Guilty Pleasures: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Last Action Hero in the Age of Trump


Time to revisit Arnold vs Donald: “In this world the bad guys can win!”

Your correspondent has long held a fondness for the term ‘half-smart’; it always seemed crisper, briefer and more pointed than the more common ‘too clever for his/her own good.’ There are, however, circumstances wherein the longer, clunkier phrase is actually the more appropriate.

Case in point: one of my all-time favourite cinematic Guilty Pleasures, in the form of AH-nuld Schwarzenegger’s 1993 box-office disaster The Last Action Hero.

On the face of it, the movie should’ve been a slam-dunk, an open goal, a triple jackpot. Director/producer John McTiernan was riding high on the success of Die Hard; AH-nee himself was, in his mid-40s, just about the biggest marquee name in the movies after a judicious mixture of big smart action movies (The Terminator; Terminator II: Judgement Day; Total Recall) and big dumb action movies (Command; Red Dawn; Raw Deal and Predator, the latter directed by McTiernan) plus a couple of gently self-mocking comedies (Twins, Kindergarten Cop). (I won’t mention the two Conan movies if you won’t.)

And talk about High Concept: the basic plot conceit must’ve seemed solid copper-bottomed gold. Consider: a mash-up of Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (just-a-poor-boy-from-a-poor-family gets his hands on a Golden Ticket which allows him to live out his most cherished fantasy) and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose Of Cairo (cinema screen becomes portal which allows viewers and players to enter each others’ worlds and mingle), generously sprinkled with powerful handguns, major explosions, heavy-duty car-chases and AH-nuld himself.

The story exists on three levels of reality: (1) ours, in which we’re watching the movie; (2) a faux-fictional reality almost like ours, except that one of AH-nuld’s key franchises is a series of flicks in which he stars as supercop Jack Slater, and the poor-boy-from-a-poor-family (played by only-moderately-annoying child star Austin O’Brien), who lives in a cramped NYC apartment with his single-parent mom, worships AH-nee as Slater, and (3) the designated-fictional world of the Slater movies into which AO’B’s character enters via his Golden Ticket and from which characters from the Slaterverse – notably Charles Dance’s haughty Brit villain, delightedly exclaiming, “In this world the bad guys can win!” – slide back into Reality2, where they even get to meet a version of AH-nuld himself. Result: a Big Faux-Dumb Action Movie which autodeconstructs and fourth-walls itself. Pastiche, parody, piss-take, what? Coolness! Hilarity does indeed ensue.

Factor in a stellar supporting cast including Dance, Anthony Quinn, F Murray Abraham and Ian McKellen (not to mention cameos from the likes of Sharon Stone, Tina Turner, Joan Plowright, Robert Patrick, Jim Belushi and even MC Hammer) … hey, what could possibly go wrong?

Ahem. Let me count the ways. For a start, there were backstage shenanigans re the script: Zak Penn & Adam Leff’s original screenplay was so thoroughly rewritten (by Shane Black ¬– who’d scripted the Lethal Weapon movies which LAH satirises, not ineffectively – and an uncredited William Goldman) that they were relegated to a mere ‘story’ credit. Then there was a release date brought so far forward by the studio that McTiernan complained that he virtually had to edit the movie in the camera; a disastrous rough-cut preview generating horrendous word-of-mouth notices …

Suffice it to say that the movie became AH-nee’s first serious flop, though not his last. It died a hideous death in theatres, though video afterlife eventually led it into posthumous profit.

We ask again: what went wrong? It wasn’t because LAH was a comedy – Twins and Kindergarten Cop were both comedies and successful (KC’s best gag: AH-nee’s megatough undercover lawman, exhausted after a day of dealing with pre-schoolers, complains about having to tell them a story concerning ‘beers who go sharping’), but then they were flagged up front as comedies. LAH ‘s poster displays an image of its star with biceps, pecs and lats busting out of a torn T-shirt (as seen nowhere in the movie), and – despite Austin O’Brien cradled in AH-nuld’s arm holding a box of popcorn – the expectation was nevertheless created that this was another Big Arnie Big Gun movie: the mixture more or less as before.

Instead, what they got was popcorn post-modernism, delivered (unlike, say, Galaxy Quest, which was adored and celebrated by Trekkies) without audience permission. Worse! In the scene when the Arnie from Reality 1 (ours) appears as the Arnie from Reality 2 (Austin’s), he presents himself as exactly the smug, callous, complacent blowhard his detractors always considered him to be.

Flanked by his real-life then-wife Maria Shriver, he proudly announces, ‘In zis moofie ve only kill 48 people. In zer last one ve killed 119, but ve make up for it viz a good story, emotions, depth, dimensions. And at Planet Hollywood ve haff some incredible memorabilia. It is absolutely fabulous …’

‘You embarrassed me,’ she hisses. ‘How could you do that? Do not plug the restaurants. I hate that. It is so tacky.’

Maria, you spoke for us all.

So: AH-nuld’s crime was not to take himself anywhere near as seriously as his audience took him – and they thus felt that they were the ones being insulted.

LAH didn’t derail AH-nuld’s career (though it certainly didn’t help): he hooked up with James Cameron again and came back strong with his final classic, True Lies. The wheels did, however, come off with the DayGlo rubber-nippled turkey that was Batman And Robin, which proved, among other things, that paying Big AH-nee the Big Bucks was no longer a blue-chip investment.

As Governor of California, he found himself (much to everybody’s surprise, including his own) that he was actually a LIBRUL, at least with regard to LGBT rights and environmental issues. And he now amuses himself (and us) by regularly trolling DOH-nuld Trump (who evidently stole Charles Dance’s Golden Ticket into our reality) with YouTube diatribes which expertly and characteristically combine the heavy-handed and the light-footed.

Here’s a recent favourite: Arnold Has A Message For Trump

Never mind! Here in 2018, wrenched from its era of origin a quarter-century after the fact, LAH’s satire seems much sharper than it did at the time: indeed, with the wisdom of distance (perspective, ya dig) it seems like it was made now about then. Plus it’s stuffed with good gags: Austin warning Slater that his colleague (F Murray Abraham) is not to be trusted because ‘he killed Mozart!’ AH-nuld as Hamlet (‘To be or not to be’ … (lights cigar) … ‘not to be’ … (Elsinore Castle explodes behind him). McKellen as the robed Death from Bergman’s Seventh Seal. Frank McRae roasting the ‘shouty black police precinct captain’ trope to a turn. The Sylvester Stallone joke. Quinn and Dance having almost as much self-parodic fun as AH-nuld himself.

And many, many more, which I’ll leave you to discover for yourselves.

If you saw it at the time, revisit it: it’s one of the best things he ever did. If you’ve never seen it before, make sure you catch it the next time it’ll be baahhhhk on TV.

If you missed it altogether, trust me … BEEG mistake. There’s a more than decent chance that it’ll end up as one of your Guilty Pleasures, too.