After seeing the Terminator ascend to the position of Governator, as well as experiencing his eloquence when speaking out on important issues, the public has come to accept that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a very intelligent guy. But there was a time when Arnold’s physique and accent helped make it easy for comedians and more to portray the him as the stereotypical musclebound lunkhead. Then, of course, there was his choice of roles. As beloved as Terminator is now, for example, all on its own it doesn’t exactly leave you with the impression that Schwarzenegger is a particularly verbose guy. Same thing with catch-phrase heavy roles in Commando and Predator. But in 1993 came the still criminally under appreciated Last Action Hero in which Schwarzenegger proved he was very much in on the joke. Sadly, hardly anyone saw the thing, but the good news it’s streaming on Netflix.
Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) is in bad shape. The teen’s father died recently, and his one comfort has proven to be action movies; specifically those featuring the unbeatable LA detective Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger). At a local theater, the kindhearted projectionist Nick (Robert Prosky) gifts Danny a golden ticket that he says was once owned by the legendary escape artist Harry Houdini, but it isn’t for any potentially lethal chocolate factory. Instead, the ticket is for Danny to see the not yet released Jack Slater IV. But it turns out the ticket stub doesn’t just let him watch the movie — it actually sends Danny into the world of the film.
Inside the movie, Danny constantly tries and fails to convince Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Slater that he’s part of a fictional world; pointing out otherwise obvious bizarre things, like the fact that in the world of Jack Slater IV the LAPD has an animated cat detective named Whiskers (voiced by Danny DeVito). Eventually Slater’s made-up villain Benedict (Charles Dance) is convinced that a real world exists beyond the boundaries of his own and escapes into it where Slater and Danny follow.
Last Action Hero is the kind of metafictional satirical fantasy that all of those folks who underestimated Arnold Schwarzenegger never expected him to make. Years before The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent or Being John Malkovich, Last Action Hero dealt with Arnold Schwarzenegger not only as the lead actor, but as a character in the film. Once in the real world, Benedict reasons the best way to defeat Jack Slater is to murder the actor who plays him, which puts Slater in a race to actually save himself — i.e. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film also pokes lots of fun at the action genre, including a scene in which Jack Slater is perturbed and confused to find that in the real world he actually has to reload his gun.
Last Action Hero was also gifted with an absolutely stellar cast. Along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, it stars F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) as Slater’s backstabbing friend John Practice, Tom Noonan (RoboCop 2) as Slater’s resurrected enemy Ripper, Anthony Quinn (Lawrence of Arabia) as a crime lord, Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King) as Danny’s widowed mother, and Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings) as Death. There’s also a ton of great cameos including Tina Turner, Chevy Chase, Sylvester Stallone, and the pop group Wilson Phillips.
In spite of a creative premise and a long list of celebrities, Last Action Hero didn’t do well with critics or in the box office. On an $85 million budget, the Arnold Schwarzenegger film only made $50 million domestically. Reviewers trashed it, evidenced by its dismal 39% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
In fairness, Last Action Hero isn’t a perfect film. Directed by John McTiernan (Die Hard), the film’s biggest fault is arguably that it tries too hard to act as both satire and the thing it’s satirizing. It tries to poke fun at big budget action films while being a big budget action film. The end result can often feel a little uneven. But it’s still doubtlessly the most thoughtful and original film Arnold Schwarzenegger ever made. You can judge for yourself by streaming it on Netflix.