A meta-movie remembered; “Last Action Hero” 30 years later…


In the 1980s and 1990s, the action movie had evolved (or devolved) into expensive, overwrought, testosterone-soaked chunks of cinematic product.  Producers like Joel Silver, Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, et al, made their fortunes creating over-the-top police fantasies where rogue cops packing semiautomatic heat set right all the world’s wrongs in a couple of hours.  Action flicks were, at that time, what westerns were to the 1950s; a staple of American entertainment. 

Bruce Willis plays NYPD detective John McClane in 1988’s “Die Hard,” which quickly became ripe for spoofing in 1993.

The “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” and early Steven Seagal movies were stereotypes of this genre, which was typically characterized by an ‘edgy’ rogue cop who “doesn’t play by the rules” and causes orgies of destruction, yet always nails the bad guys in the end (their deaths often punctuated with a handy quip). These days, the notion of ‘rogue cops’ abusing their rank doesn’t play quite the same as it did then (thank goodness), but for audiences in those days seeking gaudy, undemanding entertainment?  Those movies sold a lot of popcorn, and put many butts in cinema seats. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger in the orgasmic throws of movie mayhem, from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991); the over-the-top action classic that every movie producer tried to best in the 1990s.

I remember my friend and I going to see “Last Action Hero” in its opening week, and at the time, I remember we left the theater laughing, but also with somewhat mixed emotions. Yes, the movie was a scathing sendup of the action movie genre, yet there were times when this meta-movie blurred the line between playful parody and becoming the very thing it was mocking. All in all, I remember liking it well enough, and I certainly got most of the in-jokes.  Yet for some reason, I haven’t revisited the film since that hot Friday afternoon in June of 1993. 

With its 30th anniversary at hand, I decided to give “Last Action Hero” another try. I then rolled out my 7 ft/2 meter collapsible movie screen, fired up the HD projector, and streamed the movie (ad free, from YouTube premium) in a nice darkened room.  This time, the chair was a lot more comfortable, and restroom breaks were only a pause away… 

“Last Action Hero” (1993)

The film opens as a movie-within-a-movie, during the climax of “Jack Slater 3.”  In this “Lethal Weapon”-like action flick, rogue cop Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) makes his way past a police barricade over the objection of his angry boss, Lt. Dekker (Frank McRae) and the deputy mayor (Tina Turner, no less) to deal with a hostage situation on an L.A. rooftop. Refusing to wait for the hostage negotiator, Jack goes straight to the roof, where he mets his hideous, raincoat-wearing nemesis, “The Ripper” (Tom Noonan of “Manhunter”).  In addition to a huddled group of hostages, the Ripper is also holding a blade to the throat of Jack’s son, Andrew (Ryan Todd).  In a rapid move, a desperate Jack temporarily disarms the Ripper, which results in the Ripper pulling young Andrew off the rooftop, where he (presumably) falls tragically to his death—however, we can’t quite make out what’s happening, since the rundown NYC theater’s projector loses focus in those final moments… 

Note: This movie is to the action movie genre what 1999’s “Galaxy Quest” was to TV sci-fi franchises, or what 1974’s “Blazing Saddles” was to westerns; a meta sendup.  It helps that this movie was created by many of the same people who popularized the action movie genre at that time, including writer Shane Black (“Lethal Weapon”) and director John McTiernan (“Die Hard”).

To Be Continued…
“Jack Slater 3” ends with Jack (Arnold Schwarzenegger) having to choose between nailing the bad guy and saving his kid.

Young movie fan Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) quickly runs up to the theater’s projection booth, where he wakes up the elderly projectionist, Nick (Robert Prosky).  Nick apologizes to his young friend for screwing up the screening, and offers Danny a chance to see the newest Jack Slater movie, “Jack Slater 4,” a full day before its worldwide release.  He tells Danny to come back to the theater that night.  

Note: Danny and Nick have a relationship very similar to that of Marty McFly and Doc Brown in the “Back to the Future” movies, which seems vaguely inappropriate today, as Nick often enables the truant Danny to circumvent the wishes of his mother.

