"To be or not to be? Not to be."
Fun fact: In the summer of 1993, 'Last Action Hero' opened one week after 'Jurassic Park'. Studio bosses at Columbia Pictures were convinced that Arnold Schwarzenegger would clobber the dinosaurs, and played up this battle of the box office behemoths in their promotion for the movie. They were gravely mistaken. Arnold got stomped like Bambi under Godzilla's foot. I can recall going to a big multiplex with Steven Spielberg's film on five screens. Even in its second week, lines to see it went through the theater lobby and out the door. In comparison, 'Last Action Hero' opened there on just a single screen with a half-empty auditorium. After a string of mega-hits including 'Total Recall' and 'Terminator 2', the actor had his first outright flop. As a potential contender for the big summer blockbuster of the year, 'Last Action Hero' was simply not to be.
Fun fact #2: Austin O'Brien, the annoying child star of 'Last Action Hero', is a dead ringer for a young Mary Lynn Rajskub from '24'. Take a good look and tell me you don't see it.
In hindsight, there was simply no way that any picture in its position could have succeeded. Not even the biggest movie star in the world (which Schwarzenegger was at the time) could face off against the defining cultural moment for a generation of moviegoers and survive unscathed. However, bad timing was certainly not the film's only problem. Even if not for its box office competition, the movie's poor screenplay, inconsistent tone, and the irritating performance from one of its lead stars would have likely done it in anyway.
Somewhere during its development, 'Last Action Hero' started off as a clever, even metaphysical, high-concept pitch. The story works as a sort of reverse spin on Woody Allen's 'The Purple Rose of Cairo'. Life in the big city slums of New York hasn't been easy for young Danny Madigan (O'Brien). In between home invasions and muggings, the boy's only form of entertainment is to watch movies at the run-down old theater where he's befriended the doddering projectionist. It's his own personal Cinema Paradiso. Like most 12 year-olds, he has an enthusiasm for movies but hasn't yet developed taste in them. His favorites are the mindless shoot-'em-ups starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (yes, the actor name-checks himself) as loose cannon cop Jack Slater. After one particularly bad day, his projectionist friend offers Danny a special advance screening of 'Jack Slater IV', all by himself at midnight. The boy jumps at the chance. When he arrives, he's also given a magic ticket said to be passed down from Harry Houdini. Danny is in hog heaven as he settles down to watch Slater take revenge on the Mafiosos who killed his second-cousin.
Well, it turns out that the magic ticket really is magical. At a key moment, Danny is sucked into the theater screen and passes right through into the world of the movie itself. Against his disbelief, he's living in his favorite movie, paired up as Jack Slater's newest partner. His attempts to explain the predicament to anyone and everyone in earshot are met with indifference. Now, Danny must find a way to get back to the real world. In the process, he'll have to help Slater foil the Mob's latest scheme to take over Los Angeles.
It's a neat idea, and 'Last Action Hero' has a handful of funny scenes to support it. Early on, bored at school, Danny fantasizes about Schwarzenegger taking over for Laurence Olivier in 'Hamlet' and blowing the hell out of Denmark. In Slater's crazy celluloid universe, the LAPD is populated by all sorts of wacko cops in outlandish uniforms. Blink-and-you'll-miss-'em celebrity cameos pop up all over (Sharon Stone as Catherine Trammel, Robert Patrick as the T-1000, Danny DeVito as the voice of an animated cat detective). The film takes pot-shots at action movie clichés like the crusty police captain, the hero's bad puns, the overly-talky killer, the cop killed with only two days to retirement, a chase through the oft-used L.A. River, and many ridiculous stunts and explosions. Schwarzenegger is plenty game to send-up his own persona and career. And the meta-filmic twists go into overdrive when the main villain (Charles Dance, delightfully creepy) escapes into the real world with a plot to disrupt the 'Jack Slater IV' premiere and kill the true Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Unfortunately, these things take up maybe 15-20 minutes of screen time in a 131-minute movie. Whatever good ideas the original script may have held were eventually watered down through countless rewrites, studio interference, test screening feedback, and last-minute reshoots. Danny is an incredibly whiny and annoying lead character that engenders no audience sympathy at all. (I can't blame poor Austin O'Brien too much; I'm sure the kid did exactly what everyone asked of him.) The hiring of John McTiernan (from 'Predator' and 'Die Hard') also turned out to be a much bigger mistake than anyone realized. The director may be deft with the action stuff, but has no sense of comedy whatsoever. Far too many of the gags in the movie are thuddingly unfunny. For long stretches of the film, everyone seems to forget that they're making a spoof of dumb action movies, and instead just proceed to make a dumb action movie.
