I cannot remember a more divisive meta-fictional film from my childhood than one Last Action Hero. Panned by the critics, floudering at the box office, the Arnold Schwarzenegger action film was an exercise in the tail wagging the dog that is generally considered a failure some twenty years down the road. I am not here to defend Last Action Hero, because there are definite warts and a great misinterpretation of tone throughout the events on the screen. But I am here to take a look at the film itself, what it was trying to do, what is was trying to say; I find myself wondering if it was maybe ahead of its time. Audiences have evolved since 1993, and the structure of narrative and what sells to the masses has become something altogether different. Maybe crowds in general weren't ready for something to peel back the curtain of their action films. Dare I say, Last Action Hero signified the end of a certain action film, and pushed the industry forward towards something new.
Most of us know the bsic structure of the film: a young boy becomes sucked into the on-screen world of his favorite action star, Jack Slater. Slater is Arnold Schwarzenegger in the real world, and young Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien) is the only one in the cinematic fantasy world who understands these people are merely characters created in the Hollywood magic machine. Danny spends a great deal of time trying to convince Slater he is not, in fact, a rogue cop impervious to bullets, but a mega-star playing a part. Everyone in LA is beautiful, numbers are all "555," Slater's boss is F. Murray Abraham is Slater's boss who Danny points out "killed Mozart." Despite his objections to the reality he finds himself in after being sucked into the screen, Jack Slater can't buy it. It is only when Slater is pulled out of his on-screen world, back into the real world, that he begins to question his own existence.
Last Action Hero is an action comedy that would have been a marvelous and compelling picture had it been written by Charlie Kaufman. But Kaufman had yet to make his mark in Hollywood. It would be five years before Being John Malkovich took this meta-fiction to a more cerebral and impacting level. In 1993, action was still king of the land, including Schwarzenegger, fresh off the worldwide pehnomenon of Terminator 2. The action films of the time were the very ones being deconstructed by Danny in Last Action Hero. At the time, there was a certain rejection to the notion of deconstructing action films, the ones audiences were still filling up seats to see. In 2012, action films have been tweaked and redefined and broken down to be rebuilt as any variation of genres. Think about the raw action of the Bourne franchise, or the action comedy in films like Sherlock Holmes and Red. These pictures have a certain self awareness, a knowing nod to the audience that everyone involved realizes this is simply a film.
Action and comedy had been blended before Last Action Hero, but never without serious undertones. Think about the Lethal Weapon franchise. Two of the four films had been released prior to Last Action Hero, and while the comedic banter between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover was some of the enticing charm of the franchise, the action was still anchored in some form of seriousness or reality. But once Last Action Hero peeled back the curtain and busted through the fourth wall with a jackhammer, the action comedy felt stale unless it was more self aware. This destruction of the action film also pushed creativity forward; studios and directors realized the corny pyrotechnics of 80s action films would no longer please audiences. The absuridty of the 80s action had been exposed a little, so audiences wanted something fresh.
Perhaps I am giving too much credit to Last Action Hero. There were still absurdly over the top action films filling up the 90s, but none of them were as big box-office draws as they were in the 80s. Even Schwarzenegger's films like Eraser, Collateral Damage, and The 6th Day found very little interest for audiences. True Lies was released in 1994, and was a huge success, but it had the audaciousness of James Cameron behind the camera, who took action to a new and unmatched level of absuriduty on a regular basis.
I also think reality television has changed the face of action stars and films. When everyone is on camera all the time, when actors lives are followed on a regular basis, meta-fiction has become more interesting to the general public. Last Action Hero might have very well started a groundwell of change in action films. Of course, the darkness of the film and the clumsy pacing made Last Action Hero less than stellar as a film, but look at the ideas at work there. Had this film been released five, seven, ten years later, it may have been much more successful. And perhaps if Charlie Kaufman would have tried his hand at action comedy, this would be the result.