Bard to the Bone.
Daydreaming Danny imagines a version of “Hamlet,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Bard’s melancholy prince…

Already four hours late for school, Danny rushes to class, only to be bored by a lecture on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”  When the teacher calls Hamlet literature’s ‘first action hero,’ Danny daydreams his idol Arnold Schwarzenegger as the melancholy Danish prince in a positively hilarious reimagining of the play, shot in a blue-silver monochrome. It is one of the best scenes in the movie, as Arnold—in period garb—smokes a stogie, and takes out his sword-wielding enemies with machine guns, while delivering his trademark one-liners (“Who said I’m fair?”).

Note: The “Hamlet” daydream plays like a vintage Saturday Night Live sketch (back in those bygone days when the show’s sketches were actually funny).  It is a scene not to be missed. Having seen at least four cinematic versions of “Hamlet”, I’d definitely pay to see this version.

I Remember Mama.
Danny’s struggling mom Irene (Mercedes Ruehl) should really think about leaving super-expensive Manhattan–just saying.

Danny arrives home just as the school is calling his mother, Irene (Mercedes Ruehl), who grudgingly covers for her son’s earlier absence while getting ready for a late shift at work herself.  Already frazzled by her many burdens as a recently widowed mother, Irene isn’t exactly thrilled with her son’s movie addiction, nor is she approving of Danny’s friendship with the enabling Nick, either.  All the same, Irene has to go to work, once again leaving Danny alone.  Soon, a brutal robber arrives at the door, and bursts into the tiny apartment.  Not finding anything worth stealing, the robber leaves Danny handcuffed to a fixture in the bathroom, throwing the key to the cuffs into the toilet.  We later see Danny at the scuzzy downtown police station, giving a report to a cynical cop.  The attempted robbery and subsequent police report have made Danny late to his private screening of “Jack Slater 4.” Ignoring everything that’s happened to him that evening, a desperate Danny rushes in pouring rain to get to the theater…

Note: I have to say, given the trauma of the home invasion and the recent loss of his father, it’s hard to blame Danny for seeking escape in movies. It’s curious that Danny takes refuge in such hyper-violent action fantasies, given the kind of trauma he already endures in the real world. Perhaps such movies allow Danny a chance to safely and vicariously vent his own rage.

Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) seeks out his ‘dealer’ in escapism; the kindly old movie usher, Nick (Robert Prosky) who gives the disillusioned boy a very special movie ticket.

Arriving late, a soaking wet Danny apologizes to Nick, who’s wearing his old usher’s uniform from decades before.  Nick then offers Danny an heirloom once given to him by no less than Harry Houdini himself, after the famed magician performed at the theater, when Nick was a young boy.  The mysterious golden ticket has mystical origins in India, which is where Houdini came by it.  Nick offers the ticket to Danny for this screening, knowing how much the Jack Slater films mean to the young movie addict.  Tearing the ticket, he gives the stub to Danny, along with a bucket of popcorn. Neither Danny nor Nick seems to notice a brief flare of energy being released after the ticket is torn…

Note: Nothing says “Magic Ahead” quite like 1990s-style optical effects…

“I see everything.”
“Jack Slater” finds himself playing Middle School Cop, as Danny lands in the backseat of his Pontiac Bonneville…

Danny then watches as “Jack Slater 4” begins. The opening sees a drug dealer named Benedict (Charles Dance) negotiating with an aged mob boss, Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn).  We then cut to Jack Slater bringing groceries to his elderly cousin, Frank (Art Carney). Jack arrives to the small suburban house just as cops are gathered at the front door, arriving on a call for a suspected drug deal.  Jack opens the door, and sees a dying Frank, who manages to cryptically warn Jack about Vivaldi, just before the entire house explodes following a ridiculously convoluted countdown.  Emerging unscathed, of course, Jack then jumps into his convertible Pontiac Bonneville and tears off in search of those responsible, while evading multiple vehicles filled with snipers—never once calling for backup, of course. 

Note: The guns, bombs and other weapons are all labeled ACME, the generic name used on bombs and dynamite in the old Warner Bros “Merry Melodies” and “Looney Tunes” cartoons. 1989’s “Lethal Weapon 2” also opened with the opening riff from those cartoons played over the Warner Bros logo. The ACME label is yet another little reminder that this isn’t the real world…

You will believe a Pontiac can fly…
One of the film’s many-layered sight gags sees a simultaneous example of movie physics and awkward product placement.

