention of Benedict's vengeful ways.

Eventually Benedict gains possession of Danny's half of the ticket, allowing him to pass into the real world where, as he so rightly observes, "the bad guys can win!". Realising the potential of the ticket and the fact that Danny and Slater have followed him back into the real world, Benedict enlists the help of Death (Ian McKellen) and Slater's nemesis The Ripper (Tom Noonan) from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and the Jack Slater movies respectively. The showdown takes place at the premier of Jack Slater IV, rather cleverly allowing Schwarzenegger and Noonan the chance to meet their on-screen personas in the flesh whilst casting many a self-deprecating joke into the mixture.

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Last Action Hero manages to be much more than the sum of it's parts thanks to a number of factors. Admittedly the weakest link is probably McTiernan's direction which is rarely more than sufficient. Fortunately for him the script, co-penned by Hollywood action 'legend' Shane Black and David Arnott, is really rather sharp. Nary a minute passes without one acutely-observed action movie piss-take or cheeky nod to the camera, and some of the dialogue borders on genius. Arnie himself bags quite the majority, getting a sly blow in against the violence-bemoaning parents when he appears as himself promoting the new Slater movie.

"In this movie we only kill 48 people compared to the last one where we killed 119, and I want to make sure for the action fans that this time we make up for it with a good story, a lot of emotional steps and dimensions..."

Not only does he snare some quality lines, but in all honesty this is also perhaps Arnie's best 'speaking' performance (a distinction drawn between the Terminator films and everything else he's done). He walks a very fine line between slapstick and sincerity and walks it well. Rather bravely willing to poke more than a little fun at himself and his peers, it could all have gone so horribly wrong, yet somehow the Big Man makes it happen in a genuinely endearing and humorous way. There really are too many good belly laughs to mention, but consider the likes of the following as Slater cracks a joke to Danny on the way to Benedict's hideout;

Danny - "You think you're funny don't you?"

Slater - "I know I am. I'm the famous comedian Arnold Braunschweiger..."

Danny - "Schwarzenegger"

Slater - "Gesundheit"

Of course, the pastiche nature of the piece also affords McTiernan the opportunity to pull off some ludicrously staged stunts such as the escape from the scenic elevator of the Los Angeles Hyatt hotel, as well as ribbing a whole raft of movies from the past and then present. Last Action Hero has to be a contender for the Most Cameos in a Film Ever award, and you can expect to see the likes of Tina Turner, Sharon Stone (as Basic Instinct's Catherine Tramell), Robert Patrick back as the T1000, Jean-Claude Van Damme, James Belushi and even Arnie's wife Maria Schriver ("Don't mention the restaurants; it sounds so tacky!"). Throw in the likes of a wonderful action-packed version of Hamlet ("To be or not to be...not to be!") and you'll be hard pushed to find time to go and make a quick cup of tea without missing something that would've made you laugh.

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In retrospect it's easy to see why Last Action Hero didn't do so well at the time. I read in Time Out that it can effectively claim to be the first action-art movie, and wether or not this is true it certainly seemed a little self-indulgent at the time. You just know Danny Madigan's experience is the embodiment of writer Black's childhood fantasy, and there's a lot of behind-the-scenes back slapping on show if you look hard enough. In hindsight, time has been a lot kinder on LAH than you might expect. Now that the whole self-reference trend is coming full circle, it emerges as a genuinely surprising innovator as well as a damn fun movie in it's own right.

There will doubtless be many who disagree with my judgements; maybe due to my particular sense of humour, maybe because as a young lad I enjoyed action movies so much myself, or maybe because a lot of people are to damn stubborn to admit that Arnie can occasionally act beyond the barrel of a large calibre automatic. Whichever way you look at it, Last Action Hero has much to recommend, and while many facets might be less appealing to others than myself, anyone with an appreciation of hackneyed 80's action flicks and a sense of humour is going to get a fair-sized kick out of it.

It's getting on a bit now, it wasn't that popular first time round, a couple of the effects seem a little ropey these days (although others are admittedly holding up well), and it's not going to convert anyone who doesn't like action. So what? You'll get it on DVD for a fiver, it's hugely funny, has it's tongue firmly in it's cheek and represents possibly the Big Dude's finest acting hour. I urge you to investigate, even if you saw it first time round and didn't enjoy it. This reviewer has found it much more satisfying at 24 than he did at 14.

Craig Disko has awarded this movie 4 out of 5 Horny Disko Mojos.

John McTiernan
Cast list:
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jack Slater/Himself)
Austin O'Brien (Danny Madigan)
Charles Dance (Benedict)