Action blockbusters are making a comeback in a big way, thanks mostly to their embrace of the inherent campiness of the genre as well as meta-writing that keeps the films fun but self-aware. But at Loser City, we’ve decided to look back at the end of the action era and how the films from that time enabled the current action works to take hold, as well as examining the best of the new films and how they fit in with their predecessors. Up first is what we feel is the apotheosis of the meta-action works that arguably ushered in the commercial decline of the action era, John McTiernan’s 1993 flop Last Action Hero.
There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.
Imagine if you will a boy, bereft of a father he has turned to motion pictures. Particularly those featuring the invincible Jack Slater. It is in these films that young Danny Madigan manages to escape from his reality. From adolescence. From a world where death has already run it’s boney finger down the spine of his life. For him his escape from reality is about to become all too real, for he is in possession of a ticket, a ticket to the TWILIGHT ZONE.
Sounds like an awesome episode of the Twilight Zone, right? You can see play out in front of your eyes. A young boy skipping class to catch a morning showing of his favorite action movie hero. The old projectionist offers the boy a ticket, given to him by Houdini, so he can see the premier of the newest entry into the Slater filmography. As young Daniel watches the film a bundle of dynamite thrown at the protagonist crosses into his reality and blows Daniel into the world of Jack Slater, the Last Action Hero.
Everyone knows Last Action Hero, the satirical action movie that bombed so badly it started the decline of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. There has been a resurgence of sorts, at least critically, around the film. Its meta humor was ahead of its time and its genius is just now starting to truly shine through its previously earned stigmatism. This is the Last Action Hero everyone knows. I know a different version, Last Action Hero: the Twilight Zone movie.
The core of every Twilight Zone episode is a morality play. They are written to test the human condition. Think back to the episode “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” which features a younger Burgess Meredith playing Luther Dingle, the loser vacuum salesman who gets super strength from two invisible martians sent to Earth to observe humanity. They give Dingle super strength hoping that he proves Humanity’s potential. They are disappointed when he uses the strength for nothing more than cheap parlor tricks and leave dejected. I mention this because its story is the core of many Twilight Zone episodes (although not all of them). Put someone into a unique situation, with unique circumstances and see what happens. It was sometimes poignant, satirical, emotional and uplifting. This morality play, this test of the human condition, is fully on display during Last Action Hero, you just have to pay attention.
Very early on in the film Danny, the lead in our little play, skips class and his mother vouches for him. She’s clearly upset and lets a bit of dialogue slip that keys the viewer into the true plot of the story, “I didn’t expect to be a widower before I was 40.” Danny’s father died young and unexpectedly left his mother to pick up the pieces, forcing Danny to grow up in a world without the guiding light of his father. Danny responds by becoming unhealthily attached to the Jack Slater films. Even in his daydreams he escapes his world to watch more and more fictional variations of his favorite hero, to the extent that he even places Slater into “Hamlet”. The child only seems to care about a world where his hero always wins and death only happens to side characters (the exception being the death of Slater’s son, who was around Danny’s age). Since we don’t know the details of the death of Danny’s father, we could surmise that Danny blames himself for the death of his father the same way that Jack blames himself for the death of his son. The parallels aren’t that much of a stretch.
Daniel is using the films to escape facing the death of his father, something he doesn’t feel brave enough to do. His lack of bravery is on display through several moments throughout the film. To you and I, he may not be lacking bravery but he doesn’t hold himself to our standards of bravery, he holds himself the standards of Jack Slater. When a drugged out punk breaks into his apartment and proceeds to threaten Danny into cuffing himself to the sink in the bathroom, Danny initially resists. The would be robber is amused and lays his knife on the sink and turns his back, “Making it easy for the kid to do the deed.” Danny can’t do it and he perceives this as lacking bravery to do what’s needed, to confront death. This scene is mimicked again when Jack is betrayed by his old friend Practice. This time Danny almost rises to the occasion but he gets caught up in the thrill of it all and allows Practice to take the gun from him instead of shooting Practice, who winds up dead moments later, shot by a cartoon cat. Danny’s progression of bravery and confronting his problems changes subtly throughout the film, culminating in a confrontation with the literal Death, who Danny tells to shove it. Danny was tested throughout the film, and in the end his story is one of triumph. After a few heartfelt words with the wounded Jack Slater one can imagine Danny running home to hug his mother, a cathartic act in and of itself.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Twilight Zone movie without weirdness of some kind. We have the great Houdini to thank for our little alternate dimensional romp. Danny doesn’t merely get transported into the film. He gets transported into the film’s Universe, with its own unique physics (Remember “Toontown from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”) and reality. There is a whole undercurrent of existence that this world operates under. From the secret life of Jack Slater to Sly Stallone replacing Schwarzenegger in the Terminator franchise, this is a very different world from the one that Danny is used to. This is a world of glass that breaks from an angry yell, a world where people speak in bad puns, and a world where an ice cream cone can penetrate the human skull. The real tip off is that the world begins to change with Daniel’s incursion into it. The story alters, the villainous Mr. Benedict becomes aware that the world he is in prevents him from ever winning. By the end of it Slater accepts that things are the way they are in his world but decides to change it. Daniel leaves the theater as Jack is telling his boss that he is through killing people. Surprising character growth for someone that is simply “in a film”.
The Twilight Zone specialized in this kind of storytelling, placing its characters in a strange world with different rules or bringing something strange into their world of normalcy. Last Action Hero accomplishes both of these feats. Its characters grow and change within the challenge to their conditions. And if you need anymore proof, Art Carney, who played Slater’s second cousin Frank, was also in the Twilight Zone episode “Night of the Meek.”
Dylan Tano is a bit of an enigma wrapped in an answer sheet. Part of a subterranean culture most of his life, that may or may not have been mole people, he finds almost every bit of the surface world’s “pop culture” fascinating. When he’s not musing over whatever Nick Hanover tells him to muse over, he’s the creative director for Keystoke, where he designs web pages and things. You can find some of his old writing in the Comics Bulletin archives where he first learned of the concept of pain and loss, and no longer contributes to as a result. They say on particularly cold nights you can hear him digging in the yard to get back to the warmth of his people.