Last Action Hero: The Action Movie to End All Action Movies

Last Action Hero (1993) | Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Near the beginning of John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero, the protagonist, 13-year-old action buff Danny Madigan, sits alone in a vintage movie house watching an early screening of Jack Slater IV, a fictional film within the film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. A villain tosses a lit bundle of dynamite at Slater, but he shoots it, sending it careening out of the screen and into the aisle of the theater, where Danny sits munching popcorn.

It is difficult to watch this moment without being reminded of the way Last Action Hero unceremoniously bombed when it landed in theaters in the summer of 1993, but this metafictive moment hints at the depths that the film’s initial audiences and critics failed to appreciate, symbolically suggesting that the action flicks parodied by Last Action Hero have the capacity to inflict violence on their young viewers and the very real world they inhabit. This is not as simple as the typical “movie violence causes real life violence” argument that was so popular in the early ‘90s when crime rates soared and the original Mortal Kombat guzzled teenagers’ quarters (including mine) in arcades throughout the country. On the surface, Last Action Hero seems to be an action-buddy comedy with a gimmick—enjoyable for its humor, action set pieces, and clever metafictional gags—but at bottom it is a trenchant critique of action movies, the model of exaggerated masculinity they promote, and the real-life violence they both reflect and project. The film argues that the overblown action hero Schwarzenegger and McTiernan helped popularize provides an inadequate and harmful model of masculinity for adolescents to emulate.    

Last Action Hero—Schwarzenegger’s first major film role since the mega-blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day—was released toward the tail end of the action movie’s heyday. There would still be a few years left for the likes of Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal to strike it big at the box office, but the 1980s was the true decade of the hypermasculine action star. While this wisecracking, musclebound, cartoonishly indestructible one-man army arose as a response to the American defeat in Vietnam, his genealogy can be traced back to the Western heroes played by John Wayne, and his immediate precursor is Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan, who ruthlessly followed his own rules to capture criminals and restore the broken system of order in post-‘60s America. As such, the ‘80s action hero was an antidote to the sense of national impotence that resulted from the U.S. surrender in Vietnam. In Rambo: First Blood Part II, Stallone’s eponymous vet literally returns to Vietnam to change the outcome of the war. In John McTiernan’s Predator, Schwarzenegger leads an elite squad of fighters to a tropical jungle where they must combat an invisible enemy who uses guerilla tactics.

While the ‘80s action hero may have helped the American male restore his lost sense of power, it did so by setting up an unrealistic and problematic role model for boys, to whom R-rated action films were vigorously marketed. (When I was a kid, I watched a Rambo cartoon and played with Rambo action figures). In his self-reflexive action-comedy Last Action Hero, John McTiernan, director of both Predator and Die Hard, parodies the genre he injected with so much testosterone to examine the effects of action heroes on young men’s conceptions of their own manhood. At its heart, the movie is about the relationship between a fatherless adolescent boy and a father who lost his son, and the film’s metafictive framework, which blurs the line between its own diegetic world and the metadiegetic world of Jack Slater IV, is no mere gimmick.

As the film opens, Danny is watching the end of Jack Slater III, which features a rooftop clash between Slater and an axe-wielding maniac called the Ripper, who has taken Slater’s son Andy hostage. Slater is able to defeat the Ripper and send him plummeting to his death, but as we discover later, The Ripper grabs Andy, and pulls him down with him. That the name Andy is a near anagram of the name Danny suggests early on that when Last Action Hero inevitably develops into a buddy comedy, Danny will serve as a replacement for Slater’s dead son.

Danny himself lives with his widowed mother in a grungy New York apartment. Lacking parental supervision, he often cuts class to visit the dilapidated, graffiti-covered Pandora Theater owned and operated by his elderly friend Nick, more of a grandfather figure than a surrogate father. It is with Jack Slater that Danny seeks to replace his deceased father. Before screening Jack Slater IV for Danny, Nick gives him a golden ticket, tearing it in half and giving Danny the stub. As Danny watches the movie, his ticket stub begins to glow, opening the breach between the metadiegetic “cinematic” world of Jack Slater IV and the “real” diegetic world of Last Action Hero. After the dynamite lands in the Pandora, Danny is transported to the backseat of Slater’s convertible, and finds himself inside the type of action film he adores.

