Last Action Hero: revisiting Arnold Schwarzenegger’s meta action thriller

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A 1993 vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Last Action hero was a box-office failure. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy in John McTiernan’s deconstruction of violent action flicks…


Last Action Hero is both ahead of its time and perfectly positioned within the era it was made – it’s the paradox of a forgotten curiosity of 1990s action cinema and the stratospheric career of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I was 11 years old when Last Action Hero was released in US cinemas – infamously, just one week after Steven Spielberg’s decade-defining Jurassic Park. In theory, I was the perfect age to consume a film about the youthful obsession of a similarly-aged child (Danny Madigan, played by Austin O’Brien) with action cinema. And yet it was Jurassic Park that I went to see three times – I didn’t go anywhere near Last Action Hero in 1993. It didn’t even register with me.

It took me until age 36 to sit down and watch it, and this was after spending at least twenty years being an enormous fan of Schwarzenegger’s movies and career. Last Action Hero was always the Arnie film I missed.

My experience was, no doubt, the same for many fans, both of the Austrian Oak and 90s 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. It had 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.

Director John McTiernan suffered through what was by all accounts a pretty nightmarish shoot, and the test screenings that followed were terrible – all of which led to comparisons with a commercial failure from the previous decade, Ishtar. It didn’t help that Last Action Hero's producers refused to budge when they heard Jurassic Park was opening just a week ahead after theirs, despite the incredible buzz around a movie which was not only directed by Hollywood’s most successful director, but looked set to change blockbuster cinema forever with its ground-breaking special effects.

In an interview with Empire, McTiernan later talked about how Last Action Hero was being completed and edited ridiculously close to its release date. “It was something like three weeks from the end of shooting to when it was in the theatres,” he said. “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, the reasons behind Last Action Hero's failure seem easy to reconcile – but the truth is arguably more complicated. McTiernan’s film – and this becomes even more apparent with half a century’s worth of distance – was simply a film audiences in 1993 weren’t ready for. 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 as a modern action cinema god.

Last Action Hero had a very different start, but one which cuts to the heart of what McTiernan’s film experimented with. The movie was born out of a script by then-new Hollywood screenwriter Zak Penn and partner Adam Leff called ‘Extremely Violent’, intended as a deconstruction of the kind of violent action movies which Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal and others like them had made careers out of. It featured a character called ‘Arno’ Slater (changed to ‘Jack’ in the finished film) and a version of Danny who, having been sucked into the world of Slater’s movies, used his knowledge to guide him through the narrative.

Though the script changed significantly over time, thanks to a rewrite by action movie veteran Shane Black, his writing partner David Arnott, and McTiernan himself, Penn and 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?” Penn told Empire. “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.”

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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 1960s spy fiction. Those films are clever and inventive — indeed, I’d rank The Naked Gun as one of the best comedy movies of all time — but they only broke the fourth wall as part of a punchline, and ultimately 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.

Last Action Hero, however, didn’t exist in a post-modern paradigm. John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness arrived soon after – 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, yet 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: it was marketed and devised as another Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle in a career littered with movies which were explosive, high concept and funny, but never lapsed into outright spoof.

In the 80s and 90s, Schwarzenegger was as populist and mainstream as they came. He was the King of Hollywood, indisputably, by the turn of the 1990s. Action movies were the ultimate popcorn fodder, entertainment for the masses — bad guys were bad guys, action gods like Arnie were indestructible quip machines who could take down entire armies, lots of things exploded, and the audience went home happy. Not every action movie held true to this formula, but for the biggest action stars, the majority of them did. They gave 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 these movies so much. Once audiences realised, or heard, it wasn’t just giving us ‘Jack Slater IV’ without 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’s much stronger than the execution bears out, thanks to a compromised vision and McTiernan filming and editing while staring down the metaphorical barrel of a gun. But it seems to understand that the conventions of the larger-than-life action movie genre couldn’t last forever. By the end of the film, once Jack Slater returns to the movie world, he actively subverts its tropes and cliches, which Danny recognises. He tells Frank McRae’s needlessly loud police chief to be quiet, that he doesn’t need to shout — ironically, McRae played an identical character that same year in Loaded Weapon 1, as if to prove the parody/metafictional point.

