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Willy Wonka with Guns

January 25th, 2009 · 11 Comments

Last Action Hero (1993)
Written by Zak Penn & Adam Leff and Shane Black & David Arnott and William Goldman (uncredited) and Larry Ferguson (uncredited) and Carrie Fisher (uncredited)
Directed by John McTiernan
Produced by Columbia Pictures
Running time: 130 minutes

last-action-hero-teaser-poster Last Action Hero 1993 poster

Synopsis

Supercop Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) responds to a hostage situation involving the axe wielding Ripper (Tom Noonan). Slater saves the city, but loses his son in the standoff, which is all revealed to be the set-up for Jack Slater III, an action spectacle that 11 year old Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) sits through for the sixth time rather than go to school. Danny’s friend is a retiring projectionist (Robert Prosky) who invites the kid back to the theater at midnight to check the print of the latest Jack Slater epic. Danny gets through English class by imaging Slater machine gunning his way through Denmark as Hamlet. He promises his widowed mother (Mercedes Ruehl) to get his head out of the clouds, but instead, sneaks out to the theater, where Nick presents him with a magic ticket Houdini gave to him when he was a kid.

During the projection of Jack Slater IV, the ticket transports Danny into the middle of a car chase in the move. Slater is on the trail of a Sicilian drug lord (Anthony Quinn) and his wily henchman Benedict (Charles Dance). Danny tries to convince Slater that they’re in a movie: all the women look like models, everyone’s phone number begins with 555, and at LAPD headquarters, cops are paired with their polar opposites, including a cartoon cat named Whiskers (voiced by Danny DeVito). Danny is introduced to Slater’s sexy daughter Meredith (Bridgette Wilson) but his encyclopedic knowledge of the movie world attracts the attention of Benedict, who confiscates the ticket and moves through the screen into Danny’s world, where bad guys can actually win. Slater follows Danny through the screen to stop him.

Last Action Hero 1993 Austin O'Brien Robert Prosky Arnold Schwarzenegger

Production history
After graduating from Wesleyan University in 1990, Zak Penn & Adam Leff were trying to break into the film industry as screenwriters. Their first script was about a giant rat run amok in Manhattan. Next they wrote a noirish thriller about blackmail in the Hamptons, but after that first effort failed to interest an agent or a buyer, Penn recalls, “The smart thing we did was having the foresight not to send out the second one.” For their third effort, Penn & Leff rented dozens of action movies and produced a list of plot conventions, like “What holiday is the film taking place on?” “Do the hero’s wife and child get kidnapped?” “Does he have a Vietnam buddy? (Because your war buddy always betrays you.)” Their script – titled Extremely Violent – was about a fatherless 15-year-old who steps through a crack in a movie screen to enter the cartoonish world of his idol, LAPD cop Arno Slater, who the boy assists with his inexhaustible knowledge of movie clichés.

In October 1991, Penn & Leff and several of their friends took to the phones to get the word out on Extremely Violent. The script landed in the read pile of Chris Moore, an ambitious agent at Intertalent who agreed to represent the screenwriters. The first buyer Moore approached was Carolco, the company behind Total Recall and Terminator 2. Carolco passed. Before word of mouth soured, Moore submitted the script to five other buyers. One was producer Steve Roth, who had a development deal at Columbia Pictures. Speaking to the New York Times about the project in May 1993, Roth recalled, “It had a wonderful first act when this disenfranchised kid is sucked into the movie.” Within 24 hours, Roth passed Extremely Violent to Barry Josephson, Columbia’s vice president of production. After six days of negotiating with Moore, Columbia optioned Penn & Leff’s script for $100,000 against $350,000 if it ever got made into a movie, which was now going by the title The Last Action Hero.

