‘Last Action Hero’ 30 Years Later: The beginning of the end for the macho action movie

A Cult Following

By 1993, Arnold Schwarzenegger had cemented his legacy as one of the biggest box-office draws of all time. His resume included one blockbuster after another. But this wasn’t the nineteen eighties anymore. It’s a new decade, and pop culture always shifts. Hair bands were out, and Seattle grunge music was on the rise. A new president had been sworn in. The culture of cinema was shifting again.

With crime dramas and highly sexualized thrillers having a presence now, there had been signs of exhaustion from what once worked on the big screen. Enter, Last Action Hero. An action comedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that received mixed reviews upon its release thirty years ago this summer.

Yet, over the years a cult following has evolved around the movie. Looking back at it, you can find little moments in the film that wink at the audience. But in hindsight, did this also mark the beginning of the end of the macho action films of years prior?

What’s Last Action Hero about?

Last Action Hero follows the character Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien). He’s fatherless with a constantly working mother, so he finds excitement in going to the movies to watch films that star his favorite indestructible Los Angeles cop, Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger). Danny receives a movie ticket that is believed to be magic by the theater’s projectionist, and one night, while watching the new Jack Slater film, he is transported into his hero’s world.

Danny then spends the next thirty minutes trying to explain to Jack how he got there and how he’s a character in a movie. But as the adventure unfolds, one of the film’s villains gets hold of the ticket and finds his way out into the real world.

A Satirical Lens

There’s a lot of spoof-like material in Last Action Hero. Director John McTiernan even gets meta with some work of his own in the brief shot of Jack Slater falling off the roof of a hotel. It looks quite similar to the slow-motion shot of Hans Gruber in Die Hard falling to his death. The film is very self-aware.

An example: casting F. Murray Abraham as a shady, untrustworthy cop. Once Danny is sucked into Jack Slater’s world, he warns Jack that Abraham’s character was the guy who double-crossed Mozart (referencing Abraham’s character in the Oscar-winning film, Amadeus). Jack Slater looks dumbfounded anytime Danny brings this up, but somewhat catches on once we learn Abraham’s character is a crooked cop.

Other moments in the movie may be compliments to the film’s co-writer, Shane Black. A writer who has penned some of the best blockbuster action films of the late eighties. The film’s opening sequence feels just like the beginning of a Lethal Weapon film. This sequence features a quick cameo from the late Tina Turner, who plays the mayor of Los Angeles.

A Great Cast

There would be other cameos as well, like Sharon Stone, who is in her Basic Instinct interrogation room wardrobe. Robert Patrick, dressed like a cop but carrying the menacing facial expression of the T-1000 in Terminator 2, Anthony Quinn plays the initial big boss in the Jack Slater film. Danny Devito voices Whiskers, an animated police detective who happens to be a cat.

The bit part seemed like this was a way to poke fun at the Hollywood trend of having an animated character in a live-action movie. And in larger supporting roles, let us not forget about the phenomenal villain performances by Charles Dance and Tom Noonan. 

For the first two acts of Last Action Hero, we are in sunny Los Angeles. But once Benedict gets his hands on Danny’s golden ticket, Jack and Danny must chase him down into the real world. Rainy, grimy New York City. The last thirty minutes are a credit to how great of a director John McTiernan is. Once we are in the supposed ‘real world’, all of the magic that makes Jack Slater the ultimate hero seems to dissipate.

Subtle Social Commentary

The first time he fires his gun at Benedict as he drives off in a taxi, he misses completely, realizing he can’t just hit moving targets on a regular basis. The film gets darker, not just in setting but in tone. Jack is a little more at risk, and he can’t pull off the heroic acts he could do on screen. Benedict is more menacing and almost more powerful because, in the real world, bad guys can win.

There’s a subtle bit of commentary on violence in America when Benedict kills a man in a New York City neighborhood at night, and nobody seems to care. Even though Slater wins in the end, there is a cost to defeating evil in the real world.

Despite its creative new approach to big-screen action films, Last Action Hero was a theatrical flop. Partly due to the competition that month being a Steven Spielberg film about dinosaurs (Jurassic Park). But Schwarzenegger has mentioned that some of the film’s failures were political. He openly backed George Bush for re-election that year and felt that by him doing that, it hurt the movie’s chances of doing well.

But he has gone on record saying this is one of his more underrated movies, and I think anyone who has ever seen it would agree. The film doesn’t work if he isn’t in it. He’s the first to come to mind when we think of this era of movies, so it had to be him to poke fun at it. 

Being ‘In On The Joke’

The film is also an example of why Arnold Schwarzenegger was always ahead of the curve at the time. He could make fun of himself and be in on the joke – something a few of his fellow titans of action films could not do so well. It’s clear Arnold got the material and what it was trying to say about the genre and the state it was in.

By the mid-nineties, other action stars were seeing their films begin to fall short at the box office. Sylvester Stallone would shift more towards drama and comedic roles, and despite an appearance in a Spy Kids movie, he would vanish from the big screen for a while by the decade’s end until a revival of Rocky in 2006.

Names like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal would start seeing their films bomb at the box office, and by the new millennium, they would begin to show up on the straight-to-video shelves.

Why is Last Action Hero so timeless?

Last Action Hero still feels fresh thirty years later. There wasn’t a movie like it before, really, and there hasn’t been much of anything like it since. It trusts the audience to know that it gets the material because we have seen countless movies of this nature before.

It won’t be known as Schwarzenegger’s best film, but you could arguably put it up there as a great performance of his as he shows dramatic range in some of its emotional scenes.

The enjoyment of it is everlasting, but it feels like the message in the product needed to evolve into something new because genres always need to grow and adapt to the current state of pop culture.

So there we have it! What do you guys think? Do you agree with our assessment? Let us know in the comments below!

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