Why The Last Action Hero Production Was Such A Nightmare

Filmmaking is a risky business (and not the kind that involves Tom Cruise). For every successful film under an actor or filmmaker's belt, there's bound to be an equally less successful one. Sometimes the actor and the material aren't a great match. Sometimes the execution of an idea doesn't live up to its intent. And sometimes a film starts off on the wrong foot and only goes downhill; look at what happened to "Last Action Hero"!

Released in 1993, "Last Action Hero" was carrying the star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was coming off of a box office hit with "Terminator 2: Judgement Day"; Shane Black, who had scripted a hit film in "Lethal Weapon"; and John McTiernan, who had proven to be a boon to the action genre with films such as "Die Hard" and "Predator" (the latter even co-starred Schwarzenegger and Black). On paper, that sounds like the recipe for an action classic. However, constant rewrites and a tug-of-war over the tone led to a hellish time for everyone involved in the production.

The write stuff

Empire wrote up an oral history of "Last Action Hero" in 2012 that included interviews with McTiernan, Black, and others involved in the film's production. Among them was screenwriter Zak Penn, who co-wrote the original script — which carried the original and rather on-the-nose title of "Extremely Violent." There's actually a reason for that, as Penn and co-writer Adam Leff intended to write a sendup of the action genre, with Penn saying:

"The basic idea was: wouldn't it be cool if a kid got sucked into a silly action movie and used his knowledge of the genre to subvert all the clichés?

"Extremely Violent" eventually got picked up by Columbia, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was tapped to play protagonist Arno Slater — ironically, the Governator served as a major inspiration for Slater, so things had come full circle. But Schwarzenegger raised a bevy of concerns about the tone and content of the script: he was actually looking to transition into more family friendly fare with a movie, of all things, about the Tooth Fairy. (Dwayne Johnson, The Artist Formerly Known as The Rock, wound up snagging the role, in 2010.)

Battles behind the scenes

Schwarzenegger's comments led to Penn and Leff being booted from the project, and Black soon stepped in to rewrite the script with David Arnott. But once McTiernan boarded the film, things took yet another turn. As Shane Black said:

"McTiernan had made a lot of hits, so the studio said, 'Let him do what he wants.' And we watched as John rewrote the whole thing. I have a lot of fondness for John. He's an interesting guy with a lot to say. He just wasn't keen on the things we'd written."

Ironically, Black and Arnott were booted from the very project they'd been hired to fix. Eventually, prolific screenwriter William Goldman — who you might know for bringing a little movie called "The Princess Bride" to the screen — was hired to rewrite the script to the tune of $1 million. Apparently, this was a common practice back in the day according to Black:

"Back in those days, that kind of thing was an insurance policy for keeping your job at an executive level...A script would be questionable and the trembling executive would give it to a famous writer with a million bucks, so he could say, 'Yeah, it's fortified now. We've given it vitamins. Wait, wait, wait... It needs the woman's touch. Give it to Carrie Fisher!'...Even if the movie sucked, now they could say, 'It's not our fault.'"

Hollywood horror story

"Last Action Hero"'s dueling tones are evident from start to finish. Instead of Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien) simply being pulled into the world of Slater's films, Slater enters the real world in the final film via a magic ticket. Yes, this is a movie with a literal magic ticket. There's a scene where Slater comes face to face with the real-life Schwarzenegger, portrayed in the film as a massive shill for Planet Hollywood. And cameos from Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick only makes you wish you were watching "Basic Instinct" or "Terminator 2: Judgement Day." 

Black even summed things up perfectly when he talked about being invited to look at an early cut of the film:

"It was a mess. There was a movie in there, struggling to emerge, which would have pleased me. But what they'd made was a jarring, random collection of scenes."

"Last Action Hero" would weather an ill-thought-out advertising campaign (there were plans to have the movie's name plastered on a NASA rocket; yes, really) only to eventually be crushed at the box office by "Jurassic Park." In the end, this debacle proves that every film starts with a solid script — if you don't have that, you're doomed from the start.