A New Way of Seeing Last Action Hero: This Isn’t a Movie, It’s Just California [TRANSCRIPT]
A look at Schwarzenegger’s 1993 mega-flop and the deeper ramifications one brilliantly crafted scene has on the way we see the rest of the film. This is a transcript of a video originally uploaded to YouTube on 29th October 2020 which can be found below:
It’s early 1993 and NASA are drawing up plans to launch an unmanned Conestoga 1620 rocket into low Earth orbit. The designers have decided to plaster across the fuselage a large logo for an upcoming Hollywood movie due to release that summer. The surname of the film’s top star is to be spelled out on the booster — although they are having difficulty fitting the actor’s fourteen letter last name onto the rocket. The movie is Last Action Hero, and its star is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Last Action Hero was a movie so over-hyped, so grandiosely promoted pre-release, that it was inevitably set to fail. Due to a myriad of production issues; from the multiple rewrites of it’s screenplay to an exhaustingly rushed shooting schedule, Columbia Pictures’ 1993 summer blockbuster was not just one of the biggest flops of the decade, but it marked the beginning of the end of audience’s appetite for Schwarzenegger. Unsuccessful at the box office and unpopular with critics upon release, the film has gained a minor following over time. Full of references to other movies and nods to common Hollywood cliches — such as the need to never reload guns or the ubiquity of attractive young people living in LA — the film unwittingly ended up becoming the very thing is was satirising. But there are moments here, moments that predate those that would later become central to the self-reflexive post-modern boom that was to shake Hollywood in the mid-1990s. And there’s one moment, a moment of filmmaking so delicate and brilliant where the film intelligently shows us it’s satirical sleight of hand — and it’s either so perfectly executed it’s genius, or so coincidently goofed that it’s a miracle.
WARNING: The following contains SPOILERS for the movie.
A movie set within a movie, Last Action Hero is a fantasy action comedy satire directed by John McTeirnan from a screenplay initially written by Zak Penn and Adam Leff. In the “real-world” portion of the film, we find Danny Madigan, a twelve-year-old boy living in New York City who is obsessed with action movies, particularly the in-universe Jack Slater series staring Arnold Schwarzenegger. After receiving an enigmatic magical ticket from the owner of the old cinema he frequents, he is transported from the relative safety of his seat into the screen and into the “movie-world”. It’s from here on we see the fantasy of young boy play out and the cultural commentary begin.
Gag’s throughout gesture to the glorification of violence in cinema, take aim at fictional portrayals of the LAPD and parody the on-screen invincibility of action movie stars. Before Hollywood was producing films firmly planted within the realm of post-modernism such as later ‘90s productions like Scream (1996), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Being John Malkovich (1999) to newer movies like Deadpool (2016), Adaptation (2002) and Cabin in the Woods (2011), we had Last Action Hero. Great scenes — such as the one set within a Blockbuster Video store which sees Danny trying to convince Jack Slater, played by Schwarzenegger in both our world and the “movie-world”, that his reality is in actual fact a movie. Danny tries to find a copy of Terminator 2 (1991) only to his dismay that in this reality Stallone whom is the star on the cover, not Schwarzenegger — gesture to its postmodern notions of self awareness.
1993 was the start of a shift in attitudes towards onscreen violence. PG-13s meant larger audiences and bigger business. The days of the big-budget R-rated action movie were coming to an end. Terminator 2 is widely considered to be one of the best action movies ever made and it neatly caps of a generation of violent R-rated big Hollywood action blockbusters that we were used to seeing throughout the late 1970s and ‘80s. This was a generation that had it’s roots in movies such as Bullitt (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), Enter the Dragon (1973), Death Wish (1974) and Shaft (1971), which then grew in popularity and by the late 80s had firmly established a distinct personality, no better exemplified than in classics like The Terminator (1981), First Blood (1982), Die Hard (1988), Robocop (1987) and Kickboxer (1989). We see the the rise of the mainstream violent action movie mirror concurrent attitudes in the US with the emergence of Reagan Era conservative values — our heroes tending to exude a more old fashioned, no-nonsense, shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach. But we’re now in 1993 and action films are having an identity issue. Parodies such as Loaded Weapon 1 (1993) and Hot Shots! (1991) are already pointing to the now tired tropes and cliches, and The Simpsons (1989-present) have just introduced their McBain/Rainier Wolfcastle character.
