No holding back Last Action Hero spoilers below
I didn’t really like Last Action Hero when I saw it in theaters in 1993. A kid (Danny Madigan, played by Austin O’Brien) who has a terrible life in New York City with his single mother gets sucked into an action movie and has an adventure with his favorite movie character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was only slightly younger than Danny at the time, and I also worshipped Arnold Schwarzenegger, unsure if anything would ever be cooler than Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Clearly, Last Action Hero should have been perfect for me, as if Danny Madigan was living out my dream. Maybe that made me jealous, though, because I could not stand that damn kid. Beyond that, everything about Last Action Hero just seemed off.
In the Last Action Hero universe, Schwarzenegger is the same cigar-chomping, Planet Hollywood-promoting movie star everyone loves to imitate, starring in the same movies (Terminator, Total Recall’) we all know. However, Last Action Hero deviated from reality and posited a world in which Arnold had also anchored a film franchise about a loose-cannon cop, with the franchise named after its lead character, Jack Slater.
First of all, since when did they think Arnold Schwarzenegger had become Mel Gibson? Or Bruce Willis? He had played cops before, like in Kindergarten Cop and Red Heat (as the Russian half of a buddy cop duo with Jim Belushi), but Last Action Hero was oddly shoving Arnold into a Die Hard/Lethal Weapon-shaped hole, mocking the clichés of movies he had almost never been in before. While watching Jack Slater and Danny berated by his expletive-spouting police chief, I was pulled straight out of it. They’re making fun of Lethal Weapon, but they cast the Terminator to play the Mel Gibson role? WTF!
Secondly, Jack Slater IV? Were they somehow conflating Rocky with the action movie genre because that was the only long-running franchise I could think of which was named after its lead character. You didn’t go see “John McClain 2”; you saw Die Hard 2. It was Lethal Weapon 3, not “Riggs & Murtaugh 3.”
The nitpicking didn’t stop there.
As we learn from a cardboard cutout Danny lustfully observes early on in the movie when he’s still in the real world of New York, Jack Slater IV is the screen debut of a hot young actress playing Jack’s teenage daughter. So, wait, this is a franchise which had gone through three installments, and now suddenly the main character had a teenage daughter out of nowhere in the fourth one? Is the joke supposed to be that the teenage daughter had been recast in-between movies to be sexier? Or was this the first time her character had ever shown up?
Jack Slater III ended with the villain (Tom Noonan’s The Ripper) defeated but not before he took Jack’s young son down with him. What major action movie franchise would really be allowed to kill a kid like that on-screen?
Beyond that, the world of the movie-within-the-movie which Danny gets sucked into is less like the individual world of a Jack Slater movie and more “What if all cop movies existed in the same exact fictional world?” The police precinct is almost akin to the weigh station connecting all the arcade games in Wreck It Ralph. As Danny and Jack enter, they pass Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick, as their characters from Basic Instinct and Terminator 2 respectively, and then Danny gawks at all the buddy cop duos being paired off in the background, including a frisky cartoon cat (voiced by Danny Devito) and a by-the-books redhead. Later on, a black-and-white Humphrey Bogart is even seen in the crowd. All of those are recognizable movie characters or tropes; almost none of them belong together, particularly the cartoon cat, which seemed plucked out of Paula Abdul’s “Opposite Attract” music video.
As the AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky observed, “if [Robert Patrick’s] T-1000 is a real person in the movie-within-the-movie, then why does Terminator 2 also exist in the same world (albeit as a Sylvester Stallone vehicle)? If Schwarzenegger’s Jack Slater loses his invulnerability upon entering Danny’s ‘real’ world, then why do other movie characters—like Death (Ian McKellen) from The Seventh Seal—retain their powers after getting freed from their movies?”
Some of this can be written off as the mere exaggerations to be expected from a movie which is spoofing an entire genre, but Last Action Hero seems caught between wanting to be as broad and cartoony as a Zucker Brothers spoof like Airplane! and as loving as Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo. It also doesn’t even keep things to its own genre. At one point, Danny and Jack are blown up, but rather than die they simply show up in the next scene covered in soot with their hair blown out. That’s not an action movie scene – that’s a cartoon! At another point, Danny rides a bicycle through the sky like Elliott in E.T.
