Now that Arnold Schwarzenegger has officially announced that he is returning to acting, it is perhaps as good a time as any to look back at some of his better works of would-be art. Since even his most recent picture (the underrated Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) is nearly eight-years old, the entire filmography of Mr. Schwarzenegger can almost be considered something of a relic worthy of study. What is worth noting is how succinctly his career can be divided up into three chapters. You've got the B-movie phase which goes from 1982 (Conan the Barbarian) to 1988 (Twins). You've got the Arnold Schwarzenegger: world's biggest movie star phase, which was from 1990 (Total Recall) to 1997 (Batman & Robin). Then, following a nearly three-year break due to heart surgery, you have the last act of Schwarzenegger's career. This lasts from 1999 (End of Days) to 2003 (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) where he attempted to remain relevant in an era where respected young actors (Nicolas Cage, Matt Damon, etc) were becoming action stars. There are hits and misses in each era, as the B-movie phase gave us The Terminator while the 'world's mightiest hero' middle-act gave us Jingle All the Way. Let us take a moment to remember the very best that 'Ah-nuld' had to offer, even if he doesn't have the sense to quit while he is somewhat ahead.
5) Collateral Damage
This film is best known for being delayed following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But it has aged relatively well and gives us one of Schwarzenegger's better performances. Andrew Davis is best known for The Fugitive, but he is also known as the only man to get decent work out of Steven Seagal (Above the Law and Under Siege) and elicit a single compelling performance from Chuck Norris (Code of Silence). And the Davis-touch can be seen in the moments of silent grieving as Schwarzenegger sits in a hospital bed after his wife and daughter have been killed in a terrorist bombing. Schwarzenegger has never been good at overly emotional acting, and comparing these moments with the laughable grief scenes from Batman & Robin and End of Days is almost revelatory. But aside from being a case study in what good directors can do for Arnie, the film works as a compelling and thoughtful action thriller that features fine character work from Cliff Curtis and Elias Koteas. What's most worth pointing out is that the film's token acknowledgement of the complexity of geopolitics ("You see a peasant with a gun, you change the channel. But you never ask why a peasant needs a gun.") would have been taken as just a bit of shading at any other time, but came off as uber-liberal in the immediate post-9/11 era. Collateral Damage is arguably the last time that an action film could delve into politics without being political.
4) True Lies
Speaking of movies that got screwed by 9/11... We may never see a Blu-Ray/DVD special edition of this picture, let alone the long-promised sequel. The film was controversial in its time, both for its depiction of Islamic terrorists and the creepy relationship between Schwarzenegger's Harry Tasker (as a spy who's family thinks he's a boring banker) and Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis, as a bored and neglected housewife who considers infidelity). I never found the film to be racist in any real way. The film features a Grant Heslov as one of the good guys without feeling the need to comment on his middle-eastern ethnicity (probably to avoid the fact that the actor/director is actually Jewish). And as far as Art Malik and his evil minions, they are both allowed to un-ironically express their ideological reasons for their would-be terrorism and presented as almost comically incompetent (not a single 'good guy' is killed in the entire film). It won't win any awards from UMMAH, but films like Executive Decision are arguably far more useful as anti-Muslin propaganda than this cheerfully silly action-thriller.
Ironically, the film's sexual politics hold up rather well. Sure, Harry's (hidden) interrogation of his own wife, and the bit where he makes her do a strip-tease for his viewing pleasure is a little disconcerting, but the film actually has the respect for its characters to actually be about their relationship at least as much as it's about the explosions and gunfights. The film never shies from pointing out that Harry is a lousy husband and that Helen wants and deserves more adventure in her life. Oh, and the film remains one of the best pure shoot-em-ups in modern history, with countless classic set-pieces (the horse chase, the bridge attack, the jet rescue finale) which climaxes with one of the coolest deaths for a main bad guy in cinema history. The film is often called politically incorrect, but it instead shows James Cameron's refusal to merely make an empty-headed piece of entertainment, and a relic of a bygone age where major stars weren't afraid to play unlikable and/or deeply flawed characters in popcorn entertainment. Oh, and it probably contains Arnold's most fully-rounded performance.
3) The Terminator/Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Ironically, playing a robot suited Schwarzenegger awfully well, because his expressive face allowed an understated and obviously monotone performance to shine where verbal histrionics would have failed. I know I'm cheating, but both of James Cameron's Terminator pictures are about equally good. And while I will defend Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines unto death (the finale is unsparingly powerful), Jonathan Mostow's third picture is merely a good sequel to two great installments. The first film has the advantage of being first, and the benefit of withholding information lends the opening act a genuine sense of dread and terror as Schwarzenegger's ice-cold cyborg slaughters one innocent person after another. While the sequel did much of it bigger, the original film is genuinely scary, operating as much as a horror film as an action thriller. The Terminator remains a lean, brutally violent and deeply cynical science fiction chase that still holds up as one of the better action pictures of the 1980s.
