In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1993 and six from 1983. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
There are plenty of weird rubs in 1993’s Last Action Hero, not the least of which is an interlude that feels like Jerry Bruckheimer and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger snarling “It’s a bomb!” — a profoundly self-deprecating hindsight comment on the Sony film’s slaughtering in the wake of Jurassic Park and Sony’s own Sleepless in Seattle.
But one of the oddest is that while the film’s action scenes aren’t so hot, part of what makes the film great is found within its action sequences.
Indestructible L.A. supercop Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger) is careening his Bonneville convertible through a well-curated, tree-lined suburbia. Crammed like circus clowns into a truck, the bad guys are hot on his heels firing Uzis and hurling Acme Corporation dynamite. AC/DC blares on the soundtrack. An ice cream truck explodes after a bad guy lands on it, sending a cone into the back of another lackey’s head.
“I iced that guy,” Slater quips, “to cone a phrase.”
It’s the Keystone Kops, Looney Tunes and The Terminator all rolled into one bizarre, demented sequence. Later, Slater dangles from a crane attempting to defuse a chemical bomb implanted inside a dead mobster named Leo the Fart (who will “pass gas one more time”). And that’s when it hits you: Postmodern doesn’t even begin to cover what’s going on here.
Last Action Hero is as much a sloppy wet kiss to cliché as it is a merciless evisceration of it, as much an embrace as an exorcism of screenwriter stereotypes, and a brazen, purposefully Dadaist attempt to kill logic with non-sequitur napalm.
How else to explain an animated cat named Whiskers with Danny DeVito’s voice, a teacher played by Joan Plowright lamenting the latter-day assessment of Sir Laurence Olivier (Plowright’s late husband), a pause in third-act mayhem to muse on Tom Noonan’s typecasting, dropping in F. Murray Abraham for the sake of one Amadeus joke, or a resolution intertwined with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal?
Yes, this beast is the $85 million movie on which Sony pinned its summer blockbuster hopes and lost, to a point where Last Action Hero is oft cited as a flop forebear for today’s box-office travesties. To be fair, nothing would have survived Jurassic Park’s second weekend; in its stubbornness, Sony refused to bump the release, even though filming apparently finished just a week before.
Instead, Last Action Hero was yet another expensive combination of meta and mega from the same studio that got burned by Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello singing showtunes while blowing shit up two summers earlier in Hudson Hawk.
That’s not to say the parody would work today, given the seasoning of grimness and gravitas we expect on our popcorn now. No, the reason Last Action Hero works, two decades on, is because it’s both a riotous comedy and a rigorous case study of why we go to the movies.
It understands a hero’s iconographic importance in reconciling the crap of our world (a touchstone in the work of Shane Black, one of the film’s four credited screenwriters; William Goldman allegedly did a million-dollar punch-up). It elicits the wonder a flickering screen evokes in us all — a big, goofy grin on our face for two hours, oblivious to responsibilities and regrets that await us when we leave. It sure as hell never takes itself too seriously. Neither does Schwarzenegger, who gives what is easily his best comic performance. And if you don’t think people aren’t still talking about it in the digital age, consider there are five paragraphs devoted to continuity errors concerning its Magic Ticket on Wikipedia.
One of the film’s greatest ironies isn’t even on the screen. A script that began as a parody of 1980s action films was turned over for rewrites to the very man whose work it mocked — Black, an enfant terrible screenwriter paid handsomely for Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout and who became persona non grata for the better part of the last 20 years until Marvel handed him Iron Man 3.
The first draft focused largely on the futility of violence in Jack Slater IV, the film within the film into whose action precocious pubescent Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) is pulled by way of a Tibetan Magic Ticket. The final film has the same conceit, cranking up the carnage and chaos by way of Benedict (Charles Dance) — a glass-eyed sharpshooter who then uses the ticket to enter our world, where Slater must follow.
It also has no shortage of uproarious Hollywood satire. With no more immediate family to endanger, Slater is spurred to action not just by the death of his second cousin but his favorite second cousin (Art Carney, in his last role).
