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Trading Card Set of the Week – Last Action Hero (1993, Topps)

October 28, 2014


Last Action Hero isn’t a great movie, but it isn’t a terrible one either. It’s a modestly enjoyable experience, at times eliciting smiles even from jaded moviegoers with the wry Hollywood commentaries of its metafictional make-believe world. Still, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first bomb after a stunning series of box office hits: Predator, Total Recall, Terminator 2 — that’s a vita with a lot of $$$ in it, no matter what et als you sprinkle in. But thanks to its being released in the shadow of Jurassic Park, LAH didn’t find much of an audience in what was a total eclipse of available cash. Its underwhelming performance in the summer of 1993 led to it being consigned to the dustiest bin of flops. Indeed, for the better part of the last decade the only in-print home video available was a lame Pan and Scan DVD.

It was a desolate post-release apocalypse. All that was left were the trading cards.

That’s kind of a shame, because Last Action Hero a decent watch, with a Through the Looking Glass conceit that takes a fresh-faced kid with a magic movie ticket, our proxy, and injects him into the latest (fake) Arnold flick. In this world, the Austrian Oak’s cinematic success is centered on a series of films about his “Jack Slater” character, a cigar-chomping cop who doesn’t play by anyone’s rules and who lives in an alt-reality fairyland, where Robert Patrick’s T-1000 and Sharon Stone’s leggy Basic Instinct seductress can appear around any corner. And where Danny DeVito can voice a cartoon Inspector Cat or whatever. In Slater’s universe things almost always go his way — except when the writers throw him a tragic curve — and when he comes to ours, he discovers a degree of personal mortality he’s never known before. And the real life Schwarzenegger to boot. Doesn’t sound that awful, right?

But for a variety of reasons the project never kindled. In never could decide whether it was an action movie or a satire, and by vacillating between sides failed to become a hybrid. Director John McTiernan could compose action, and could direct Arnold in action, as Predator so ably demonstrated. But Action-Arnold with a layer of film mores commentary was perhaps a bridge too far. Again, not a mortal sin, and there were things to hang your hat on. But not the makings of a classic. Combine that with an inflated budget that saw the studio pissing money away on the dumbest things, and you had the makings of a legit bomb.

An aside: In a way it’s regrettable that this film was released while Arnold’s career was at its apex. Might it not play a bit better now, in his  twilight? If a note of sad winding down was inserted into the tone, rather like John Wayne’s farewell performance in The Shootist? Wouldn’t that add to the sense of fragility? And wouldn’t it be more interesting than going back to the Terminator well yet a-goddamn-gain? Say what you will about Schwarzenegger’s chops, but his acting skill-set is light-years ahead of flatlining thespians like the junk-peddling Steven Seagal. He at least has a measure of charm, which comes through in a movie like this, one that’s heavy on the whimsy — bullet-riddled whimsy, but whimsy nonetheless. And wrinkly old Arnold, with more sag than ripple, would perhaps be an even better Slater.

Anyway, the film was intended to be a big hit, the kind the defines a summer for movie-goers who were around during its run. As such it licensed itself out for the standard tchotchkes befitting that status. A (dreadful) video game. A (far superior) pinball machine. And, of course, cards.

Old standby Topps produced the LAH trading cards, which follow that company’s classic non-sport pattern of a base set and a smattering of stickers, the fairly common chase set of their day. (The Mork & Mindy and Ghostbusters II cards are among its kin that we’ve reviewed here.) But since this is the 1990s the genuine chase McCoy’s are included as well, four holo-foil cards which are muddled and hard to see no matter what angle you hold them at. What a treat, so worthy of the two-per-box pains in the ass they’re responsible for!

The 88 base cards are at least attractive in their simplicity. The fronts feature black borders with no extra adornment beyond the movie logo, and the backs offer some trivia and/or explanatory text — and the card numbers are within the outline of a tiny golden ticket, the magical conduit that brings characters back and forth between (fictional) reality and make-believe. A small, nice touch. There are few bells and whistles, but they have their appeal.

Here’s Danny Madigan, Movie Lover Freak:


Here’s always under-utilized Tom Noonan as “The Ripper” (GET IT?!?!?!?), Slater’s psychotic, battle-axe wielding arch-foe:


And here’s Charles Dance as Benedict, the gangster with the smiley-face glass eye who’s the catalyst for worlds colliding:


You may recall that F. Murray Abraham was in the movie, as Slater’s best friend FBI agent who betrays him to the mob — as movie-addled Danny irrelevantly but accurately remarks upon first meeting him, Slater shouldn’t trust him because “he killed Mozart.” He has his share of cards in this set, including two that illustrate that maybe the people at Topps didn’t give a rat’s ass about this thing. Here are a couple of cards that come in a row:




Quality control must have been on a coffee break.

To wash the taste of that half-assedness out of our mouths — MC Hammer! Hammer-time!:


The base set concludes with some making-of cards. This one, at the La Brea Tar Pits, is an eerie foreshadowing of the dinosaur blockbuster that would mire LAH in the muck:


The eleven stickers have puzzle piece backs that recreate the poster image also seen on the box cover at the top of this post. If the black outline of the regular cards is refreshing in its austerity, the random, repeating cop car graphic on the stickers might send those susceptible into seizures. Hey, do you remember that Ian McKellan had a small role, as Death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, who comes alive when the movie ticket magic starts going haywire in the climax? Here he is, in all his pre-Gandalf/Magneto glory:


Holo-foil was a dreadful gimmick used all too often in trading card sets of this era, and scans don’t do their putridity justice. Here’s the holo-foil chase representing the great Schwarzenegger-as-Hamlet parody trailer, which played like a Family Guy cutaway and is a movie I’d still pay to see (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark — and Hamlet is takin’ out the trash!”):


And there you have it.

In terms of value, unopened boxes aren’t as plentiful as some contemporary releases, but if you’re paying more than fifteen bucks for one, you’re paying too much, and complete sets of the cards and stickers should be around ten simoleons. (Or less.) If you want the holo-foils, those will be extra, but not a lot extra — you should probably be able to get the whole shebang for under twenty dollars.

This is an okay set for an okay movie. The reputation of Last Action Hero has improved a tad in recent years, fired by a wave of nostalgia for summer releases of yore and a focus on the merits of its more enjoyable light-hearted elements. And that never-ending human appetite for all things goofy. Time heals all wounds, even those caused by shrapnel from an exploding box office bomb. Track these cards down if you’re one of those harkening back — or one of the dozens who were fans the first time around.

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