LAST ACTION HERO (1993) is a clever satire of blockbuster action films and is loaded with meta references that are sure to delight movie buffs.
At the heart of the story is Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien), a young movie lover, raised by a single mom (Mercedes Ruehl) in New York City, who skips school to watch his favorite action flicks for the umpteenth time at a dilapidated movie palace run by a dotty old man named Nick (Robert Prosky). Danny escapes his troubles in the adrenaline-pumping fantasies of the cinema, especially the JACK SLATER film series.
The JACK SLATER movies spoof the action franchises popular at the time, like DIE HARD or LETHAL WEAPON. Jack Slater is the ultimate badass, working for the LAPD but doing things his own way. Chomping on cigars, kicking down doors. Going where other cops wouldn't dare.
In the film, the star of the JACK SLATER series is real-world action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is LAST ACTION HERO's biggest meta concept as Schwarzenegger stars as a parody of himself (playing both Arnold and Arnold-as-Jack).
With the help of an enchanted ticket given to Nick by the famed escape artist Harry Houdini, Danny is able to enter the world of the newest JACK SLATER movie and help Jack beat the bad guys. It should be a dream come true, but instead of just going along with it, Danny tries to shatter Jack's worldview by proving that he "lives" in a fictional movie universe, full of improbable explosions, predictable one-liners, and physics-defying stunts. Danny calls out Jack for using well-known Arnold catchphrases like "I'll be back" and tries to explain the absurdity of Jack's LAPD colleague being an animated anthropomorphic cat (voiced by Danny DeVito). Jack thinks Danny's crazy (obviously), but Danny's uncanny knowledge of secret information (gleaned from watching prior installments of the JACK SLATER series, as well as the opening scenes from this one) gets him assigned as Jack's partner, in true buddy movie fashion.
Danny is always completely self-aware about being the comic sidekick in an action movie. He knows Jack Slater's world is governed by plot contrivances and movie clichés. He even calls out the villain for monologuing. Austin O'Brien doesn't do a bad job in the film, but he does start to get on my nerves a little.
The fun really starts once the villain (Charles Dance) gets ahold of the magic ticket and enters the real world, a place where heroes can bleed and bad guys can actually win. Jack and Danny track him to the star-studded premiere of JACK SLATER IV, where fictional hero Jack Slater comes face-to-face with Hollywood superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger (among other fun celebrity cameos).
The satire of LAST ACTION HERO is on-point. Besides getting Arnold Schwarzenegger to spoof himself, the movie is directed by John McTiernan, who directed DIE HARD (1988), and the screenplay was co-written by Shane Black, who wrote LETHAL WEAPON (1987). The top-notch pedigree surely helps sell the film's high concept.
The script has a lot of potential for the right actor, and Arnold Schwarzenegger seems like he's having a lot of fun with the material. It wouldn't be the same without a real A-list action star playing Jack Slater. Arnold has a good sense of humor about himself and seems to enjoy playing with his image.
One of the best in-jokes for serious movie buffs comes early in the film when Danny's English teacher, played by Joan Plowright, introduces a clip from Laurence Olivier's HAMLET (1948), suggesting that the students might know the British acting legend from his late-career role of Zeus in CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) or an older TV commercial for Polaroid. Plowright is, of course, Olivier's widow.
In addition to HAMLET, the movie includes nods to Ingmar Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957), Francis Ford Coppola's DRACULA_(1992), and WITNESS (1985) with Harrison Ford. In the movie world Danny warns Jack not to trust his FBI buddy John Practice because he is played by F. Murray Abraham, the guy who "killed Mozart" (an allusion to AMADEUS (1984)). A Humphrey Bogart-type detective in a trench coat appears in one of the JACK SLATER police station scenes. And since "Arnold Schwarzenegger" can't exist in the fictional world of Jack Slater, his famous role in the TERMINATOR films is played instead by Sylvester Stallone.
The JACK SLATER action is hilariously over-the-top and stylized, satirizing Hollywood action blockbusters and further contrasting the fantasy world of the silver screen with the real world Danny knows. The original story, developed by Zak Penn and Adam Leff, is quite clever and the film, unconventional as it is, succeeds because of its uniqueness. The movie's a lot of fun and there are plenty of Easter eggs for hardcore cinephiles.