Last Action Hero is both ahead of its time and perfectly positioned within the era it was made, such is the paradox of a forgotten curiosity of 1990’s action cinema and the stratospheric career of Arnold Schwartzenegger.
Here’s my story and why I’m writing about Last Action Hero some twenty five years on from its release. I was 11 years old when Last Action Hero was released in cinemas, in the US one week after Steven Spielberg’s decade-defining Jurassic Park. In theory, I was the perfect age to consume a film which is entirely about the youthful obsession of a similarly-aged child, Austin O’Brien’s Danny Madigan, with action adventure cinema. Jurassic Park I badgered my parents to take me to see three times yet I didn’t go anywhere near Last Action Hero. It didn’t even register with me.
It has taken me until age 36 to actually sit down and watch it, and this is after spending at least the last twenty years being an enormous fan of Schwarzenegger’s movies and career. Last Action Hero was always the Arnie film I missed.
My experience, no doubt, would be the same for many fans, both of the Austrian Oak and 90’s blockbuster cinema in general. Stories about Last Action Hero being a critical and commercial disaster are legion, as are the lamentations of how it was predicted to be another landmark event in Arnie’s already legendary career, with a record-breaking budget and levels of promotion so extreme and filled with excess they involved making Last Action Hero the first movie ever to be advertised in space… and yet it failed catastrophically.
Terrible test screenings following what by all accounts was a pretty nightmarish shoot for director John McTiernan, or the writers involved depending on who you talk to, all added up to make Last Action Hero a sitting duck to become the Ishtar of its time. The producers wouldn’t even budge when they heard Jurassic Park was opening just a week ahead, despite the incredible buzz around a movie which was not only already directed by Hollywood’s most successful director, but looked set to change blockbuster cinema forever with its ground-breaking special effects.
It was something like three weeks from the end of shooting to when it was in the theatres. Do you know the old joke? The editing department says to Cecil B. DeMille, ‘The editors are dropping like flies.’ And DeMille says, ‘Hire more flies!’ We were living that. There are enormous sequences in the film that are literally how it came out of my camera. We cut the heads and tails off, and that’s the sequence; it wasn’t edited at all.
If you put all of these factors together, it looks like the reason Last Action Hero failed is pretty clear and easy to reconcile, when the truth is anything but that simple. McTiernan’s film, and this becomes even more apparent with half a century’s worth of distance, was simply a picture audiences in 1993 were not ready for. What they wanted, what they expected, was another film with Arnold Schwarzenegger doing what he did best. What they got was a movie which attempted to deconstruct the myth of Arnie’s role as one of the modern action cinema Gods.
Last Action Hero had a very different start but one which cuts to the heart of what McTiernan’s film experimented with. The whole movie was born out of a script by then-new Hollywood screenwriter Zak Penn & partner Adam Leff called ‘Extremely Violent’, which was intended as a reconstruction of the kind of violent, carefree action movies over the last decade which Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal et al had made careers out of. It featured a character called ‘Arno’ Slater (instead of Jack by the time of the film that was made) and a version of Danny who used his knowledge of Arno’s movies to guide him through the narrative, once he is sucked into the fictional world of the Slater movies.
Though the script changed significantly over time, thanks to a rewrite by action movie veteran Shane Black (and writing partner David Arnott), and McTiernan himself, Penn & Leff’s central concept of narrative deconstruction, and an embracement of the ‘metanarrative’, was still there:
The basic idea was: wouldn’t it be cool if a kid got sucked into a silly action movie and used his knowledge of the genre to subvert all the clichés? We dubbed it Reverse Purple Rose after we realised it was the opposite of Woody Allen’s Purple Rose Of Cairo, where a character comes out of the screen into the real world. We rented every action movie we could think of and made a checklist. Does the second-most evil bad guy die before or after the most evil bad guy? Does the hero have a Vietnam buddy? It was fun, although watching Steven Seagal movies one after another can be soul-crushing.
This is the first indication that Last Action Hero was some years ahead of its time. Were it simply a parody, it perhaps would have been more successful – as The Naked Gun films in lampooning cop shows were (or around the same time, National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1’s parody of the Lethal Weapon franchise) or the Austin Powers franchise would later spoof 1960’s spy fiction. Those films are clever and inventive—indeed I’d personally rank The Naked Gun as one of the best comedy movies of all time—but they only ‘broke the 4th wall’ as part of a punchline, and ultimately they told an in-universe narrative which didn’t have the same level of self-awareness of Last Action Hero. McTiernan’s movie, conversely, *knew* it was a movie, or at least a movie about a movie.
