Back in 1993, Last Action Hero was being billed as ‘the next great summer action movie’. Columbia Pictures had high hopes for the film, no matter how mired the production was. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s previous film, Terminator 2, was a huge hit and thus Columbia hoped would help draw moviegoers to the theatre. The troubled production of Last Action Hero, however, could not be overcome, with the movie performing poorly at the box-office. It’s a bit of a surprise considering the talent involved. The original script was penned by Adam Leff and Zak Penn (Zac Penn would go on to work on big films like X-Men: The Last Stand, The Incredible Hulk, and The Avengers), then Shane Black (writer of Lethal Weapon and director of Iron Man 3) was brought on to rewrite the script. Besides starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Last Action Hero also had oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, Charles Dance, Sir Ian McKellan as Death, as well as many celebrity cameos. But most importantly, the director of arguably the best action film ever (Die Hard) was behind the lens. I won’t go into details about the many issues in bringing Last Action Hero to the big screen, but Empire Magazine has an excellent article about the turmoil and it’s aftermath. In fact, it was Empire’s article that made me want to go back and watch Last Action Hero again, and after viewing it after all these years, I couldn’t help but think how ahead of it’s time it was.
Now I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out. While the original script by Adam Leff and Zak Penn was cannibalized into what eventually became Last Action Hero, the original concept remained: what would happen if a kid was sucked into an action movie and used his knowledge of the genre to subvert all the cliches? It’s that original idea that lends me to believe the movie was ahead of it’s time. In fact, that the film was so forward thinking could have leant to why it did so poorly at the box office, although I’m sure opening a week after Jurassic Park didn’t help. The idea of a movie being self-referential may not be an entirely new concept, nor was it probably new in 1991 when Last Action Hero was born, but it lends itself so well to action films in general. And in a world today where the phrase “That’s so meta” is thrown around all the time, one could see how this movie would fit right in. In fact, spoof films such as the Scary Movie franchise, along with other turds like Epic Movie, and Superhero Movie have recently done really well for themselves. But instead of spoofing and poking fun of other genres, Last Action Hero takes it even further as a catalyst to the story. It’s one thing when Danny enters into the film of Jack Slater V and then gets to point out all the typical action movie tropes, but when those same characters of the fictitious world enter the ‘real world’ that Danny inhabits, Last Action Hero starts becoming Inception-like. For instance, Jack Slater (played by Arnold) from the movie Jack Slater V enters into the Danny’s world in the movie Last Action Hero where he meets Arnold Schwarzenegger (played by himself) who plays the character Jack Slater, all within a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Confused yet? When watching the movie, it’s not nearly as convoluted as it is trying to break it down. And yet the whole time watching, all I could think was “This is so meta.”
Now this is not to say that the film is a great film. It’s not well regarded today, but I don’t think it’s the disappointment everyone makes it out to be. The movie takes some time to develop and settle in, but the acting is good and the action is what one would expect of a John McTiernan film, albeit a John McTiernan on his way to obscurity. There are many comedic moments that work, but some are just obvious or head-scratching; I’m looking at you Whiskers the cartoon cat (voiced by Danny DeVito). My main complaint,though, is that the film is too long. Some of the film could have been trimmed down, but it’s mainly the third act where things slow down. It’s also the third act when the film gets interesting, with Jack Slater crossing over to Danny’s world. But after Jack Slater and Danny have their final showdown with Benedict (played by Charles Dance), it seems that the movie is about to wrap up. And yet a new plot point is introduced, as is Death, and things start to bog down. All-in-all, Last Action Hero is a flawed but interesting film; one that seems more fit in today’s world where everyone seems to be acutely aware of everything that’s meta.