The Death and Life of the Last Action Hero

Flexing a muscle for John McTiernan’s creative head scramble

When Last Action Hero was released in 1993 it floundered and tanked and was critically lambasted. It didn’t suffer the bloodletting fellow ’90s folly Hudson Hawk suffered. However, it tripped over its own feet and went sprawling in the muck. On paper, the film was a surefire box office winner. It starred the biggest action icon of the era in Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was directed by John McTiernan, the man responsible for era-defining action flicks Predator and Die Hard, and was scripted (or at least partially scripted) by wunderkind Lethal Weapon scribe and one time Predator alumni, Shane Black. The film ought to have been a roaring success. However, it would endure in the collective consciousness of its creators as a career low point, with many citing the film as their worst experience in the industry to date.

A cliff notes style recap of the production history provides insight into what went wrong. From its initial inception right through to its opening weekend stumble, a week after Jurassic Park debuted, the flags were up signalling trouble. What started life as a low key parody of ’80s action movies composed by fledgling scriptwriters Zac Penn and Adam Leff soon turned into an unstoppable juggernaut in danger of derailing. At the time, despite signs the film was veering dangerously off course, nobody pressed the brake pedal until it was too late. Once an initially trepidatious Arnie was attached, the script was handed to Shane Black and David Arnett to whip into shape. The rationale for this was that the duo would take the script and add meat to the bones to turn it into a blockbuster worthy of Arnie’s rep.

With Black and Arnott in control, the script became a wildly unconventional acid brew of referential sound and fury. However, once McTiernan was hired he rewrote the rewrite, diluting Black and Arnott’s efforts in a bid to put his stamp on it. Black and Arnott were fired and replaced by fabled Princess Bride scribe William Goldman. Goldman was paid a ludicrous sum for a single month’s work, during which he supposedly promoted the Charles Dance character to lead villain status and turned the film’s seventeen-year-old protagonist into a pre-teen irritant.

Following this, other changes were reportedly actioned, with a flurry of uncredited writers and script doctors contributing to the film’s increasingly dissociative personality disorder. In the end, Black and Arnett were invited back to make sense of the action scenes. Looking back, Black would later claim he refused, stating, ‘I considered it an insult to my professional pride.’ The film emerged from the chaos of its multiple re-writes, compressed shooting schedule, chaotic set, blinkered micro management of nervous studio execs, Arnie’s ego, a terrifically inflated budget, and a time lapse photography editing sequence that barely qualified as post production, intact. That it even made it to the finish line, given the frustrations it encountered en route, is all the proof needed of the delusional mindset of the filmmakers responsible.

I know I am. I’m the famous comedian Arnold Braunschweiger.

Jack Slater

The film’s extravagant marketing campaign, a series of vitriolic test screenings and a rigid release date that woefully misjudged the impact Stephen Spielberg’s dinosaur movie would have on the cinema going public, proved fatal. The end result was that Last Action Hero became a legendary cautionary tale and a humiliating footnote in the annals of action movie excess. Despite it’s metaphysical intent and umpteen radical re-writes, the plot of the film proved reasonably straightforward. A young boy living in tough circumstances, who has a love of bad action movies and is struggling at life, escapes the misery of his slum upbringing via a magical movie ticket into the realms of make believe to ‘star’ opposite his favourite movie idol.

Where the film departs from standard fantasy trope procedure is when it evolves into a wildly disinhibited and occasionally incoherent dissimilation of twin meta fictions, the ‘real’ world of Jack Slater 4, (Arnold Schwarzenegger), in which all of the rock video choreography cliches of overindulgent ’80s action cinema run rampant and the broody, borderline dystopian ’real’ world of child protagonist Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) in which incongruous magical golden tickets (Charlie Bucket anyone?) co-exist alongside violent home invaders and neon splashed squalor.

Both worlds are unrealities. As the film progresses they start to overlap. The picture becomes increasingly disordered as a result. Aesthetic inconsistencies abound throughout. An excess of ideas and an inability to blend them coherently — which is not entirely surprising given the amount of writers that were involved in drafting the screenplay — renders the film inert. An identity crisis it never really recovers from occurs. As McTiernan himself would later point out: ’It had to appear to be too many things to too many people. That’s not a very good creative environment, it’s damaging.’ And so it proved.