Metafiction has a fairly broad distinction, covering everything from parody all the way through to the narrative chicanery of dreams within dreams inside Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but the most relative examples to Last Action Hero are those which concern narratives which actively are aware they are narratives. Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction, for example, in which Will Ferrell’s tax man comes to realise he is a character inside Emma Thompson’s writer’s story; or John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, where Sam Neill’s investigation of an insurance claim leads him to become part of what appear to be fictional events inside a horror novel existing in the real world.
One of the more recent examples is The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, the big-screen version of British cult TV comedy The League of Gentlemen, in which its gallery of grotesques cross over into the real world and meet their creators. TV shows in the 90’s and 00’s such as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys or Supernatural also have played with the idea of blurring the lines between their fictional worlds and those of their own creators. Metafiction has steadily grown in popularity in the post-modern world of cinema and television.
Last Action Hero, however, did not exist in a post-modern paradigm. Though Carpenter’s aforementioned film arrived only two years later, it was a cult horror movie by a director known for cult cinema, part of a genre which for years had been reinventing itself and playing with narrative constructs; In the Mouth of Madness was still innovative and fascinating but to a degree made sense in the context of who made it and where it sat in the landscape. Last Action Hero was quite the opposite. Last Action Hero was marketed and devised as another Arnold Schwarzenegger picture in a career littered with movies which were explosive, high concept and, yes, funny, but never lapsing directly into spoof.
Commando, which Last Action Hero holds perhaps the biggest debt to, is arguably the closest Arnie’s action pictures get to outright parody – it just doesn’t know it. That’s the difference. Last Action Hero was designed to deconstruct the very genre, the very expectations, of a movie star and style of picture audiences had come to expect from their blockbusters over the last decade. Had McTiernan made his film five or six years later, as the landscape had started to change, it may well have been more successful.
You have to remember: the early 90’s was dominated by marquee names selling gigantic action pictures. Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Stallone and Snipes in Demolition Man (which came out the same year as Last Action Hero and, similarly, played with expectations, though it was much more successful). Cruise. Gibson. Costner. White leading men who carried their movies on their backs, the high concept coming before everything else. It was after Jurassic Park the tide really began to shift back towards the idea itself, in the mid-90’s tentpole movies were often harking back to genres thought consigned to history – the alien invasion B-movie revived by Independence Day, monster movies such as a modernised Godzilla, or the return of disaster action movies such as Dante’s Peak or Armageddon.
Some of these had big movie star names attached but they either played as part of an ensemble (Will Smith in ID) or second fiddle to the ‘event’ (Pierce Brosnan to an exploding volcano). There’s a reason you didn’t see Arnie or Sly or Mel as part of these kind of pictures – they were just too big a marquee name in a blockbuster culture that was shifting away from servicing the celluloid Ego of the action movie star. By the end of the 90’s and into the 2000’s, Arnie was making stuff without sparkle like The 6th Day or End of Days, Stallone was trying to reinvent himself in more dramatic fare such as James Mangold’s Copland, and Mel Gibson was groaning at the seams in Lethal Weapon 4. Their time, collectively, seemed for the most part to be over. Postmodernism in cinema particularly seemed to bear that out.
For the best example of this, we need again to turn to the horror genre, and arguably the most successful horror franchise since John Carpenter’s original Halloween in the late 1970’s – Wes Craven’s Scream in 1996. Scream, and its sequels to a degree of ever decreasing returns, reinvented the horror genre with a referential self-awareness of the conventions that genre had constructed in American cinema over the previous two decades, thanks primarily to Craven’s own early horror films such as The Hills Have Eyes. In Scream, characters attempt to stay alive and second guess the actions of the killer by discussing horror movie tropes – don’t ever say “I’ll be right back”, for example, before heading off to investigate a strange noise etc… and the film struck a massive chord with horror aficionados and beyond for still being scary and thrilling while equally ripping up the conventions of the horror genre and, in a post-modern fashion, building the self-awareness about them into the storytelling. The horror genre was forever changed by Scream and what Craven did.
Here’s the rub, however: three years earlier, Last Action Hero was trying to the exact same thing with the action genre. Except unlike Scream, nobody went to see it and nobody wanted to know. They wanted the next Terminator or the next Running Man. They didn’t want Schwarzenegger attempting to self-analyse the constructs that made his movies, and made his genre, so entertaining.