Meanwhile, in the movie theater, a dynamite bomb is somehow thrown from the screen into the theater aisle… and soon Danny is magically transported into the action onscreen.  Suddenly finding himself in the backseat of Slater’s Pontiac, a momentarily disoriented Danny is both awed and overwhelmed as a confused, yet focused Slater continues eluding and killing bad guys, while driving through—and soaring over—the streets and concrete canyons of the Los Angeles River…

Note: The famous L.A River is a location used in many movies, including 1954’s “Them!” 1978’s “Grease” and 1983’s “Blue Thunder.”

“Meet your new partner… “
Another time-honored police fantasy cliche: the mismatched partners (see: “Cop and a Half”).

Arriving at a lavish, opulently cinematic version of Police Headquarters in downtown L.A. (nee: the L.A. Convention Center), Danny is trying in vain to convince his hero Jack that they’re both in a movie. As they pull into the station’s valet-parking, Danny sees various cameos whiz by, including Sharon Stone (“Basic Instinct”) and Robert Patrick (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”), along with many others. In a nod to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” we even see a cartoon cat detective named “Whiskers” (voiced by Danny DeVito, Schwarzenegger’s costar from 1988’s “Twins”). We also meet John Practice (F. Murray Abraham), a former partner of Jack’s who’s now an FBI agent. Danny is suspicious of John, whom he accuses of killing Mozart (see: “Amadeus”). Jack then takes Danny to meet Jack’s perpetually angry boss, Lt. Dekker.  Danny tries to make himself useful by offering inside intel on the Vivaldi gang (events he witnessed in the movie’s prologue, before he was pulled into the action).  After interrogating the strange boy, Dekker assigns Danny to be Jack’s partner—once again, something that could only happen in movies (as in the hideously bad 1993 comedy, “Cop and a Half”).

Note: Celebrity cameos come fast and furious throughout the movie—it seems everyone wanted a small part in this mega-budget Hollywood sendup. Later on in the film, we see action star Jean Claude van Damme, Schwarzenegger’s then-wife Maria Shriver, singer Little Richard, and many more—too many to count, in fact. 

“Yo Adrian, I’ll be back.”
In the movie’s universe, Sylvester Stallone played the iconic Terminator, as seen in a Blockbuster Video store populated entirely by super-hot movie extras…

Still trying to convince Jack they’re in an action movie, Danny gets him to pull into a Blockbuster video store (oh, how I miss those), where he attempts to find previous “Jack Slater” movies on videocassette, but to no avail.  A confused Danny then spots a cardboard cutout showing Sylvester Stallone playing the title role in 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”  Danny futilely tries pointing out to Jack how all the shoppers at the store happen to look like beautiful Hollywood extras, to which Jack retorts, “It’s California…” (spoken like an ex-governor).  Leaving the Blockbuster store, Danny offers to show Jack Vivaldi’s mansion where he ‘overheard’ the meeting between Vivaldi and his rogue partner, Benedict.

Note: The movie’s sight gags, such as the Stallone-Terminator cutout, are all over the place, which may explain some of the disappointing box office ($50 million domestically) in relation to its huge production budget ($85 million—a significant chunk of change in 1993). “Last Action Hero” is so filled with sight gags that it’s easy to miss many of them. This was a movie that would’ve fared a little better had it been released in the DVD age, where audiences could’ve better absorbed it all through the handy ‘pause’ button on their DVD players. DVDs weren’t even a thing until 1997.

The Eyes Have It.
Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones”) plays the ‘drug dealer of the house,’ “Benedict”–the villain with a penchant for glass eyes.

After finding the Vivaldi seaside mansion through Danny’s description, the ‘partners’ arrive at the lavish mansion’s front door, where they’re met by a tough manservant (former Bond villain,“Odd Job,” as played by Professor Tanaka).  Asking to meet “the drug dealer of the house,” the pair are soon greeted by the sinister Benedict, who lets them know they’re surrounded by his trained attack dogs, who can form a pyramid with a single snapping of fingers. Reaching an armed impasse, Jack promises “I’ll be back,” after Danny is allowed to see Benedict’s ‘happy face’ glass eye—changed from the red ‘target’ eye Benedict wore earlier in the movie. Upon leaving, Jack and Danny are once again pursued by gangsters, whom Jack makes quick work of, with his combination of driving and shooting skills.  

Note: Something that resonates very differently today from 1993 is the amount of gunplay in this movie.  Even young Danny, who couldn’t be older than 11, is given a semiautomatic pistol by Jack. While mass shootings and gun violence were obviously a problem, even back in the 1990s, they weren’t quite the daily epidemic they are in 21st century America.  Seeing a young untrained kid being given a pistol by a cop just isn’t funny—in fact, it’s downright ugly, even for an action movie spoof. 

Guerrilla My Dreams…
Danny meets Jack’s little girl, “Whitney,” played by ingenue Meredith Caprice (who’s played by Bridgette Wilson–really).

The disheveled partners arrive at the apartment of Jack’s hot daughter, Whitney (Bridgette Wilson), who kisses Danny after he rings her doorbell—mistaking him for a freshman she’s supposed to kiss as part of her sorority initiation. Danny doesn’t mind—at all.  As Jack temporarily leaves Danny in Whitney’s care (insert boyhood babysitter fantasy here), the house is raided by Benedict and a gang of his thugs.  Benedict is curious how Danny got intel on the mansion and his private meeting with Vivaldi.  Rummaging through Danny’s wallet, he also realizes the boy doesn’t seem to exist in their universe. Taking Whitney away for interrogation, one of Benedict’s thugs gives her a black eye…which prompts her to prove she’s ‘daddy’s girl’ after savagely kicking the thug’s ass (“Big mistake!”). As counterfeit bills burn in the fireplace, Jack notices the strange-colored smoke from the street.  Surprising Benedict’s men by dropping in from the ceiling (as you do), Jack and Whitney combine their butt-kicking skills to overpower Benedict’s men.  Danny grabs a convenient bicycle in the driveway and chases after some of Benedict’s gang, until a game of chicken sends poor Danny’s bike flying across a full moon (a visual nod to Spielberg’s “E.T”) once the poor kid realizes he might be the “comic relief” who gets killed halfway into the movie. Whitney’s apartment is utterly destroyed in the debacle, of course…

Note: Danny’s realization that he might be this movie universe’s comic relief (a fact which typically means certain death in action flicks) is an observation also made by Sam Rockwell’s “Guy” character near the end of 1999’s “Galaxy Quest” (“Maybe you’re the plucky comic relief?”).

Frank McRae spoofs his own character from “48 HRS” as the harried police lieutenant who spouts lyrically-angry gibberish the way Jimi Hendrix strummed his electric guitar.

Back at Police Plaza, the dust-coated Jack and Danny are forced to listen as Lt. Dekker gives another rapid-fire monologue of angry squad commander gibberish.  With his ears literally smoking, he takes Jack’s badge—permanently.  With nowhere else to go, Jack and Danny drive to Jack’s apartment; an undecorated, spartan living space (which reminded me very much of my own first apartment). Once there, they put their minds together and try to anticipate Vivaldi and Benedict’s next moves.  Jack then realizes that the entire Vivaldi mob will be at a luxury Hyatt Hotel rooftop funeral service for dead mobster “Leo the Fart,” where conveniently-missing nerve gas explosives from a government depot might be stashed inside the corpse…

Note: The ridiculous leaps of logic made by the characters in the movie really aren’t any different from those found in ‘real’ action movies of this era, which relied heavily on coincidence and other deus ex machina contrivances to work. Then again, no one really watches these movies for their brilliant detective work; they watch for the boom-boom… 

“I’ll be Bach.”
Jack and Danny are doubled-crossed by “the guy who killed Mozart,” aka F. Murray Abraham as duplicitous FBI agent, John Practice.

