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Summer of Schwarzenegger - "Last Action Hero" (1993)


When I watched Last Action Hero for the first time, a few years back, I thought it was bloody brilliant. An action movie that's totally self-aware? Not only that, but one that balances sentimentality and explosions? I was in love. And for some reason, I thought that this was a beloved classic that, somehow, I'd never seen until then.

And then I found out that it sort of bombed at the box office. "Huh," I said. "An underrated classic." Then I found out that critics took a raging dump on it. "Wait, what?"

I was really confused when I learned that there was somebody in existence who wasn't charmed to high hell by this movie. Then I was even more confused when I found out that there were a whole bunch of people who didn't like it. "How is that even possible?" I asked myself, sobbing quietly as I clutched my Jack Slater dakimakura. "How could somebody not like something that I like?"

And honestly? I'm not even sure. For one thing, the set-up is great. There's this little kid whose life pretty much sucks, and he escapes from it by watching stupid action movies. Then, in a little bit of convenient movie magic, an old dude who runs the movie theater he goes to gives the kid a mysterious ticket that ends up sucking him into the world of his favorite movie character, Jack Stater. After that, the whole thing turns into a giant roller coaster ride, a non-stop barrage of jokes aimed squarely at action movie buffs and big, dumb explosions that work because, hey, we're supposed to believe that this kid's been sucked into a big, dumb movie.

The audience hasn't, though. Last Action Hero is a surprisingly clever movie. Almost every joke is a winner, whether it's a visual gag or a dig at plot or character archetypes. At every turn there's something new and funny that the movie wants us to look at. And at no point are we ever immersed in the movie in the sense that we're unaware that we are, in fact, watching a movie. Every plot point and every character wants us to remember that this is all pretend, manipulated to a razor point to guarantee maximum thrills. The writers want us to know that this is a movie, and by constantly reminding us of that, we become more aware of every stupid little idiosyncrasy that exists within the plot. And it's great. Because that's the point. It's supposed to be stupid. And that's what makes it smart.

It's almost like it was written by somebody who's done this sort of movie before and is really adept at poking at flaws in genre fiction...


Oh.

Yep, that's right. One of the masterminds behind Last Action Hero is none other than William Goldman, aka the dude who did Princess Bride and has two Oscars under his belt. He's uncredited, as you'll see when you watch it (which you totally should,) but his mark is clearly there. The original story was by Zak Penn (he later went on to co-write Avengers) and some other guy named Adam Leff, and the script is by Goldman, David Arnott and... Shane Black. Yes, that Shane Black. The one who gave us Lethal Weapon, Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Also Iron Man 3

Now, the irony here is that Black makes the sort of movies Penn set out to parody, but that's actually what makes Last Action Hero work so fucking well, along with Goldman's deft, satirical hand. Yes, this is a total send-up of explosive-riddled testosterone carnivals, but it never goes into the territory of bashing them. Like, you know, the kind of territory the overbearingly pretentious Birdman went into. It's obvious that this is more a love letter to the genre than anything, and by today's standards, it's kind of quaint and charming considering those kind of action movies are outdated and don't really get made anymore. Black loves action films and Goldman loves charmingly poking fun at things. Put into a blender, the result is a movie that's both wickedly funny and a total thrill ride.

So, why didn't it do well, then? Well, uh. See. It sort of opened the weekend after Jeff Goldblum made his debut as the sexy leading man of Jurassic Park. And Sony sort of showed off an early cut of the movie to an audience who hated it, then destroyed their response cards in a vain attempt to stop bad word-of-mouth. And it was the first movie to launch using Sony's state-of-the-art SDSS sound system, and no theater really knew how to work it. And there was a really stupid, expensive promotional stunt to paint the movie's logo on the side of a fucking rocket. And Sleepless In Seattle opened the next weekend, meaning that, while it was hemorrhaging money due to Goldblum's pelvic dinosaur sorcery, it was also getting royally eye-fucked into submission by Tom Hanks and... whoever else was in that movie. Meg Ryan? Yeah. It was Meg Ryan, I think.

Anyway. The end result was a movie that forced Sony to eat $26 million bucks. Box office competition and bad word of mouth doomed what was supposed be a blockbuster success. The movie was dropped like a hot potato to VHS and LaserDisc, and didn't see a proper DVD release for years, until 2009 to be specific. And when it did? It got put in a two-disc set with Iron Eagle. Yes, the stupid one about planes that has Louis Gossett Jr. in it. At least it got a decent Blu Ray release a year later, when studios were still in a mad rush to put their entire catalogs in high-def. Pretty bad fall from grace for a movie that has this fucking scene in it. 



Watching that scene reminds me that critics hated this movie too. In fact, it was nominated for six Golden Raspberry Awards, including ones for Worst Picture, Worst Actor, and Worst Screenplay. Christ. Whoever decides those things must have been joyless fucks that year. How anyone can watch this movie and not crack up is beyond me. 

And I mean that. I fail to understand how anyone doesn't find Last Action Hero to be anything less than charming and fun. It's over-the-top and campy, yes, but that's point. It's supposed to be both of those things in overwhelming, disgusting amounts, and then some. Saying that this is some somehow of comparable quality to Indecent Proposal, Sliver, or Cliffhanger, or that Arnold's acting was as bad as Burt Reynolds in Cop and a Half or one of the shittier Baldwin brothers in Sliver... well, sorry, but that's just bullshit. This is actually a movie with originality, with heart, with excitement. All of the other Razzie nominees that year were either cynically manufactured controversy-bait or unoriginal action tripe.

So what's the takeaway from this, then? Here you go: Last Action Hero is an underrated gem that got unfairly trashed because it was just a little bit out-of-the-ordinary. In a year where basically every movie was trying to be stupidly sexual or just give audiences mindless brain candy, this was a movie that tried to play it smart and make something novel, and do something different. It was rewarded by audiences complaining that it wasn't enough of an action or enough of a comedy (apparently "action-comedy" was a term lost on people that year) and filmgoers being more attracted to CG dinosaurs and Tom Hanks annoying wide-eyed stare. 

If you've always thought this movie looked dumb, give it a shot. Please. I guarantee you that it holds up today more than 90% of the stuff that came out in '93. This movie deserves way more love than its ever received.

Next Time: Arnold bones Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies!




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