Tough Guy Challenge: Is Arnold’s “The Last Action Hero” a Misunderstood Gem, or Still a “Big Mistake”?

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If only a gun-wielding Austrian could have interrupted our screening of “The Last Action Hero” so we could go home.

Kevin: We started our Tough Guy Challenge series by seeing if Bruce Willis superfan CJ could find something good to say about Bruce’s super-expensive and potentially career-killing flop “Hudson Hawk” (spoiler alert: he couldn’t). We also knew/feared we’d someday likely be covering “The Last Action Hero,” the equally troubled and badly received 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle which proved that our favorite Austrian killing machine could be bloodied at the box office. The film, which even pre-Internet was already seen as a disaster ahead of its release, came in second place its opening weekend despite a massive advertising campaign, and represented the first major dent in Arnold’s previously bulletproof campaign to conquer Hollywood:

But as with “Hudson Hawk” (which I know of at least one person who counts it among his top five movies of all time), there has been a reappraisal of “The Last Action Hero” by some who claim that the film’s meta commentary on action tropes and its wild shifts in tone (it started as a spec script by two college students before being “punched up” by a cavalcade of expensive writers such as William Goldman and Carrie Fisher) make it an ambitious and worthy failure that was perhaps ahead of its time.

Fortunately CJ and I had a chance to see if time has been kind to “The Last Action Hero” with a recent screening of the film by the Alamo Drafthouse. Coming in, CJ had never seen it all the way through and I had not seen it in at least 20 years. We’ll get to his thoughts in a bit, but after seeing “The Last Action Hero” with fresh eyes again on the big screen, I hate to say that it is still a big miss for me.

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I think the most frustrating thing for me is that you can see the potential for greatness around the edges, but even if the jokes were better and the satire sharper, “The Last Action Hero” still simply wouldn’t work because they chose the absolute wrong way to tell this story. Now the underlying premise about a boy who loves actions movies – and particularly loves the fictional character Jack Slater – finding himself inside a Jack Slater action movie is solid. And I could see a version of “The Last Action Hero” that’s a really fun and clever deconstruction of action films, in which Danny enjoys escaping his drab existence and uses his knowledge of action film clichés and tropes to help Slater solve a case (and apparently that’s pretty much what the original writers envisioned as well).

At least that’s what I would do if I was ever fortunate enough to find myself in the world of, say, “The Last Boy Scout.” But what does Danny actually do? He immediately goes, “Cool I’m in the movie. Anyway, hey Jack, let me now constantly try to convince you that this is a fictional universe and that you are not real and everything you know and love is a lie.” I have no idea why they chose to go this route with Danny, but it destroys what little goodwill we had for him, and it gets especially annoying when he does the umpteenth version of “Wait, this is only something that would happen in a movie!,” when he already realized he was in a movie in like his first minute there.

And even as a parody, the world of “The Last Action Hero” here doesn’t make sense. I could see them doing a zany “Naked Gun”-style comedy crammed with ridiculous gags, or something from the “South Park” or Lonely Island guys in which the humor comes from how scarily recognizable the fake movie-within-the-movie is to what a real action flick would be. But instead “The Last Action Hero” tries to have it both ways.

So we have elements like the score for “Jack Slater IV” that is virtually indistinguishable from one that you would have heard in “Lethal Weapon” or “Die Hard,” alongside a gag involving an animated detective named Whiskers. While Arnold and his captain being incensed that anyone would question Whiskers’ integrity was one of the few laughs I had during the film, it completely undercuts the notion that this Jack Slater franchise could have existed along with “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard” at the time, since I don’t remember a lot of corny Danny DeVito-voiced animated characters in those.

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Actually a scene involving the captain is another example of how the movie goes so far in trying to get a laugh that it ruins the premise. While the captain is chewing Slater out, Danny explains that he knows that deep down he cares about Slater because off all that they have been through, obviously based on what he has seen in the previous Jack Slater films. Now the writers could have earned a bigger laugh by making it more subtle, but instead Danny goes into how the captain’s wife ran off with a circus midget and Jack told everyone she was out of state being treated for diphtheria, etc., etc., and it’s not at all funny because it’s way too broad and unrealistic.

(Although even when the movie tries to go subtle, like Jack casually wiping tar off him like it was soap or his daughter showing up out of nowhere with a fresh change of clothes, it has to have Danny ruin it by going “Uhh, jeez, does no one think this is a little convenient?” Yeah Danny, that’s cause it’s a movie, AS YOU KEEP FUCKING REMINDING US!)

Even gags like them going into a video store and seeing a poster of Sylvester Stallone in “Terminator 2” bump me, because there is no way something like that would be there unless some prop guy on the set of “Jack Slater IV” made it up as a joke, but why would he do that? Instead, since they are in a real video store, Danny could show him real movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, since that would actually be consistent with the rules of this universe.

Although considering ‘80s action legends like Arnold, John McTiernan, and Shane Black all had a hand in “The Last Action Hero,” they seem surprisingly unaware of how these kinds of movies worked back then. For one thing, we find out that “Jack Slater III” ended with Slater’s son being pulled to his death by the main villain. Tell me CJ, how many mindless crowd-pleasing action movies from back in those days do you remember climaxing with the death of a child and then cutting to credits? This does give Arnold some pathos to play off of later when Jack is questioning his existence in the universe, and I’ll say that if nothing else Arnold is great in this, and he could have nailed both the comedy and the more dramatic moments had the film given him more to work with.