As dozens of (armed) mourners gather on the Hyatt Hotel rooftop for the ‘only-in-movies’ funeral, Jack nonchalantly parks his Pontiac upon a grassy knoll in front of the hotel, telling Danny to stay in the car, but also advising him that there’s a “gun in the glove compartment” (more like an armory). After exiting his car, Jack is quickly (and suspiciously) met his by FBI friend John, who ushers him to a ‘side entrance.’  Jack then realizes there is no side entrance, as his former partner pulls a gun on him, having sold out to the Vivaldi mob. With Jack held in place by John’s gun, Danny nervously walks up with his own pistol, but is quickly disarmed by the corrupt Fed.  Danny admonishes Jack for trusting the “guy who killed Mozart.”  A clueless Jack is left wondering who is “Mo Zart?” Before long, the duplicitous John is shot dead by an unseen assassin… who turns out to be Whiskers, the cartoon cat detective Danny met earlier at Police Plaza.  Saved by a ‘toon…

Note: The cartoon cat detective of Whiskers (voiced by Danny DeVito) is obvious nod to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” However, it’s also somewhat incongruous to the type of story this movie is parodying (there are no animated characters in the “Lethal Weapon” or “Die Hard” movies).  Not a major issue; more like a minor nit.  Okay, moving on… 

Passing Gas.
Jack carries the explosive corpse of dead mobster “Leo the Fart” out of harm’s way.

In the movie’s longest action set piece, Jack rushes up to the Hyatt hotel’s roof, where he pretends to pay his respect to the late flatulent mobster, who is wearing a digital watch with a countdown; a countdown for the explosives packed in his corpse to go off. Grabbing Leo’s corpse, Jack tries to toss it away from onlookers by pretending Leo is still alive (a bit of “Weekend at Bernie’s” thrown in, at no extra charge). Meanwhile, Danny commandeers a large nearby construction crane (“I don’t even know how to drive!”) and attempts to grab Jack—and the body—from one of the hotel’s external glass elevators. After a ridiculously drawn-out countdown to detonation, Jack and Leo’s body conveniently fall into this universe’s version of the famed La Brea Tar Pits. The late Leo the Fart safely implodes under a pool of tar, while Jack emerges from the black viscous mass, which he effortlessly wipes away as if it were water (once again, movie rules). Coincidentally, a ready-for-action Whitney pulls up to their exact location driving her giant monster truck, with a convenient change of clothes for dad (of course…).

Note: In all honesty, I thought the belabored sequence with Leo the Fart’s corpse and the crane went on a little too long, especially for a satire. If there’s one nagging critique I have with the movie, it’d be with the pacing. There were times when I wondered if famed director (and comedic genius) Mel Brooks could’ve better told this entire movie in 100 minutes or less.

House Call.
Jack and Danny borrow Whitney’s ride in order to pay a visit to Benedict.

Driving the monster truck, Jack and Danny plow the massive vehicle through the entrance of the Vivaldi mansion, where the megalomaniacal Benedict has just killed former partner Vivaldi in his own swimming pool.  During Benedict’s earlier interrogation of Danny at Whitney’s apartment, he took the mystical ticket stub, and is just now beginning to realize the scope of its power. During his confrontation with Jack, the wily Benedict slips away by opening a portal directly into the real universe…

Note: Once again, we see the time-honored action movie tradition of the villain easily escaping the good guys’ grasp, usually by monologuing or some other obvious means of distraction. Writers Shane Black and Zak Penn clearly know their target genre, having written some of its most successful entries. 

“Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket…”
A portal is opened between the cinematic dimension and ‘reality’ when Danny realizes Benedict has the ticket.

A confused Jack is left wondering where Benedict went, but Danny quickly realizes he’s used the ticket stub to go into the ‘real’ world.  With the energy portal between universes still open, Danny and Jack follow him.  Meanwhile, in the ‘real’ New York City, a newly-arrived Benedict quickly deduces he’s in a different world—one of pain, consequence, and indifference to suffering.  To prove his point, he shoots an innocent bystander, and loudly confesses his crime into the night air of an alleyway, but he’s met with no response, save for a nearby apartment dweller demanding that he shut up.  Realizing the magic ticket works both ways, Benedict uses it to summon allies…

Note: Like the other instances of casual gunplay throughout the movie (a staple of 1990s action flicks), the scene where Benedict shoots an innocent bystander lands very differently today, in an America where mass shootings have become an ugly fact of everyday life. While meant to be darkly comical (as it was in 1993), the scene now comes across as needlessly brutal for this PG-13 action-comedy. 