The fluidity between Danny’s world and Slater’s offers McTiernan and screenwriters Shane Black and David Arnott the opportunity to ruminate on the relationship between fictional films and the so-called “reality” that produces them. They use this self-conscious aspect to illustrate the reciprocal relationship through which elements of reality influence films whose representations of the world, in turn, influence viewers’ conceptions of reality.

The movie depicts this two-way pull of fiction and “reality” by overtly showcasing the action-movie conventions that organize Slater’s world. Jack Slater IV is riddled with clichés, many of which Danny points out to Slater in an attempt to persuade him that he is a character in a film: Slater wants to avenge the killing of his “favorite second cousin;” in an early scene, a slain police officer sighs, “Two days to retirement;” Slater himself is a rip-off of Dirty Harry, a rogue cop who doesn’t mind destroying the city to get his perp, and his lieutenant constantly berates him in comically incomprehensible tirades. Danny observes that every woman they encounter is attractive, and that the spacious, posh, and futuristic police station where Slater works looks nothing like the cramped, dirty New York police station where Danny was recently questioned after his apartment was broken into.

The movie’s most extravagant action sequence in which Slater needs to infiltrate the rooftop funeral of a murdered mobster named Leo the Fart who has been rigged with a nerve gas bomb, criticizes these action movie clichés. As Slater runs across the rooftop of a high-rise dodging mob gunfire with Leo’s corpse draped over his shoulder, Danny maneuvers a giant crane toward the building. Slater jumps off the roof and lands on the outside of a glass elevator. He breaks the glass, slides in, and is confronted by a chopper on one side while mobsters attack him from behind. Slater ducks, and the chopper obliterates the mobsters. Danny then uses the crane to knock down the helicopter, grab Slater and Leo’s corpse, and dump them into the La Brea Tar Pits. Leo releases a giant fart bubble, but the nerve gas is contained by the tar, prompting Slater to quip, “Silent but deadly,” as he emerges from the tar pit and wipes himself clean. In an aside, Danny destroys the audience’s suspension of disbelief, remarking, “Tar sticks to some people.”

The action in this scene is as slick as the tar that rolls off Slater, but like the tar bubble that encases the nerve gas, its glossy surface hides caustic vitriol. By pointing out the implausibility of the action sequence the audience just enjoyed, Last Action Hero draws attention to its own status as a fictional construction as Danny asks us to question the way action movies distort our conceptions of material reality and masculinity.

If Slater is Danny’s male role model, then the film (and Danny) calling repeated attention to the action hero’s unrealistic conventions and destructive tendencies suggests that the figure serves as an inadequate and dangerous role model. At one point Slater loses his badge and despondently retreats to his unfurnished home. He complains that he started off just wanting to be a good cop but found himself involved in increasingly outrageous adventures. As a result, his son is dead, his ex-wife is happily remarried, his daughter, who prefers field-stripping an AK-47 to attending prom, will “die a young maid,” and he himself is destined to die soon. For the first time Slater seems like a human being whose suffering and loneliness are the direct result of the romanticized behavior of the typical action hero.

In addition, the Slater persona has dangerously distorted Danny’s view of the world, causing him to behave recklessly. Early in Last Action Hero, after Danny has cut his early classes to watch Jack Slater III for the sixth time, he finds himself in English class, where the teacher discusses Hamlet, another story about a son with a dead father who must decide whether to take action. The teacher explains that Hamlet was one of the first action stars, and plays the scene from Laurence Olivier’s film version in which Hamlet contemplates killing a praying Claudius. The teacher is wrong, of course—if anything, Hamlet is an anti-action hero. The play was written in part as a criticism of the gory revenge tragedies, like Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus, that were all the rage on the Elizabethan stage. Rather than pursue a bloody revenge, Hamlet spends most of the play questioning his own perceptions and strategically planning his response to his father’s possible murder, as he does in the scene from Olivier’s film.