Of course as bad as it botches its attempt at being an action movie parody, it totally whiffs the shift to the real world in the third act even worse. I can’t remember the last time a movie introduced so many potentially interesting concepts that it never follows up on. The budding romance between Slater and Danny’s mother? The notion that the bad guy is recruiting fictional villains like zombies or Dracula to fight Jack? Jack running into the real Arnold Schwarzenegger at the premiere for “Jack Slater IV”? Since none of these are ever paid off I’m not sure what was the point of teasing them to begin with.

(Also wouldn’t Slater have gotten mobbed by people for autographs all the time on the streets, or wouldn’t Danny’s mom find it noteworthy that her son’s new friend looks and talks exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger? I mean I could see Paul Giamatti blending into the background, but Arnold is kind of distinctive.)

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The big climax at the premiere at least shows the value of “The Last Action Hero” as an amusing time capsule. For one thing, it is probably the last major film to document what a shithole Times Square was before Mayor Giuliani cleaned it up, and it is probably also the last movie to feature a cameo by MC Hammer that is not meant to be ironic (the audience we saw it with didn’t even laugh because I don’t think they knew who it was). Hammer shows up to say something to Arnold about doing a song on the soundtrack, and when he filmed that cameo he was still a big enough star to be considered worthy of attending an exclusive premiere like that.

Although maybe this was one of those last-minute reshoots they did to try and salvage “The Last Action Hero,” and maybe they are making a sly commentary that “Jack Slater IV” is just as big a disaster as the real film turned out to be. Because even in 1993, this doesn’t seem like an A-list group of attendees: see if I am forgetting anyone, but I remember Chevy Chase, Damon Wayans, Little Richard, Don King, Jim Belushi, and Van Damme before “Hard Target.” We do get what in retrospect is an uncomfortable cameo by Arnold’s then-wife Maria Shriver, who spends most of her scenes doing a VERY convincing job being annoyed that her scamp of a husband is crassly plugging Planet Hollywood. If only she knew what shenanigans he’d be getting up to later …

So CJ, what are your thoughts on “The Last Action Hero”? Does it deserve its disaster status, or is there enough here to elevate it to at least an “interesting failure”? If you were Danny Madigan, what fictional action movie would you want to be transported to (for me it would be “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane,” because my god have you seen the hot ‘80s chicks in every frame of that movie?). And who was the worst child actor in an Arnold movie, Austin O’Brien or Edward Furlong? I think we would still go O’Brien, but anyone who doubts how bad Furlong was should see “T2” on the big screen again as CJ and I did. There is a part where he thinks for a second and goes “hey wait a minute, I got it!” that was so amateurish that the entire audience we saw it with laughed.

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CJ: Yeah, so this movie fucking sucked. I was so bored I almost fell asleep. I’ll agree it did get a few laughs out of me, but at around the 80-minute mark I was ready for things to wrap up (and we still had like 40 minutes to go).

For me it all comes down to Danny Madigan, and it goes beyond how annoying he is. This kid is a terrible actor; he hams it up too much, gets big-eyed too much, and just delivers his lines in ways where you want him to shut up. In fact, after he points out to Slater for the 30th time that they are living in a movie, I feel like Slater should have gotten more pissed that this kid keeps insulting his life. Just backhand the shit and be like, “You know what, my life here is pretty good. Go back to your 200-square-foot apartment in NYC and your relationship with an old projectionist that not enough people are concerned about.”

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I also couldn’t stand how the writers wrote jokes and then proceeded to have characters point out their jokes. The only thing this movie was missing was a giant reveal that Whiskers was actually Slater and Slater was Whiskers, and then we cut to the captain going “But if he’s a cat, and he’s a person? OH BOY!,” and then fainting. I also gotta be honest, I don’t remember seeing any action movies that end on a kid being killed, and if I did, I doubt my reaction would be along the lines of “Well, looks like ol’ Jackie’s got quite the case to solve in the next movie … after burying his son of course.” That being said, if they killed off Danny I’d be on board.

Also, really Kevin, what movie do you think a young, baby-faced, 9-year-old CJ would want to be transported to? You’ve known me long enough to know that should be obvious.

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Uhh, is it this one?

Finally, I think Austin O’Brien vs. Eddie Furlong is a much harder debate than people realize, because the greatness of “T2” covers for how much Furlong sucks. No joke, each time I see “Judgment Day” I am honestly stunned that Arnold doesn’t just ditch him and go back to the bar from the opening scene. I also don’t think he sacrifices himself in the molten steel so much as he just needed an out and that was the first thing he saw. In fact, a better deleted scene would be Furlong shitting out another horrible line and then we see Arnold down 50 pills, force a snake to bite him, then blow his brains out while leaning over the molten steel. Sure, that would probably give Furlong some long-term issues, but, hey, no problemo you stupid friendless shit.

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Kevin: Well it looks like we both agree that “The Last Action Hero” has not gotten any better over the last 25 years, and I’ll end by noting that I think we can also agree that if there is at least one aspect of the movie that has aged well, it’s the soundtrack. When “Big Gun” by AC/DC comes on, I can’t tell if it’s mid-1993, early 1993, or late-1993, that’s how timeless the music is in this thing.

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2 thoughts on “Tough Guy Challenge: Is Arnold’s “The Last Action Hero” a Misunderstood Gem, or Still a “Big Mistake”?

  1. To be at least a little fair to Edward Furlong, it was literally his first movie. I’m not saying he had to be bad because of it, but I always cut him a little slack. If I recall, he might not have even auditioned – I feel like they found him skateboarding or something.

    And his character wasn’t totally friendless, if you count Danny Cooksey. Though given that no one’s seen Cooksey since T2, maybe you don’t count him.

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