Still, it can be argued with the benefit of hindsight that the fact that it didn’t gel in a meaningful manner, with logic and character development making way for expansive visual mayhem and pyrotechnic silliness, is what rendered it more interesting. The film’s uncertainty may have been the result of endless script doctoring and shoot difficulties but the resulting chaos and riotous mesh of colour and ideas proved oddly rewarding when viewed under the right circumstances.

Last Action Hero is a surrealist amusement park. Famous actors reprising roles from contemporary movies butt heads with extraneous animated cats. A digitally rendered Humphrey Bogart hangs around a Shane Black inspired police precinct. Sir Ian McKellen pops up in a bizarre cameo as Death from The Seventh Seal. Exploding gangster corpses and a lead villain with a penchant for entertainingly illustrated glass eyes vie for screen time with an axe murdering Tom Noonan sporting dubious prosthetics and an oddly sinister raincoat. What the point of all this is is anyone’s guess. Why, for instance, would Humphrey Bogart exist in a parallel universe of ’80s action movie cliches? How is it that Death retains his powers when he switches realities but Slater doesn’t? How on Earth is Sharon Stone’s bi-sexual Basic Instinct ice pick killer, Catherine Tramell, relevant in a world constructed using the base principles of ’80s teen blockbusters? Finally, in a meta Universe where reason and consistency are secondary considerations, does the absence of an established internal logic matter?

In spite of its flaws, and often as a direct consequence of them, Last Action Hero is an entertaining ride. Buddy cop tropes are impressively lampooned throughout. Arnie’s on screen personality is put through the wringer many times over. Set-pieces from a medley of key Arnie vehicles, McTiernan classics and Shane Black scripted noir flicks are satirised. Arnie impresses in a multitude of self impersonations, which is important given the film’s central artifice. Charles Dance, meanwhile, as Mr. Benedict, the dryly humorous, disgruntled henchman who gets ideas above his station, murders his boss, flees to the mirror world of Danny Madigan and promptly sets about indulging his villainous proclivities when it becomes apparent his actions have limited consequences, is a delight.

Where are the ordinary, everyday women? They don’t exist because this is a movie!

Danny Madigan

Less impressive, though, is Austin O’Brien. As the central child protagonist of the piece, O’Brien is an irritatingly garrulous know-it-all with a fist pump mentality and an inclination toward exclamatory shouting. Given the amount of screen time Austin enjoys, it’s easy to disconnect whenever he’s active. The movie would have benefited from an older protagonist as was the original intention. The timbre of the movie shifts to try to play to a younger demographic with O’Brien central to events. The result is that tonal ricochets occur throughout that are as jarring and unexpected as they are irritating and confused. Is Last Action Hero a kids film dressed in adult clothes, or is it an adult film playing at being a juvenile delinquent?

Ultimately, audiences voted with their feet. The film made a profit theatrically factoring overseas revenue into the mix. However, it was critically butchered and consigned to the trash can. Arnie suffered his first real box office rejection, but was more philosophical than many of his co-workers when reflecting on the film’s failure. He claimed that he’d ‘loved the idea of the movie’, despite the fact Variety ran a headline that read ‘Lizard eats Arnie’s lunch’ in the wake of the film’s underperformance.

In the intervening years, opinions have mellowed. Generally the view nowadays is that, though the movie is by no means a classic, it’s an admirable failure that the media treated viciously. As a smartly rendered and uniquely anarchic send-up of the golden age of proto fascist action cinema, and a surrealist study of the artifice of big screen escapism, Last Action Hero succeeds more than it flunks. It is a movie with a big heart and is long overdue a meritorious reappraisal.

Director: John McTiernan
Screenplay: Shane Black
David Arnott
Music: Michael Kamen
Cinematography: Dean Semler
Editing: Richard A. Harris &
John Wright

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