The cardboard prop in the movie store that portrays Sylvester Stallone instead of Arnie works not just as a great visual joke, but also acts almost as a symbolic tombstone to a bygone era of the R-rated megaplex action romp. Pop-culture, and Hollywood cinema specifically, has over the last thirty years developed a distinct obsession with itself, it’s history and it’s own technology. No other medium features or references its own media as much as the average Hollywood movie does, from film sets within films to video tapes and television screens acting as a gateway to the “other side”.
You see it’s not just the T-100 that’s having trouble with his identity here, it’s the action movie genre as a whole. And as lighthearted as this scene and many others are, there’s another that truly shows us how clever and discerning this film really is — or at least was in its initial production stages. This scene in question totally changes how you see Last Action Hero and how you watch it. So here we go.
In movie world LA, Charles Dance’s character — the antagonist Benedict — has come to the realisation through acquiring Danny’s magical ticket that he’s living inside of a fictional movie world. After killing his criminal boss he turns to the camera and addresses us directly, the first time any character in the movie has done so, completely destroying any walls between ourselves and him, razing any suspension of disbelief we ever held. And it is here something genius happens…
Did you see it? No? Ok let’s pause and have a look.
Here we go. Right here. This is the moment Hollywood transcends the boundaries of parody and is forcibly moved into the orbits of self awareness, meta-narratives and a grand obsession with it’s own past identity. At this moment, we catch a fleeting glimpse of the camera crew in the mirror behind Benedict. This takes him beyond the proscenium, he jumps right off the stage and into the audience, into our world. His eyes finally opened, his perception finally clear and cleansed, he can fully see the reality that his existence is completely fabricated. He can now see the camera crew shooting the movie that w e the audience are watching. Looking through the palm trees and sun of Los Angeles and gazing right at us — the viewer — seeing our aspirations and desires, our nightmares and fantasies. Visions of a weird new world on the reverse side of the screen. This acts as a wormhole from Danny’s grey New York City to Slater’s technicolour LA. A reminder of the stark contrast between our terrestrial palette of beiges, browns and greys and the vivid colour of Hollywood and vibrancy of celluloid.
Benedict: If that turd Daniel Madigan can move through parallel worlds, I can move through parallel worlds! In, steal whatever I want, and out again. Impossible to catch! If God was a villain —he’d be me.
This new insight acquired by Benedict is his “escaping Plato’s cave moment”, an understanding that entities in his world are creations from a truer, more “real” world. A world where characters are not just mere two-dimensional shadows of “real” three-dimensional actors. This scene mirrors Neo’s awaking from his perceived reality in The Matrix (1999), itself also being visually articulated and experienced by the character through a mirror. With the then rising use of the internet and creation of online alter-egos in a growing digital sphere, portrayals of simulated realities rode a small wave a popularity in the late 90s, birthing an almost mini-genre. Alongside The Matrix, movies such as The Truman Show (1998), The Thirteenth Floor (1999), eXistenZ (1999), Open Your Eyes (1997) and Dark City (1998) form a trend defining hexaptych, a trend that was seemingly started half a decade earlier by Last Action Hero.
The crux of the movie, and it’s playing with false realities and simulacrums is beautifully exemplified in one scene where Slater, whom at this point in the film has also left Plato’s cave and crossed over into the real world, is confronted with the truth in a dizzying Spielberg-esque moment, seeing for the first time the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger portraying the shadow “Slater” on a movie billboard. ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger is Jack Slater’. It’s also no coincidence that when Danny takes Slater back home, we see Danny lives at apartment 3D — a nod to Slater fully leaving his onscreen 2D identity and transitioning to a real, full 3D human being — Danny’s mum even mistaking him for the “real” actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But going back to Benedict and his newfound awareness, we have to question as viewers whom are aware of the fact that we’re watching a staged performance — was this peek behind the curtain intentional or just a perfectly timed coincidence? A goof committed on set and left in at the editing stage? To be quite honest, I don’t think it really matters as it doesn’t shift the fundamental concept of what is being presented. What it does allow is for us to understand that the movie is playing a far more intellectual game than we initially gave it credit for, or at least we’re leading ourselves to believe this. Our own perception, much like Benedict’s, is also opened and expanded — the goal posts shifted as we are now more willing to search deeper into the material. We can now look a lot closer and read this film in a new, more complex way. The stabilisers are now off.
