Last Action Hero and Demolition Man both arrived in 1993, and both sought to use the action film and its tropes to tell a much more ambitious story. Stallone used Demolition Man as an invective against political correctness predicting future dystopia.
The failure of both pictures in the same year pointed to the end of the action movie bloom, or at least its prized position at the box office.
If there was a throughline in Schwarzenegger’s output from the dreck of Red Sonja to the multi-layered satire of Total Recall, he never winked at the audience. In Commando he didn’t run away from the ridiculousness at the heart of the 80’s actioner and instead doubled down. Raw Deal skipped at least an act of plot development, yet Schwarzenegger was steely eyed and committed.
John McTiernan was a different story. Throughout his early filmography he constantly wrestled with the macho-male stereotype popular in Hollywood at the time. Nomads tweaked the assumption of innocence of the protagonist. Buried in Predator was the futility of machismo and its purest manifestations in overpowered weaponry. Die Hard couched its heroics in multiple critiques of all the pillars of a free and democratic society. All of this though was relegated to the subtext. McTiernan hid his disdain of genre tropes in exceptional manifestations of those tropes. The resulting films could be enjoyed on their merits and whatever their underlying motifs they delivered the goods.
On The Last Action Hero McTiernan couldn’t constrain the subtext from dominating the picture. Nick O’Brien is an avowed action film fan, and as such a devotee of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In this universe one of Arnold’s chief franchises is Jack Slater, a lone-gun macho cop typical to action features. Nick skips school to catch revival screenings at a decaying grindhouse theater. After his sixth straight viewing of Jack Slater’s third film, the kindly projectionist offers a late night screening of the as yet unreleased fourth installment.
For the occasion the projectionist gifts Nick a magic ticket, one that ultimately lets the boy hop right into the new feature.
Once inside a cinema world and quickly paired with his hero Jack Slater, Nick doesn’t take time to enjoy the spoils of living onscreen. He sets about trying to convince Slater that he is a fictional creation in a fictional world. In practice that means pointing out how two dimensional that existence really is.
What seemed like a set up for wish fulfillment in a world that could fulfill those wishes to a broad degree instead becomes an exercise in midlife crisis. And here, whatever reservations or doubts about the action genre Arnold kept hidden come gushing out. The parade of women in revealing outfits quickly becomes toxic; the lack of a social life; the signs of PTSD that bubble to the surface after even momentary contemplation--it all registers as disgust. Disgust by the actors, and even for the audience who continues to demand this sort of entertainment.
Like To Live and Die in L.A. and Arnold’s own Total Recall, films that covers this ground more successfully, The Last Action Hero makes its arguments by employing bigger and more of the stereotypes it ostensibly finds so offensive. The action sequences are grand spectacles. Women keep getting paraded in skimpy clothing well after its point was made.
The sequences that work best here are the throwaways. Arnold stars in a mock trailer for an action-film take on Hamlet. A number of actors playing themselves at the Jack Slater IV premiere, including Arnold himself at his most self-promotional. There’s a good Hollywood satire under all the bloat, but an Arnold film in 1993 had to be huge. Two plus hour popcorn epics were de rigueur for his films of the period.
The Last Action Hero is situated between Terminator 2: Judgement Day and True Lies, two box-office dominating features. Each were overly long; overly expensive; and overly expansive. None of these films really controlled their narrative. Each had plenty of diversions and took themselves much too seriously. But the excesses of Terminator 2 and True Lies built off themselves and made both must-see popcorn fare in their day. Last Action Hero is ultimately a bloated film pulling itself apart. Its ambitions can be appreciated in the abstract not in the long slog through an actual screening.