There’s a difference between an opinion, a bias and a fact. An opinion is a value judgment based upon personal experience. A bias is an emotional position based on someone else’s experiences and thus is open for often-flawed positions of evaluation. A fact is a result, conclusion or observation of a state of a thing that is measurable and demonstrable regardless of approach used.
Last Action Hero is an awesome film. This is a fact. It was also a huge box office flop because of bias. To understand that, let’s go back and look at what was going on in the entertainment world when it was released.
1991 was a time when the studios had been heartened by such previous box office smashes as the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series, Total Recall, Predator, the Rambo series and especially, Terminator 2. Hollywood had been steadily ramping up their investment in blockbusters since the early 1980s, crowing with pride at every E.T. and ignoring every Heaven’s Gate. As the 80s rolled on, the dollars spent—and the body counts of failure—continued to increase. But hey, this was the Reagan 80s when thrift was ignored and corpulent extravagance was the norm, so as the 80s rolled into the 90s and the state of the film industry became more corporatized and less about the “should we be making this film because it’s worthwhile” and more about “can we repeat the formula of X and profit with Y and Z”, the industry’s playing field became a landscape of dizzying mountains (Terminator 2, Aliens) and darkened abysses (Hudson Hawk, Bonfire of the Vanities). For every hit there was an Ishtar or Cotton Club being kicked out of a club somewhere.
Originally written by Zak Penn and Adam Leff, two unknown screenwriters trying to break into the biz, the script (then titled Extremely Violent) was sold to Columbia. Hoping to turn it into a family-friendlier property, the script eventually was worked over by no less than eight writers, including William Goldman and Shane Black (original writers Penn and Leff received a “Story By” credit in the final film). Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast as the lead and a bevy of acknowledged and bankable talent was used to fill in the background gaps in what was intended to be a monster satire of the action film genre.
Now none of this is particularly unusual for a film in development (and compared to the tortuous development many films go through Last Action Hero’s development is actually quite tame). So what went wrong? By my count two things killed this film before it was really given a chance. First, a backlash at empty cash-fuelled “blockbusters” was starting to turn off some movie goers and many of the press. Second, Mark Canton, then-head of Columbia Pictures and who had made Last Action Hero his pet project, was so eager to show off how the film was shaping up, that he had Columbia hold a very premature test screening in Lakewood, California on May 1, 1993.
As Jack Slater would say, big mistake. Simply put, the film just wasn’t ready to be seen. Director John McTiernan was aware that the mix of satire and drama needed to make the film work was a delicate one that needed much refining and massaging during editing. The 138 minute cut that was shown to the 1000 audience members was very rough, prompting Schwarzenegger himself to later note “I would say the movie was shown in the roughest form I’ve ever seen a movie screened.” The screening went so badly that Canton had Columbia gather all the audience test cards and shred them allowing no one—not even the director and the star—to see them. When the media called to get the results, Columbia hemmed and hawed and stated that the film had generated no test results.
The press wasn’t buying it. And with 1000 witnesses to the debacle, the word eventually got out that the film was a huge disaster. To keep an interesting and convoluted story short, the negative press spiraled out of control and the film became the trendy movie to hate by the press. Add into the mix that it opened a week after Jurassic Park and you can hear the iceberg striking the prow on any hope Last Action Hero might have had for success.
And all the bad press and bias’ are flat out wrong. Last Action Hero is a wonderful film that nicely strikes a balance between lapsing into an exercise of Airplane-esque self-satire on one side and completely grounded real world comedy on the other. The action scenes play nicely and are funny (I especially love the shot at the conclusion of one of the film’s chases when a minivan tries to follow Schwarzenegger’s car out of the L.A. river basin and fails spectacularly in the background) and the film’s thumb-nosing at the clichéd action movie tropes are fast and furious. Mixing elements reminiscent of Purple Rose of Cairo, Play It Again Sam and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, all the elements of the “reality character meets fantasy character” buddy film are there and are played out from both sides: first, when the character of Danny Madigan enters Jack Slater’s film world and then in reverse when Slater enters the real world. If anything, the film was just too damn subtle for many viewers and critics to appreciate and suffered the same viewer confusion that killed another brilliant satire, Falling Down, also released in 1993. When I saw Falling Down I understood right away that it was a comedy, a razor-sharp and tightly executed satire. I was working at a movie theatre that summer and over the course of Falling Down’s run, most of the audience left the film feeling terribly confused…they just had no reference point with which to classify what they had just experienced.
Let’s face it, most filmgoers expect to be spoon-fed a product that exists within very narrow, pre-defined parameters. They don’t really want to think, they don’t really want to process cause and effect and newly defined visual symbology. They want to know that black is black, up is up and there’s a clear beginning, middle and end (the Robin Williams film Toys, another favorite of mine, suffered the same audience confusion the previous year). To these filmgoers, films like Last Action Hero, Falling Down and Toys are pitcher plants, celluloid bait-and-switches that advertise a no-brainer two hours then hit them with a demand that they play more flexibly with the film than they expected or prepared to, doing so surreptitiously, never really revealing what’s expected of the audience but only giving clues for the audience to grasp on their own. Sadly, that’s a feat the average filmgoer will never accomplish.
The only criticism I have for the film is that Canton played it poorly by forcing the project to be ready for its June 18th release date. A film with as many complex elements as this one really needed more time to fine tune and nowhere is this more evident in the film’s optical effects. Color values in these shots are badly balanced with off-color values and soft, highly contrasting details. Matte lines are often too sharp around the various elements and make the composition look almost like a bad Terry Gilliam cut-and-paste animation. While these flaws were evident on the DVD release, they’re even more so on the Blu-Ray.
Which brings us to the disc itself. While the source material has flaws, the presentation on disc does not. Image detail and color in the MPEG-4 AVC picture (2.40:1) are superb with sharp lines and a pleasing film grain. The look of the real world is appropriately balanced and neutral and contrasts well with the colors in Jack Slater’s world that pop nicely but never hit oversaturation. The blacks are deep and the highlights never blow out. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless audio track rumbles, booms and explodes exactly as it should, filling the room and keeping pace with the onscreen visuals.
There are no extras on the disc to speak of which is another example of how little respect this film continues to receive. It’s eleven years later and the film continues to outperform new titles that are given lavish (and typically unnecessary) disc releases and it’s about damn time that a proper special edition of this film gets released. Before Jack Slater gets pissed enough to come out here to our world and do it his damn self.
And that’s a fact.