If we watch the film this way, like a new way of seeing, we see a much darker, more critical subtext appear behind the mask of the film’s bright, garish sun-soaked LA.
In the early ‘90s, Columbia were desperate for a new hit franchise similar to those that Warner Brothers had scored with the likes of Batman and Lethal Weapon as their last hugely profitable IP had been Ghostbusters almost a decade prior. Last Action Hero was set to become Columbias next big “event” picture, with dreams of video games, action figures and fast food tie-ins. Columbia picked up a a screenplay by young writers Zak Penn and Adam Leff titled “Extremely Violent” which not just parodied established action movie cliches, but surveyed the genre from a deeply satirical stance with a focus on the mindless violence and impractical destruction normally shown by an overtly masculine hero, and this was all wrapped in a similar comedic style to that of The Simpsons. Columbia liked the script and hired, ironically, Shane Black, who was famous for his action movie screenplays like Lethal Weapon (1987) and The Last Boy Scout (1991), to do a rewrite. After Schwarzenegger jumped on board as the film’s producer and lead actor, he personally bought in William Goldman to also work on the script. John McTiernan, who had just come off a super successful streak with Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990), signed on as director, the script would then be briefly overseen by Steve Roth, Larry Ferguson and Carrie Fisher. These moves would prove counter-productive though, as with such a set of action movie pros working on the film, many original elements such as it’s nuanced genre critique and deeper cultural commentary gradually grinded away resulting in a screenplay wildly different from what was originally specced.
This many cooks is surely going to spoil the broth. The foundations of the production were already shaky under a rushed and tense shooting schedule in New York and LA. This was then followed by a disastrous test screening on May 1st which gave the team just six weeks to completely recut the movie and complete all post-production duties, all with no time allowed for reshoots. That same summer of ‘93 also saw the release of Spielberg’s mega-hit Jurassic Park (1993) which immediately flew to number 1 at the box office and would go on to become the highest grossing movie of all time. Unfortunately Last Action Hero would open just one week later, Columbia adamant throughout production about sticking to a June 18th release date despite both Arnie and McTiernan’s efforts to reschedule.
The film released to much critical deride and a weak $50 million domestic box office, way under its $85 million production budget. An opening sandwiched between Jurassic Park and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), which came out just a week later, had proved financially disastrous, and critics weren’t being much nicer either. Upon release it was called ‘Overblown and poorly executed’ (Bob Bloom, Journal and Courier), ‘a confused, chaotic mess’ and that it ‘plays more like a bright idea than a movie that was thought through’ (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times). And this is correct, there are tons of bright ideas here — ideas that faintly resemble those initially scripted by Penn and Leff — they’re just buried under so much needless inconsequential guff. A great example would be a scene early on in the movie where Danny get’s burgled. It has no effect on the long term story being told, is totally out of sync with the rest of the film’s tone and only serves to bloat the film’s two-hour and ten-minute long running time. Also, why does Death retain his powers in the real world, yet Slater doesn’t? It’s holes and inconsistencies like these that stop us from truly committing to a prolonged, sincere story arch or any fulfilling character development.
We could easily sit and pick apart the rules and metaphysics of Slater’s universe — like if Slater is the star of Jack Slater IV, which unbeknownst to him we are watching, and Catherine Tramell (who we see at the police station) is the star of her own movie Basic Instinct — then what film is the T-1000 a star of (who we also see exiting the police station), because it certainly isn’t Terminator 2 as we see that that movie already exists as a movie within the movie-world. I feel the movie was never meant to be critically probed like this because upon deconstruction, it immediately falls apart. We should instead experience a piece of meta-driven media like this in a similar way to how we process something like The Simpsons, and like The Simpsons, there’s a lot of good stuff here. From fine details like the Lethal Weapon-esque sax riff during the ‘two days to retirement’ line, the neon lights and latex in the police station, Slater’s horrendous driving, Benedict’s goon who can’t seem to catch and the films presentation of a clean, high-fidelity, fictional-LA.