Last Action Hero 1993 Austin O'Brien

The only actor anyone could imagine playing Arno Slater was Arnold Schwarzenegger. After Twins, Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop and Terminator 2, “Arnold” was now the biggest movie star on the planet. The front-runner for his next picture was the comedy Sweet Tooth, in which Schwarzenegger was to play the Tooth Fairy, with Ron Underwood standing by to direct. Other contenders included Crusade (a medieval epic to be directed by Paul Verhoeven), Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip (ultimately starring Nicolas Cage and released as It Could Happen To You), Sgt. Rock for producer Joel Silver and Curious George for Imagine Entertainment. The Last Action Hero found a place at the front of the pack. Schwarzenegger recalled, “Having a kid come into a movie awakened certain fantasies I had as a kid in Austria. What would it be like to sit on John Wayne’s saddle, or have him come with this huge horse right out of the screen? The script had a great concept, but it wasn’t executed professionally.”

Columbia shelled out $1 million for Shane Black – author of Lethal Weapon – to rewrite the script. Black brought in a USC buddy named David Arnott to work with him. Arnott stated, “Usually, someone wants you to rewrite something because it’s bad. This script was a gold mine of an idea. The writers played four variations on a theme. We thought, ‘Wow, there are 400 more possibilities.'” While Black & Arnott got to work in February 1992, Columbia slipped the Penn & Leff draft to director John McTiernan, who didn’t find it very good. Taking a look at the rewrite in July, McTiernan changed his mind. “What drew me is the wacko sense of humor Shane Black & David Arnott brought. Shane had done enough service in the salt mines of action movies to ridicule them in an acid way. The script had so much venom that I loved it. I called Arnold and said: ‘This thing is great. You have to read it.’ Arnold was about to commit to the Tooth Fairy, and he held up.”

Last Action Hero 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger

McTiernan and Schwarzenegger both expressed reservations about the third act of the Black & Arnott draft. Schwarzenegger recalled, “They had created rhythm and pace and staggering action scenes. What I felt was missing was bonding between this kid and his hero.” The star agreed to commit to Last Action Hero if Columbia could add an emotional layer to the script by putting William Goldman on the payroll. Goldman – one of the most respected script doctors in Hollywood – declined, finding the script too violent for his taste. After a personal plea from Schwarzenegger that he was off the movie unless Goldman intervened, the scribe accepted a fee of $750,000 for four weeks work. Among his contributions was changing the boy’s age from 15 to 11, and making Jack Slater more vulnerable. Or as McTiernan quipped, “Goldman gave Arnold a character to play, and he excised 150 toilet jokes.”

In addition to Black & Arnott revising Goldman’s work. McTiernan turned to Larry Ferguson to provide some additional dialogue, while Carrie Fisher came in to flesh out the character of the boy’s single mother. With a budget of $60 million – which Columbia anticipated would ultimately settle in the $80 million range – Last Action Hero commenced shooting November 1992 in Los Angeles. Schwarzenegger had been lobbied by Joel Silver to produce the film, but Barry Josephson and Columbia chairman Mark Canton took a hands-on role producing Last Action Hero themselves. Canton’s faith in the project was so huge that he wrote NASA a $500,000 check to affix the studio’s logo and Schwarzenegger’s name to an unmanned rocket that was to be fired into space. Canton also settled on June 18, 1992 as a release date. Even after Universal announced it was opening a picture they had called Jurassic Park one week ahead of that date, Columbia boldly stood its ground.

Last Action Hero 1993 Frank McRae Arnold Schwarzenegger

Halfway through a frantic 10-week post-production schedule, Columbia scheduled a test screening of Last Action Hero for May 1. Buoyed by a rough cut he’d seen on the Sony lot, Mark Canton eagerly assembled the studio’s top brass at Pacific’s Lakewood Center Theatre in L.A. McTiernan was on hand and as the lights went down, Schwarzenegger slipped into the back of the theater with his wife Maria Shriver. What the audience experienced was little more than an assembly. Running 2 hours 18 minutes, it had a temporary sound dub, as well as a temp score and unfinished effects shots. McTiernan recalls, “I had great trepidation about showing the movie. It was literally in a state that you don’t even show the studio executives. What we were showing was what the editors show the director ten days after finishing the shoot.”

