In an alternate universe, this article is about the 20th anniversary of an obscenely profitable summer blockbuster starring the era's biggest movie star, directed by the man behind Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October. But in this universe, we're talking about Last Action Hero, one of the most notorious flops of the '90s and an embarrassment to Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McTiernan (though both men would later do far worse things, on-screen and off). It came out 20 years ago this week. If you paid money to see it in theaters, You're Old®, and also a sucker.
Sometimes there's a misconception about whether a movie "flopped." Supposed disasters like TRON, Hook, Peter Jackson's King Kong, Superman Returns and The Last Airbender all actually made tidy profits when you include foreign grosses. Last Action Hero isn't one of those. It cost something like $85 million to make (including $15 million for Schwarzenegger's paycheck), and almost that much again to market and distribute. Then it grossed only $137 million worldwide, of which just $50 million came from the U.S. box office. It was bad news for everyone.
Now, two things are worth pointing out, two things that kind of contradict each other. One is that a movie like this was NEVER going to be a blockbuster, and it was insane for Columbia Pictures to think otherwise. Yes, it starred Schwarzenegger, whose previous film, two summers earlier, was a little something called Terminator 2: Judgment Day (which remains his highest grossing film ever). But don't forget, it was also a Hollywood satire, starring someone whose then-rare attempts at comedy, Twins and Kindergarten Cop, were mild and nonsatirical. Most Hollywood satires do poorly; a few do OK; none do well enough to justify an $85 million production budget. I mean, come on.
The other notable thing is that Last Action Hero isn't really all that bad. The parts of it focused on mocking the conventions of Hollywood action movies work just fine, actually, and it's a great premise: a kid is magically whisked into the movie world, where everyone has a 555- phone number and blustery captains yell at their loose-cannon renegade cops -- and then the kid and one of those cops are transported to the real world, where the cop is shocked to find that punching people hurts his hand.
The problem is that this satire of Hollywood dumbness fell victim to the dumb thinking that ruins a lot of Hollywood movies. Originally called Extremely Violent, the screenplay was a spec script written by newbies Zak Penn and Adam Leff that Columbia bought for $500,000 -- big money for unknown first timers. It had been written with Schwarzenegger in mind, but in order to get Arnold interested, Columbia brought in Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black to punch up the screenplay. More writers did more rewrites. It became a classic case of "We love your screenplay! It's perfect! We'll buy it and change everything!" In the end, it had been altered so much that the original writers only got "story by" credit, with the actual screenplay attributed to Black and David Arnott (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane).
All of this behind-the-scenes monkeying around is evident on the screen. While the satire stuff works OK, much of the rest of it doesn't. The tone varies wildly; by the end, we're supposed to have an emotional connection to Schwarzenegger's fictional movie character Jack Slater, and to find the relationship between him and the kid sweet. The story has vague hints of nostalgia for a bygone era of moviegoing. The villain's plan to use the kid's magic ticket to hop from one movie to another, gathering fictional bad guys to help him rule the world, is silly and unnecessary. The movie tries to be a lot of things at once -- kid-friendly fantasy, showbiz satire, big-budget action flick -- and winds up botching it. You know, like 98% of movies that try to be a lot of things at once.
Schwarzenegger recovered, obviously. He went on to make movies that were more successful (True Lies, Eraser), as well as some that flopped even harder (Junior, The 6th Day, Collateral Damage and this year's The Last Stand). Yet the sheer size and bluster of Last Action Hero makes it stick in our memories as one of his biggest mistakes. To honor the film's 20th birthday, let's all do the same thing we did when it was released: watch Jurassic Park instead.
When Last Action Hero was released, on June 18, 1993...
- Its opening box office of $15 million was good (it wound up being the ninth best opening of 1993), but not good enough: Jurassic Park, which had opened a week earlier, made $38 million. Off-brand animated film Once Upon a Forest was new this week, too. Other films in the top 10 included Cliffhanger, What's Love Got to Do with It, Made in America, Guilty As Sin, Dave, Menace II Society and Life with Mikey. Truly, it was a golden age.
- Schwarzenegger wasn't the only man being emasculated this week. Five days after Last Action Hero opened, Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband's penis.
- Prince had recently announced that he was changing his name to a symbol with no pronunciation. His clever plan to make people stop talking about him backfired, however, as he remained quite famous.
- David Letterman was one week away from his last show on NBC. He would restart on CBS two months later. No one ever watched a program on NBC again.
- Cheers, Designing Women, Saved by the Bell and Life Goes On had all recently aired their final episodes.
- Janet Jackson's "That's the Way Love Goes" was in the midst of its eight-week streak at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It would be followed by SMV's "Weak," then by UB40's "Can't Help Falling in Love." It was a big summer for abbreviations.