Think You Know Last Action Hero? Think Again

Arnold Schwarzenegger's infamous box office bomb is actually one of his greatest movies.

Last Action Hero Charles Dance
Columbia Pictures

There was once a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger could do wrong. After breaking into the public eye with his bodybuilding exploits in the late 1970s - immortalised in the all-timer documentary, Pumping Iron - Schwarzenegger would star in a number of seminal action films in the following decade, propelling him on a rise that would take him to Hollywood's summit and define an entire genre in the process.

Conan the Barbarian. The Terminator. Commando. Predator. These films reinvented action archetypes and were themselves a reflection of Arnold's unimpeachable drive for success and fame, each character a conduit through which to flex the Austrian man mountain's physique, stunt acumen, and bravado.

At the same time, these roles also intimated Schwarzenegger's erudite grasp of his own performance and image. Just as quickly as he pioneered eighties action he was also deconstructing it, most successfully in genre master John McTiernan's Predator, which assembled a team of immaculately sculpted eighties strongmen, only to have them be torn apart by a slasher villain from beyond the stars. Forays into comedy - such as in Ivan Reitman's Twins, in which Schwarzenegger starred opposite Danny DeVito - once again illustrated a willingness to have fun with his persona.

This understanding of and drive to interrogate his image proved to be the making of Arnie's Hollywood career, which reached a cultural and critical peak in 1991 with James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But it also led to its decline. Just two years later, Schwarzenegger would star in his most introspective film yet, and one that ultimately became one of the most notorious box office bombs ever made, codified into pop culture legend as a hubristic example of genre indulgence. That movie, John McTiernan's Last Action Hero, is widely regarded as Schwarzenegger's lowest moment - but it should be seen as one of his best.

Last Action Hero Arnold Schwarzenegger
Columbia Pictures

Released in 1993, Last Action Hero has long been considered the nadir of Schwarzenegger's career - or at least the first film to show a weakness in what had been until that point an unshakeable box office winning streak. With a meta but affectionate plot all about a young boy being transported into the action movies he loved, Last Action Hero was roundly criticised for having an ostensibly messy focus that undermined its potentially cutting premise. Its critical and commercial failure quickly became a gag, with critics reveling in the big-budget behemoth stumbling out of the gates next to Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, which famously went on to become one of the biggest movies ever made.

Throw in a tumultuous production and a sentimental storyline that stretched Arnie's dramatic chops, and you were left with a recipe for mockery - a reception best exemplified a year after Last Action Hero's release by The Simpsons, with Chief Wiggum exclaiming "magic ticket my ass" to a downtrodden and dejected Rainier Wolfcastle - a surrogate Arnie - in the golden age episode, "The Boy Who Knew Too Much."

By that point, in 1994, the narrative had set in. Last Action Hero was consigned to box office bomb status along with the likes of Heaven's Gate, soon to be followed by the other commercial failures of the decade like Renny Harlin's Cutthroat Island and Kevin Costner's Waterworld. And there it has largely remained, with director McTiernan and co-writer Shane Black having spoken candidly of their regrets with the film and of its infamously tempestuous production, essentially agreeing that it did not live up to their own standards.

But this perception of Last Action Hero isn't fair, and today, you'll be able to find plenty of people who hail the film as a career highlight for Arnie and McTiernan. For his part, Schwarzenegger agrees that the film is his most underrated, stating in a 2023 interview with The Hollywood Reporter that "it was slaughtered before anyone saw it... now, more and more people are seeing it and saying 'I love this movie.'"

Now, for my part, I have always loved Last Action Hero, so I need to qualify any defence I put forward for the movie with the fact that it holds a lot of personal nostalgia. That said, Arnold is absolutely right. While flawed, Last Action Hero is his most unheralded film - an affectionate send-up and send-off to eighties action cinema that reiterates McTiernan's masterful understanding of the genre, as well as a willingness on Arnie's behalf to interrogate his own filmic legacy. It is arguably a smarter film than the sum of its messily-produced parts should allow, but the end result is still a funny, gorgeously shot entry into the genre canon that remains undervalued 30 years on from its release.

[Article continues on next page...]

Content Producer/Presenter
Content Producer/Presenter

Resident movie guy at WhatCulture who used to be Comics Editor. Thinks John Carpenter is the best. Likes Hellboy a lot. Can usually be found talking about Dad Movies on his Twitter at @EwanRuinsThings.