Perhaps to understand why, you have to consider the audiences involved. Horror has always attached a certain cache, cult audience in a way no other genre (except perhaps science-fiction) comes close. More often than not, indeed, devoted horror fans are also movie aficionados who understand the conventions of the pictures they see, and therefore are entirely more open to those conventions being played with, analysed and reinvented. Hence why horror is the most elastic and durable genre in cinema. Consider the action movie audience and they’re, largely, a very different beast.
In the 80’s & 90’s, Schwarzenegger is as populist and mainstream as they come. He is the King of Hollywood, indisputably, by the turn of the 1990’s. Action movies are the ultimate popcorn fodder, entertainment for the masses – bad guys are bad guys, action Gods like Arnie are indestructible quip machines who can take down entire armies, lots of things explode, and the audience goes home happy. Not every action movie holds true to this formula but for the big gun action stars, the majority of them did. They gave the people what they wanted. Danny Madigan, in Last Action Hero, is precisely that kind of audience member and the Jack Slater franchise is exactly that kind of movie. Last Action Hero is trying to figure out why we revere those pictures so much. Once audiences realised, or heard, it wasn’t just giving us Jack Slater IV without any irony or deconstruction, they went off looking for the equivalent of Jack Slater IV instead.
Let’s be clear: Last Action Hero is a flawed movie. Conceptually it is much stronger than, in places, the execution bears out, thanks to a compromised vision and McTiernan filming and editing down the metaphorical barrel of a gun, but it seems to understand that the conventions of the larger than life action movie genre cannot last forever. By the end of the picture, once Jack Slater returns to the movie world, he actively is subverting the tropes and cliches built into his world, which Danny recognises; he tells Frank McRae’s needlessly shouty police chief to be quiet, that he doesn’t need to shout – ironically McRae plays an identical character in the same year in Loaded Weapon 1, as if to prove the parody/metafictional point.
Slater has an awareness that shows personal growth as a character as opposed to just a one-dimensional personification of an action star – indeed he has far more dimensions than Schwarzenegger himself, who in the ‘real world’ of Last Action Hero is a largely vacuous movie star only interested in selling his Planet Hollywood brand. When you consider the fact Arnie was prepared to satirically send up his image, and his own brand, in this way at the very height of his fame, it makes Last Action Hero all the more remarkable. It’s also proof he perhaps considered himself untouchable, which serves as the pictures greatest irony – as bar one or two examples, his career was never quite as stellar after Last Action Hero. Arnie almost didn’t learn the lessons of his own satire.
Last Action Hero wrong-foots you from the outset. It starts like a typical 1980’s action picture that would have starred Schwarzenegger before segueing into an almost-Spielbergian narrative. Danny is a classic Amblin character ported into an action tentpole; a young boy, a dreamer who lives for movies and for his hero Jack Slater, as a way of escaping the death of his father and the austerity of a loving but absent mother working all hours to make the bread. The old, decrepit movie theater where Danny sees the Jack Slater movies might as well be a magical fantasy land, with Robert Prosky’s kindly projectionist Nick the gatekeeper to a world of pure imagination.
There is Roald Dahl, in many ways the Spielberg of fiction, in Last Action Hero’s conceptual DNA given Nick presents Danny the magic ticket he uses to enter Jack Slater IV, which was given to Nick as a child by Harry Houdini no less, who “got it from a man in India, who got it from a man in Tibet”. This implies an Eastern mysticism as the source of the reality-warping magic but the film isn’t interested in exploring the why’s and wherefore’s further. The ticket just is magic and it can take you into the world of the movies. Last Action Hero is, in the end, a children’s fantasy fused with the building blocks of a violent action picture and therein lies the paradox and dichotomy that has stumped audiences for a quarter of a century – if McTiernan’s film is a metaphor for the wish-fulfilment of a lonely young boy looking for a father figure, then why does it also try and be a parody of a big, overblown Arnie action movie at the same time?
The key to this question is Danny because he is our window into the satirical metafiction taking place. He’s the Short Round to Slater’s Indy, except he knows he’s in the movie he has spent his childhood revering. It’s a classic boyhood (and girlhood) fantasy. Think back to your favourite action movie and action hero as a child. Did you ever wish you were James Bond or Indiana Jones or Lara Croft? Imagine what it would have been like if you had met and interacted with those character you revered and this is the crucial fact – Danny doesn’t revere Arnold Schwarzenegger, he reveres Jack Slater. He wants to be him, the cool cop who can survive anything, who drives fast cars, who charms beautiful women (there are only beautiful women in the movie world, as befitting the Hollywood ideal of false reality), who sticks the middle finger up at figures of authority, and who ultimately is the primary, virtuous example of American heroism.
