The fourth wall is a long-standing term for the concept of separation between an on-screen performance and its audience. Most straight productions act as if the fourth wall is a concrete barrier, entirely encapsulating the fictional world within. Comedies, especially parodies and spoofs, tend to treat the fourth wall with as much irreverence as anything else. They can paint it, lean against it or ignore it entirely. 1993’s Last Action Hero is one of the few films that bodily throws a guy through the fourth wall.
Even the posters are hilarious in retrospect.
Arnold Schwartzenegger is Jack Slater, a supercop best described as the illegitimate love child of John McClain and Dutch from Predator. He blows up Los Angeles on a regular basis, chases goons into spectacular gun fights and explosions, and messing with his family is, as he tends to say often, a big mistake. Jack Slater is the hero of young movie buff Danny Madigan, who cuts class and stays out late just to watch Jack Slater do what he does best. His favorite theater is shutting down and, as a last quiet hurrah, the aging projectionist offers to show Danny the new Jack Slater film (brilliantly titled Jack Slater IV) before anybody else gets to see it. He also gives Danny a golden ticket, a gift from Harry Houdini, which happens to possess magic powers in the presence of cinema. Next thing Danny knows, he’s in the back of Jack Slater’s car during the action movie’s first major chase scene. Nobody’s more surprised than Danny, except maybe Jack.
Last Action Hero is perhaps one of the most thorough deconstructions of the action movie genre I’ve ever seen. When Danny is in Jack Slater IV, he’s very quick to point out tropes and plot points to the point that he quickly goes from endearing to irritating. He’s not a dumb kid, though, so he does mellow out as the story goes on, much to Jack’s relief. Jack, on the other hand, spends most of the second act denying that he’s a fictional character until circumstances catapult him back into the real world with Danny. So while the second act is a deconstruction of the genre, the third is a deconstruction of the hero, as well as an exploration of a concept that the world is myth.
Is he taking aim at the goons, or the writers?
If all stories do in fact exist in some form, that would mean that someone is writing your story, right now. What would you say to them, if you could? Last Action Hero addresses that question, as well as what might go on inside the mind of your stereotypical action superstar between the gunplay and cheesy one-liners. While nobody was going to win Oscars for what’s going on here, the writers do give Jack a surprising amount of humanity and depth, considering how most of the movie’s a light-hearted action romp, while the villain Benedict has a chillingly gleeful revelation when he, like Jack and Danny, cross over from the world of their movie to the world of the movie we’re watching. It’s a world much closer to our own, where cars don’t explode when you shoot them, it hurts to punch things, and bad guys win all the time.
The sudden change in mood between the nature of Jack’s adventures and his experiences in the ‘real’ world might put off some viewers expecting a straight-forward action comedy. There are also some rough spots in the execution, a couple of jokes that might be more ridiculous than necessary and some problems with overall tone. It’s hard to tell in places if Last Action Hero is simply being tongue in cheek about things or wants to be downright cheeky about the action movie roots of its star and director. After all, Arnold was best known for his big, loud, ultra-macho action movies. John McTiernan was also known for the big, loud, ultra-macho Die Hard. I think that, in 1993, these two coming together to do a big, loud, ultra-macho genre deconstruction took a lot of folks by surprise.
Honestly, he’s probably my favorite kind of villain.
There’s also the fact that it opened the same year as movie juggernaut Jurassic Park. Be it due to box office receipts, actor confusion or critics blasting the movie for some decisions in execution and its necessary contrivances, Last Action Hero was not seen as a great success. In fact, many feel this was the movie that was the start of a downward spiral for Arnold, the following year’s True Lies being a notable exception. His puns and general beefiness would draw him into movies far worse than this one and ultimately he ended up in politics. And yet there’s a measure of self-awareness that some might miss. In what might have been intended as a throw-away gag, Jack Slater comes face to face with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the character tells the actor “You’ve brought me nothing but pain.” He echoes the sentiment of future movie-goers and some of the population of California in 2011.
Despite its box office performance, Last Action Hero holds up better than some of its contemporaries. The fact that some of the tropes played with, averted, invoked and downright torn to shreds here are still alive and well in action movies today underscores the laziness inherent in relying upon such conventions. Had it been a straightforward action comedy, it likely would be unmemorable and boring. Framed as it is and leading into its crucial third act, it instead defies typical classification and exists as a rare specimen that’s fascinating and strange. It stumbles in a couple of places and it’s never certain if McTiernan and the writers really love the action movie genre or want to rip it to shreds out of spite, but it’s a fun movie with some really interesting concepts at work. Fans of deconstructionist work, TV Tropes or actors having a laugh at their own expense should check this out on Netflix. As time goes on, and more ridiculous action movies come out while their stars become imitations of themselves, Last Action Hero will, I feel, continue to age with grace. Like a fine wine. Full of explosions.
“Have a nice day.”
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
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