Crash Cab.
Jack soon realizes that the ‘real’ world has consequences, such as physical pain.

Danny and Jack also arrive in New York, with Jack now believing what Danny has been telling him. In pursuit of Benedict, they deduce from a newspaper left in a taxicab that he’s been going to movies in order to bring his henchmen into this universe.  With Benedict and his henchmen spotted in a taxi, they give chase. A game of chicken in an alleyway doesn’t end well, as Benedict manages to escape, though Jack exits his own totaled taxi in pain—something he’s never experienced in his consequence-free universe. 

Note: I love the film’s conceit of movie physics working differently than real-world physics, though it later seems to bend this ‘rule’ for itself later on. 

Two dreamers meet a dream.
Nick is surprised to learn the secret–and consequences–of his old Houdini ticket.

Needing to get their bearings and device a plan, Danny takes Jack to the old movie theater to meet Nick.  At first, the aged projectionist believes he’s meeting actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, though he soon realizes it’s actually Jack Slater.  A sweet scene ensues as Danny and Nick, two dreamers of different generations, come face-to-face with a fictional character, willed into existence by Nick’s magic ticket and through Danny’s faith in his movie heroes.  Much as Benedict has been recruiting henchmen to his cause, Danny has just recruited Nick into his

Note: One thing the movie never gets into (and which could’ve been easily mined for laughs) is how a guy with an all-American sounding name like “Jack Slater” speaks with such a thick Austrian accent.  In fact, Jack doesn’t seem to be able to even pronounce Schwarzenegger when Danny repeats the name back to him (“Gesundheit”). In many of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies, he’s played characters with English/American sounding names; ‘Ben Richards’ (“The Running Man”), ‘John Matrix’ (“Commando”), etc. There’ve been several movies of his that attempted to explain away his accent (“Kindergarten Cop” hilariously so), but by and large, it’s completely ignored. 

“Is that Mo Zart I hear?”
Jack Slater meets Danny’s mom.

Needing rest and regroup in a world where people don’t have inexhaustible reserves of energy, Danny takes Jack home to his small apartment.  The next morning, he awakens to find his mother and Jack hitting it off, as Jack seems to enjoy the amenities of this universe, such as a tasty breakfast and the music of “Mo Zart” (the man Jack now thinks his ex-friend John murdered) playing over a radio atop the refrigerator.  Danny winces when he thinks his mother has turned his invincible movie idol into a wuss…

Note: Oscar-winning actress Mercedes Ruehl (1992’s “The Fisher King”) is criminally underused in this movie, reduced to the role of the young sidekick’s worrying mother.  If the movie were reimagined today, I could easily see (and would’ve preferred to see) Danny’s mother playing a much more vital part of the action. 

Let’s Get Metaphysical.
An angsty action hero meets the callous actor who plays him.

The movie’s surreality kicks into overdrive later that night, when Danny and Jack realize Benedict’s most likely target will be the world premiere of “Jack Slater 4,” taking place in the city that evening. A bevy of celebrities and guests are in attendance at the gala screening, including the Ripper, courtesy of Benedict and the magic ticket. The Ripper is assumed to be real-life actor Tom Noonan in makeup and costume by Noonan’s agent—who is then killed by the Ripper in a back office of the theater.  After spotting the Ripper in the theater audience, Jack tries to stop him with his gun, only to be tackled by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who assumes Jack is a really good celebrity lookalike. Promising to get Jack a booking in L.A, Jack tells the actor who plays him he doesn’t like him, and that he’s caused Jack a lot of pain.  Jack and Danny then go after the Ripper…

Note: The digital composting of Schwarzenegger and Jack in the movie theater balcony is flawless, and holds up very well, 30 years later.  Though I still think their meta-meeting should’ve been much more funny than angsty.  Hearing Jack’s identical accent, maybe Schwarzenegger could’ve spoke to Jack in German, with a confused Jack giving him a “gesundheit” in reply…?

Who let one rip?
Jack and Danny confront “the Ripper” (Tom Noonan); the man who murdered Jack’s fictional son.

