I've Got a Golden Ticket
Last Action Hero
The early 1990s were an interesting time for Arnold Schwarzenegger's career. He'd come off a decade of huge hits, from Conan the Barbarian to The Terminator, Predator, and Total Recall. He was a true A-lister, one of the big, great action heroes of the generation. If Arnold was in a film, it was all but guaranteed to be a success. The man made big movies, even when he veered into comedy, such as with Twins. He could do no wrong.
That's what makes a film like Last Action Hero so interesting. This is a film perfectly designed to capitalize on Arnold's stardom. A parody of action films at the peak of Arnold's action career, providing both the action Arnold was known for along with comedy that he'd proven he could handle. He gave a go-for-broke performance in the film, adding his substantial clout to the production. And, with a screenplay rewritten by Shane BlackConsidered one of the formative writers of the modern action genre, Black worked as a script doctor before rising to prominence with his script for Lethal Weapon, thereby redefining action heroes, and how they'd act, for decades to come., one of the leading writers of the action genre, you would think this would lead to an instant, smash success. And yet, it was anything but.
Released nationwide on June 18, 1993, Last Action Hero was met with general indifference from the viewing public. Of of what could (with hindsight) be considered a bloated budget of $85 Mil, the film only managed to recoup $135 Mil in theaters which, by any version of Hollywood math, made it a flop. It had a muddled script (that, after Black, went through a further three script doctors), confounding ideas, and a story that audiences just didn't connect to. It wanted to be a celebration of Arnold's career up to that point but, instead, ending up being a harbinger of the downturn to come for the Austrian's career.
In the film we follow Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien), a kid absolutely obsessed with movies. Most specifically he loves Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. His favorite series is the Jack Slater films, which features the Austrian action star as a down-and-dirty cop he kills everyone that gets in his way of achieving justice. With the new film in the series, Jack Slater IV, coming to theaters soon, Danny is invited by his friend (and projectionist), Nick (Robert Prosky), to check out a preview of the film. Just him, in the theater on his own, watching the latest action extravaganza before anyone else. He, naturally jumps at the idea and, when he gets to the theater, Nick makes it special by tearing a special golden ticket that was originally given to Nick by Houdini. That ticket could lead to wonder, he says, and he gives the stub to Danny.
Wonder does happen because that ticket is truly magical. As Danny is watching the film, an explosive rolls out of the screen and straight down the aisle. Danny makes a run for it as the blast blows him into the screen. Suddenly Danny is in Jack Slater IV, riding around with Slater (Schwarzenegger, of course), as the detective works a new case: a planned assassination of half the mob in L.A. Only with Danny's help can Slater solve the case, but the magic of the movies won't end once the final reel rolls on this film-within-a-film...
Although Arnold had a couple of more hits after this movie -- True Lies and Junior, both released in 1994 -- it's easy to see that Last Action Hero spelled the doom to follow. From this point forwards, Arnold's films met with diminishing returns, from the lackluster Eraser, the reviled Batman & Robin, and then outright bombs like The 6th Day and Collateral Damage. The reliable moneymaker that was the Austrian mountain started to dry up. Was this the fault of Last Action Hero?
I'd argue it was the other way around. This film was meant to be a play on Arnold's whole career, something people could enjoy together because, hey, everyone likes Arnold Schwarzenegger. And while that does come across in the film, the movie playfully riffing not just on the types of characters he used to play but also the actor himself, it also feels like it's trying way too hard to justify its existence. Many of the jokes are hammy, there's a ton of mugging for the camera, and there's this weird, slaggy energy that hangs over the whole thing. Arnold was committed to it, but damn if the film couldn't live up to what he wanted.
I think the desires of the main actor are, at least, partially to blame. By the time Last Action Hero came out, Arnold was an absolute force in Hollywood. He had the clout to make whatever demands he wanted, and you have to think he had his own thoughts on the story and script. That's a fair assumption as every big-name action brings in their own people to fluff their scripts. One has to think that once Arnold signed on board he said, "I want this and this and this, and this is what's going to happen..." He made demands, the film bent around him, and that meant that it hung on his shoulders, success or not. And this movie wasn't a success. The movie was meant to play to Arnold's brand, and it did, but it also showed that audiences were starting to get tired of it.
On it's own, I think a film all about an Arnold character, parodying all that Arnold did in his movies, might have worked. Where the film really loses steam is in Danny, the audience surrogate. He gets sucked into the film and, in the process, sucks all the fun out of it. Danny is just obnoxious, but because he's the cute, kid sidekick, Slater just puts up with him. A version of this film where there was not kid, no one getting sucked into the movie, and it was just Arnold giving an over-the-top performance (both comedically and from an action perspective) might have worked in the era. Hell, it did work in the era, just a year later when the almost-parodic True Lies came out. That film didn't have the cutesy movie-in-a-movie concept and it just played to Arnold's strengths (while poking fun at the same time).
The concept does hurt this film. As amusing as it is o have a 4th wall breaking character commenting on the film, that kind of character has to be handled right. Deadpool gets away with it because of the way that film handles its titular character. Danny is no Deadpool, though. He isn't funny, isn't omnipresent enough to be able to just cut in and riff on the material. Danny, frankly, just sucks and when he's both our commentator and our way into the film, it ruins the experience.
Plus, frankly, the film goes way too hard on the over-the-top comedy. The police station is practically on "don't call me Shirley" line away from being an all out Airplane! set-piece. The whole climax within Jack Slater IV hinges on dead gangster Leo de Fart being filled with toxic gas so he can be used as a bomb, or, as the film puts it, "he will pass gas one last time." I mean, come on, there's a literal animated cat in the film. Most of these gags have nothing to do with Arnold and everything to do with writers thinking they're funny when they really aren't.
Despite this, there's a core to the film-within-a-film that does work. Slater is a deeper character than the film lets on, having lost his son in the previous movie (which we see at the start of Last Action Hero) and dotes on his daughter. He lives a shit life outside his job, though, and this is revealed when the movie moves away from its "normal set-pieces". If we could have had a film that better explored the man inside Jack Slater to show what happens to action characters between the reels, I think there could have been some genuine depth to that production. That's not what we got here, but it would have been a far more interesting movie.
Worst of all, though, is the last act of the film. This is the point where the villain of the piece, the assassin Mr. Benedict (who is played with absolute scenery-chewing glee by Charles Dance) uses the golden ticket stub to escape into the real world and wreak havoc. Or, at least, that's the promise. But, instead, the film loses all its momentum. Slater and Danny follow into the real world, there's a lot of wandering around and not doing much, and then we get a last climax that ends much quicker than it should have. All that narrative momentum is lost because, honestly, the writers didn't have nearly as much to say about the real world as they did the fake one within Jack Slater IV.
On a surface level, if you're just watching it because there's nothing better to do, there are charms to Last Action Hero. Arnold really is committed in this film and gives it his all. The movie, from time to time, does manages to find a certain pathos that elevates the concept above cheap gags and mugging. And, despite how silly it all is, director John McTiernan does manage to stage some decent, and watchable, action moments in this film. It works, at a basic level, just as watchable popcorn.
But as a celebration of Arnold and all of the 1990s action genre, this film fails. It's cloying, it's immature, and it can't muster the kind of comedy this film needs. It relies too much on silly gags, references, and cameos, like many of the poorer parody films that would come in the 2000s. Its the kind of film where you like the concept but hate the execution, and man is it easy to hate the execution here. Despite some small charms, Last Action Hero fails on so many levels. Just about anything Arnold put out in the 1980s and early 1990s is better than this oddly bodged up film.