In a middle school classroom I daydreamed of adventure. I procrastinated assignments and zoned out mid-lecture to entertain the fantasy of being suddenly beamed into an Homeric odyssey. I fancied myself a page-one protagonist awaiting his Inciting Incident; a nascent seed of a sidekick, requiring discovery and cultivation. I’d slump in my seat and picture the door getting kicked in, a rebel group materializing. Their leader—gruff, yet trustworthy—would toss me a weapon and offer me a spot. He’d implore my help until I snapped out of the confusion and panic. I’d push past the puzzled stares of classmates and rush out into the mission.
Chief culprit of my report-card-crippling attention distribution: movies. Friends and I would frequent the local theater on weekends. My family kept stacks of VHS tapes crammed in a musty wardrobe. We lived exactly one mile from Blockbuster Video and I was somehow permitted to watch just about anything I could get my hands on. When I wasn’t busy watching a movie, I was hoping my mundane life would suddenly get caught up in one. The tales I rented from down the street stirred my imagination, priming my heart for a faraway battle. I wore out tapes, drinking their 90-minute adventures to the dregs, thirsty for a hero to join and a baddie to beat.
Put me in a story, already.
Last Action Hero’s opening minutes are exactly what you’d expect from a parody of 80s and 90s action movies: There’s a hostage situation on a downtown rooftop; cop cars swarm the building, choppers circle overhead, and the police chief complains about all this taking place on Christmas. (And the film is directed by John McTiernan and written by Shane Black, to boot.)
Cue the guitar riff. Enter super-cop Jack Slater (a brilliantly self-aware Arnold Schwarzenegger), complete with snakeskin boots, light wash jeans, red tee, leather jacket, and six(!) stowed-away firearms. He even rattles off a couple terrible puns before entering the building.
As the rooftop showdown between Slater and the villain plays out, the scene suddenly blurs and flits. The camera zooms out and it’s revealed we’ve been watching a movie-within-a-movie. A 40-foot screen is in the background. In the foreground, we see the back of blonde head, from it a voice yelling, “Focus!” It’s 12-year-old Danny Madigan. He’s alone in a third-run movie theater, re-watching his favorite Jack Slater picture, trying to alert the napping projectionist that the film suddenly rolled out of focus during its climax.
Danny begrudgingly makes his way to school, where he rolls his eyes through an English class screening of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, eventually re-imagining it as a Jack Slater production. (Danny pictures Arnie chomping on a cigar, delivering the line, “To be, or not to be? Not to be,” in sync with a background explosion.)
Hamlet then match-cuts into Looney Tunes. The exploits of Wile E. Coyote fill the screen, then shrink, as the shot pulls back and we see Danny, now at home, captivated by the images flickering before him.
That’s three movies-within-a-movie in the first 10 minutes. In no subtle way, the viewer is only able to find Danny lost in a story. He’s always located in the middle of a drama he’s not in but wants to be apart of, his attention aimed at the screen, oblivious to his actual surrounding unless interrupted by outside forces. It’s as if Danny can only make sense of himself in relationship to a narrative he longs to inhabit.
I was partially raised by the cinema. I say this at the risk of sounding like I’m devaluing mom and dad (I’m not; they’re lovely!), but movies functioned as my third parent. I learned what a girlfriend was from watching 3 Ninjas. Home Alone introduced me to the word “ass.” Rudy showed me the value of determination, Mrs. Doubtfire acquainted me with divorce, The Lion King shined a light on my mortality, and a sneaky slumber party screening of Porky’s clued me into certain things traditionally reserved for the parental “Talk.”
Yet the genre I revered most in childhood was action. Action movies had a mysterious formative power; more than other stories, they taught me what to want to be like, speaking straight into my gut-level boyhood desire to understand and embody heroism, courage, and virtue. Perhaps this was my way of compensating for an aloof father during my most malleable years; studying at the feet of paternal surrogates like Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I apprenticed these action heroes from my basement sofa, keen on learning their trade: not so much delivering roundhouse kicks, but overcoming fear.
These screen icons are most welcome in the stretch of life when childhood feels painfully untriumphant. When a peer group hierarchy begins to take shape. When we fail to impress a crush. When we feel overlooked or underestimated by adults. These action stars, deep in chest and broad in shoulder, become avatars of everything we’re not: surmounting obstacles, protecting the vulnerable, vanquishing bullies. We ache for them to break through the screen, invite us into their ranks, and show us the ropes.
Danny doesn’t have a dad. His mom’s a widow who works night shifts just to make rent. We never see him socialize with anyone his own age. It seems his only ally is Nick, the quirky theater projectionist with whom he shares a reverence of mythologized heroes (Nick carries around a golden ticket originally belonging to his boyhood idol, Harry Houdini), and who accommodates Danny’s penchant for shoot-’em-ups (Nick invites him to a secret screening of the yet-to-be-released Jack Slater IV).
Late at night, en route to Nick’s covert Slater IV premiere, Danny gets held up at knifepoint. He’s taunted by the mugger, who mockingly offers him a chance to use the weapon. Instead, Danny cowers, petrified. He’s unable to react. He’s left alone, frightened and humiliated. A devoted cinephile nevertheless, Danny eventually makes his way to the sneak peek, where Nick christens the event by giving him Houdini’s golden ticket.
As the movie unfolds on the big screen, Danny (mid-popcorn-mouth-cram) is suddenly, magically, transported into the world of Jack Slater IV. Now embedded in his beloved movie-verse, Danny must rise to the occasion to help Slater defeat the villain and find a way back home. When the chief of police assigns Danny and Slater a case to crack, the boy can’t contain his giddiness: “We’re perfect partners,” Danny says. “I’ll teach you to be vulnerable, and you’ll teach me to be brave.” Danny relishes the opportunity to join Slater in the hunt. This artificial world becomes his gymnasium; a training ground where he can imitate Slater’s gallant exploits. And better yet, he gets to learn directly from the legend, now flesh-and-blood. Danny receives the mentorship he’s been sneaking off to the cinema hoping to find.
Still in the safety of a fictional world, Danny attempts various acts of derring-do, some successful (maneuvering a tower crane to resolve a rooftop shootout), and some not (pulling a gun on a bad guy, but allowing the bad guy to grab the gun away; classic rookie mistake). Yet he and Slater always rally, and together they press forward.
As Last Action Hero advances to its finale, Danny and Slater transport back into the real world, where Danny must act courageously without the safety net of a happy-ending script, and without the supernatural aid of an invincible hero (Slater is immune to harm in the movie world, but susceptible to injury in real life). Does the boy prove his mettle? At the film’s conclusion, as the evil villains are thwarted and the mission is fulfilled, Danny receives an endorsement from none other than the character Death from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (played here by Sir Ian McKellen; yes, Last Action Hero is a weird movie). Death tells Danny, “You’re a very brave young man.”
Movie mentors aren’t equal substitutes for the genuine thing. It’s foolish to expect fictional characters to sufficiently approximate the roles of fathers or friends. But the reality is that, for all us Danny Madigans out here, Jack Slaters are potent supplements to our adolescent understanding of the world. These models mold us. Last Action Hero acknowledges the pedagogical function of cinema, and thus inspires us to choose our heroes wisely. It may have been a box office bomb, a critical failure, and a hundred-million dollar embarrassment to its studio, but it endures as a love letter written to kids who grow up relying on movies as more than mere entertainment, who look up to the screen and wonder, “What sort of person should I root for? Who should I become?”