Their pursuit of the Ripper leads to the theater’s rainy rooftop, where Jack arrives after Danny only to find the Ripper holding the boy hostage—just as he held Jack’s son hostage at the climax of “Jack Slater 3.” Danny manages to break free of the Ripper’s grip, while Jack shoots a high voltage electrical maintenance panel before jumping up to the edge of the rooftop. With the rooftop soaked in rain, the Ripper is electrocuted in a shower of sparks and arcs.

The Ripper takes charge
… a lot of it.

Note: Interesting how ‘movie physics’ don’t seem to work in real world until this point, yet Jack’s shooting of the electrical panel doesn’t seem to short out electricity for the entire building, as it would in our ‘real’ world.  You’d also think the masses of celebrities, guests, press and onlookers in attendance of a big movie premiere in New York City might’ve noticed a sudden loss of electricity or even the sound of gunfire. This is one of the movie’s later scenes that loses some of that earlier distinction between the different universes.

“Shall we Dance?”
Charles Dance’s Benedict presents one more obstacle for Jack and Danny…

The Ripper is dead, but Jack and Danny’s troubles aren’t behind them yet, as Benedict appears on the rooftop, umbrella in one hand and gun aimed at Slater in the other.  Benedict shoots Slater in the chest (no bulletproof vest this time), but a heroic move by Danny disarms the movie villain, allowing Slater to use his own gun to shoot Benedict right in his explosive glass eye (“No sequel for you”).  With Slater bleeding from his wound, Danny realizes the only chance to save him is to get him back to his own world, where such injuries aren’t life-threatening.  Unfortunately, the magic ticket stub in Benedict’s possession is sent flying after the explosion…

Note: Like the DeLorean in “Back to the Future,” the Houdini ticket is the linchpin which supports the entire movie, yet its magic seems to work inconsistently; sometimes working accidentally, and other times working only through force of will.

Death Takes a Holiday.
Death (Ian McKellen) emerges from “The Seventh Seal” into the so-called “real” world.

The ticket lands in front of a theater playing a revival screening of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic, “The Seventh Seal.”  During the scene where Death plays chess with Max von Sydow’s ‘Antonius,’ Death (Ian McKellen) is now able to exit the movie screen, much to the horror of the theater’s patrons. Carrying his trademark scythe, the Grim Reaper strolls the streets of New York, causing occasional New Yorkers to drop dead. 

Note: Swedish actor Bengt Ekerot played the Figure of Death in “The Seventh Seal”, though Ian McKellen effortlessly sinks his teeth into the role, playing it for every ounce of dark comedy. Actor Ian McKellen also costarred in “Last Action Hero” cowriter Zak Penn’s “X-Men” movies, as well. This is also not the first time that director Ingmar Bergman’s Figure of Death has been satirized in a movie, as we saw with actor William Sadler’s version of the character in 1991’s underrated comedy, “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (a arguably superior sequel to the 1989 original).  In that film, Death (who originally played a high-stakes game of chess with his mortal opponent) is forced to play multiple games with the movie’s two braindead heroes, including Twister and Battleship (!).  Bill & Ted’s version of ‘Death’ returned for the recent 2020 sequel, “Bill & Ted Face the Music.”

“It’s just a flesh wound…”
A critically-wounded Jack is returned to his movie universe, where such wounds don’t even warrant hospitalization.

Meanwhile, Danny steals an ambulance (as you do) and drives Jack to the old theater, where he gets Nick to fire up the projector and play “Jack Slater 4” so that the wounded hero can return to his world.  Death enters the theater, and a defiant Danny tells the Grim Reaper he refuses to surrender Jack to him.  Death only smiles and says that the fictional Jack isn’t on his list.  Worried that he’s come for him instead, Danny is relieved to learn that he will “die a grandfather.”  Unable to send Jack back to his world without the magic ticket, Death helpfully suggests that they find the magic ticket’s stub. 

Note: A nicely unexpected twist, with the Grim Reaper himself becoming a last-minute ally to the protagonists, though it’s amazing that Jack hasn’t bled to death by this point…

A Universal Picture.
Danny and Nick watch as Jack is safely returned to his fictional universe.

