Almost subconsciously, I think I had been avoiding Last Action Hero. I saw it in theaters when it came out and remember thinking it was okay – but the bad reviews, box office disappointment and general ill-will at the time soured any notion of rewatching. Well, cut to 2020 and there’s a global pandemic and I’ve been finding myself watching a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies as of late*. Eventually, this led to Last Action Hero, which I almost wound up skipping. Almost. I didn’t skip it and what I learned from watching Last Action Hero for the first time in 27 years is that it’s incredible.
*It’s almost like Schwarzenegger is haunting me at this point. A couple of nights ago I watched Robert Altman’s 1973 film, The Long Goodbye. Then, near the end, out of nowhere, Schwarzenegger shows up. It’s like Arnold is going back in time and reinserting himself into everything I watch.
Well, more accurately, I’ve been watching a lot of movies in general, but there’s something about Schwarzenegger lately that’s been very comforting. As opposed to his peers at the time, Schwarzenegger didn’t settle for the straight shoot ‘em up movie. Between 1987 and 1993, five of his eight movies have a science fiction slant to them. (And I can make the case that a sixth, Twins, technically qualifies.) I think Arnold was smart enough to know that shooting aliens or defeating the powers that be in dystopian futures has more staying power than killing human beings whose motives become more complicated and/or sympathetic as years go by. For a character like Rambo to still have as big of a popular culture footprint as it does today, it’s pretty telling no one really watches Rambo: First Blood Part II anymore. It’s not a fun movie. It’s strangely grim for what it is. (Though, the first First Blood is still a pretty great movie.) My point is, when we rewatch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, it feels like a movie that is both escapism and has an interesting point of view.
It feels too easy to just say Last Action Hero was ahead of its time, but that’s certainly a big part of it. But I think there are a few things going on. Directed by John McTiernan with a script rewritten by Shane Black (the story of the screenplay itself would take 1000 words to explain), the plot follows young Danny (Austin O’Brien) who uses a magic ticket to enter the world of his favorite action movie franchise, Jack Slater – who is played by Schwarzenegger in the movie itself that we are watching, and also played by Schwarzenegger in the context of the films that Danny is watching. So, Danny knows he’s in a movie, and along the way is pointing out everything absurd about action movies.
Looking back, I don’t blame anyone at the time for not liking this movie. (Even though, like I said earlier, it’s incredible.) It was sold as another Schwarzenegger thrill ride of an action movie. Then people showed up and were basically told to their face, “what you like is stupid.” And this is at the height of Schwarzenegger’s fame. His last movie before this was Terminator 2: Judgement Day! It’s truly remarkable Schwarzenegger agreed to do this movie at all – to basically tear down all he’d done before. And, no, audiences weren’t ready for that. Remember, a movie that has a similar theme, Tropic Thunder, stars Ben Stiller, not an actual action movie star. Or, the action movie star. Last Action Hero might have made more sense to people at the time if it starred Jim Carrey.
Also, meta movies were a tough sell back then. To the point “meta movie” wasn’t really a term. Audience’s comedy brains were more wired for Naked Gun and Hot Shots style of comedy, not animated police cats and recurring jokes about F. Murray Abraham killing Mozart. It’s a strange thing to say, but Last Action Hero is a nuanced comedy. There’s a wavelength a person has to be on to fully appreciate it and there weren’t many people who could pick up that frequency back in 1993.
Oh, also, Last Action Hero came out one week after Jurassic Park. This movie had no chance. Yes, one week after one of the most thoughtfully crafted, perfectly executed action-adventure movies of all time, of course Last Action Hero is going to come off as a mess.
Watching Last Action Hero today, it’s almost like Arnold Schwarzenegger made a movie that wasn’t supposed to be viewed until now. Like he made a movie in his prime that deconstructs all his other movies – to be watched in a time period, now, when people like to watch actors and filmmakers deconstruct themselves. When Schwarzenegger plays Hamlet in the film (that’s a real sentence), in 1993 it was a throwaway laugh. Now, it’s a complete self-reflection of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a movie star. Again, it’s incredible. It’s amazing this exists.
Honestly, I can’t believe how much I laughed. When Jack Slater takes a swan dive off his house might be one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year. (Up there with Michael Jordan laughing about Gary Payton.) But looking back, yeah, it makes sense that me as a teenager wasn’t roiling at the Mozart jokes, even though I sure was now. Though, it doesn’t all completely work. It still feels like the “real world” doesn’t go far enough. Jack Slater mentioned he hurt his hand punching a car window, but he still broke the glass as opposed to, I don’t know, breaking his hand. (Shane Black would redo this scene in The Nice Guys when Ryan Gosling nonchalantly, with hand wrapped, punches out a little glass window, only to severely cut his hand open and have to go to the hospital.) Though, Charles Dance’s Benedict screaming on the streets of New York that he just murdered a man, only to have someone yell down to him to shut up is fantastic. Anyway, Jack Slater still seems a little too powerful in the real world. This used to be a major complaint of mine, now it’s a minor one.
Last Action Hero is remarkable. And, again, this isn’t at all to tsk tsk audiences who didn’t get it in 1993. It’s almost as if 1993 wasn’t supposed to get it. This movie wasn’t made for them. It’s made for us, now, in 2020. In a perfect world it would have been filmed, then put in a time capsule and viewed for the first time today. If you haven’t watched Last Action Hero since it came out, boy are you in for a fun surprise.
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