Danny: The point is, there are no unattractive women here. I mean where are all the ordinary, everyday women? They don’t exist because this is a movie!
Slater: No, this is California…
This idealised vision of California is perfectly opposed to Danny’s “real-world” New York, where it’s dark, wet and visually busy. When we jump over from the “movie-world” into the “real-world”, we’re thrown back into grim reality. Slater is no longer invincible in this version of New York City. This New York is reminiscent of how the city had previously been framed in movies like The Warriors (1979), Taxi Driver (1976), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Jacobs Ladder (1990). Manhattan here is dirty, depressing and depraved.
Danny’s world is a far cry from that of Slater’s. But again, if we use the same eye we used for earlier’s crew in the mirror / Plato’s cave moment, if we use this way of seeing again — we see that not only is something wrong with the city, but something is especially wrong Danny.
Danny Madigan is a twelve-year-old working class boy living with his single mother in downtown New York where he regularly skips school to frequent an old, run down, decrepit cinema in heart of Times Square run by Nick. Danny is surrounded by violence, evidenced by the movies he adores and the cartoons he watches. It’s on the streets of downtown Manhattan and visibly apparent by the cuts on his knuckles, highlighting that he’s been fighting. He can’t even read Hamlet without picturing it being accompanied by a high bodycount.
There’s a brilliant shot early on in the film where Danny leaves Nicks cinema at the Western-end of 42nd Street, just off Times Square. As Danny walks down the street, a closer observation shows that cinema marquees advertise movies with horrifically violent titles. “Sex Blood”, “Murder in Times Square”, “I Want Your Blood”, “Head Crusher” and “Your Blood or Mine” are just a few shown. Times Square here is presented as a broken down relic of the past — cynical, hard and seedy. Downbeat urban squalor, and all its associated characters and vices occupy Danny’s Manhattan. But this New York isn’t the New York of 1993 that we know. You see by 1993 the first steps towards the Disneyfication of Times Square had already been taken. The Times Square that we know today, and more broadly the larger gentrification of Manhattan was already well underway.
42nd Street had fallen into decay since the Great Depression. The once prestigious theatres had by the 1950s and ‘60s been converted into grindhouses and porno cinemas. The area had become blighted, hostile and dangerous. The book Sleazoid Express describes the unique blend of people who made up the theatre-goers of this era:
Depressives hiding from jobs, sexual obsessives, inner-city people seeking cheap diversions, teenagers skipping school, adventurous couples on dates, couples-chasers peeking on them, people getting high, homeless people sleeping, pickpockets, phoney drug salesman … low-level drug dealers, chain snatchers … junkies alone in their heroin/cocaine dreamworld … predatory chickenhawks spying on underage trade looking for pickups … male prostitutes of all ages … transsexuals, hustlers, and closeted gays with a fetishistic homo- or heterosexual itch to scratch …
But by 1990, change was happening under Mayor David Dinkins. The city was cleaning up 42nd Street and this started in 1990 with the formation of “New 42nd Street” a non-profit organization created to oversee the renovation and reuse of many of the porno theatres. Six cinemas were shut and taken over by the government, and more closed down. By the time shooting had begun for Last Action Hero, Times Square was in the middle of its transformation and 42nd Street was almost entirely closed by 1992. The entirety of 42nd Street was shut for almost a week during filming and these amazing photos by Brian Camp show the incredible set dressing undertaken for the shoot.
The Empire Theatre, the location of Nick’s cinema in the film, is one of the few remaining theatres from that era still standing today. The 42nd Street that we see in the movie is New York City transported back, back to a very recent past. An idea of a city, a suburban rendition of downtown. So why’s is Danny’s New York so different from the one that was actually happening at the time?
