EDITOR’S NOTE: This was first on the site on February 28, 2020.
After Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the monolith known as Arnold Schwarzenegger could do no wrong. But where do you go after you move from Austria to here with no money, take over the world of bodybuilder and then become the biggest movie star in the world?
You make fun of yourself.
That’s where the original script for Last Action Hero — written by Zak Penn and Adam Leff — came in. Penn has since gone on to write PCU, X2, X-Men: Last Stand, The Avengers, Ready: Player One and Elektra while directing his own movie, Atari: Game Over. Leff hasn’t been as lucky, as his only other writing credits are PCU and Bio-Dome. That said, their screenplay was set in the movie world and concerned a hero named Arno Slater who tries to deal with the never-ending world of violence that takes the lives of everyone around him. Pretty much, it’s a meta-aware Shane Black parody.
How weird is it that Black was brought it to do the rewrite, leading to Penn and Leff only getting a story — and not a screenplay — credit?
In Nancy Griffith’s How They Built the Bomb, the reasons for this film’s failure go beyond its biggest issue: was it a comedy or an action movie? Sure, it could be both, but the film seems wildly schizophrenic in what it wants to achieve. What are the rules in Jack Slater’s world? What are the rules in the real — real as in the movie — world? Why can some people keep their powers and Jack can’t? What the hell is going on here?
The issues that Griffith pointed out include Universal moving Jurassic Park to a week before this film would open, negative publicity caused by initial screenings going so poorly, an out-of-control ad campaign that included a NASA rocket that never launched with the movie’s logo and being the first film released in Sony Dynamic Digital Sound, which didn’t even work in the tiny subset of theaters that even had this set up.
A $26 million loss and the first real bomb on Arnold’s record. It stung.
Let me set that up even better: it made $137 million at the box office (over $220 million in today’s money) and still was a loser, thanks to the budget, the overruns and the advertising.
Arnold even placed the blame on a shifting geopolitical theme in the United States, telling Business Insider, “It was one of those things where President Clinton was elected and the press somehow made the whole thing kind of political where they thought, “Okay, the ‘80s action guys are gone here’s a perfect example,” and they wrote this narrative before anyone saw the movie […] The action hero era is over, Bill Clinton is in, the highbrow movies are the “in” thing now, I couldn’t recuperate.”
Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien, Prehysteria!) is a kid living with his widowed mom (Mercedes Ruehl) in the dingiest, most crime-challenged part of New York City. He escapes by watching Jack Slater movies and gets to see the new one when Nick the projectionist (Robery Proskey, Gremlins 2) gives him a ticket that once belonged to Harry Houdini.
This ticket allows Danny to enter the world of Slater, where he meets his talking cat Whiskers (Danny Devito!) and wonders about his friend John Practice (F. Murray Abraham), who Danny instantly doesn’t trust because he was also Salieri, the man who killed Mozart in Amadeus.
Of course, because this is a movie, Slater’s supervisor Dekker (Frank McRae, playing a role named for Fred Dekker and basically playing the exact same part that he did in 48 Hrs.) assigns Danny as the supercop’s new partner and sends them after mobster Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn!?!).
After plenty of 80’s cop hijinks, Charles Dance — as henchman Benedict — gets the golden ticket and leaves for our world, stranding Danny, Slater and his daughter Whitney (Bridgette Wilson). And Benedict hatches a plan — kill Arnold so that no more Slater movies can be made. And that means that Tom Noonan can show up as Slater’s big bad, the Ripper. Man, Tom Noonan can be in every movie ever as far as I’m concerned.
The moviemakers wanted Alan Rickman, who was too expensive, so they got Dance instead, who showed up with a shirt proclaiming “I’m cheaper than Alan Rickman!’
Also: Death from The Seventh Seal shows up and instead of Bengt Ekerot, it’s Ian McKellen. This movie plays fast and loose with cameos, with everyone from Tina Turner (the mayor of Los Angeles), Sharon Stone (playing Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct), Robert Patrick (as the T-1000), Sylvester Stallone as a Terminator, Maria Shriver, Little Richard, MC Hammer, Leeza Gibbons, James Belushi, Damon Wayans, Chevy Chase, Timothy Dalton, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Wilson Phillips showing up.
What can you say about a movie that was still filming a week before it was due in theaters? This was a film against incredible odds, odds that got even worse when negative press got in the way. Director John McTiernan would tell Movieline, “Initially, it was a wonderful Cinderella story with a nine-year-old boy. We had a pretty good script by Bill Goldman, charming. And this ludicrous hype machine got hold of it, and it got buried under bs. It was so overwhelmed with baggage. And then it was whipped out unedited, practically assembled right out of the camera. It was in the theater five or six weeks after I finished shooting. It was kamikaze, stupid, no good reason for it. And then to open the week after Jurassic Park — God! To get to the depth of bad judgment involved in that you’d need a snorkel.”
McTiernan would follow this up with Die Hard with a Vengeance, so that worked out a bit better for him. Then again, he’d also film the bombs Rollerball and The 13th Warrior.
Sadly, Arnold would later say that this was the beginning of the end of his movie career. But you can’t make a movie this big in nine months. Seriously — it just doesn’t happen.
But hey — you can see both Art Carney and Professor Toru Tanaka in their last roles. And it’s not a completely horrible movie. It just doesn’t know what movie it wants to be. And when that much money is on the line, this is what happens.