Not really a big success on initial release, Last Action Hero is one of those movies that I am glad to see get a bit of a second wind on shiny disc form. It always had fans, but I think that fanbase has grown steadily over the last decade and the film deserves it.
The film is, essentially, a cross between The Purple Rose Of Cairo and, well, any blockbuster action movie of the '80s and '90s. A young boy named Danny (Austin O'Brien) is given a magic ticket by his projectionist pal (Robert Prosky) that was apparently passed down years ago by one Harry Houdini. Danny spends as much time as possible in the cinema watching his movie idol, Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and this night is very special because his projectionist pal is allowing him to see a sneak preview screening of Jack Slater IV, hence the passing on of the magic ticket. Although not expecting the cinema ticket to do anything that's REALLY magical, Danny finds that he should never rule out the impossible when he finds himself transported to the world inside the movie. He has a lot of fun trying to explain to Jack Slater what is really going on (and Slater doesn't appreciate being told that he's a fictional character being played by a man with a name that he can't pronounce) while checking off all of the action genre cliches and also providing the police with some vital information thanks to the scenes he saw at the beginning of the movie. This annoys Benedict, a dangerous hitman played by Charles Dance, no end . . . . . . . . . . until Benedict starts to piece together the implausible scenario, and then gets the ticket for himself. The real world isn't ready for a collection of cinematic villains, but Benedict doesn't care. He plans to use the ticket to free the likes of Dracula, some zombies and even King Kong. First of all, however, he helps Ripper (Tom Noonan) escape. Ripper was the villain who caused the most pain for Jack Slater, and now he's encouraged to get his revenge by killing Arnold Schwarzenegger. Is this making sense?
Superb entertainment from start to finish, Last Action Hero is also consistently clever and so meta that it often looks like a serpentine creation in danger of eating its own tail. It was deemed by many back in 1993 as a smug, overblown action comedy that was trying to have its cake and eat it while those involved shouldn't have dared to bite the hand that had fed them over the years. Admittedly, it is a bit overblown in places, and overlong at just over two hours, but I can't think of a better time for this movie to have been made than when Arnie was at the height of his A-list action star status and director John McTiernan was known best as the man behind Die Hard and Predator (as opposed to the man who also gave us the Rollerball remake). Shane Black, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Arnott, would actually refine things slightly with his directorial debut, the superior Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but this particular movie is a mix of big names, studio excess, a multitude of pop culture references and a foundation of real intelligence.
After a standard action movie opener, with tongue firmly in cheek, the film is one of two halves. In the first half, Danny enters the movie world and can spot the genre conventions, stereotypes and general Hollywood illusions, using it all to his advantage and not ever feeling TOO worried as he helps out Jack. In the second half, the movie characters enter the real world, OUR world, and this provides a bit more danger while also keeping the comedy running strong as unwitting characters take their time to find out that the movie rules no longer apply.
The main cast members all have a great time. Austin O'Brien is stuck playing a character who is a bit too cocky at times, but Arnie is getting to do what Arnie does best (on top of that, he also plays himself in a few scenes alongside his real wife of the time, Maria Shriver) while Charles Dance and Tom Noonan bring their effortless brilliance along to portray two very different types of villains. Robert Prosky is as wonderful as always in the role of the kindly projectionist, Mercedes Ruehl is good as Danny's worried mother and Bridgette Wilson shines in the relatively small role of Jack Slater's daughter. Elsewhere, Frank McRae is very funny as the constantly shouting Lieutenant Dekker, Anthony Quinn is a mobster, F. Murray Abraham is a policeman and Ian McKellen is Death. Yes, Death . . . . . . . from The Seventh Seal. Throw in cameos, however brief, from the likes of Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick, Chevy Chase, Jean Claude Van Damme, Joan Plowright, Tina Turner, Bobbie Brown, Angie Everhart, James Belushi and many more and you have the action genre movie equivalent of The Player. Which is no bad thing.
Working on two levels, because let us not forget that McTiernan IS a master action movie director and Schwarzenegger IS an action movie STAR, Last Action Hero does get to have its cake and eat it. Fans of standard action movies will find enough here to keep them amused, if they somehow don't get or appreciate the humour, while fans of the satirical premise will have a field day keeping up with the cliches and references. You can find subtlety and grace elsewhere, this is the only place to see Arnie giving a unique interpretation of Hamlet. Need I say more?