Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the release of John McTiernan's "Last Action Hero." Ostensibly a spoof of hyper-violent action movies, wherein a young boy named Danny (Austin O'Brien) is magically transported into the world of his favorite action star (Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course), the film went on to become one of the most notorious flops in Hollywood history – an example of the fateful collision of artistic arrogance, unreasonable expectations and a faulty product whose concept never fully solidified. It's a movie that should have been a straightforward send-up of things like “Lethal Weapon” but included jokes about cartoon cats and references to “The Seventh Seal.” McTiernan, who is currently serving a year sentence in federal prison for lying to a federal officer, gravely described "Last Action Hero" to Empire Magazine as "the worst time I’ve ever had in this business.” It was that traumatic.
The movie was seemingly doomed from the beginning, with an unrealistic production (and post-production) schedule, an ambitious but poorly planned marketing campaign, and a foolish screening schedule (supposedly a test screening held two months before release went so disastrously that the studio had the comment cards destroyed). But if you've never seen the film before, there's a perfect opportunity just around the corner: on Saturday night the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles will be hosting a 20th anniversary midnight showing of the movie.
Three notes: Most of the information referenced in this piece was compiled with the help of filmmaker Charles Hood, who scoured the Academy library in Los Angeles for any and all tidbits about the tumultuous path “Last Action Hero” took to big screen infamy. Equally invaluable were a pair of books with chapters on this very movie -- "Hit and Run" by Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters, and "Fiasco" by James Robert Parish. Also, this article is best read while listening to the AC/DC song “Big Gun” from the official motion picture soundtrack, on repeat.
In Claudia Eller's "Dish" column in the August 4,1992 issue of Variety recounts how Schwarzenegger and McTiernan wooed William Goldman, the Academy Award-winning writer and novelist behind “Marathon Man” and “The Princess Bride,” to come on board the project by issuing a conference call (along with Columbia chairman Mark Canton). At this point both Schwarzenegger and McTiernan were keenly interested in the project but not totally sold (its summer 1993 release date was looming). So the three got on the phone with Goldman (along with Head of Production Michael Nathanson, Executive Vice President of Production Barry Josephson and Arnold's agent) and convinced Goldman to sign on, even though he was initially uninterested. According to the "Dish" report, Goldman said that he would only sign on if he could make the movie more in the "tone of his classic buddy pic 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' than a super, kid-in-awe actioner." The report quotes a source in the Goldman camp as saying, "Bill's point is the two characters had nowhere to go. Now he'll give them problems and conflict – they'll have character arcs and he'll make it a much more interesting, three-dimensional picture."
As recounted in a fascinating, hyper-detailed New York Times article called "Five Writers + One Star = A Hit?," released right before the movie's debut, "Last Action Hero" started as a spec script by Adam Leff and Zak Penn called "Extremely Violent," which was later heavily revised by Shane Black (whose scripts had partially been the inspiration for "Last Action Hero") and his writing partner David Arnott (it was this draft that initially attracted McTiernan, who said he was drawn to the Black/Arnott draft's "wacko sense of humor"). Goldman was picked because he had rewritten Schwarzenegger's "Twins" earlier and the two had a relationship. What's so amazing about Schwarzenegger and McTiernan officially signing on, less than a week after the initial "Dish" report, is that they were now locked onto a project fueled by the promise of a Goldman draft (even if that draft was fucking awful). Like so much of "Last Action Hero," their involvement was predicated on a sunny, misguided optimism (and the aforementioned hubris) that is simply stunning. Goldman changed a number of things – he revised the demonic projectionist, turning him into a kindly best friend of young protagonist Danny, and made the script's secondary villain its prime antagonist. Supernatural elements that laced the script, like a phone call Danny places to his dead father, were eliminated and Danny's age was lowered from 15 to 11, differentiating it from a similar relationship Schwarzenegger shared with Edward Furlong in "Terminator 2: Judgement Day." According to McTiernan: "Goldman gave Arnold a character to play, and he excised 150 toilet jokes." For his four weeks of work, Goldman was paid between $750,000 and $1 million. Goldman wasn't even the last writer to get a crack at "Last Action Hero" – at least two more, Carrie Fisher and "Hunt for Red October" writer Larry Ferguson also made adjustments, and at some point Black and Arnott were brought back to try and synthesize all of the various elements into a semi-cohesive whole. All the king's horses and all the king's men...
Sure, it was widely known that "Last Action Hero" opened the same summer as the unstoppable juggernaut known as "Jurassic Park" and that, comparably, it faltered, with an ad campaign that was muddled and confusing. But digging deeper and you understand that it was a chronically fucked up campaign from the very beginning and that the advertising failed the movie on an almost cellular level. This cannot be overstated. Like everything associated with "Last Action Hero," the marketing people were ambitious, trying for bold new directions that would create maximum impact… and missed the mark completely.
Take, for instance, the giant inflatable Arnold that they erected in Times Square (which had yet to become the squeaky clean tourist Mecca and still contained at least trace elements of its signature sleaze). It was a cartoon-y balloon version of the action superstar and in his right hand contained a fistful of dynamite. The problem was that the 75-foot balloon was erected three days after the original World Trade Center bombing. It was quietly deflated and put back up a day later, this time with his badge replacing the sticks of dynamite. Even more ambitious was a plan, launched at around the same time as the balloon (March 1993) to advertise the movie on a space shuttle. According to the Los Angeles Times, it cost Columbia somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000 for the privilege. In May the specifics were broken down by Box Office Magazine: "A Conestoga 1620 rocket will lift an 1,800 pound COMET-1 FreeFlyer to a 300-nautical-mile, low-Earth orbit, with advertising for the film emblazoned on the main fuselage and booster rockets and the payload (which will orbit for a minimum of two years). Columbia will also sponsor a 900-phone number program which will allow customers to call in and eave a message that will be sent into space." Sounds pretty cool, huh? Except that it didn't exactly work out that way. Later that month NASA confirmed that the rocket carrying the "Last Action Hero" ad had been delayed. Again. It was supposed to launch in May, then June, and it eventually launched in August. The film's release date was June 18th. By August everyone had forgotten about the movie (if they ever knew about it to begin with). Reports of the actual rocket launch and the subsequent advertising campaign that followed have never surfaced.
In a retrospective feature in British magazine Empire, McTiernan summed it up: "The advertising campaign was terrible. It did seem that if they hadn't overhyped the movie, it would have been easier to sell it." What makes this even more astounding (as recounted in "Fiasco") is that in August 1992, Canton had hosted a conclave on the Sony studio lot, featuring executives from 70 divisions of the Sony empire. (Sony had only recently purchased Columbia a few years prior, from soda giant Coca-Cola.) The movie was supposed to be the definition of synergistic magic, Canton announced, with Sony video games being developed around Arnold's "Last Action Hero" character, a soundtrack album released on a Sony record label and the company's new digital sound format (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) accompanying its theatrical release. This wasn't a single movie; this was a movement. And Canton saw it as a multi-picture franchise, one that could rival the "Batman" and "Lethal Weapon" franchises at his old home Warner Bros. (publicly he expressed interest in getting a sequel ready for the following summer). He failed on all accounts.