A source who was there told Premiere Magazine, “The movie laid there like a big fried egg.” Another audience member described Last Action Hero to Entertainment Weekly as ”Willy Wonka with guns.” Schwarzenegger and McTiernan had both suggested to Columbia as early as November 1992 that the release be postponed to give them more time to work on the film, or at the very least, get out of the way of Jurassic Park. Even in the wake of the poor test screening, that idea was nixed. McTiernan recalls, “The studio folks assured us that the movie was more likely to make money this way, that the amount of money that the studio would see would decrease by about $10 million per week of the summer than you cut off. I’m not about to argue with things like that.” Shane Black came in the next day to punch up an action scene in the third act and to clarify some story points, like what Benedict was doing in the real world. Additional shooting was under way just seven weeks before Last Action Hero was due in theaters.

Last Action Hero 1993 Austin O'Brien Arnold Schwarzenegger

Though Mark Canton had confiscated the test screening cards and refused to release the score, the Hollywood rumor mill quickly filled the vacuum. Word spread that Last Action Hero was a disaster. The rocket launch scheduled for May was postponed, then cancelled. On June 4, gossip columnist Jeffrey Wells wrote an article for the L.A. Times titled “Phantom Screening: You Haven’t Heard the Last of Action Hero.” Wells credited unnamed sources from a screening he alleged took place late May in Pasadena. Columbia denied the screening ever happened and retaliated against the Times by barring all employees from speaking to the newspaper. Entertainment Weekly, Time Magazine and The Wall Street Journal – which ran a story titled “Pundits Predict Losing Battle For Last Action Hero” – all weighed in on the film’s misfortunes before its June 18 release.

Critics actually waited to see Last Action Hero before rendering a negative appraisal. Though both Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert pointed thumbs down on At The Movies, Siskel conceded, ” … this is a most ambitious project that works quite well in fits and starts and then drags on for what seemed to me like an extra thirty minutes, wearing out its welcome.” Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times: “Last Action Hero is something of a mess, but a frequently enjoyable one. It tries to be too many things to too many different kinds of audiences, the result being that it will probably confuse, and perhaps even alienate, the hard-core action fans.” Last Action Hero was not the box office calamity many had predicted, pinching out $50 million in the U.S. and hitting $87.2 million overseas. The final budget was $87 million, with marketing costs of $30 million.

Last Action Hero 1993

According to John McTiernan, Schwarzenegger took the reception of Last Action Hero especially hard because the star had been developing his chops as a real actor by learning to sustain long takes. “He could never have done that before. It made him very vulnerable, and he was very proud of it. I only know about it because I had spent a year trying to figure out what every twitch of an eyebrow meant on his face. And to be rejected so soundly when he had allowed himself to be so naked, it sort of, like, broke his heart, but I suppose that’s too flowery a phrase. It broke him up terribly.” Late that summer, Schwarzenegger was candid about the film’s reception. “First, I learned that in my case, if you don’t give the people a very clear comedy or a very clear action movie, somehow the two don’t mix together. It was clear that Twins was a comedy; it was never promoted as action.”

Speaking to Hollywood Interview in March 2008, McTiernan offered his post-mortem on Last Action Hero. “It’s largely unedited and large portions of it still appear exactly as it was when it left the camera. It wasn’t ready yet. I don’t know that I’ll ever get the chance to go back to it. It’s like having a model with an extra 20 pounds on her. There’s a really neat movie in there. In order to get a sense of fun that was clear to the audience, it needed tightening, and it needed another month in editing to do that.” In January 2005, Zak Penn mused to UGO.com, “The irony about Last Action Hero is that two kids wrote a movie that was making fun of Hollywood movies that was about an audience member going into the movie and destroying it because it was so stupid, then was rewritten and directed by the same people that it was parodying. I hated it when I first saw it because it was so painful, but I think it actually plays better now.”

