THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! The Misunderstood Meta-Action of Last Action Hero

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Right now, 22 Jump Street is finding success in being the year’s most meta comedy, not exactly an easy feat in a year when a Muppets movie comes out. Deconstructing a genre while participating in it has not always led to box office success, as the 1993 meta-action film Last Action Hero proves. Featuring some of the most important names in action cinema for its day, Last Action Hero seemingly had everything going for it. Until it didn’t. It was the first major flop for, at the time, a near-invincible Arnold Schwarzenegger, starting a slow downward trend that continues to this day.

Director John McTiernan started the decline of the muscle bound action star a few years prior with his action classic, Die Hard. Unwittingly, McTiernan would kill the subgenre for good with Last Action Hero. Based upon an original script by Zak Penn and Adam Leff, then rewritten by Shane Black and David Arnott, and then rewritten by practically every script doctor in Hollywood including William Goldman, author of the Princess Bride, and Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. Time was running against the crew during production. According to McTiernan, production was finished with 3 weeks to edit before the film’s planned execution release date.

The fate of Last Action Hero will always be in the rather large shadow of the film that opened a week before, a little-known film called Jurassic Park. Despite all the warning signs, the studio, Columbia, refused to alter the release date. Columbia was brash, promoting the movie as if it was the greatest action thriller ever made. The conventional marketing blitz that accompanied the film’s release consisted of toys, video games, and a Burger King tie-in.

Then there’s the absolutely crazy forms of promotion. First there was the giant inflatable Arnold holding sticks of dynamite erected in Times Square. As is a theme with the film’s release and promotion, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Days prior to the unveiling of the 75-foot Arnold, the first World Trade Center bombing occurred. As if that weren’t enough, Columbia then paid NASA $500,000 to plaster Arnold’s face and the film’s title on the space shuttle. The shuttle’s launch was delayed, then delayed, and delayed some more to the point where the shuttle launched in August, nearly two months after the premiere of Last Action Hero.

But marketing blunders say nothing about the film except some pencil-necked marketing executive had no clue on how to sell it. While certainly nowhere close to the hype created by Columbia, executive Mark Canton called the film, “probably the greatest action movie ever made.” Last Action Hero is not as bad as its reputation suggests.

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Last Action Hero is the story of Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), a kid living in New York who is obsessed with action films. He skips school and watches the testosterone-fueled stories of Arnold Schwarzenegger for the umpteenth time at a local rundown theater that serves more as a shelter for hobos than a movie palace. The kind, old projectionist (Robert Prosky) at theater offers Danny a chance to see Arnold’s latest opus, Jack Slater IV, before it opens. Presenting Danny with a golden ticket given to him by Harry Houdini years prior, he tears the ticket and begins to run the reels. While munching on popcorn and enjoying the absurd action, the ticket transports Danny through the 4th wall into the world of Jack Slater, a world where logic and physics have no meaning. Now Danny’s fate is intertwined with Jack Slater’s, and Danny must use his knowledge of action film clichés to assist his fictional hero before finding his way back to reality.

In the opening scene, the finale of Jack Slater III, McTiernan shoots the sequence as an exaggerated self-parody. The anamorphic lens flare that he employed in Die Hard is turned up to 11. You could expect something similar if JJ Abrams ever became self-aware. This sequence established the tone of Last Action Hero and how they’ll tackle the numerous action film clichés. Jack Slater ignores his captain and the mayor (Tina Turner in a quick cameo) on his way to take care of the bad guy (Tom Noonan) himself, and this time it’s personal.

Later on, when Danny’s been transported into the world of Jack Slater IV in the middle of a car chase, Slater is able to drive, shoot bad guys, and spew cheese-ball one-liners without a hand on the wheel. Every car on the road is perilously close to a collision and subsequent explosion as the heavy metal soundtrack blares in the background. The chase makes its way to the iconic 1st Street Bridge before moving the chase down to the concrete basin of L.A. River, both having provided the setting for countless chase sequences prior.

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The highlights of Last Action Hero take place within the world of Jack Slater IV. Following the brutal murder of his favorite 2nd cousin (Art Carney!) in an explosion that kills two police officers, one of them was “2 days from retirement,” Slater seeks vengeance against the perpetrators. His police headquarters is a bustling hub of activity. Slater’s perpetually perturbed superior, Captain Dekker* (Fred MacRae), constantly berates him, eventually taking him “off the case.” And, of course, there’s the friendly police officer (F. Murray Abraham) who turns out to be an agent for the film’s colorful villains.

The colorful villains include the elder crime boss, Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn), and his glass eye-wearing henchman, Benedict (Charles Dance). From scene to scene Benedict’s glass eye changes, sometimes a smiley face, other times a serpent’s eye. Benedict reaches a point where being a henchman doesn’t satisfy his thirst for power, so he kills Vivaldi to take the mantle of the Big Bad. Eventually Benedict gets his hands on the magic ticket. Leaving the world of Jack Slater IV and entering the world of Danny, Benedict travels from film to film, attempting to recruit various villains. For a fictional character, Benedict amasses a fair understanding of his new realm’s villainy, as evidenced by his final speech: “Dracula? Huh. I can get King Kong! We’ll have a nightmare with Freddy Krueger, have a surprise party for Adolf Hitler, Hannibal Lecter can do the catering, and then we’ll have christening for Rosemary’s Baby!”

For all the things Last Action Hero does right, there are plenty of missteps along the way. The film could do without Slater being haunted by the memories of his son’s death at the end of Jack Slater III. A scene where Danny and Jack visit a Blockbuster Video is utterly pointless – the joke about Stallone starring in Terminator 2 doesn’t justify its existence. Whenever the film drifts away from mocking action films in total and tries to focus on Schwarzenegger’s previous works or his real life persona, the jokes fall flat. There’s also just too many cameos, some of which have lost significant relevance over time – MC Hammer, Jim Belushi. And even though the film takes place in a world of comic fantasy, the animated cat voiced by Danny Devito is bit too much.

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Last Action Hero is best thought of as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Purple Rose of Cairo. As much as the film is a love letter to the action genre, it’s much more a love letter to suspension of disbelief. A common criticism of the film’s tone is that the rules that dictate the world that Danny comes from and the fantastical world of Jack Slater IV. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out in his piece for The A.V. Club, the film doesn’t have a central reality, therefore it’s not beholden to internal logic. It actually takes place in two different fictional worlds. The world of Jack Slater pure is comic escapism, where fender benders result in massive explosions and the hero is incapable of sustaining even a modest paper cut. The world of Danny is a grim and gritty fiction, a world of fallible heroes that bleed when cut yet magic still exists.

Last Action Hero was a victim of executive hubris and the misplaced notion that film can encapsulate corporate synergy – Sony products are everywhere. I also believe its diminished reputation was the result a schadenfreude. Between Schwarzenegger’s larger than life image and the arrogance of the studio behind it, when it failed it became an easy target for hindsight-driven scorn. Last Action Hero is probably the only action film with lengthy homages to both Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Lawrence Oliver’s Hamlet. Stallone never did that.

*Fun Fact: Captain Dekker is named after Fred Dekker, director of Robocop 3.

Last Action Hero is currently streaming on Netflix and Crackle


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