For Danny, at least. In reality, Slater would never be able physically or lawfully to do what he does, and it’s telling the moment Slater enters the physical world, he starts experiencing genuine pain that he doesn’t feel as a character in the movie world. This is why Danny spends his entire time inside Jack Slater IV attempting to convince Slater he’s a character and this is a movie, and not reality – the problem really is that it doesn’t make much sense until Charles Dance’s villain Benedict crosses over and threatens the ‘real’ world, which doesn’t happen until the last act. Danny trying to convince Slater would have been much more logical if Benedict had been a threat to his world from the beginning.
Some have suggested that Dance is wasted as Benedict, who begins as the henchman to Anthony Quinn’s Mafia crime villain Tony Vivaldi and in the time honoured fashion of gangster movies, ends up murdering his way to top dog. There is some merit to this. Benedict was a last minute addition via another rewrite by legendary Hollywood scribe William Goldman (for which he was paid a cool million), and while Dance delivers his lines with the dripping, calculated Brit-villain menace he would later display in Game of Thrones as vicious patriarch Tywin Lannister, the promise of his character isn’t capitalised on once he gets the magic ticket and threatens the ‘real’ world.
What’s interesting is that Benedict actively does try and test the rules of this new reality; he guns down an innocent man in cold blood and then literally shouts for the cops to arrive, proclaiming his guilt – knowing that while in the movie world of Jack Slater IV the cops are prompt and punctual at punishing villainy, in the real world they are far less effective. It’s actually a fairly subtle but searing indictment of the lawlessness apparent on the streets of a metropolis like New York, filled with dark grime and neon, in contrast to the tropical, movie Hollywood crime world depicted in the Los Angeles of Jack Slater IV. Benedict looks as much an alien in the Big Apple as he does inside a different reality to his own. The character just never really exploits his surroundings because he never seems to really know what to do once he’s crossed into this new, lawless realm; the story can only think to kill the real Schwarzenegger in order to make the fictional Slater disappear and it’s quite a weak and reactive climactic beat to the concept.
Benedict does talk in vague terms about bringing through all of the movie villains known to cinema through from his world into ours, which suggests that for some reasons all movies exist inside the world of Jack Slater IV. This is born out by cameos from Sharon Stone in the guise of her sexpot murderess Catherine Trammell from Basic Instinct (released in 1992) and Robert Patrick in his LAPD disguise as the T-1000 in Terminator 2 – not to mention the Danny DeVito voiced, animated cat detective who pops up at various intervals, in a sure fire nod to 1988’s hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit? This is never quite explained in the context of the metafictional narrative, how all movies co-exist in the Jack Slater world, but we can infer that Danny’s magic ticket perhaps opens up a world of cinema writ large.
Nick fantasises about using the ticket to visit Greta Garbo or Marilyn Monroe, which suggests the magic isn’t confined necessarily to just the movie being watched when the ticket is used, but it’s unclear. In terms of the broader themes of the story, it doesn’t matter, but in other ways it matters more than anything else; what Last Action Hero lacks are a concrete set of rules and precepts as to how the metafictional narrative McTiernan’s film is engaging with actually works. It’s where the movie becomes muddled, confused and loses its way. Internal rules could have helped produce a film which understands what it wants to achieve in the deconstruction and commentary on the action genre. By the time a pre-movie fame Ian McKellen’s Death leaves The Seventh Seal (not speaking Swedish either) and steps into the ‘real’ world, you feel they’re just throwing any old idea into the pot and hoping it sticks.
At times, however, Last Action Hero does seem aware of the logic, or ill-logic, of the world around it. There are moments where the movie physics of the picture are apparent and the film is attempting to point out the colourful ridiculousness of them; Slater can drive a car up the side of a verge, or on the top of a bus, and the film seems acutely aware—often through Danny’s incredulousness—that it wouldn’t be possible in the ‘real’ world. Though the film is as overblown and noisy as a traditional Schwarzenegger blockbuster, it has an underlying level of understanding as to the tropes and action movie cliches inherent in these kind of movies, and while it doesn’t always subvert them, it attempts—even subtly at times—to acknowledge they exist. It remains a constant fine line between metafiction and parody, which the film tries hard to balance.
