Hindsight can be a wonderful thing, and with hindsight the notion of trying to produce a movie franchise based on a fourth-wall breaking satire deconstructing the very kind of action film its leading man had made his own the decade before was perhaps brave, but also tinted with the possibility of looking like a misplaced folly after the fact. That the film in question would end up being released a week after Jurassic Park, a film that combined to iconic effect director Steven Spielberg and dinosaurs brought to life with ground-breaking special and visual effects work, seems even more like the kind of decision that leads to ‘what were they thinking’ kind of questions.
The other great thing about the passage of time is that a film that was greeted indifferently can come to be looked at differently as the years go by. While Last Action Hero was viewed as something of a commercial misfire and a symbolic disaster representing the early days of Columbia Pictures under the ownership of Sony, and having famed producing duo Peter Guber and Jon Peters running it, nowadays the film is somewhat looked back on more fondly; one of those times like Gremlins 2 when deconstructing the very house of Hollywood was, miraculously, allowed to fester within the development of a major feature film.
Having said that, one is left wondering how it was that someone looked at it in development and filming and believed it to be the thing that was going to be the beginning of a major new Hollywood franchise, but then again there was a lot of hubris going on at Columbia Pictures at the time. In many ways the film represented something of a stumble for many who walked into it with a bravado and confidence that was somewhat misplaced.
Last Action Hero marked the first time that its star Arnold Schwarzenegger was taking a very hands-on role in many aspects of the production of one of his own movies, being credited as executive producer. The biggest action star of the 80s alongside Sylvester Stallone, the 90s had started strongly for the future Governor of California with 1990’s Total Recall and then 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the latter being the biggest movie release of its year.
It wasn’t the biggest surprise that the star would want to take a more hands-on role with one of his projects. After all, Stallone had written and even directed some of his own star vehicles. In many ways, there was something dazzlingly subversive about the whole approach of Last Action Hero. The script began life as ‘Extremely Violent’ by Zak Penn and Adam Leff, and parodied 80s action films, the likes of which were written by Shane Black. Ironically, Black would do a rewrite on the script to the extent that he would be credited on the final screenplay, while Carrie Fisher and The Princess Bride writer William Goldman would also make uncredited contributions.
The inclusion of Black as writer and John McTiernan as director gave the satire an intriguing component, given that it was their work on the likes of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard that was the inspiration for so much of the project. And in the end there is a lot of Black on display here: a buddy cop component, the inclusion of a clever-and-more-witty-than-the-adults child as one of the leads, and a combination of high octane action and humour that borders on dark. And while the film is – it has to be said – a lot of fun and has remained so, it’s also not hard to see why audiences at the time flocked to the cinemas to see Spielberg’s dinosaurs instead.
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In some ways Last Action Hero is the action genre equivalent of the third season of Seinfeld: an elaborate inside joke that everyone involved in was patting themselves on the back for in regards to how clever it all was, and which plays magnificently for those who ‘get it’, but perhaps forgets that sometimes mainstream audiences aren’t fully in on inside jokes that are very Hollywood.
Cartoon cats, Basic Instinct‘s Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone, of course) and T2‘s T-1000 (Robert Patrick) all make cameos within the Jack Slater movie, while the third act’s switch to the grittier confines of the real world and New York sees the film be unafraid to touch base with some grimmer themes (there’s a lot being said on screen about how the real world operates in comparison to artificiality of Hollywood gloss) and the literal idea that what works in the movie doesn’t work in real life. We may want a Jack Slater or Schwarzenegger to save us, but we’re most likely to get Ingmar Bergman’s iteration of death deciding to pay a visit.
Last Action Hero was released in the US on 18th June 1993.