While Danny watches, he urges Hamlet to “do it,” and then imagines an alternate version of the film starring Schwarzenegger, who lifts Claudius in the air and taunts him with Slater’s catchphrase, brains a man by hurling Yorick’s skull at him, and butchers Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy intoning, “To be, or not to be. Not to be,” before lighting up a cigar while Elsinore Castle explodes behind him. Like Hamlet, Danny has lost his father and finds himself on the cusp of manhood, but he prefers the instant gratification of cathartic movie violence to the intricacies of thoughtful reflection.

Late that night, Danny is home alone and decides to leave his apartment to see a private screening of Slater IV at the Pandora, when he is attacked by a knife-wielding drug addict who breaks into the apartment. Danny’s first reaction is to strike a tough and defiant posture, but his assailant calls Danny’s bluff, puts his switchblade on the bathroom sink and turns his back to Danny, daring the boy to attack him. It is clear that if Danny did reach out for the knife, he would be putting himself in mortal danger, so at the last moment, he decides to do nothing. The Slater persona, which Danny is trying to emulate, puts him in harm’s way—the attack is a direct result of Danny’s desire to see a new action movie—and the entire episode de-romanticizes action scenes by demonstrating the difference between flashy movie violence and real-life violence. At the end of the scene, Danny’s assailant handcuffs him to a bathroom pipe and drops the key in the toilet. You can’t get less romantic than that.

If Slater at first proves to be an inadequate male role model for Danny, his development as he comes to terms with his own fictional status reveals a more effective model of manhood characterized by tenderness, sensitivity and protectiveness. Shortly after entering Slater IV, Danny tells Slater that they are perfect “buddy comedy material. I’ll teach you to be vulnerable, and you’ll teach me to be brave.” As we have seen, the last thing Danny needs is to be brave, but Slater does need to be more vulnerable, which he achieves in one of the film’s best running gags: When Danny meets FBI Agent John Practice, Slater’s old army buddy who is played by F. Murray Abraham, Danny warns Slater not to trust Practice because “he killed Mozart,” a nod to Abraham’s performance in Amadeus. In the film’s final act, when Slater and the movie’s main villain, a hitman named Benedict, who has acquired Danny’s magic ticket, are transported out of Slater IV and into the “real” New York, Slater stays up the whole night chatting with Danny’s mother. He says this is the first time he has ever really talked to a woman (we have seen him shamelessly flirting with and sexually objectifying women throughout the film), and that it is nice. He then reprimands Danny for sneaking out late at night to go to the movies and making his poor mother worry about him. Suddenly, Slater’s ears perk up as asks he overhears Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture playing on the radio. He asks Mrs. Madigan to turn the volume up and asks the name of the piece. She informs him that it is Mozart and Slater asks Danny, “The guy Practice killed?” Mrs. Madigan asks Slater if he likes Mozart, to which he responds with goofy earnestness, “I think I will. Wow!” The film’s metafictive premise provides a springboard for silly humor, but in the process, it sketches out a productive model of manhood based on paternal care, openness to the beauties of art and culture, and collaborative parenting.

Along with criticizing the action hero as male role model, Last Action Hero is also interested in exploring the reciprocal relationship between fictional films and the reality they reflect. The last act of the movie focuses on Benedict’s plot to use the magic ticket to move between movies and the real world so that he may become an unstoppable super-criminal. The Pandora Theater thus becomes a Pandora’s box that unleashes havoc on the streets of New York. Benedict brings the Ripper out of Slater III and sends him on a mission to kill Arnold Schwarzenegger at the New York premiere of Slater IV. With Schwarzenegger “out of the picture,” as Benedict puts it, Slater will cease to exist, and Benedict and The Ripper will be free to move from world to world committing crimes.

As Slater and Danny try to track down Benedict in the “real” world, Danny tells Slater that he cannot rely on movie conventions to catch bad guys “Because this world stinks!” Slater responds that “the world is what you make of it.” Danny’s reality is in fact more dire than that of the action movies into which he escapes. Given that his father is dead, and that he lives in an impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhood, we can understand why Danny thinks the world stinks and prefers to daydream about indestructible action stars. At the same time, we are asked to consider what we make of the world when we turn it into an action movie.