Danny and Nick scour through the evening’s torn ticket stubs and find Houdini’s magic ticket. The two then watch as the stub works its magic. The familiar energy begins to envelop Jack and Danny, who find themselves back in the movie’s universe, at Police Plaza. Once there, a convenient on-site doctor takes a look at Jack’s formerly critical chest injury and shrugs it off; “Not even a flesh wound.”  With Jack effortlessly on the mend, Danny wants to remain with his newfound friend and father figure in the movie universe, but Jack reminds the boy that his mother needs him in his world.  He also reminds Danny that he’ll always be there for him, whenever he goes to see his movies…

Note: The movie’s conceit of someone losing themselves in the fantasy environs of the silver screen was also elegantly explored in Woody Allen’s 1985 romantic fantasy, “Purple Rose of Cairo,” starring Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow.  In that film, Daniels plays a 1930s movie star who is able to break the fourth wall of the silver screen and take lonely Mia Farrow into his adventures onscreen. Clearly there was a sprinkling of inspiration from that film into this one, with a heavy dose of testosterone as well. 

Jack finally gets the last word with Lt. Dekker.

The coda sees Jack Slater back in action in another “Jack Slater” movie, still wearing the same red t-shirt, leather jacket, jeans and custom Tony Lama snakeskin boots, while taking yet another verbal beatdown from Lt. Dekker.  However, Jack—winking to Danny in the audience—turns the tables on Dekker, telling his loudmouthed boss to “Shut up!”  So long as the box office grosses are good, this new Jack intends to write his own ticket.  We then see the self-aware Jack driving off into a typical Hollywood sunset, in his ever-reliable Pontiac Bonneville convertible…

The End.

Note: The use of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” in the end credits is perfectly fitting.

Summing It Up

A lot of things change in 30 years.  Even action movies, which still exist, have become much more self-aware and artsy (see: “John Wick”).  We also don’t see good and evil in such absolute shading anymore; cops are no longer the presumptive cinematic ‘good guys’ as they used to be in 1993, just as the frontier lawman is no longer the presumptive hero in westerns. However, when watched in isolation, “Last Action Movie” is like a time machine to those gaudy, 1990s cinematic excesses—the thrill of which lies in creating a lavish illusion of life, not an exact imitation. 

Alternating between spoofing and saluting the action movie genre, cowriters Shane Black (“Predator” “Lethal Weapon”), Zak Penn (“The Avengers”), Adam Leff and director John McTiernan (“Die Hard,” “The Hunt for Red October”) have created a slyly entertaining (and suitably audacious) echo chamber in which to comically vent their own issues with the sub-genre they helped cultivate, while also allowing non-industry audiences to laugh and relate right along with them. 

“Good night, sweet prince…”
The movie’s prescient title forecasts an ‘end of days’ for the excessive, unsustainable action flicks it parodies.

To most people, movies offer little more than an entertaining break.  To others, they are a means to keep the pain and misery of everyday existence at bay for as long as possible, as seen with the character of Danny.  Whether for momentary pleasure or as a needed narcotic, movies used to offer that sort of escapism, and they still can, if given half a chance—something increasingly problematic with modern audiences, who often seem more interested in their smartphones than the story playing on that giant screen they’ve paid $12-$20 to watch.  

In a deeper sense, “Last Action Hero” is an ode to the power of movies—the ease with which we can surrender ourselves into those bright images flickering onscreen in the darkness around us.  Whether Danny had lost himself in a favorite sci-fi, horror or cartoon movie series would’ve made little difference; the point of “Last Action Hero” isn’t necessarily the action movie genre itself—it’s about our universal hunger for imaginative escapism, while remembering to keep one foot grounded in the real world…

Where To Watch

“Last Action Hero” can be rented or purchased on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, and for free, with ads, on both Tubi and YouTube (without ads on YouTube Premium). The movie is also available for purchase in DVD & BluRay from eBay and (prices vary by seller).

Images: Sony Entertainment, IMDb

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Lorraine Fiel says:

    I saw this movie in the theater when it came out and saw it at least twice. I loved it. It was on TV the other day and I recorded it but haven’t watched it yet so reading your review was really helpful. I am sure I will see it differently than I did 30 years ago, as you did.

    1. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

    2. scifimike70 says:

      I’m sure I would too. Especially now that I can maturely appreciate its messages even more. Movies are indeed a big part of our lives. So it’s most interesting when movie adventures like this one can so uniquely explore our natural reasons for that.

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