For the uninitiated, Last Action Hero is the story of young Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien, The Lawnmower Man), a nice yet lonely kid who spends much of his time at a rundown New York City theater run by benevolent operator/usher/projectionist Nick (Robert Prosky, Mrs. Doubtfire). His favorite on screen hero is Jack Slater; a tough, wise ass Los Angeles cop played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nick offers to screen the latest Slater installment for Danny and provides him a "magic ticket", given to Nick by magician extraordinaire Harry Houdini.
Watching it for the first time on the big screen with an enthusiastic crowd was the best way to ever see it. Laughter, cheering and applause roared throughout the duration. Arnold is hilarious as Slater, the parody of his on screen action hero persona and as a self promoting buffoon in the "real world". The flick is also filled to the brim with cameos from the likes of Tina Turner, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick, Danny Devito (as an animated cat), Maria Shriver and the "Muscles From Brussels" himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme! There was even an actor from the film in attendance (Skeezy, played by Jeffrey Braer). It's simple yet hopeful message of, "the world is what you make of it" and "believe" gives it a nice, family friendly appeal amongst the mania.
Last Action Hero was Arnold at the top of his career following the success of Twins (where he convincingly played a virgin in an Oscar caliber performance), Total Recall (See you at the party, Richter!), Kindergarten Cop (I have nothing else to do and nowhere else to go) and the mega hit, cinema changing Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Chill out, dickwad). This was to be his most appealing film yet with action, comedy, humanity, a lower body count, positive message and a PG-13 rating. A real four quadrant affair that was supposed to play out all summer. But it didn't...
Young writers Zak Penn and Adam Leff crafted a spoof on the over the top action genre of the 80's. You know, the movies where the hero is a pumped up soldier or cop with a dark past but cuts through red tape and gets the job done by taking on an army by himself? Penn and Leff's script was presented to Arnold, who everyone was looking to get into business with. Interested in the concept but feeling it needed work, the Oak drafted Lethal Weapon writer and co-star in Predator, Shane Black, to do a polish. Black brought in partner David Arnott and the two tweaked the script to the tune of a cool one million smackers. Still feeling the script lacked heart, Arnold convinced legendary screenwriter William Goldman to do a pass.
Whereas a comedic or dramatic director might have excelled in the hybrid project, action maestro John McTiernan was hired. The man behind many of the films that inspired Penn and Leff in the first place. McTiernan's work on Die Hard, Predator and The Hunt For Red October showed audiences and studio executives that you could make a film with great action and sympathetic characters without having to play dumb. Last Action Hero was to be Sony's tentpole for the summer of 1993 so an accelerated production schedule saw the film being shot and released in a 9 month window. The advertising was huge; toys, video games, a Burger King campaign, even an ad on a rocket launched into space. In the end, all of this synergy and wide appeal would be the undoing of the picture. As it stands, Last Action Hero is an enjoyable, clever and exciting time at the movies but ultimately confused in its goal and hurried in its execution.
There was also a bigger, unavoidable problem lurking. A little movie called Jurassic Park ended up being THE movie of the summer and the year. As T2 had changed the game with it's use of special effects in 1991, JP took things to a new level and birthed two sequels whereas the sequel plans for Last Action Hero were probably put into a shredder after opening weekend. Even Sylvester Stallone, on a career slide going into the summer of 93, rebounded with his mountain climbing/heist flick, Cliffhanger. Thus fueling the professional rivalry that would eventually become a beautiful bromance.
Never one to be deterred by failure, Arnold went back to James Cameron and the result was True Lies; an R rated, bombastic, funny and well made piece of summer cinema that was the 3rd highest grossing picture of 1994. As he is now again, Arnold was back.
Here's Arnold as Hamlet: