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Movies That Defined My Childhood: Last Action Hero

Early on in Last Action Hero, John McTiernan’s irreverent deconstruction of action movie tropes and cliches, child protagonist Danny Madigan nods off during an English Literature lecture and imagines a version of Hamlet that better suits his cinematic tastes: Arnold Schwarzenegger, clad in all the finery befitting a Danish prince and chewing an unlit cigar, races through the cavernous palace halls on the back of a coal-black steed. “To be… or not to be?” he muses as he pauses to flip open a silver lighter. Suddenly, explosions rock the castle, flinging chunks of foam rubber concrete in every direction. “Not to be,” he concludes, blowing a ring of smoke.

I loved this scene. I memorized every word of the cheesy faux-trailer voice-over (“Nobody’s gonna tell this sweet prince goodnight!”). I even owned the action figure it inspired (complete with Yorick’s skull as a spring-loaded projectile). But I’ll admit that, at age six, I found it difficult to wrap my head around the idea of a dream sequence–and, indeed, to unravel the film’s overall narrative. In retrospect, though, the whole thing is fairly simple: Danny, a young action flick junkie, discovers a magical movie ticket that sucks him into the over-the-top world of Schwarzenegger-vehicle Jack Slater IV during a private screening. Hijinks ensue.

As a kid, I watched Last Action Hero for its high-speed car chases (especially the one in which Arnold and the bad guys toss sticks of dynamite at each other). Now that I’m older (with many, many more films under my belt), I can better appreciate its more humorous moments. Some highlights: the plot of Jack Slater IV, which follows the loose cannon cop’s quest to avenge the murder of his previously-unmentioned second cousin, suggests the in-universe writer’s lack of inspiration/enthusiasm; the villainous henchman-turned-mastermind Benedict, testing the limits of human apathy in the grim and gritty “real world,” shoots a man in cold blood–and smiles when nobody cares enough to call the police; and Death himself (played by Ian McKellen) steps straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, approaches the fatally-wounded Jack Slater… and informs him that he doesn’t take fictional characters.

But for every scene that parodies action movie absurdity, there’s another that perfectly epitomizes it–like the final showdown, which ends with our hero firing a bullet directly into Benedict’s explosive glass eyeball, causing his entire body to erupt into an enormous ball of flames. Whenever I watch that scene–that dumb, shallow, ridiculous scene… I turn into a six-year-old all over again.

[Originally written July 28, 2012.]

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