Schwarzenegger is his own self-parody in many respects, given he chews the scenery in his own straightforward action pictures and as his career went on, he played up to these aspects. Consider the difference between the first Conan the Barbarian in 1982, in which he barely says anything, and the pun-riddled camp of 1997’s Batman & Robin, a film for which he was top billed and was universally crucified as amongst the nadir of comic-book adaptations. Arnie wasn’t really playing Mr. Freeze from the source material in that film, he was playing the ‘Arnified’ version of that character, based on the persona he had created on screen over the last fifteen years. Last Action Hero feels like a balance of these aspects—the Arnie playing up being Arnie, and an Arnie who was interested in decrypting his own action movie star alchemy—and audiences just had no idea what to make of it. You sense at times the film doesn’t either.
The choice of title remains of interest, however, given the original title of Penn & Leff’s script was more about the parody and unpicking of the violence inherent in these kind of films. Last Action Hero is looking at it from a different angle, built perhaps around Schwarzenegger in the lead role – the myth of the action God. In one of the more obscure nods to cinema, certainly to modern audiences, Danny’s English teacher shows him a scene from Laurence Olivier’s original movie adaptation of Hamlet, describing him as the “first action hero” – a teacher played by Dame Joan Plowright, the widow, no less, of Olivier himself. Danny then reimagines Olivier’s Hamlet as a Schwarzeneggered version of Shakespeare’s text – in which Hamlet guns down goons with an uzi, smokes a cigar and changes the text: “to be or not to be… not to be” followed by an explosion.
The film is interested in the very concept of what makes an action hero, particularly in the eyes of a child hero worshipping an action star or a larger than life, indestructible character; Danny only becomes interested in Hamlet once he’s ran it through the modernised tropes of the kind of action cinema Last Action Hero is deconstructing. It is no longer a story about wordplay, or narrative construction, but rather the God-like, Herculean ability to survive anything that obsesses Danny. He is reflective of an audience, particularly of teenagers, who grew up in the 80’s & 90’s worshipping these figures in pictures which defied the laws and physics of the modern world. Maybe in some respects the ‘last action hero’ is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Or maybe not. We have started to see in modern day blockbuster cinema a return to action pictures which are dominated by marquee names, perhaps as an antidote to the emergence of science-fiction and the superhero franchise as the dominant blockbuster beast. On the one hand, former dramatic actors of note such as Liam Neeson or Charlize Theron have been recast into dark-edged avengers in pictures such as Taken or Atomic Blonde, while former action stars who faded such as Keanu Reeves with John Wick or Stallone with The Expendables and Creed have discovered their own critically acclaimed resurgence as action titans with a modern, character-based aesthetic. If there are challengers to Arnie’s crown as the ‘last action hero’, there are perhaps two men who fit the bill: Jason Statham and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
Both have found a niche in action pictures in which their names tower over the concept, in which audiences—as they did Arnie twenty-five years ago—come to see them perform modern, impossible, indestructible superheroics. The Rock is at it again in Skyscraper this summer and if there is an heir apparent to the 90’s action blockbuster franchise, it is without doubt the curious behemoth of the Fast & Furious franchise over the last few years – a franchise so popular, The Rock and Statham have gotten their own spin-off movie out of it. Though Arnie is still out and about now making action films and Terminator movies (Lord save us), these are the modern action Gods – if not the last, then the ‘New Action Heroes’.
None of them have, however, as of yet, displayed the metafictional self-awareness of a curio such as Last Action Hero. A theorist of post-modernism and the metanarrative, Jean-Francois Lyotard, stated how metanarrative actually works to scale down and personalise the story being told, and this mirrors how John McTiernan has always considered Last Action Hero, ultimately, more of a personal piece than many of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s other pictures. It is certainly a picture which marches to the drum of its own beat, and while it may only be successful in places and struggles to solidify into what it is ambitiously attempting to achieve, it remains a spirited failure of a blockbuster which wants to understand and deconstruct its own existence.
Seek it out and rediscover it, because Last Action Hero hasn’t quite yet become one of those cult movies we venerate and, y’know… maybe we should. It does have, within its bones, just a little bit of magic.
PS: For more detail on the production and making of Last Action Hero, check out the excellent making of piece by Nick de Semylen in Empire from 2012, which I quote from here.