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Slater has an awareness that shows personal growth as a character as opposed to the 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 that Arnie was prepared to satirically send up his image, and his own brand, at the height of his fame makes Last Action Hero all the more remarkable. It’s also proof, perhaps, that he considered himself untouchable, which serves as the film’s greatest irony. 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 1980s Schwarzenegger action film before segueing into an almost Spielbergian narrative. Danny is a classic Amblin character ported into an action tentpole; a young dreamer who lives for movies and for his hero Jack Slater. It’s his way of escaping the death of his father and the austerity of a loving but absent mother who works all hours to make ends meet. The old, decrepit movie theatre 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’s a hint of Roald Dahl – who was in many ways the Spielberg of children’s fiction –  in Last Action Hero’s conceptual DNA. Nick presents Danny with a magic ticket he uses to enter ‘Jack Slater IV’ –  given to Nick as a child by Harry Houdini no less – who in turn “got it from a man in India, who got it from a man in Tibet”. This suggests there’s some eastern, mystic source for the reality-warping magic, but the film isn’t interested in exploring the logic further. The ticket’s simply magic, and can take you into the world of movies.

Last Action Hero is, in the end, a children’s fantasy fused with the building blocks of a violent action film. Therein lies the dichotomy that has stumped audiences for 30 years: if the film’s a metaphor for the wish-fulfilment of a lonely boy looking for a father figure, then why does it also try to be a parody of a big, overblown Arnie action movie at the same time?

The key to this question is Danny, who’s our window into the satirical metafiction. He’s the Short Round to Slater’s Indy, except he knows he’s in the movie he’s spent his childhood revering. It’s a classic childhood fantasy. Think back to your favourite action movie and hero as a child. Did you ever wish you were James Bond, Indiana Jones or Lara Croft? Imagine what it would have been like if you’d met and interacted with the character you revered. And this is the crucial fact: Danny doesn’t revere Arnold Schwarzenegger, he reveres Jack Slater. He wants to be the cool cop who can survive anything, who drives fast cars, 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 realm. 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 the position of top dog. There’s some merit to the argument. Benedict was a last-minute addition via another rewrite – this one by legendary Hollywood scribe William Goldman (for which he was paid a million dollars). And while Dance delivers his lines with the calculated Brit-villain menace he would later display in Game of Thrones as the 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 tests 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’re far less effective. It’s a fairly subtle indictment of the lawlessness apparent on the streets of a metropolis like New York, filled with dark grime and neon, in contrast to the sunlit, 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 from his own. The character never really exploits his surroundings, because he never seems to 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 the movie villains known to cinema from his world into ours, which suggests that for some reason all movies exist inside the world of ‘Jack Slater IV’. This is born out by cameos from Sharon Stone in the guise of her murderess Catherine Trammell in Basic Instinct (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?. How all movies co-exist in the Jack Slater world is never explained in the context of the metafictional narrative, but we can infer that Danny’s magic ticket perhaps opens up a world of cinema as a whole.

Read more: How Care Bears: The Movie led to Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Nick fantasises about using the ticket to visit Greta Garbo or Marilyn Monroe, which suggests the magic isn’t confined necessarily to the movie being watched when the ticket’s 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 is a concrete set of rules. It’s where the movie becomes muddled 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 Ian McKellen’s Death leaves The Seventh Seal and steps into the ‘real’ world, you feel the filmmakers are 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 are apparent and the film’s 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 cliches inherent in these kind of movies, and while it doesn’t always subvert them, it attempts to acknowledge they exist. It tries hard to walk a fine line between metafiction and parody.

The choice of title remains of interest, however, given the original title of Penn and Leff’s script was more about parodying and unpicking 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 obscure nod to cinema, Danny’s English teacher shows him a scene from Laurence Olivier’s 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’s interested in the concept of what makes an action hero, particularly in the eyes of a child hero worshipping a larger-than-life, indestructible character; Danny only becomes interested in Hamlet once he’s run it through the modernised tropes of action cinema. It’s no longer a story about wordplay, or narrative construction, but rather the godlike, Herculean ability to survive anything that obsesses Danny. He’s reflective of an audience, particularly of teenagers, who grew up in the 80s and 90s worshipping these figures in movies which defied the laws and physics of the real world. In many respects, the ‘last action hero’ is Arnold Schwarzenegger himself.

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