Last Action Hero 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger Mercedes Ruehl

Opinion
It’s high time that Last Action Hero had its status upgraded from “turkey” to at the very least, “work in progress”. While the film is most definitely flawed, it’s so imaginative at turns that I’d go as far to say this is a must-see for movie fans, particularly lovers of ‘80s action cinema. Its exuberant wit is most evident in Slater’s lieutenant (Frank McRae) whose hysterical exclamations include, “I got the Chamber of Commerce doin’ cartwheels in my cocoa factory!” Danny pulls Slater into a video store at one point, where no one seems to know who “Arnold Schwarzenegger” is because Sylvester Stallone played the Terminator. In another funny bit, Danny scribbles the f-word on a piece of paper, and when Slater is unwilling to say it out loud, the boy notifies him the reason he can’t is because they’re in a PG-13 movie.

Even in its unfinished state, John McTiernan seems to have a much better sense for what’s amusing than most action directors trying their hands at comedy (Steven Spielberg comes to mind). But the longer the straight on action stuff plows ahead without making fun of itself, the more listless Last Action Hero becomes. The movie grinds to a halt once it crosses back into the real world, where it’s just too overcast to jibe with the tom foolery that came before (Ian McKellan stepping down off the screen as Death from The Seventh Seal is quite cool, at least). This is worth a look purely out of appreciation for what the potential of the film medium can be. Michael Kamen composed a terrific, self-aware musical score, while Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick reprise their roles from Basic Instinct and Terminator 2 in cameos that come and go almost too fast to fully register.

© Joe Valdez

Last Action Hero 1993

Sources
“Five Writers + One Star = A Hit?” By Aljean Harmetz. The New York Times, May 26, 1993

“How They Built the Bomb” By Nancy Griffin. Premiere Magazine, September 1993

Buyer Beware!
The versions of Last Action Hero available for rental on both Netflix and Greencine subscription services are delivered in the dreaded “Pan and Scan” format, which distorts the frame of the movie to fit television screens. Movie lovers who want to see Last Action Hero in its 2.35 : 1 theatrical aspect ratio will have better luck at their local video store.

Tags: Alternate universe · Animation · Black comedy · Crooked officer · Gangsters and hoodlums · Hitman · Interrogation · Mother/son relationship · No opening credits · Shootout

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lauren // Jan 25, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    This was one of those movies I could watch over and over as a little kid (like Aliens for you). I’m still terrified of glass eyes and anyone in a raincoat. Thanks for not totally trashing it.

  • 2 Burbanked // Jan 25, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    This is such a fascinating failure. There truly is an amazing movie buried somewhere down deep – and I even quite enjoy the scenes where Dance comes to the real world and casually murders someone, just daring the police to show up. It’s dark, bizarre and really pretty compelling.

    I also always thought the bit where the real Arnold confronts Jack Slater and yells “You’ve ruined my life!” seemed, as you suggest Black and Arnott believed, like a whole entire movie unto itself.

  • 3 Pat Evans // Jan 26, 2009 at 3:09 am

    Having hated it originally I must confess this film grows on me (and I don’t mean like a fungus) and it has become an albeit mindless fun watch — just not too often!

    Glad to read that you appreciate my comments when I get around to it. Now that you can, I would love to have some comments from you on my new blog — although I’m the first to admit that a lot of what I write about are films that you and probably most critics have not seen or would not choose to see. Ah well…

  • 4 Moviezzz // Jan 26, 2009 at 8:52 am

    I saw this theatrically and didn’t exactly hate it, yet have ZERO memory of it. Maybe it is worth seeing again.

  • 5 Digital Filmmaking // Jan 26, 2009 at 11:09 am

    This was my one of the favorite Arnold movie. The information presented by you was really great especially the Production history.

    Thanks
    Jennifer

  • 6 AR // Jan 26, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Maybe I’ll have to watch this again. I saw it when it first came out on cable, but it was just so confusing I could only get through half. I always found the premise quite clever.

