Last Action Hero 25th Anniversary: Fictional Franchise Fred Approves

Good old theater 1 at Apex Harbor IX, where I saw most of my formative movies.

For most people 1993 was the summer dinosaurs came to life. For me it was the summer Arnold Schwarzenegger came out of the screen. Seeing a kid go into an Arnold movie and break all the rules and vice versa was a much bigger deal to me than dinosaurs. Critics and audiences disagreed but like Hudson Hawk in 1991, I was team Last Action Hero from June 18, 1993.

People had an issue with the magic ticket that sends Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) into Jack Slater IV, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I mean, I could have done without the maguffin either. The early idea that he goes through a tear in the screen is much more elegant, but the point is a fan gets to live inside an Arnold movie. But, you know, we have popular movies about magic rings and magic wizards in space. A magic movie ticket is a bridge too far?

I’ve said this before but I’ve always wanted movies to make less sense. It’s fiction. I want a live-action cop drama that has an animated character and everyone plays it straight. Characters from Basic Instinct and T2 exist and it drives people who follow the rules crazy. Basic Instinct was San Francisco, and why would the T-1000 still be working out of LAPD? Because it’s awesome, that’s why. Or because it’s fun.

This slayed me in 1993.

Plus, other movie characters exist but Stallone played the Terminator. So they’ve thought far enough ahead that Arnold movies can’t exist within an Arnold movie, but his costar from T2 still exists and other fictional characters do too. These aren’t central to the plot. They’re five second jokes that just pepper the self-referential movie within the movie.

Last Action Hero has been a sort of Rorschach test for me at various points of my life. In 1993, I was excited by the scenes inside the movie world but thought it was a downer when they came into the real world. The real world is a little hazy on the rules, sometimes Jack has no movie powers, sometimes he still does (he can hurl Danny from a ledge onto the roof with one arm). In Jack Slater IV bad guys get killed by ice cream cones or leave explosive glass eyes lying around.

As an adult, I thought the movie world was cute but really related to the tragedy of the real world. It’s true, we make our heroes suffer unimaginable tragedies and toss it off as backstory. Poor Jack Slater has lost his son and can’t maintain a relationship. If that was your friend you’d tell him to go to therapy. When it’s a movie hero you tell him to shoot more bad guys.

I would have loved to see more between Jack and Danny’s mom (Mercedes Ruehl), how a movie hero longs for the normalcy we try to escape via movies. I do wish Jack had found the burglar who terrorizes Danny in the first act. It would’ve been a movie cliche, but I needed the satisfaction of seeing Danny get the better of the real world criminal.

I do enjoy the layers of the fact that Jack Slater hates Arnold Schwarzengger, and it’s Arnold playing both parts, and he plays Schwarzenegger as a total buffoon. Perhaps Arnold himself likes his characters more than himself or at least is willing to put them first for the movie.

It is odd that they chose to make an Arnold kids movie. I guess Twins and Kindergarten Cop garnered a younger audience but I don’t think they were his summer action audience. I get that Danny is a lot to take for audiences. He talks too much, but even at 15 myself in 1993, I related to him. I wanted someone to understand movies as well as I did. Danny got it.

Hearing about the Jack Slater franchise it sounds like Arnold had a whole kid-friendly action series. You’d think Danny was just sneaking into R-rated movies, but his backstory about the captain’s wife is nonsense and that was in part one! The one thing I don’t buy is the end of Jack Slater III.

They would never end a big budget summer sequel with the hero’s son murdered (before you reply with Infinity War, I’m talking about a non-superhero movie where a small child is not resurrected in the next movie.) They could get away with that backstory at the beginning, but they wouldn’t end on a downer. Of course, in Last Action Hero it’s not the ending, but it’s supposed to be the end of Jack Slater III.

Sure, it might’ve been more fun if Danny had gone into an Arnold movie that everybody already loved, but good luck getting the rights to a Terminator or a Commando. Plus, it’s got to at least be a movie the audience doesn’t already know what’s going to happen. It’s been noted that Jack Slater weren’t the kinds of movies Arnold was making. They were more like Lethal Weapons with mob crime. I’m not sure having Danny go into a sci-fi adventure like Total Recall or Terminator would make it any better, and it does give Arnold a chance to poke fun at his competitors’ genres.

Benedict (Charles Dance) is a phenomenal villain. He’s slightly above this genre but relishes the melodrama of it, especially when he addresses the camera to monologue his evil plan. And why are we seeing that scene when Danny’s not in it? Well, movies still have scenes without the main characters. I wonder what Danny felt whenever they cut away from him and Jack. Bridget Wilson (Sampras) had a good run of badass roles after this too.

A movie villain trying to take over the real world is fantastic. It may be a bit contrived that Benedict brings the Ripper (Tom Noonan) of all villains back. I know everyone wanted to see his plan to bring Dracula and King Kong out, but I think there’s something to giving the defeated villain a second shot. It’s the true nature of evil. They don’t accept defeat. They keep trying again. Poor heroes like Jack Slater have to keep fighting the same villains even though they’ve already proven victorious. No one remembers. It’s exhausting.

If you want to see the movie with all your favorite characters comingling, they made Ready Player One this year. Plus, of all the movies Benedict name dropped, the one they do bring out is Death (Ian McKellan) from an arthouse showing a Bergman movie. This is a studio tentpole summer movie!

Last Action Hero is paced more like a comedy than an action movie. There’s a lot of jokes to get through. Once you already know them you’re waiting a long time for the action. There’s a racist music cue when Jack and Danny meet Prof. Toru Tanaka and I’m pretty sure projectionist Nick (Robert Prosky) adjusts the focus on a projector that’s not running. Leo the Fart is funny though.

The line about Jack can’t die until the grosses go down is pretty morbid considering this was the first movie where the grosses did go down. I wonder, if it had been a hit, would there have been a real Jack Slater spinoff movie? Or at least a Last Action Hero 2 where Danny needed his help again and had to find him in Jack Slater V?

The following summer, Arnold came back with True Lies, an action-comedy that applied the absurd much more effectively. It’s almost as if James Cameron said, “I see what you were trying to do. Let me fix it.” I’m still glad I have both Last Action Hero and True Lies as the peak of Arnold’s comedic superhero persona.

Written by
Fred Topel also known as Franchise Fred has been an entertainment journalist since 1999 and specializes in writing about film, television and video games. Fred has written for several outlets including About.com, CraveOnline, and Rotten Tomatoes among others. His favorite films include Toy Story 2, The Rock, Face/Off, True Lies, Labyrinth, The Big Hit, Michael Moore's The Big One, and Casablanca. We are very lucky and excited to have Fred as part of the We Live Entertainment team. Follow him on Twitter @FranchiseFred and @FredTopel

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