Some may argue that the sequel is basically an uber-expensive and expanded remake of the first picture, and there may be some truth to that. But the second film still plays as a strikingly BIG and openly emotional adventure story; one that deals with some unpleasant questions (Would you murder one innocent person to save all of humanity?) and a genuinely dim view of humanity overall. And of course, we have Robert Patrick as the T-1000 (still one of the coolest villains in modern cinema) and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Conner (arguably the true lead of the picture), who give the performances of their careers. Patrick, in particular, never got the credit he deserved for delivering a knowingly-sly performance while having to hit every mark perfectly for the CGI and practical effects that revolved around his character. The film was the first to cost $100 million, and it still holds up at least partially because so little of it was actually CGI. The practical stunt work and effects showed off a whole new scale of action filmmaking, and it remains an excellent plea for world peace wrapped in a pulse-pounding chase thriller.
2) Total Recall
Before Dark City, before The Matrix, before Inception, there was Total Recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a rare turn as an alleged 'everyman' thrust into an action-adventure scenario. Just as Schwarzenegger has flourished as an actor under James Cameron and Ivan Reitman, Paul Verhoeven served him well this time around. This was also an astonishingly-huge action thriller (only Rambo III cost more at the time), and it's arguably one of the most pervasively bloody and violent R-rated films ever released to mass audiences. It also continues Verhoeven's relentless satire of the growing fascism that he saw in America (good thing he was way off there...), expanding from corporations controlling Detroit, Michigan to corporations controlling an entire planet. But more than that, it's a stunningly wonky little head-trip, arguably kick-starting the whole 'your world is not the real world' sub-genre that soon came to dominate science fiction thrillers. The mid-film 'here's what's really going on' speech remains a wonderfully twisty bit of unreliable, yet painfully plausible exposition that also paved the way for countless science-fiction fans to question the reality of their respective favorite TV shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Normal Again", Lost's "Dave", etc). That the success ofInception spurred a remake of Total Recall is not without irony. The intelligence of Total Recallwas arguably taken for granted back when popcorn thrillers were allowed to be thoughtful and twisty, while Inception was hailed as a ground-breaker in an era when smart blockbuster films are considered works of art instead of merely superior craftsmanship.
1) Kindergarten Cop
If you think I'm kidding, watch it again. This film is almost a miracle, as it's a combination of several ingredients that shouldn't work together but somehow form a remarkable cocktail. Because (or despite) the fact that the film takes each element seriously (the violence, the classroom comedy, the romantic drama, the tragic back stories, and the morbid humor), the film gels into a nearly flawless bit of popcorn entertainment. Schwarzenegger gives what is easily his warmest and most heartfelt performance, never forcing the emotion or exaggerating his fish-out-of-water-ness for comic effect (his scene where he explains to his kids where his family went is touching in its understatement). As a result, his somewhat quick transformation from standard movie-cop to emotionally-open educator of children is completely convincing. Richard Tyson plays villain not as a criminal mastermind, but as an often stupid and thus extraordinary dangerous murderer (the finale is genuinely gripping due to its low-key plausibility). Yet the film still gives Tyson the funniest line of the picture, in a moment that more-or-less breaks the fourth wall.
But the key to the film is the women that surround these two arch-foes. The best film from the most macho action star of this generation is his most openly sincere and almost feminist picture. Sure, Penelope Anne Miller gets stuck playing the relatively humorless romantic-lead, but the other women in this picture are uncommonly colorful and vibrant for an action comedy. Linda Hunt gets another rare turn at comedy and runs with it. Carroll Baker oozes condescending menace as Tyson's domineering and patronizing mother. Best of all is Pamela Reed, who takes what could have been the stock role of the 'touch female partner' and is allowed to create a full-blooded comic creation. She gets most of the broad comedy, a full back-story, and the final rim-shot. The women that surround Schwarzenegger's John Kimble, as well as the kindergarten classmates themselves, do most of the heavy lifting, leaving Arnold to deliver a rock-solid straight man. All that, plus arguably the best Arnold one-liner of all-time, during an exchange with a young child who questions Arnold's self-diagnosis of a headache. You know the line, or you wouldn't be reading this in the first place.
The best of the rest:
Eraser still holds up as a $100 million variation on his mid-80s actioners, but it is a vastly superior movie to Commando, Raw Deal, or Red Heat (the last of which is a painful rip-off of Walter Hill's own 48 Hours). Eraser (click accordingly for a somewhat embarrassing review from when I was just sixteen-years old) is simply a rock-solid action picture that just-plain works. Ironically, its use of duplicitous corporate arms dealers as the bad guys would today get the picture tagged as liberal propaganda. Speaking of liberal propaganda, The Running Man may be weak sauce as an action picture, but the 1987 Stephen King adaptation was well-ahead of its time as a piece of social satire. The use of exploitationist reality-television competitions as a distraction for the masses from the presence of fascism is downright chilling today. Finally, I must again defend the dynamite action set-pieces, terrific special effects, and thoughtful character development in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The robots are indeed a little campy, but the human leads (Nick Stahl and Claire Danes) shine, and the film remains a dark and uncompromising piece of adult entertainment. For those asking, Predator loses me a little in the third act, and Twins loses points with the insertion of a needless action/crime subplot.
And that's a wrap for this particular rundown. Which of your favorites did I miss? Which of my picks did you disagree with? Feel free to share below: