“Last Action Hero is a joyless, soulless machine of a movie. An $US80 (A$108) million-plus mishmash of fantasy, industry in-jokes, self-referential parody, film-buff gags, and too-big action set-pieces.” That’s what the Hollywood trade Variety wrote in late 1992 just before the Arnold Schwarzenegger-led, John McTiernan-directed, self-referential action film was released. Looking back, it’s definitely one of the meaner things said about the film but history has been about as kind.
Most people today think of Last Action Hero as one of Schwarzenegger’s biggest ‘90s film disappointments — and, by many metrics, they’d be right. Nevertheless, if you actually watch Last Action Hero today you realise, like the characters in the film itself, the movie was just misplaced. Had the film been released in 2021 instead of 1993, it almost certainly would’ve been the smash it was destined to be. It’s a film made for 21st-century audiences released in the wrong millennium.
Two years after becoming the biggest start in the world with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Schwarzenegger starred in Last Action Hero, a film about a young film fan named Danny (Austin O’Brien) who gets a magic ticket that shoots him into his favourite action movie franchise, Jack Slater. Slater is played by Schwarzenegger and once Danny is in the film, his knowledge of the franchise helps Slater make headway on a new, mysterious case. Eventually, though one of the bad guys, an assassin named Benedict (played by Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance) gets wise to Danny’s story and travels into Danny’s world, the real world, where the fake character Jack Slater must save the actor who plays him, the real Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s a complex movie that, more than anything else, rewards years of film fandom. It’s a movie made for the Internet age where scenes could be clipped and memed, listicles of references would be written, and audiences could snap and point like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But in 1993, Quentin Tarantino had only made one film, you could barely find a friend with a cell phone, and the Internet was years away from mainstream popularity so most audiences just didn’t get it or care. Many felt like that Variety review and, opening a just week after the soon-to-be biggest film of all time, Jurassic Park, the expensive blockbuster fizzled and faded into history. Which, for me, is where it stayed.
I saw the Last Action Hero when it came out because I, like Danny, was (and still am) a film nerd. Even in my early teens when Last Action Hero came out, my mum would drive my friends and me to see all the big blockbusters. While I don’t remember exactly what I thought of the movie at the time, I do remember not really giving it a second thought in the years that followed, with one small exception: I do remember thinking “How did an idea so awesome as a kid going into his favourite movie not work?” And so, with the film popping up on streaming services recently, I decided to give it another shot. To my delight, I realised the film actually does work — and incredibly well at that. It was just way ahead of its time.
The story for Last Action Hero was conceived by Zak Penn and Adam Leff and written by Shane Black and David Arnott. Penn and Black in particular — as evidenced by credits like X2, The Avengers, and even the similarly aware Ready Player One for Penn, and Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3 for Black — are two of the people who helped define what Hollywood would become in the wake of Last Action Hero. Black with his mega-expensive ‘80s scripts ushered in a new era of slick, snappy blockbusters and Penn was around during the infancy of the modern superhero boom. You don’t work on films like those without some level of film fanaticism and Last Action Hero is all that and more.
Once Danny gets sucked into the latest Jack Slater movie, his attitude towards his situation is remarkably modern. He doesn’t really question it. He just instantly, fully buys into it, which feels more like a 2021 reaction than a 1993 reaction. You can imagine a sceptical 1993 adult thinking “Wait, why isn’t he questioning this?” while someone today, who grew up on a heavy diet of Industrial Light and Magic visual effects and $US200 ($269) million superhero movies, thinking, “Oh, yeah, this is how I’d react.” He immediately starts calling Slater out on all his catchphrases and genre tropes. He even uses his knowledge of the franchise to forward the narrative of the film in really fun, unexpected ways. Slater might have the muscles but it’s Danny who is the real hero during this section of the film. And the fact that Schwarzenegger — the infallible superstar of the time — was taking orders from this snot-nosed kid, couldn’t have felt normal for a 1993 audience (then again, John Connor did the same thing). Of course, now, we know Schwarzenegger isn’t infallible. He’s made lots of mistakes, both as a human and even as a politician, so the idea of him getting metaphorically smacked around by a child works that much better in retrospect.
Scenes in Last Action Hero constantly tickle our film fancy; a trip through Blockbuster reveals that Terminator 2 exists in this world, but it’s Sylvester Stallone who plays the T-800, not Schwarzenegger, Danny DeVito voices an animated cat named Whiskers, which evokes both Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” music video, Slater’s closet is just the same outfit over and over again. When Danny and Slater go into a police station they see both the T-1000 from Terminator 2 — actually played by Robert Patrick — and Sharon Stone as her character from Basic Instinct. By 1993 those were two of the biggest, most popular films that had been released in many years and the fleeting cameos could certainly have felt out of left field. Today, we’ve seen movies like Ready Player One, Space Jam: A New Legacy, or even The Avengers and Justice League. We’re used to not just cameos but multiple different franchises and IPs smashing together. So watching now, these scenes don’t leave you scratching your head, they leave you smiling from ear to ear.
The cameos continue, of course, as does the self-reference, which gets even deeper and weirder once Slater and Danny follow Benedict into the real world and face-off with the real Schwarzenegger. Tonally, this half of the film is a radical shift from the first. For starters, Slater’s movie world is bright and sunny while Danny’s real world is dark and rainy. So even visually there’s a certain disconnect. Plus, actions have consequences here. Bullets kill people, bones can be broken — both things that weren’t possible for Jack in the film world — so the stakes are raised by this change. Most importantly though, this shift sets up the payoff the entire film is centered on, Jack Slater in the same room with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s incredible. Schwarzenegger delivers two very different performances that play off each other hilariously and when the real one instantly buys into what he believes to be an elaborate stunt, it’s charming in a very movie star way. Which, again, feels like a modern reaction to an impossible situation. You could easily see how audiences at the time may have been more hung up on the logistics of the scene rather than its wonder.
That’s just the sense you get watching Last Action Hero today. It’s wonderful in a way that feels displaced from its own history. Famously, at the time of release, there were many, many things that reportedly contributed to its failure, from arguments over the script to putrid test screenings and more. But almost 30 years removed, none of that matters anymore. What remains is the movie as a singular work and that movie is just about perfect. It’s a time capsule of meta-movie-magic that John McTiernan and Arnold Schwarzenegger buried in their pasts. One you can now dig up, rediscover, and instantly become a mega-fan of, just like the characters in the film.
Last Action Hero — and a whole lot more — is currently streaming on Netflix.