Arnold Schwarzenegger's Enthusiasm Shaped Last Action Hero, For Better Or For Worse

When it was released in theaters on June 18, 1993, John McTiernan's "Last Action Hero" was one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year. The film's star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was coming off the success of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," and the film's credited co-screenwriter Shane Black (writing with David Arnott from a story by Zak Penn and Adam Leff) was one of the most sought-out authors in Hollywood, having been paid $1 million to re-write it. The director had a hit in "Die Hard" a few years previous, and the film's fantastical premise — a young boy is magically transported into his favorite action film franchise — had fans postulating the possibility that Schwarzenegger would trip merrily across film history, "Looney Tunes"-style. 

There was also a lot riding on "Last Action Hero" financially. Schwarzenegger was famously paid $15 million to star, one of the biggest payouts in history at the time, and the production's budget was rumored to be one of the highest in history, somewhere to the tune of $60 million (although some reports have the budget at about $85 million. "Last Action Hero" was also set to be released in Sony Dynamic Digital Sound, a then-new audio process that utilized eight separate channels. This last detail ended up being an expensive waste, as so few theaters were equipped to present the process. 

At the very least, Schwarzenegger himself was unendingly enthusiastic about the movie, and it was his joy that kept the project moving forward ... even if it wasn't the best idea. According to a 2012 retrospective published in Empire Online, Schwarzenegger's micromanagement of the picture was keeping production on track ... and ballooning the trepidation.

The parody vs. the real thing

Schwarzenegger initially liked the project — he's quoted in the Empire article as enjoying the boyhood fantasy of living in a movie with a cinema hero, in his case John Wayne, but he didn't like the screenplay itself. The first draft of "Last Action Hero" by Penn and Leff was meant to be a parody of Shane Black screenplays, sending up a lot of the action clichés popularized by Hollywood's hottest screenwriter. Ironically, Penn and Leff were fired from the project and Black himself was hired to re-write them at Schwarzenegger's suggestion. Black and Schwarzenegger had acted together on the 1988 film "Predator," for which Black also did script punch-ups. Said Penn of the shift: 

"The irony is that we'd gone to the MPAA library and read all of Shane's scripts. We were big fans of his; He was the Elmore Leonard of action movies. So it was this surreal moment of, 'We're parodying this guy, and now he's been hired to rewrite us.' It was just a strange, strange occurrence."

While the screenplay continued to pass hands, with Carrie Fisher and William Goldman also being brought in for punch-ups, the production shifted into high gear. Schwarzenegger signed on for his $15 million paycheck, and marketing deals were struck. There were to be "Last Action Hero" action figures, a tie-in video game for the SNES and the Sega Genesis, and Burger King toys. What could go wrong?

The car, the boots, the little details

In the Empire article, actor Austin O'Brien, who was to play the lead character, recalls driving around with an excited Schwarzenegger trying to find just the right car for Jack Slater, Schwarzenegger's action hero character. Says O'Brien:

"During the first week on set, we kept screen-testing cars — Arnold and I would drive around in different vehicles, trying to find an iconic car for Slater. That was such a strange process. I also remember Slater's boots being a really big deal."

Schwarzenegger also tried to get multiple other co-stars involved, including Robert Patrick from "Terminator 2." Patrick had recently done a humorous cameo as his "Terminator 2" character in "Wayne's World," and, according to Patrick, Schwarzenegger called him up and asked him to do it again for "Last Action Hero." Patrick ultimately refused. 

All of Schwarzenegger's positive energy led to perhaps a little too much ambition. Reflecting on "Last Action Hero" years after the fact, McTiernan came to the conclusion that the inception-to-opening-date turnaround of only nine-and-a-half months was far too quick. When "Hero" finally hit theaters, it was panned by critics (it currently only holds a 40% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and made a mere $15 million on its opening day). It quickly garnered a reputation as one of the bigger bombs of all time (although, in actuality, it's nowhere close). The film did eventually find something of a cult audience on home video, and a vague general consensus has formed around the movie being not that bad.

Speaking to Empire, however, McTiernan called it one of the more miserable experiences in his career.