I’ve always felt that when you watch a movie, read a book or listen to music, you are always moved on an almost unconscious level.
I don’t mean movies or songs that you remember or that changed your life and worldview. I’m talking about the shitty B-movies your friend forced you to watch, that shitty almost-porn fantasy novel that same friend told you was “all deep and stuff” or that LMFAO song said friend puts on repeat. No matter what, beyond the nemotions of hatred and vitriol, there’s a deeper understanding that seeps into you with everything you encounter like a metaphysical Solid Snake.
For example, there’s something undeniably noble about the heroes of B-action movies. We know these characters are idealistic to the point of caricature, and sometimes their willingness to bend the law to put away a bad guy can border on outright fanaticism.
Yet we always want to see him win. That’s part of the appeal. Because in real life, heroes rarely seem to win, and villains always do. Just look at big oil or Wall Street. Beyond that, we know true heroes — or at least people who do heroic deeds — are flawed beyond “lonely” and “kind of an asshole”.
They are drug addicts, womanizers and sometimes even abusers and wife-beaters who do good things now and then.
I’m not saying these kinds of characters can’t create great drama — they do — but the appeal of B-movie action heroes are their ability to transcend those impulses and be a “true hero” we can look up to without reservation.
In a sense, it’s a fantasy we want to believe in. It’s the stuff ancient heroes and legends are made of.
It’s this paradox that motivates me to address the film “Last Action Hero” (1993) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This film is built around the question of what would happen if an action hero was somehow transplanted into the gritty, cynical real world we inhabit. How would that hero adapt? Could the hero even function? It’s not the first, nor the last, film tackling this question. But in my opinion, it’s one of the better ones.
This movie is maligned for a variety of reasons. Now, I’m not going to lie, this film is pretty flawed, but I don’t think any of those flaws are a real dealbreaker. The story concerns a 15-year-old boy, Danny (Austin O’Brien) who gets a magical movie ticket that transplants him into the world of his favorite action hero, “Jack Slater.”
Once there, he notices all the action movie clichés (terrible one-liners, ridiculous coincidences and a lack of ugly people).
A lot of these jokes are funny, biting, and insightful. However, many of them are also a bit amateurish. For instance, there is a gag scene where Danny leads Jack to a video store only to find out that “The Terminator” is played by Sylvester Stallone in the movie universe. Sometimes it induces groans, like when it turns out there’s a dead mobster nicknamed “The Fart” who’s rigged to blow up in nerve gas because, as Danny says “They already did a bomb in Jack Slater II!”.
However, once both protagonists and the main villain (played by Charles Dance) get to the real world, the best parts of the movie happen. Unfortunately, it’s all condensed into the last thirty minutes of the film. The problem with being in the movie universe for so long is that, at the end of the day, the characters are still in a shitty B-movie. So even though Danny is poking holes into, and making fun of, all the clichés, the film still highlights all the clichés. It’s fun and interesting for a while, but it lasts too long.
Once we get back into the real world, we watch Jack as he tries to adapt to a world where, as the villain proclaims while shooting Jack in the chest, “the bad guys can win.”
And it’s true. There’s a lot of pity coming from Jack looking at all the injustice and unfairness that exists in our world.
Where he’s from, bad guys get defeated, good always triumphs and all is well. In the real world, that’s not always the case, and we feel for Jack as he realizes this.
But worst of all, his son was killed in “Jack Slater III,” and it was done simply to get better box office ratings. Where’s the justice in that?
This conflict adds a level of tension that doesn’t exist in other action movies. Will Jack succeed? Or will the harsh, unfair realities of our real world finally defeat him?
There’s also a neat bit where the magical ticket sees a screening of “The Seventh Seal” and Death (played by a young Ian McKellan) escapes “because he was curious” and that Jack, bleeding from his bullet wound, “is not on one of my lists.”
In context, it’s actually a fairly moving moment about the staying power of our heroes, and the enduring power we want to believe in them.
And that’s why I enjoy this film, warts and all. It’s about the power of film, and how it affects us on a deeper level. Sure, Jack Slater is based on those shitty ’80s action movies that infested multiplexes around that time — but there was a reason those films did. We wanted to see the justice on that screen that didn’t exist in the world we lived in.
We wanted to escape, if only for two hours, to a world where heroes aren’t corrupt, villains are punished and the world makes sense.
“Last Action Hero” is a testament to those heroes that we create in pop culture to keep our world sane.