Here’s a surprise! I’m writing another Underrated Under-Appreciated about a movie that spoofs other movies. That’s 3 of the 5 I’ve written. If you couldn’t tell, I really like self-referential humor. It makes me feel special, like they’re making the jokes just for me. Or I’m just a slightly pretentious 20something who likes it when things get wicked meta.
This week we’re taking a look at Last Action Hero, a quippy early 1990s movie which delves into the tropes and idiocy of the action movies that dominated the 1980s.
So here’s the rundown: Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien, who went on to be in Apollo 13) has a pretty sad life, he apparently lives in a shitty apartment near not-yet-cleaned-up Times Square. He spends all his time at a rundown movie theater which is run by a sweet old man named Nick (Robert Prosky). Danny’s single working mother does not approve of him spending all his time at the rundown movie theater. But I don’t think it has anything to do with the seedy location, and everything to do with him skipping school to hang out there. He sneaks out to watch a special preview of the new Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) movie, where Nick gives him a “magic” ticket which was given to him by Harry Houdini himself. Danny takes the stub of the ticket and is transported into the backseat of Slater’s car. Danny and Jack develop a hero-sidekick dynamic while Danny tries to convince Jack he’s in a movie. Eventually the bad guy, Benedict (Charles Dance, pre-Tywin Lannister) with his weird glass eye gets a hold of the magic ticket stub and realizes he can transport between the movie dimension and the real world. Jack and Danny travel back into the real world where they defeat the bad guy and learn several lessons along the way. Like you can’t punch through a car window in the real world and not get injured, or take a bullet wound to the chest and live.
All caught up? It gets pretty trippy and weird in a few spots, but over all it’s a very solidly underrated movie. It had the misfortune to be released just a week after Jurassic Park. Arnold has even gone on record as saying he marks this movie as the beginning of his movie-star end. But I think it lives up to its potential, and does what it set out to do, and it brings to light some ridiculous action movie tropes. As all these underrated movies do.
First off you have to look at the sheer meta quality of the film. It’s an action movie, about action movies, which points out those action movies, and uses the real world as a foil for the movie world. I’ll give you a second to absorb that sentence. My favorite example of this ridiculousness is a fake movie trailer. Danny daydreams in class about a Jack Slater version of Hamlet. It’s possibly one of the only famous (original) lines from Last Action Hero, a narrator proclaims, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and Hamlet is taking out the trash.” In such perfect action movie narration you almost wish they made this gun toting version of Hamlet instead of Mel Gibson’s.
Yes, there is a movie trailer in the middle of a movie about action movies, where they enter an action movie and… You get the point. It’s pretty meta. But what makes it so underrated is the fact that they decided to do this, and they committed to it. They did not skimp on the cheesy jokes, or obvious punch lines (both the end of a joke and the thing Arnold says when killing someone with an ice cream cone) and they also made a point to show how different the real world is from the movie world.
Here’s an example of some of the dialogue which makes this meta movie so underrated under-appreciated, right after Danny gets jettisoned into the movie and they outrun the bad guys, Slater brings him to the police headquarters – where, for one, there’s a cartoon cat working as a detective. He is also voiced by Danny Devito. But two, the police chief saddles Slater with Danny as his partner. Something which would only happen in an action movie. Slater takes him to a Blockbuster to let Danny try to prove his theory that they’re in a movie. Instead of Arnold on the Terminator II: Judgement Day poster they find another familiar face. Sylvester Stallone.
Danny Madigan: No. It’s not possible!
Jack Slater: What’s not possible? The man is an artist. It’s his best performance ever!
Danny Madigan: But… that was you! YOU were in that movie!
Danny, having his theory debunked, attempts to reason with Slater in a way that makes it so obvious they live in a movie. He looks around, noticing that every woman they’ve come in contact with looks like they could be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Danny: Where are the ordinary, everyday women? They don’t exist because this is a movie!
Jack Slater: No, this is California.
As someone who lives in Los Angeles, this is false and real women do live here. I ride the metro with them several times a week. But back to the point, this movie clearly does not take itself seriously. The jokes spoof Arnold’s movies, director John McTeirnan’s movies, and just about anything to come out of the 80s starring Tom Cruise. It takes these tropes we’re so familiar with and shows us how ABSOLUTELY ridiculous they are. I mean, a villain with an exploding, removable, glass eye? Who is basically Alan Rickman from DieHard (but with said eye)? How much more obvious did they have to make it.
Action movies are ridiculous! And this celebrates the supreme silliness that enters them. But because they’re action movies no one can make fun of all those bits. Now, we can. For instance, throughout the movie almost everything explodes. Cars. Trucks. Houses. The La Brea Tarpits (almost, and also they totally did not film at the actual tar pits because THERE WERE NO DINOSAURS WHEN THE TAR PITS STARTED TO BUBBLE UP/rant). People. Everything that can explode, does explode. No one ever has to reload a clip, and there’s no blood on any of the bodies killed in the movie universe.
Now, another very meta reason this movie is so amazing and underrated and under appreciated is Danny’s dialogue. Almost all of his dialogue, in the movie world and in the real world, is there to serve the purpose of showing Jack Slater (and the audience) that nothing in action movies makes any sense! Through the film Danny is constantly pointing out flaws. Like how everything always lines up just right with the clues. He also provides a great wealth of tropes. Of course the sidekick doesn’t get to play chicken and win. He’s the comic relief! What’s that? You’re the monologuing bad guy? Naturally you don’t get away with it.
When they transition into the real world Danny also keeps Jack Slater grounded as they enter the premier of Jack Slater IV. (By the way the entire premier of Jack Slater IV has Arnold doing a hilarious satire of himself, and cameos by a whole host of 90s celebrities). Danny brings the facts to the forefront. In the real world when you get shot in the chest, you’re probably gonna die. In the real world you don’t just find clues, you have to spend hours doing work, or get a lucky break. Some things never change.
The movie demonstrates a great use of self referential comedy, whether it be Arnold meeting Jack Slater at a movie premiere, or one of the best officers on the force being a cartoon cat. It clearly depicts the height of action movies being just as absurd as they were with cars blowing up for no reason, and no one running out of bullets even though they obviously loosed 20 bullets. The movie uses the meta nature to its advantage and plays with the themes and tone of action movies. I’ll bring it up again, the Hamlet preview for the absurd fake Hamlet movie Arnold fake stars in. It’s comedy-action gold from start to finish.
So, over all this movie shows amazing use of comic timing, and satire to point out all the ridiculousness that rampages through action movies. It’s pretty dated visually, but that’s part of the charm. I mean, the 1980s were the best time to be an action star weren’t they? Just ask Arnold.