1993 was dominated by dinosaurs, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was starting to look slightly long in the tooth at 46 years old. The posters for Last Action Hero promised it would be “The Big Ticket for ’93”, but Columbia Pictures’ $85 million surefire smash underperformed (grossing $137.3 million). The studio had been rattled by the tepid response from a preview screening, but had nevertheless stuck to their guns and went toe-to-toe with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. As Jack Slater himself might say, “big mistake”.
Last Action Hero was the first script sold by Zak Penn, who later wrote Antz (1998), Elektra (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), The Incredible Hulk (2012), and Ready Player One (2018). The latter ironically featuring a Jack Slater marquee, in a film directed by the man whose prehistoric creatures took a bite out of Last Action Hero’s box office.
Penn co-write the film with his friend Adam Leff in 1991, when it was known as Extremely Violent and differed from what it became. Most of their original story took place inside the “movie world”—reversing the premise of Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)—to parody 1980s action movies written by the likes of Shane Black (Die Hard, The Last Boy Scout).
Ironically, after their script started a Hollywood bidding war, eventually won by Columbia Pictures (who paid $350,000), Shane Black himself was hired to retool the script with collaborator David Arnott. They turned it into more of a crazy fantasy adventure (involving scenes where the hero tore off a ‘scratch’ on the film and used it as a weapon), but their version was further rewritten by John McTiernan (Predator) after he came aboard to direct.
Renowned author and screenwriter William Goldman was even paid $1 million to improve what they had, with his most notable contribution being the inclusion of glass-eyed villain Benedict.
Last Action Hero’s concept was ahead of its time, which is perhaps why the film’s aged better than expected, bolstered by increased nostalgia for the brash style of filmmaking it was parodying.
Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) is a teenage film fan living in an impoverished part of New York City with his widowed mother. He takes refuge from his life by watching movies at a rundown Times Square cinema owned by his aged friend and projectionist Nick (Robert Prosky). Danny’s a huge fan of the Jack Slater action franchise, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the eponymous hero in a tan jacket and snakeskin shoes, and jumps at the chance to preview Jack Slater IV when Nick invites him to watch a print he’s been sent.
Things take an unusual turn when Nick regales Danny with a story about Harry Houdini once giving him a supposedly magical ticket he’s never had the courage to use. Danny has no such qualms after Nick gives him it, and while watching the opening of Jack Slater IV he’s astonished when a stick of lit dynamite’s tossed out of the screen to roll down the aisle hissing. After the ensuing explosion, Danny finds himself laid the back of Jack Slater’s car during the car chase he was just watching, now his screen hero’s “comic relief sidekick” against Sicilian mobster Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn) and his English henchman Benedict (Charles Dance).
The foundational idea of Last Action Hero is its greatest asset. Danny gets to experience life inside one of the overblown movies he adores, where normal rules don’t apply. Slater can launch them into mid-air with a kick to the crotch, shrug off life-threatening injuries, everyone’s phone number begins with ‘555’, there are no unattractive women (model Angie Everhart plays a video store clerk), Slater’s boss Lt. Dekker (Frank McRae) bellows so loudly he shatters the glass in his office door, and the average day for Slater is one wild action set-piece after another he always comes out of triumphant.
A lot of the story is fish-out-of-water comedy, although Danny’s imagination already lives inside movies so he’s just frustrated Slater can’t be convinced everything about his existence is false and illogical. Why is there an animated cat called Whiskers (voiced by Danny DeVito, Schwarzenegger’s Twins co-star) working for the LAPD? Why do cars always blow up when shot at? And is Slater unable to swear because the movie he’s inside is rated PG-13?
Roughly halfway through the movie, it’s Jack Slater’s turn to be confused after stumbling through a portal into the “real world”. So now he’s confused taxi cabs don’t blow up when you shoot at them, punching through glass hurts, and classical music exists (his life’s usually soundtracked by the likes of Guns N’ Roses).
One of the big problems with Last Action Hero is that the concept doesn’t adhere to enough rules to make audiences understand what’s happening. While it seems that Danny’s entered the events of Jack Slater IV, things are needlessly confused when the police station’s revealed to be a crossroads for various other movie characters. Sharon Stone (as Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell) and Robert Patrick (as T2′s T-1000) make cameos, while a black-and-white Humphrey Bogart is shown being partnered with one of the LAPD detectives. So we can’t be inside Jack Slater IV, because what kind of ridiculous movie involves those people?
