By the time LAST ACTION HERO rolled around in 1993, Arnie had already tried his hand at comedy. Until that point, the results had not been encouraging. Audiences had already suffered TWINS and KINDERGARTEN COP (hilarious in retrospect, but not for the right reasons), and it was about to get even worse – JUNIOR and JINGLE ALL THE WAY were just around the corner. But for 130 minutes back in 1993 Arnie was funny. Not because of diminutive siblings, squawking children, or pregnant men, but because he had a grasp of how utterly ridiculous he (and everything that had put him on the A-list) truly was.
Postmodernism was hardly new in 1993, but for Hollywood, LAST ACTION HERO was bold and fresh – a self-aware, self-referential, self-deprecating masterstroke. Famously, however, it was a hellish production and box-office nightmare. As such, the movie is not afforded the adulation is deserves. In fact, Empire published a feature not long ago on what a disaster LAST ACTION HERO was. But ignore that hokum: for anyone who hasn’t seen it recently, it’s well worth another look. Sure, on one level it’s standard blockbuster fun and as brainless as you want t to be, but on an entirely different level, it’s one of Hollywood’s smartest movies of the early 1990s, playing the postmodern card way before SCREAM made it popular, and pulling apart genre conventions in way rarely seen in big-budget filmmaking.
The first stroke of genius is its structure. The first half of the story – in which troublesome kid and movie nut Danny is transported into a ‘Jack Slater’ movie – plays as a knowing nod to every action trope to have ever graced the silver screen: Arnie’s hero Jack Slater easily surviving an explosion whilst two nameless cops are killed; the scarred henchman; the black, shouty police captain; the ridiculous plot contrivances with which the characters are faced; Slater’s daughter driving by with a change of clothes only minutes after he’s escaped a pool of tar. You couldn’t make it up, as they say. Except, you could, and that’s entirely the point. When the second half of the story sees Danny and Slater return to ‘our world’, Arnie’s character is now faced with reality: suddenly, his mad stunts actually hurt, the threats upon his life have meaning, and happy endings are not par for course. At this point, LAST ACTION HERO turns the genre conventions on their head, subverting every trick from the Schwarzenegger book of filmmaking. It’s fascinating stuff and criminally underrated.
The true genius of LAST ACTION HERO is, of course, Arnie himself. He revels in mocking his persona and the movies that came before (‘I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Schraznevaggen!’). It’s easy to forget now that Arnie possesses undeniable screen presence, and LAST ACTION HERO is almost the perfect end to his incredibly successful run of 1980s movies. He even demonstrates some genuine acting chops, particularly as Jack Slater discovers his life has been nothing but a work of fictional, and reveals that in fact, he is an intensely lonely man, tired with a life dictated by the rules of genre cinema.
In truth, there should be no guilt whatsoever in watching and enjoying LAST ACTION HERO. In fact, Hollywood could do with revisiting and taking notes: a bit of originality would go a long way.