There’s a theory out there online that imagines Danny is actually a victim of a predatory pedophile Nick. He’s only escape from the abuse is by imagining he is part of Jack Slater movie, the movie-world parts of the film made up his head as a coping mechanism. I personally don’t really buy into this theory, I mean Nick seems like an okay guy — he’s just a bit corny and has some really bad dialogue. But if we take elements of this theory and use the way of seeing that we used earlier to help see into and beyond Benedict’s mirror — we see something very dark start to emerge in Danny’s psyche. What if Danny is imagining all this? What if Danny didn’t really get sucked into a Jack Slater movie? What if Danny is actually deeply affected by all this violence around him…
Ok it’s just an idea, so roll with some of punches here — but what if through Danny’s over-exposure to violence, a social system that seems to be failing him and his mum and a lack of a father figure, Danny has become an angry young boy who’s dislike of the world and it’s people have manifested into a deeply disturbed mind. The apparent “real” world that he inhabits isn’t actually that “real” at all. As we know, New York was in the early stages of urban regeneration in 1993, certainly not the New York Danny “sees”. Also, none of these movie titles on his walk down 42nd Street exist, and we know that Danny’s world shares the same catalogue of cinema as ours through his knowledge of Terminator 2 and Amadeus (1984) plus the later movie premier scene featuring real life movie stars as themselves. This “real-world” has all the foundations of our world, but is littered with Danny’s own mentally unstable projections. Danny’s warped vision of the world has come to maniacally reflect his own thoughts. None of these marquee titles are real, they’re just Danny’s thoughts leaking from a corrupted mind. This is how he sees the world.
We noted earlier how nonsensical the apartment burglary scene is, how from the break-in to the police report, it all seems to happen in less than twenty minutes. The tone is way more aggressive than the rest of the film and the scene has no major long term implications on the grander narrative — well, maybe this is all because it never actually happened. Maybe Danny imagined the whole thing and the scene is just setting a precedent for the revelation that is about to come — the revelation that Danny imagined the entire Jack Slater “movie-world” escapade. He was never sucked into the movie, he just imagined the whole experience.
Danny of course doesn’t see himself as an outwardly violent person. He sees himself as just a by-product of a sadistic, morally corrupt world — he wants to use his internalised violence as a “force for good”. He imagines himself growing up to use this aggression in the same manner Jack Slater does, but in actual fact he’s more likely to grow up and become the burglar, using violence as a downbeat means to an end whilst blaming the influence of a broken society around him. An unjust society that took his father’s life, asked too much of his mother leading her to not be there for him, and if the prior theory is to be believed — allowed him to be exploited by a pervy old cinema owner. Danny has grandiose dreams of being Slater/Arnie, but actually he’s closer to the Burglar. A dream of what he is to become. A nightmare vision of his own future.
On closer analysis of Danny’s ego and mind, we see many dissimilarities between himself an other young male protagonists in similar fantastical situations around the same time — like Marty McFly from the Back to the Future (1985–1990) series, Kevin from Home Alone (1990), Charley Brewster in Fright Night (1985) or even Judy and Peter Shepherd from Jumanji (1995). A big difference is that these characters, as were many young leads in the ‘90s, were extremely middle-class and inhabited a very specific safe, successful, white, affluent middle-America. Danny’s existence instead mirrors that of John Conner from Terminator 2 or Arnold from Hey Arnold! (1996–2004) with a streak of Michael Douglas’s portrayal of William Foster in the earlier 1993 film Falling Down. Foster’s own mental state metaphorically reflected in LA’s heat, whilst Danny’s in New York’s rain.