It seems we’re actually inside a Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) for movie-land, where anything goes and a number of screen characters co-exist, but if that’s the case it just throws up too many issues because not every Hollywood figure naturally fits in sun-bleached L.A. The storyline continues follow the path of Jack Slater IV, with Vivaldi and Benedict as the core villains out to get Slater, so the other nonsense is just distracting hokum.
It seems the filmmakers couldn’t find enough cliches to poke fun at in the action cop genre, so broadened their targets by making Jack Slater exists in a meeting point for other real and “real” movie characters. It’s hard to know how to fix that, beyond drop it and commit to the idea Danny’s inside the world of one particular movie. Otherwise, you end up with the chaos of Stay Tuned (1992). And that’s actually not far off where things end up, once Benedict accepts the truth of his existence, uses Danny’s magic ticket to escape into the real world, and later threatens to assemble a supervillain team comprised of King Kong and Hannibal Lecter.
In one version of the script, dozens of screen villains were indeed going to invade the real world, but it was cut. That would’ve been too much fun. So all that actually happens is Benedict revives Jack Slater III villain the Ripper (Tom Noonan) for a rematch with Slater, then Death (Ian McKellen) from The Seventh Seal (1957) makes a brief appearance. All the teens paying to see Last Action Hero were huge Ingmar Bergman fans, I’m sure.
John McTiernan directed Last Action Hero, coming off the flop of Medicine Man (1992). It must have seemed like a no-brainer to reunite with Schwarzenegger, whom he’d worked with on Predator (1987), and get some of his mojo back from the days of Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990). But while he has solid credentials for making something in the vein of Lethal Weapon (1987), he isn’t known for his lightness of touch or handling fantastical elements. By all accounts, McTiernan was under enormous pressure from the studio to push the movie down various routes, but nobody could quite decide if it was a fantasy movie for kids or an action-comedy for adults.
Also, despite having a few comedy hits with Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990) under his belt, which likewise poked fun at his image as a tough guy, Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been on firm ground when it comes to making us laugh. And while he’s supposed to be deadpan as Jack Slater, this means Austin O’Brien is left to shoulder the responsibilities of being the audience surrogate and navigate dumb Slater through the story. Maybe if they’d cast a better child actor than O’Brien, or an action star with a sharper understanding of comedy (perhaps Bruce Willis?), Last Action Hero could have hung together better.
The writing was on the wall for Last Action Hero once a test screening went down like a lead balloon, but Columbia Pictures opted to press ahead and just exude confidence in the finished product with an expensive marketing campaign. $750,000 was splashed on the trailer, $500,000 was spent on the movie’s title to appear on a NASA rocket - a publicity stunt that hilariously didn’t launch until several months after the film’s release because of a technical delay at mission control. They even inflated a 75-foot balloon of Schwarzenegger holding dynamite in Times Square, badly timed following the 1993 truck bombing of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. They were forced to remove it for being distasteful.
But the biggest mistake was releasing Last Action Hero a week after Universal’s Jurassic Park, perhaps because the studio underestimated Spielberg following the flop of Hook (1992). The dinosaurs had an opening weekend of $47 million on 11 June, while Last Action Hero opened at №2 a week later with just $15 million. Filmgoers worldwide were going dino-crazy, and by the time the movie reached the UK on 30 July it could only muster a №3 opening.
25 years later, Last Action Hero hasn’t shaken off its inherent flaws and problems stemming from a garbled development. But it’s a more entertaining experience than it felt at the time, perhaps because it’s cool to see Schwarzenegger in relatively good physical shape, and at least this movie was trying to do something fresh in the genre. There’s also a fascinating moment when Jack Slater interacts with Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Jack Slater IV premiere, telling him “look, I don’t really like you, alright. You’ve brought me nothing but pain.” Last Action Hero might have been improved if it had been about the real Schwarzenegger entering the movie world of one of his characters, frankly. But I guess visual effects weren’t up for the task in ’93.
Cast & Crew
director: John McTiernan.
writers: Shane Black, David Arnott & (uncredited) William Goldman (story by Zak Penn & Adam Leff).
starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, F. Murray Abraham, Art Carney, Charles Dance, Frank McRae, Tom Noonan, Robert Prosky, Anthony Quinn, Mercedes Ruehl & Austin O’Brien.