Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Biggest Flop Was Actually His Smartest Movie

By Nathan Kamal | 4 weeks ago

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Terminator 2: Judgement Day marked a line in the sand for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He had achieved a level of action-star success unprecedented up till then. While he had a friendly rivalry with fellow giant (figuratively speaking) Sylvester Stallone and Hollywood was beginning to lean toward more martial-arts oriented stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, the massive impact of T2 was the cap on a solid decade of essentially unbroken box office success. He had just begun to branch out into comedy with Twins and Kindergarten Cop, but those were movies that essentially were predicated on the image of Schwarzenegger as a larger than life figure (and how hilarious it would be if he was around Danny DeVito/children). Where could action star Arnold Schwarzenegger go after conquering the world? The answer is Last Action Hero. The 1993 action-comedy satire flopped at the box office but has now become a strange artifact of the ‘90s cinema and Schwarzenegger’s own career. It is also currently streaming on Netflix. 

arnold schwarzenegger

Last Action Hero was originally written by Zak Penn and Adam Leff, who were inspired by the over-the-top 1980s action films of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his competitors. It was originally titled Extremely Violent, and was intended as both an examination of the genre and an action movie in its own right. This was obviously an incredibly ambitious undertaking, even without the element of the adventures of action hero Arno Slater (as he was called in the original script in a barely veiled Schwarzenegger reference) being a movie within a movie and a teenage hero being brought into the film world. After a bidding war, Columbia Pictures purchased the script and immediately set to rewriting it. Long story short, esteemed script doctors like Shane Black, Carrie Fisher, and William Goldman were soon hired (for exorbitant amounts of money) and fired (only to be called back), and Die Hard director John McTiernan was brought on board. In many ways, it is a classic Hollywood story of a studio desperately buying an original idea only to bury it under what they already know. 

Even if Last Action Hero was not inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it would have been hard to find a more perfect vehicle for him at the time. Not because he was the only action star around, but because the satirical deconstruction of the movie hit at exactly the same time when Schwarzenegger himself was seemingly examining what made him a star. Past all the plot elements of a lonely New York City child named Danny (Austin O’Brien) finding a magic ticket bequeathed by Harry Houdini that allows one to travel between the real world and the world of movies (which was not in Penn and Leff’s original script), the movie is really about Schwarzenegger by his fictional proxy Jack Slater engaging with the idea that maybe all he has to offer is a thin sketch of a human, rather than a character. In the third act of the movie, there is even a scene in which Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater confronts Schwarzenegger as himself in the real world and finds only a cheesy spokesman constantly shilling Planet Hollywood

Maybe that is giving Arnold Schwarzenegger and Last Action Hero a little more credit than it’s due. But it is very telling that at the moment of his greatest success, Schwarzenegger chose to make a film that broke down the macho public image he had carefully crafted over a decade and revealed how ridiculous it is. There are small details like Jack Slater’s apartment being nearly bare of furnishings (because he has no actual life when not in high octane scenes) and a strangely moving moment when Slater hears classical music for the first time in the real world, and you realize it is the first time he has ever heard music that is not cheesy 1980s rock. 

And besides all that, Last Action Hero is a lot of goofy fun. Arnold Schwarzenegger commits fully to both satirizing himself as a movie star and a Hollywood phony. As the central villain, Charles Dance does some career-best work as a frustrated, urbane assassin who realizes that he can actually win at plots in the real world, particularly in a rake joke of a scene in which he shoots a man and waits an absurdly long time to see if anyone in NYC cares. There is a whole slew of cameos that only Schwarzenegger’s 1990s star power could bring in, from Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Angie Everheart, and the voice of Danny DeVito as a cartoon cat that no one but Danny acknowledges as being out of the ordinary. 


Last Action Hero went well over budget and was rewritten and reshot too many times for it to ever be anything but a salvage job at the box office. Unfortunately, it was released the same weekend as Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which would have destroyed any film competing against it, let alone an odd, jokey deconstruction of a star’s image. And perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger was more ready at the time to move away from action than his audiences were (although he has returned again and again to that well). But time has improved Last Action Hero’s reputation, and now that Schwarzenegger seems ready to take a fond look at his past, maybe it’s time for a sequel. After all, action movies always have sequels.