His Jack Slater fantasies of guns, explosions and death are strongly reminiscent of the delusions and actions played out by older urban outcasts like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) or like Joaquin Pheonix’s take on the Joker in the 2019 film. Both live in crime-ridden, depressing American cities, Joker’s Gotham basically a clone of 80s New York. Even the colours of Danny’s world mimic those of the Joker’s. Both occupy worlds where initially they seem to be innocent victims of a cruel society, when in fact it’s wider regular society that has become the victim of a small elite few (read: neoliberalism). Both carry strong working class identities whilst living alone with their single mothers and both lack prominent father figures in their lives. Danny fills this patriarchal void with his idolisation of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his heroic movie roles, whilst Arthur Fleck looks to Robert Di Nero’s charismatic talk show host character Murray. Both imagine themselves being sucked into the screen, being transplanted into the action and being a part of the drama, a part of the story alongside their respective idols. For a brief moment of escape from their dreary existence, they see themselves as saviours of an imagined narrative in an imagined world.
Last Action Hero is a warning of what inconsequential violence, and the heroic lone-wolf embrace of that violence, can do to a young mind. At the heart of the movie is not a demand for censorship or regulation of the action movie genre, but a message about an awareness of context and self parody. What it’s saying, much like The Simpsons, is that criticism can be fun. Penn and Leff didn’t write a screenplay that critiqued action movies because they hate action movies, they wrote Last Action Hero because they love action movies and want them to be even better. Be critical of the media you love — it’s the only way it’ll ever get better.
So this is just an idea, a method of viewing the movie in a different light, and it shows us the power of entertaining far-flung theories that counter some more more grounded concepts. It’s a form of viewing not too dissimilar from critique, both offering great ways to keep the conversation going way after the credits have stopped rolling.
The ending of Last Action is predictably cheesy, but in all the right ways. Danny eventually helps Slater back into the movie world, closing with Slater giving us the audience a knowing wink, now aware of the camera crew in his reality before driving off into the sunset.
Last Action Hero wasn’t just a parody of action movies, it was a critical take on the tired studio formula and the behind-the-scenes politics of 90s Hollywood. It was critical of the glorification of violence in cinema and the brazen marketing of R-Rated movies to kids. I myself remember growing up playing with Alien, Robocop, Gremlins and Terminator toys that were aimed directly at children even though all of these franchise’s were either R-rated in the states, or rated 15 and 18 by the BBFC here in the UK. The movie is a time-capsule from 1993, when Blockbuster Video, Minidiscs and MC Hammer were not just a thing, but the future.
They say good satire shouldn’t just point at stuff, but instead actually comment on the thing’s it’s pointing at — otherwise you end up coming dangerous close to becoming the very thing you’re meant to be satirising, only with a smug, self-congratulatory smirk. Last Action Hero is too charming to fall into that category, that same place occupied by the likes of Family Guy and the directing-duo Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. But then the film doesn’t go far enough, like the original script had intended, to scrape the levels of commentary and subtext that The Simpsons or The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) had achieved. Maybe it was just a bit too ahead of it’s time, big budget Hollywood wasn’t ready to see itself reflected and parodied just yet, especially coming from one of their own. These days, meta-narratives are everywhere and almost all good media seems to have some level of self-awareness in regards to it’s own postmodern existence. Great newer films that posses this sense of comedic reflexiveness include 22 Jump Street (2014), The Lego Batman Movie (2017), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Wreck-It Ralph (2012), The Disaster Artist (2017) and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). If remade today alongside movies like these, with someone like Dwayne Johnson taking the role of Jack Slater and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller taking writing and directing duties, the film would possibly fare a little better with a whole new generation of fresh action flicks to pick apart.
In the end the Conestoga 1620 rocket never left earth, the launch delayed again and again until the June 1993 release day came and went. Much like this movie, it quickly faded from public conciseness. A 40ft inflatable Jack Slater was created to float around New York brandishing a shotgun and a stick of dynamite, quite disingenuous considering the film’s original script by Penn and Leff was meant to tackle issues around violence. Due to the World Trade Centre bombing in February that year, the dynamite was replaced by a police badge, but the shotgun remained, giving off even more mixed signals. The film seemed to be plagued by disappointments.
So next time your laptop or phone runs out of battery, or you turn the TV off — confronted by an ominous dark black mirror and your own reflection, look closer and see if you can observe clues of a reality far beyond your own.
Nancy Griffin & Kim Masters. Hit and Run (1997)
Bill Landis. Sleazoid Express (2002)
A full video version of this text can be found here. Thank you for reading.