As a test of the “real world’s” limits, Benedict shoots an innocent bystander in cold blood, and when no one notices, he shouts that he has killed a man on purpose. Again, he gets no response, so he repeats his confession and is greeted only with a shout to shut up. As a result, he concludes that “in this world, the bad guys can win.”  Benedict, characterized by his mindless compulsion to commit violence, is literally a creation of the cinema, and his invasion of our world—like that of the dynamite earlier—attests to the damage that the glorification of consequence-free violence in action movies unleashes on the real world. On the other hand, we can see that Benedict himself is a reflection of the violence in society, as the murder he commits is prompted by the prior “real-life” murder he witnesses in which a man is killed for his shoes. Movies and reality influence each other in a never-ending loop: our ideas about the real world are reflected and distorted in the films we make, which in turn, alter and distort our conceptions of “reality.” The purpose of Last Action Hero’s gimmick, then, is not simply to generate comedy and excitement, but to draw overt attention to the conventions underpinning the action genre, revealing the way they damage men’s perceptions of their own manhood.

Slater’s encounter with Arnold Schwarzenegger offers another opportunity for the film to criticize the harmful effects that action movies and reality have on each other. Schwarzenegger is first seen amidst the glitz and glamour of Slater IV’s New York premiere, proclaiming that in the new film they only kill 48 people compared to the 119 people they killed in the previous one—he explains that they make up for the low body count by adding character development and depth. Later, when Slater saves Schwarzenegger’s life, the star thinks it is part of a stunt and offers Slater work as a celebrity lookalike. Slater responds, “Look, I don’t really like you, alright? You’ve brought nothing but pain.” Slater’s suffering testifies to the damage that the kind of violence carelessly depicted in such films would inflict on a real person.

In the film’s climax, Slater and Danny must survive a rooftop battle with Benedict that resolves the film’s examination of male role models and the reciprocal relationship between action movies and reality. Slater defeats Benedict but is shot in the process. As he is rushed to the hospital, the magic ticket flutters into an arthouse theater showing Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Death emerges from the screen and marches to the Pandora; meanwhile, Danny hijacks the ambulance and drives Slater to the Pandora as well, hoping to take him “back to where this is just a flesh wound.” Danny meets Death and says, “I’ve had it up to here with you: who stays, who goes,” and insists that Slater must survive. Death suggests Danny find the other half of the ticket to return Slater, who does not appear on any of Death’s lists, to the movie. When Danny and Slater reenter Slater IV, Slater’s injury is described as “not even a flesh wound,” and he and Danny must part. Danny does not want to leave, but Slater, demonstrating the paternal affection that he learned from his trip into the “real” world  says, “I need you to take care of your mother because, oh I would love to.”

Back at the police station, Slater turns on his boss who is excoriating him once again and, winking at Danny on the other side of the screen, rejects his action hero persona, shouting “Hollywood is writing our lives. And you know something? I don’t want to shoot people anymore and blow up buildings.” He refuses to allow cinematic conventions to create him and his reality.

Slater’s abdication of his status an action hero reveals that Last Action Hero is an intelligent and thoughtful social satire disguised as a dumb summer blockbuster. Perhaps that is why its initial audience, tricked by the apparent flatness of its slick surface, rejected it, failing to see that depending on how the light hits it that surface can become a reflective mirror or a window giving access to hidden depths. Perhaps that is also why I have always loved the film.

When I was 8 years old, my favorite movies were Rambo and Amadeus. I had strange tastes—I know!—but Last Action Hero caters to the competing tendencies that informed them: the simple enjoyment of mindless action, wisecracks, one-liners, and bad puns (I’m not convinced there is such a thing), and the thoughtful appreciation of art and self-conscious contemplation. What other popcorn flick references Mozart, Shakespeare, and Ingmar Bergman? Even the movie’s soundtrack is deceptively subtle. When the mobster Tony Vivaldi appears on screen, he is accompanied by brief musical cues from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and after Danny flies across the moon on a girl’s bike in a parody of E.T., we hear the soft chime of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. These erudite allusions are not merely ornamental; they indicate elements of manhood—sensitivity, aesthetic engagement, and love—that are left behind when the generic conventions of action movies are naturalized as ideals of masculinity.    

In the end, like a Western hero on his horse, Slater waves goodbye to Danny and to us, and rides off into the LA sunset in his convertible. It’s finally clear where the movie gets its title. After all he has been through, Slater no longer wants to be an action hero; he would rather be a real man.