A Long-Dormant Dream Led Arnold Schwarzenegger To Star In Last Action Hero

Arnold Schwarzenegger has basically been parodying himself since early in his career. Just take that scene in "The Terminator," when his android hitman calculates that the best way past the desk sergeant standing between him and his prey is literally through the guy. There is a knowingness to the delivery as he leans in to say, "I'll be back," before he returns a few beats later, crashing a car through the window and mashing the hapless cop against the wall.

During the '80s golden era of action heroes like Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnie was unmatched. He was just as assured playing a one-man-army as he was delivering those deadpan kiss-off lines. Part of the joy of watching him in his pomp is the sense that he was already ahead of the game, sending up action movie cliches even as he was defining them.

The stereotype of the invincible muscle-bound hero had only just began by the time Bruce Willis crashed the party as John McLane in "Die Hard," giving us the eye-opening revelation that regular-looking guys could do this stuff too. "Die Hard" director John McTiernan went on to spoof the knuckle-headed genre with "Last Action Hero," which deconstructed these new souped-up action tropes while audiences were still coming to grips with what those tropes actually were. It was big, messy, loud, and not very successful, but Schwarzenegger was perfectly cast in a part that lampooned his larger-than-life onscreen persona. Yet if it wasn't for a childhood memory, he might have never taken the part in the first place.

So what happens in Last Action Hero again?

Austin O'Brien plays Danny, a kid mourning the death of his father who takes comfort watching corny action movies at his local fleapit cinema, where he is friends with the geriatric projectionist Nick (Robert Prossky). Nick gives Danny a golden ticket that he supposedly received from magician Harry Houdini ahead of a sneak preview of "Jack Slater IV," the latest gung-ho blockbuster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular maverick cop.

During the screening, the ticket magically transports Danny into the cinematic world of his hero, who is on the trail of mob boss Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn) and his ruthless henchman Benedict (Charles Dance). Danny inadvertently becomes Slater's partner, using his knowledge of action movie tropes to help Slater thwart Vivaldi's attempt to murder a rival kingpin. But once the golden ticket falls into the hands of Benedict, the story spills over into the real world...

"Last Action Hero" is a big tasty disaster, a bloated production that belies the touch of many hands. It wants the best of all worlds, satirizing the genre while trying to be a full-blown action blockbuster in its own right. The tone is wildly uneven; at times it seems like a kid-friendly adventure (golden tickets, a "Goonies" style young protagonist) while at other moments it has random gags that might have made Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker wince (Danny DeVito as a cartoon cat). Luckily, the stars know exactly what kind of movie this is: Arnie delights in puncturing his cinematic persona, while Dance hams it up magnificently in a criminal mastermind role based on Hans Gruber in "Die Hard."

How The Last Action Hero came about

"Last Action Hero" started out as a screenplay entitled "Extremely Violent" by Zak Penn and Adam Leff, two first-timers who wanted to channel their shared love of big dumb action movies into a script. They did their homework, plowing through Steven Seagal's back catalogue and paying particular homage to Shane Black, who had left his mark on the '80s action genre with the first two "Lethal Weapon" movies.

They also took inspiration from a far more family-friendly source, "The Simpsons." Penn said:

"The weird thing is that 'The Simpsons' inspired it in the first place... We thought, 'If this show can destroy genres even as it embraces them, why can't we do it in live action?' But somewhere along the way, the movie got lost. And nobody came out smelling like a rose."

Their screenplay sparked a bidding war, and Columbia Pictures stumped up $350,000 to buy it, with Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly interested in playing the lead. While Schwarzenegger had reservations about the extremely violent aspects of a movie called "Extreme Violence," he was drawn to it by a far more innocent memory:

"Having a kid come into a movie awakens certain fantasies I had as a kid in Austria, like sitting on a horse with John Wayne."

Unfortunately for Penn and Leff, that sentimentality didn't extend to the screenplay itself. He felt it wasn't "executed professionally," and they got the chop.

The writing merry-go-round behind Last Action Hero

If the Penn and Leff could take any consolation, far more established screenwriters also labored with getting "Last Action Hero" right.

First came Shane Black, one of the influences for "Extreme Violence" in the first place. He was one of the hottest writers in Hollywood at the time, having recently landed a whopping $1.75 million for his "The Last Boy Scout" screenplay. Working with David Arnott, he claimed that Columbia Pictures was happy (via Empire), but even their efforts were ill-fated. The newly hired director, McTiernan, wasn't happy at all and had a go at re-writing it himself. 

Black and Arnott were also fired and the script was shipped off to William Goldman, who was paid a cool $1 million to work his magic. Then Carrie Fisher and Larry Ferguson ("Beverley Hills Cop II") both had a crack. In the end, nobody could quite get it right, resulting in the disjointed mess we see today. The rest is a tale of '90s excess, with Schwarzenegger paid $15 million and an advert costing $500,000 slapped on the side of a NASA rocket that didn't launch until after the movie was released (via Mental Floss). More damaging was the producer's decision to go toe-to-toe with "Jurassic Park," resulting in "Last Action Hero" floundering at the box office, making it a critical and commercial failure.

"Last Action Hero" remains a rambunctious action movie satire that works better in retrospect with a healthy dose of '90s nostalgia. For all its failings, it does feature a goon killed by an ice cream cone to the back of the head. At least we have that.