A lot of this is a result of Last Action Hero’s notoriously rushed production to meet a June 1993 release date. It’s also because Arnold ordered screenwriters Shane Black and David Arnott to make his character more three-dimensional. In the original script written by Zak Penn and Adam Leff, the Slater character is completely one-dimensional until the very end. He’s too stupid to see the next plot twist coming, and he has no real complicated backstory, with a family life consisting entirely of a wife who is sick of being held hostage by the bad guys. Blake and Arnott made Slater a far more secretly sad figure with a failed marriage, a teenage daughter too similar to him for her own good and a son whose death still haunts him. That gave Jack more of a reason to bond with Danny in the movie-within-a-movie, but also more pathos when he crosses into the real world and realizes his son’s death was simply something a screenwriter thought up. It’s pulled full circle in the end when Danny is placed into the exact same life-or-death situation Jack’s son had been in.
But eventually even Black and Arnott were re-written and Last Action Hero became one of the great cautionary tales of moviemaking by committee in Hollywood history. As Tom Shone argued in Blockbuster, “In a way, it offered a far more telling insight into the behind-the-scenes fiasco that had been its making than any Hollywood satire ever could, its fluctuations of tone registering every rewrite and reshoot.”
In total, 8 writers contributed to the script, although only four of them actually sought credit for their work. There was no real producer on set, but instead an arrogant President of Production at Columbia Pictures micromanaging from afar and doing anything to appease Arnold. “It was moviemaking by committee in which the committee still hadn’t called it a day. Watch it today and they’re still up there on the screen, haggling over plot points. Should Jack Slater be a figure of fun or not? It’s still being decided. Is this movie aimed at adults or kids? We’ll come back to you on that. Should that laugh be a scream or vice versa? Call my agent in the morning.”
How they promoted it back in the day:
The funny thing is that when I do watch Last Action Hero today I kind of like it. Yeah, it still takes too long for Jack and Danny to get back to the real world, and the film as a whole probably could have been 10 minutes shorter. However, what made it look like a mess in 1993 makes it seem endearingly weird today. The cop-action genre it spoofs, or tries to, is now largely dead, replaced by superheroes, meaning Last Action Hero‘s lack of cultural relevance makes it easier to be enjoyed as a movie about a kid in need of a surrogate dad and a grieving father in need of a surrogate son. Plus, there are plenty of good laughs to be had, particularly from the very game Arnold. For example, while most everything with the mob hit sequence with Leo the Fart is painfully unfunny there is a good bit of physical comedy in which Jack claims Leo is still alive and carries his corpse through the crowd screaming for a doctor. When a man claiming to be a doctor offers to help, Jack knocks him out with Leo’s head, and then quickly tells the crowd, “The doctor has fainted. Can somebody help this man here?”
I always laugh at Jack’s exasperation in the moment that Danny cheapens his years of police training by instantly spotting the bad guys’ house because he’d already seen it in the opening scene of Jack Slaver IV. “You mean all I had to do was drive around the neighborhood and point my finger and say, ‘The bad guys are in there!’.”
Charles Dance steals every scene he’s in as the main villain, be it plucking a hair out of a girl’s head to belittle Danny’s threat, “If you so dare as harm a single hair on her head” or my favorite scene in the whole movie in which he tests the limits of the real world:
There are also just some clever sequences comparing the “fake movie world” to the “real world,” like having Jack play a game of chicken and winning as usual in Jack Slater IV but doing so in the real world and encountering a completely blunt and glamorous car-on-car collision which he survives but immediately observes, “Dammit, that really hurt!”
When I recently showed Last Action Hero to my superhero-obsessed nephew, the central premise captured his attention. I had to explain most of the inside jokes to him (he had no idea action movies used to have so many guns), but he loved the idea behind the movie. He ultimately recognized what I could not in 1993 – the whole dang thing is really just a big cartoon. Similar movies which have come along in the years since, like Pleasantville, Cabin the Woods and Final Girls, have been far more disciplined in their approach to spoofing/commenting on a specific genre. They are better movies as a result, but there are joys to be found in the messy, weird, ambitious and often funnny Last Action Hero.