Not long after Benedict breaks the fourth wall, Slater drives a Jeep through one. In Slater’s world where there is no Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone is the Terminator. Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick show up, exiting an implausibly shiny LAPD station as Catherine Trammell and the T-1000.
A scene of hardboiled, Wizard of Oz-themed small talk between Slater and Benedict spins out into syntactic silliness. So, too, does the hotheaded jibber-jabber of Frank McRae’s Lt. Dekker, a winking caricature of the beleaguered commanding officer, who verbally wrangles Tiny Tim, Anne Frank, the California Raisins and the phrase “ball peen jackameenis” into the same diatribe.
Much of this is driven by Black’s unique-mojo signature of grit, gusto and king-shit swagger. Although the script gets a by-committee credit, Black’s authorial voice screams the loudest of them all. And it was probably him who turned the final 45 minutes turn into a frat house spin on a film textbook, pitching the debate of commerce versus creativity as a clash of the titans. Plus, he excels at the dichotomy between Danny’s daydreams and his drag of real life, and he never lets the magical realism get too mawkish.
A moment when Danny’s bravado, bolstered by his favorite blockbusters, is exploited by a robber is spot-on, as is an unexpected scene where Benedict tests the limits of real-world violence. Benedict is delighted to have found a world in which “the bad guys can win” — one even less scrupulous and more desensitized to tragedy than the fictitious one from which he’s fled. (As Benedict, Dance is just as dastardly as Alan Rickman, for whom the role was allegedly written, might have been.)
This real world is one that spins madly on. Where some accuse Black of cynicism, there’s often brutal, gut-check truth. (Look at the toll violence has taken on Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon.) Here, guns need to be reloaded, fenders crumple, bones break, bodies bleed, people die violently and heroes are fallible. In essence, Last Action Hero and Iron Man 3 excel at the same thing: stripping away their heroes’ invulnerability and imposing improvisation upon them.
One major difference: Iron Man 3 made more in hours than Last Action Hero did during its entire run, ending with a paltry $50 million here and perhaps just barely profitable after overseas receipts.
Perhaps it was too early for Schwarzenegger to start popping his balloon after just one film with juggernaut receipts. Twenty-two years later, Terminator 2: Judgment Day remains his highest-grossing movie, and it seemed no surprise that he reunited with James Cameron for True Lies, 1994’s far more profitable Schwarzenegger movie.
Yet another rub: This, of all of Schwarzenegger’s films, is the only one in which he’s ever really, truly stretched himself. (The closest he’s come since is in another flop, this year’s’ The Last Stand, in which he found a sweet spot of weary vulnerability and wily virility.)
Here, he’s more or less pulling quadruple duty — sending up his straitlaced action hero bona fides, coming to terms with Danny’s manic proposition that he’s merely a movie character, insanity creeping in when he must face this fact, and even spoofing his own outsized superstar personality. (Playing himself, Schwarzenegger can’t resist red-carpet shilling for Planet Hollywood even after Maria Shriver tells him it’s tacky.)
The film’s outrageousness demands much from Schwarzenegger, and he doubles down on the self-degradation — mispronouncing his own last name like a German wurst and, as himself, touting 70 fewer corpses in the latest Jack Slater movie as a sign of peaceful concession.
Schwarzenegger also ably handles Slater’s Frankenstein’s monster quandary — why would a creator would put his creation through such paces? — as well as an atypically graphic third-act scene during which Slater, no longer impervious to bullets in our world, thrashes and gnashes into a blood-filled respirator.
Everything about Last Action Hero perfectly embodies 1990s excess, even a batshit $500,000 marketing scheme as astronomical as its $85 million budget: painting the film’s logo on a rocket launched into space. And it’s at times hopelessly dated by cartoonish computer-generated effects (seamlessly integrated into Jurassic Park a week earlier) and copious cameos (MC Hammer? Really?).
But ultimately, it’s driven less by mammoth ego and more by wild, unchecked id — an inventive cinematic valentine made timeless by audacious shamelessness and shameless audacity.