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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
There was no greater action hero in the 1980s than Arnold Schwarzenegger. The mountain of a man with the thick Austrian accent starred in a glut of iconic, ultra violent movies during the decade of Reaganomics. Conan the Barbarian, Predator, The Terminator, Commando, The Running Man – these are just a few of the more memorable action flicks that stand out in his filmography, each of which was released in the 1980s. Some may argue the decade belonged to Stallone, but even myself, a diehard Stallone fan, must concede that Schwarzenegger truly owned the greatest action movies of the greatest decade for action movies – the 1980s. Commando has been talked about ad nausea over the last ten years or so, and is even now rightly recognized not only as an action classic, but also as an award-winning documentary of 1980s banana republic politics (not really, but one can dream).
By the 1990s, however, Schwarzenegger’s star began to wane somewhat when compared to the heights he hit in the previous decade. After 1996’s Eraser, Schwarzenegger never truly enjoyed A-List box office success ever again. The 1990s started off the right way, with Arnold starring in mega-hits like Total Recall, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and True Lies – all three hard-R action slugfests. Schwarzenegger also starred in a series of disappointments throughout the decade, however, with films like Jingle All the Way, End of Days, Batman and Robin (in which he costarred but received top billing), Junior, and especially Last Action Hero all considerably underperforming at the box office. I’ve written about Last Action Hero in the past. I find it to be an exceedingly clever film in a lot of ways. But it was also a massive disappointment, both critically and financially, and exactly what I didn’t want to see when I saw it in theaters the summer before fifth grade.
Directed by John McTiernan, scripted by Shane Black (from an original story by Zak Penn), and starring Schwarzenegger as the titular action hero, Last Action Hero was almost designed by committee to be a big summer hit (and was indeed marketed as the “next summer blockbuster”). Two years prior, Schwarzenegger and James Cameron re-wrote the blueprint for blockbusters when Terminator 2: Judgment Day conquered the box office, taking along with it records that stood for an R-Rated film for over a decade. With the backing of Columbia Pictures and a cushy summer release, Last Action Hero would surely be the next Schwarzenegger mega-hit, another feather in the cap of ace screenwriter Black, and yet another action milestone in the filmography of McTiernan, the mastermind director behind Die Hard, perhaps the greatest action movie of all time. It stands to reason that I, as a wild-eyed youngster appreciative of all things Schwarzenegger, would go absolutely nuts for Last Action Hero – and I have to admit I was initially psyched to see the film.
Along the way, however, another thing happened – something unexpected. Universal Pictures, Michael
Crichton, and most importantly Stephen Spielberg collaborated on a little known film by the name of Jurassic Park. As a kid I had always loved dinosaurs, and I had no idea in the summer of 1993 that dinosaurs would be brought to the big screen in the most realistic manner ever seen on film. Opening just one week before, and thus stealing the thunder from, Last Action Hero, Jurassic Park not only became the biggest film of the year, but also a perennial favorite, a franchise-spawner, and one of the most iconic, beloved summer blockbusters of all time (as well as my pick for best summer movie ever made, just ahead of Jaws). Suddenly, the kinds of movies like Last Action Hero seemed a bit old hat, just as Guns N’ Roses probably seemed when Nirvana hit it big. Jurassic Park ushered in the era of 90s filmmaking while Last Action Hero seemed like a dying scream from the decade of righteous excess.
Of course, this isn’t entirely true. Last Action Hero is an action movie, but it’s not really like anything that came out of either Schwarzenegger or McTiernan’s filmography in the past. It is, instead, a post-modern deconstruction of 1980s action movies as well as a wish fulfillment/fantasy film. The big secret about Last Action Hero is that Schwarzenegger, portraying fictional movie character/hero Jack Slater, isn’t really the main character in the movie. That falls to Austin O’Brien’s annoying kid/sidekick character Danny Madigan, who is transported to Jack Slater’s world via a “magic ticket” (a conceit mocked and parodied mercilessly in the 90s, most notably by The Simpsons). Through further circumstance, villains from Jack Slater’s film universe, notably the cold-hearted assassin Mr. Benedict (a fantastic Charles Dance, portraying the best character in the movie by far) begin to populate our universe (aka, the real universe). If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it kinda is – never a good idea for a film ostensibly targeted at younger crowds (the film was rated PG-13 and intended for an audience of mostly younger males).
When I was watching Last Action Hero for the first time (along with my younger brother – and we were the only two people in the entire theater by the way), I had pretty much no clue what was real and what wasn’t. This wasn’t in the good Matrix kind of way, either. This was the fault of the director and the screenwriter. I don’t blame Schwarzenegger for taking this role on and for being paid like an A-List celebrity, either, as he was at that time the biggest star in the world. But he doesn’t really bring his all to Last Action Hero and he’s not a good enough actor to pull off the nuance of the dual-world roles (for what it’s worth, he nails the “action-y” aspects of the Slater character however). This is a film much better suited to the talents of a previous McTiernan collaborator, one Bruce Willis. Schwarzenegger can do action and he can do comedy, but he’s missing the true acting talent necessary to pull off the role completely. Willis, who can do drama in addition to action and comedy, would have been a much better actor for the role.
But again, as a kid I had no idea about any of this stuff. I also didn’t even know that Last Action Hero had so much turmoil behind the scenes either. Disastrous test screenings, script rewrites (Zak Penn had written the original script and Shane Black was hired to re-write it – Penn eventually received a “story by” credit with Black receiving the screenwriting credit), issues with editing, time constraints, release date issues, poor word of mouth, competition at the box office, and general hubris by Columbia Pictures (it was one of the first films to feature the ill-fated SDDS sound technology) all lead to the movie losing nearly thirty million dollars at the box office, making it Schwarzenegger’s biggest film flop at that point. Nowadays losing thirty million dollars on a picture is kind of small potatoes (look at what films like John Carter and Battleship lost in 2012, and then how badly White House Down and The Lone Ranger performed the next year), but in 1993, it would have been almost unheard of for a film starring the biggest box office star in Hollywood to lose so much money.
There has been a recent critical reappraisal of Last Action Hero, one that rightly points out how odd, unique, and funny the film actually is. The reappraisal is mostly correct – Last Action Hero is an incredibly unique and twisted movie in a lot of ways. It is also notable for Charles Dance’s chilling villain, numerous cameos that are actually funny and make sense (the best of which remains an uncredited Danny DeVito), and general oddities (including what was probably the most expensive fart joke ever filmed) throughout its incredibly lengthy 130-minute running time. But it is not a good movie, not by any stretch of the imagination. Austin O’Brien, ostensibly the lead, is a putrid actor, and the stench of his awful performance just screams “child actor” in the worst possible way. Ultimately, McTiernan, Schwarzenegger, and Black all tried to force action and comedy together in ways that just didn’t make sense on screen. I imagine there was a great spark of an idea somewhere in Last Action Hero (and indeed, it can kinda be seen in places throughout the film), but the final product just turned out to be such an absolute mess – one that couldn’t even placate the easily placated mind of a 5th grader.