Since the Academy Awards are taking place tonight, I think it’s only appropriate that “Robin’s Underrated Gems” should cover a film that garnered multiple Razzie Award nominations. Looking over the history of the Golden Raspberry Awards, I wouldn’t disagree with most of their selections, but one film that I will always defend to my dying breath is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s infamous Last Action Hero. At the time it was released, Last Action Hero was considered one of the most colossal flops of all time, as it was met with mostly negative reviews and had the misfortune of opening in theaters the very weekend after Jurassic Park came out, thereby guaranteeing itself disappointing numbers at the box office. As the years have gone by, Last Action Hero has developed a devoted cult following and its reputation has improved quite a bit. In fact, considering the quality of many of the summer blockbusters that are released by Hollywood these days, audiences would probably be very hungry to see a film as clever and inventive as Last Action Hero in multiplexes right now. You could say that time has been kind to this movie, but I have to admit that I still liked it a lot back when it originally came out and could not figure out why it flopped so badly. Looking at some of the original reviews for the film, it’s apparent that a lot of people just seemed to miss the point entirely. I’m not trying to suggest that Last Action Hero isn’t a flawed movie, but it’s much better than its reputation would suggest.
Last Action Hero tells a unique “film-within-a-film” story in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a fictional screen action hero named Jack Slater and eventually pops up in a brief cameo as himself. In the world of this movie, Schwarzenegger is the star of the Jack Slater franchise, a series of mindless, ultra-violent blockbuster action films. The biggest fan of the Slater series is probably a 12-year old film buff named Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), who loves to watch the Slater films in a run-down old-school movie theater in Times Square. One night, the elderly projectionist, Nick (Robert Prosky) gets an advance print of Jack Slater IV and invites Danny to his own private screening. Nick also gives Danny a golden ticket that had once been given to him by Harry Houdini and is supposed to contain magic. Danny sits down to watch Jack Slater IV, which tells the hackneyed story of a villain named Benedict murdering Jack Slater’s second cousin, Frank (Art Carney), which makes Slater anxious for revenge. During a violent chase scene, Houdini’s magic ticket suddenly starts glowing and a stick of dynamite comes flying out of the screen into the theater. The shocked Danny is soon sucked right into the movie and finds himself lying in the back seat of Slater’s car during the middle of the chase, which happens to be an hilarious and brilliant send-up of ridiculous movie chases in general.
The first half of the film involves Danny tagging along with Slater on his adventures and trying to convince him that they are inside a fictional movie world. Danny does not hesitate to point the ridiculousness and artificiality of the surroundings, such as the fact that all phone numbers start with the phony “555” prefix and that every single woman they encounter is gorgeous. In the film’s second half, Benedict steals the magic ticket and is able to transport himself to real-world New York City. Danny and Slater pursue him and Slater is shocked to learn that things work much differently here. When he fires bullets at a vehicle, it doesn’t automatically explode, and when he punches through a window with his fist, it actually hurts. They soon discover that Benedict’s plan to eliminate Slater forever is to crash the premiere of Jack Slater IV and assassinate Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. Now, before I jump to Last Action Hero‘s defense, let me acknowledge the things that are wrong with the film. Last Action Hero had a very hectic and rushed production in order to meet its scheduled summer release date. That meant there wasn’t enough time to tighten and fine-tune the movie, so its editing is a bit ragged in places and the film as a whole is a lot longer than it needs be. Where Last Action Hero falters most is during its climax because after establishing the differences between the fictional movie world and the real world, the movie seems to forget them. When you poke fun of the cliche where the typical movie villain talks too much instead of just shooting the hero, it’s probably not a good idea to repeat the exact same cliche during an action sequence set in the “real” world. Still, the film does explore the whole contrast between the movie world and real world, the movie seems to forget them. When you poke fun of the cliche where the typical movie villain talks too much instead of just shooting the hero, it’s probably not a good idea to repeat the exact same cliche during an action sequence set in the “real” world. Still, the film does explore the whole contrast between the movie world and real world with some cleverness, especially during this hilarious scene where Benedict shoots a man on the street and discovers that the reaction is quite different than what he’s used to.
The original screenplay for Last Action Hero was written by Zak Penn and Adam Leff and entitled “Extremely Violent”. Even though the finished film differs considerably from the initial version of the script, the story was always intended as a parody of the typical action movie cliches and conventions that were established by screenwriters like Shane Black. Ironically, Shane Black himself would wind up doing rewrites on the script, along with the legendary William Goldman, and I’m sure they two of them managed to add a considerable amount of wit to the proceedings. Last Action Hero is an action movie fan’s dream and no cliche is left unexplored. No film would even come close to parodying the action genre this well until Edgar Wright made Hot Fuzz 14 years later. For whatever reason, it seems that some critics did not seem to get what Last Action Hero was trying to do and practically reviewed it as if it were a straight action film. Many of their criticisms about the stuff that happens in the fictitious movie world of this film are borderline ridiculous. Some of them complained that the plot of Jack Slater IV was an incoherent mess and difficult to follow, but considering that Slater IV was intended as a parody of incoherent badly plotted action films, I’d say that’s pretty much the point! They also complained that the action scenes within Slater IV couldn’t generate any suspense since it had been established that this was a fantasy world where the hero never got killed. Well, when you have scenes like Slater trying to get rid of the dead body of a mobster named “Leo the Fart” because it contains a bomb filled with nerve gas, I kinda doubt they were exactly intended to be suspenseful to begin with! The action sequences are still tons of fun to watch since the film was directed by John McTiernan, who would know how to stage (and effectively lampoon) scenes like that in his sleep. Even if the plotting isn’t exactly airtight, Last Action Hero still contains enough clever ideas for a dozen movies and a lot of surprise cameos and inside jokes for genre fans. One of the best scenes has nothing to do with the plot at all: an hilarious fake trailer featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger in an action version of Hamlet.
Last Action Hero also features one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most delightful, self-deprecating performances. This was Arnold’s follow-up to his biggest hit, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but instead of playing it safe, he made the very daring decision to do a project that poked fun of his own screen image and the very genre that made him a star. During his cameo as himself in the movie premiere sequence, Arnold does not hesitate to lampoon himself by pretending that the Slater films have great artistic mrit and obnoxiously plugging Planet Hollywood at every opportunity. Incidentally, to do this film, Schwarzenegger turned down a script that would eventually be made into the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson comedy, The Tooth Fairy, so if you think Last Action Hero was a bad career move for him, just remember that it could have been a hell of a lot worse! In the end, there are two types of bombs in Hollywood: those that are destined to maintain that stigma forever, and those that manage to build up a very devoted cult following. I doubt you’ll find many people who are willing to leap to the defense of Battlefield Earth or Gigli, but Last Action Hero will always have its loyal fans who believe that the film was unfairly maligned. It’s hard to put one’ s finger on why exactly Last Action Hero didn’t so well, whether it be bad timing, audiences not being prepared for such a self-referential summer blockbuster, or simply the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest star in Hollywood at the time and certain people were just looking any excuse to bring him down. Whatever the reason, Last Action Hero deserves a hell of a lot better and I’m proud to call it my personal favourite Hollywood bomb of all time.