  • 7 Megan // Jan 26, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    My favorite part – “I’m a comedy sidekick! It’s not gonna work!”

    I did not know all that about the screenplay and the editing. I agree more work would have helped this film immensely.

  • 8 Mr. Peel // Jan 28, 2009 at 10:51 am

    It’s a mess–I have some fondness for it, but it’s a big, huge mess. There are some good lines sprinkled throughout and “No, this is California,” probably got one of the biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in a theater.

    I attended the first show in Westwood which was also the debut of the much-heralded “SDDS” format. When the ambulance crashes into the theater at the end, the main speaker blew. For the next few minutes, including all of McKellan’s appearance, every line of dialogue was inaudible. The really funny thing about this was that it was tough at first to tell that this wasn’t really part of the movie.

    Back in ’03 the film was screened at the Arclight and Penn & Leff were there for a post-film discussion. To say they held nothing back is putting it mildly. They described in detail what happened during development and production, breaking down everything that went wrong with it but to their credit they never claimed they had the solutions to all the problems. They saved their worst comments for McTiernan & Black. I’d go into more detail, but it’s been a few years by now. I wish somebody would have taped that.

  • 9 Joe Valdez // Jan 28, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Lauren: Holidays wouldn’t be the same if I had severely trashed one of your favorite movies as a kid. I hope I offered some new perspective on it. You are always welcome back to offer your thoughts here.

    Alan/ Patricia: Last Action Hero either needed to be directed by the dude who wrote it so that it would have some cohesion of vision and tone, or spent another several years in development. The approach here is “kitchen sink” in terms of just throwing stuff out there to see what would work, but I agree with you that there is a lot of compelling, even mind blowing content beneath the surface of this movie. I dig that both of you enjoyed it.

    Jim: I remember going on a group date to see Last Action Hero with one of my first girlfriends. Yeah, not a flick that provokes any romantic activity whatsoever, but me and my buddy who hates Hollywood bullshit had a few laughs during the running time. Ah, the early ’90s. To see a movie in a theater and not hear or see a cell phone. Thanks for commenting!

    Jennifer: I’m pretty sure you’re not a spammer. If you are, you’re the most studious, respectful spammer I’ve ever run into and you have thus earned a reprieve from spam comment Phantom Zone. Thanks for dropping by!

    Amanda: I think you of all people would appreciate the genre deconstruction going on in Last Action Hero, and as others here like Alan have eluded to, its wacko, bizarre undercurrent. I guess you can tell I recommend giving this a second look.

    Megan: You just made me realize that Gary Ross took this same concept and wrote a much more compelling and funny movie called Pleasantville. There may have been 400 variations on this theme, but I feel like Black-Arnott only explored 6 of them here. Thank you for commenting.

    Peter: Thanks for reminding me what a wealth of info you can get at Arclight Q & A’s. I wonder if they frown on audience members tape recording those. At any rate, the Penn & Leff session sounded like a blast. Film students would learn a lot more watching Last Action Hero and hearing what went wrong than I think they would watching Citizen Kane. Thanks for commenting!

  • 10 John D. Madden // Jul 10, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Vindicated at last! I saw this when I came out, with my two young sons, and I laughed so hard I got asthmatic. Years later, even trying to describe the exploding corpse in the Tar Pits would send me into fits of laughter. I felt then that it was Arnold’s best film, and it still is: intelligent, wry, literate, side-splitting. I still can’t see the flaws.

  • 11 Fab // May 13, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    This movie is great and proves once more that movie “buffs” are often one-dimensional. Intellectuals who cannot imagine themselves watching a film because of their prejudice against action films on one hand, and action film lovers on the other hand, too dumb to enjoy the meta messages and cultural references throughout the film.
    This film was actually made to reconcile the two of them… but it seems was overestimating its audience. I remember seeing both Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero and liking the two films enormously… Not sure why liking one would rule liking the other one out.

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