'Last Action Hero' is overlong, and not nearly as funny, smart, or entertaining as it thinks it is. Sadly, everyone realized it. At $85 million, the film was quite expensive for its day (it cost more than 'Jurassic Park' did), and yet grossed a paltry $50 million domestically. It did better overseas, and I'm sure turned a profit eventually. But the vanity project is still remembered as a black mark in its star's career. On the other hand, 'Last Action Hero' is not quite the worthless disaster that it was made out to be at the time either. If you can go into it with low expectations, the picture is just moderately clever enough to be watchable. Just barely, though. Set those expectations really low.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
As one of its most notorious bombs, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has never treated 'Last Action Hero' with much respect. The initial DVD release was a stripped-down affair with no bonus features. All it had was a widescreen transfer on one side of the disc and a pan & scan transfer on the other. Eventually, the studio discontinued the widescreen version and reissued the disc with just the pan & scan transfer. In the process, nobody bothered to change the packaging or even the UPC number to warn buyers about what they were purchasing. It's that latter version that has been the only edition of the film to remain in print for the last several years.
Arnold Schwarzenegger's lasting appeal has kept the movie in circulation. The studio knows that it can count on his fan base to buy anything with his name on it. As such, now we have a new Blu-ray edition. Keeping with tradition, Sony has once again taken the "bare bones" approach. To really rub in how little they care for it, the disc has utterly nondescript cover art, a generic plot description on the back of the packaging, a bland menu, and no supplements of note. Then again, at least this disc doesn't have any annoying promos or trailers before the menu. That's a rarity for Sony.
Considering its history on DVD, 'Last Action Hero' looks surprisingly respectable on Blu-ray. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is presented in the movie's correct 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The image is at least reasonably sharp, enough that the small engraving on Arnold's belt buckle is legible. Black levels are solid and the contrast range appears to be properly rendered without artificial boosting. Colors are well saturated and sometimes striking.
In another pleasant surprise, I didn't spot any edge enhancement artifacts. My initial expectation was that Sony would merely recycle their DVD master from 2001, and the studio's DVDs of the era were almost all plagued with edge ringing problems. Countering that, however, is some moderate but noticeable Digital Noise Reduction filtering that does give the transfer a dated appearance. This causes occasional smearing during motion, and frozen grain patterns.
Grain representation in general is a problem with the disc. The movie's photography is fairly grainy in spots, especially during special effects shots. The high-def transfer doesn't handle the grain well. It looks very noisy, and even blocky at times, which suggests either poor digitization during the telecine transfer or poor compression during the disc encoding.
In similar respects, the Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is decent all around, but not quite exceptional. 'Last Action Hero' had the distinction of being the first movie released theatrically in the SDDS 7.1 audio format, Sony's competition for Dolby Digital and DTS. The latter debuted a week earlier with 'Jurassic Park' and stole most of Sony's thunder. Many of the theaters equipped with SDDS experienced technical problems; for several years, the format was jokingly referred to as "Still Doesn't Do Sh*t."
In order to show off their 7.1 channels, the film's mixers loaded up the soundtrack with lots of zinging directional and surround activity. Bullets whiz all through the soundstage repeatedly. Even as mixed down to 5.1 channels here, the track is still very aggressive. It also matrixes well into 7.1 configuration with Dolby ProLogic IIx processing.
Overall fidelity is pretty good. The rockin' score and songs on the soundtrack are satisfyingly broad across the front channels. Sound effects such as knives are quite sharp and piercing. Gun fire has a nice kick. Dynamic range is a little on the shallow side. The movie has plenty of explosions, but few of them dig particularly deep. In baseball terms, this would be a solid double.
Just like earlier DVD editions of the film, the Blu-ray has no bonus features. Unless you count a bunch of trailers for unrelated crap from the studio as "supplements," which I don't.
It had been a long while since I'd watched 'Last Action Hero'. In fact, I may not have seen the movie again since its opening weekend. I recalled not liking it very much at the time, but remembered enough of its better bits that I felt it was time for a re-evaluation. I'm also mindful that the film has developed a small cult following in the years since. Unfortunately, well, it's still not very good. This one falls into the guilty pleasure category.
The Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty good, but just pretty good, not great. The disc is also bereft of bonus features. Fans will find it acceptable enough for a purchase. Everyone else can safely stick with a rental.