Today, the TV Tropes website catalogs TV and movie tropes, but “Last Action Hero” (1993) did it before the internet was around. The film, which has a Shane Black vibe even though the writer is one of several collaborators, feels ahead of its time as it makes fun of action cliches but also works them into an engaging multiple-reality narrative.
Working from a story by Zak Penn (later a superhero-movie staple) and Adam Leff, Black and David Arnott do for blockbuster action movies what “Scream” would do three years later for horror movies. The film could also be seen as a less subtle version of what “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” did recently: It shows its love for movies while totally making fun of them.
“Last Action Hero” is partly a ridiculous comedy, but the stakes for Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) are legitimate because his world – accessible through the movie screen portal — is portrayed as an alternate but equally valid reality. John McTiernan (“Predator,” “Die Hard”) is at the helm, so the action is top-shelf.
Middle-schooler Danny (Austin O’Brien) is the audience surrogate who regularly skips class to go to the movies, encouraged by lovable old projectionist Nick (Robert Prosky). A magic ticket left to Nick by Houdini years ago sends Danny into the world of “Jack Slater IV,” and the fun begins.
Black and company – with Danny explaining things to Jack – emphasize the absurdities of the “Jack Slater” world, such as cars exploding for no apparent reason and deadly shots being mere flesh wounds.
Most of the sequences are fun, including the centerpiece where Slater must grab a bomb-stuffed corpse from a mob funeral. (The dead guy is known for farting; disappointingly, the payoff is only so-so.) The grand finale is packed with cameos and inside jokes, plus effective split-screen work as Slater and Schwarzenegger meet.
Not everything totally clicks. In an attempt at a “Naked Gun”-style sequence, Jack and Danny tool along the highway delivering exposition; in the background, cars swerve to avoid Jack’s reckless driving. It doesn’t come together the way it should. At another point, villain Benedict (Charles Dance) talks to the camera for no apparent reason.
The movie is packed with little jokes like the fact that everyone’s phone number starts with 555. All the women in the “Slater” world are attractive – not the least of whom is Bridgette Wilson as Slater’s daughter. The future Mrs. Pete Sampras (by the way, that’s the greatest upset win of his career) is in the film just enough that you wish she was in it more.
The relationship between Slater and Danny no doubt called to mind “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) when this movie hit theaters. (In the world of “Jack Slater,” Sylvester Stallone stars in “T2.”) I find O’Brien to be slightly more low-key than Edward Furlong; it’s a solid, not-annoying child performance, although O’Brien didn’t go on to be a big star.
It’s fun to watch Schwarzenegger play a hero cop who doesn’t realize everything about his world is ridiculous. It’s normal to Slater, because it’s all he knows. Schwarzenegger plays it fairly cool, finding a tone that fits with this film’s wryness the same way he locked into an over-the-top style to fit with “Total Recall” a few years prior. I wish he got a few more bits of vintage Black dialog, but there are some gems. (Schwarzenegger as Hamlet: “To be or not to be?” He kills the villain. “Not to be.”)
“Last Action Hero” could’ve gotten unwieldy in its desire to load up on smart observations to go along with the humor, whereas something like the “Hot Shots!” films and “Loaded Weapon 1” only bring dumb (albeit funny) humor. It’s a little too long at two hours, but it mostly keeps its eye on the ball and clocks in as a sharp and funny breakdown of all our favorite ridiculous tropes. Even today, I think most action fans will get a kick out of it.