Looking back nearly thirty years later on John McTiernan's meta-action comedy brings about renewed respect. Last Action Hero is like a four-course meal made at a Michelin star restaurant. The perfect people bringing about the perfect creation.
A meta-action film that sees a young boy on an adventure with a character from a long running action franchise who enters the real world and must stop his fictional villains from killing the actor who plays him is like the action movie version of a Wes Craven movie; the brash, aggressive cousin of Scream and New Nightmare.
McTiernan having made iconic action films like Predator and Die Hard is a perfect fit for directing a send up of the macho kill-a-thon action movies of the past decade, and re-teaming with his Predator star Arnold Schwarzenegger makes sense. Despite some fun banter about this being a universe where Sylvester Stallone is the star of The Terminator franchise, only Arnie could play the role of Jack Slater. Stallone is a much more respectable actor, he has weight, but Schwarzenegger gets the joke and plays it with just enough knowing humour.
The screenplay, from action maestro Shane Black and David Arnott is another stroke of genius. The cliches of the genre were pretty much created by Black with films like Lethal Weapon, so for him to send up his own genre of ultra-violence movies is another fun twist in the tale. It's also clearly Black's work since it concerns a young boy teaming up with an action hero.
The film is a little baggy in parts, sometimes falling into indulgence when it comes to the world of the movie-within-a-movie. It's fun to watch but the cutting between the “real” world and the world of the Jack Slater fiction can often undercut the mounting enjoyment of the action. It helps that it's filled with jokes and a wonderfully pitched tottering old man played by Jack Protsky.
The casting remains perfect to this day: Charles Dance (cheaper than Rickman apparently) is perfect as the evil English villain, and a cameo from Anthony Quin as arch-villain Vivaldi has a touch of the “respected actor picking up the cheque” of so many action films – today it would be Anthony Hopkins most likely.
The meta-humour of the film and the comments it makes about the nature of film violence and the desire for young viewers to enjoy seeing people get blown up and killed might have been lost on viewers at the time, but with the benefit of time and the increasing post-modern humour of movies – thanks in no small part to Black's continuing lampooning of the genre – Last Action Hero might finally get the dues it deserves.
That, and it features a sequence where Schwarzenegger plays a gun-toting Hamlet declaring “To be or not to be? Not to be!”
Last Action Hero is available in the UK on 4K and Blu-ray May 17th.