Whatever the defining appeal or Mr. Schwarzenegger, fact is that homebody made a few totally awesome flicks, some lesser but decent entertainment as well as some absolute dreck in his career. Like Sly and “Billis,” of late he’s been trying to recapture that ‘80s action bonanza many of us grew up loving, and reliving it to varying degrees of enjoyable mediocrity (see The Expendables). Fact is, the action genre was of its time and place…possible only thanks to the Reagan Revolution and its attendant fear of bad guys and “fer-ners.” (Think about it: Almost all ‘80s action flicks pitted our heroes against funny-sounding assers from other parts of the globe.) This sheer exuberation of jingoistic xenophobia made Arnold’s contemporary flicks both enjoyable and ironic.
(I plan to one day expound upon all of this in my as-yet-unwritten book about masculinity in cinema since 1970, devoting entire chapters to the conservatively minded ‘80s action opuses of men small on talk but large on bullet-ridden adventures—arguably, just like Mr. Reagan’s image itself.)
For the uninitiated—if you’re out there—here’s a primer on the must-see of Ahnold cinema, as well as a guide on some of his lesser-but-enjoyable fare and, finally, a warning about his flaming turds to avoid at all costs.
The Terminator (1984)
Arnold’s career as the ultimate '80s action über-Herr kicked into high gear thanks to this low-budge sci-fi thriller from wunderkind Canadian asshole extraordinaire James Cameron. After cutting his teeth under schlockmeister Roger Corman, Cameron and his producer/wife Gale Anne Hurd (whom I once met at her wine bar in Pasadena, but that’s another story) scraped together a measly $7 million to tell the tale of a walking, talking-for-some-reason-in-an-Austrian-accent, one-man-army cyborg from the year 2029 whose mission is to travel back in time to then-current 1984 to off the mother of mankind’s future resistance leader against “the machines.” A high-concept, laughable premise before such terms were ever coined, The Terminator is nonetheless as chilling and mesmerizing now as it was 30 years ago, largely due to its cool lack or irony and bleak sensibility. Linda Hamilton (later, Mrs. Cameron #3) is Sarah Connor, the 19-year-old waitress with bad ‘80s bleached blond hair who is protected by future badass soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) against the Terminator. But for the rather dated stop-motion special effects once the Terminator’s “true form” is revealed, the chuckle-worthy hairstyles and trippy ‘80s techno soundtrack, the film’s themes of the inescapability of the future (the Terminator itself could be said to be a stand-in for death itself or the fear of death) and Cameron’s theme-de-rigueur—the dehumanizing and subservience of humanity to the mechanistic—keep it fresh even now.
Arnold’s “performance,” such as it is, is largely limited to looking creepy and keeping it minimalistic thanks to the cyborg’s needing to only fit in just enough among real humans well enough to get close to its target. Arnold looks menacing and mean and deadly without really doing anything or saying much, which makes the villain of the flick that much scarier. The Terminator feels no pain or remorse; it simply does what it does: kill without thought.
This is both a solid action flick as well as sci-fi of the best stripe that makes you actually think in the midst of the mayhem.
Best moments: Cameron stages some decent action set pieces despite the limited budget, including a truly terrifying truck chase and the climactic battle in the factory. He would of course go on to refine his action technique with Aliens, T2, True Lies and, of course, Titanic. Arnold buying up weapons in the sporting goods store from the drunken neighbor from Gremlins ends in a chillingly funny way. Also, there’s a pretty hot love scene between Hamilton and Biehn. Ah for the days when movies unapologetically put tits on display.
Best Ahnold moment: “I’ll be back.” Just before crashing through the police station windows with a truck, Arnold delivered the first utterance of his ubiquitous catchphrase, which, for better or worse, has dogged him ever since. (The original scripted line was “I’ll be right back.”)
What else to watch for: Cameron regulars Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton pop up in smaller roles, as does Rick Rossovich, or “Slider” from Top Gun.
Interesting factoid: Sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison sued, and won against, the producers for bogarting ideas from several of his short stories without crediting him. Subsequent printings now give him “special thanks.”
Is Commando a good movie? No, but it is an awesome movie, which is not the same thing. (In fact, my friend Dave goes out on a limb to say it is the epitome of cinema.)
This film is basically the apogee of all things Arnold. Switching from villain to hero after Terminator, Arnold plays John Matrix, a former special forces soldier whose daughter (a prepubescent, pre-Who’s the Boss? Alyssa Milano) is kidnapped by one of his former colleagues. In exchange for her release, Matrix must assassinate the president of a fictional (and never named) South American country so that perennial sleazeball Dan Hedaya can rule over it with his iron frown and bushy eyebrows.
Again, we don’t watch these flicks for their ingenious plots.
Commando is so over-the-top that it could actually have veered into the realm of the ridiculous were it not for the fact that it is played completely straight, with no winking at the audience and absolutely zero apologizing for the buckets of gourmet gore in the last 30 minutes as Matrix slaughters an entire armada of brown-skinned guerrillas single-handedly before boxing it out with bad guy Bennett (Australian Vernon Wells), culminating with Matrix impaling Bennett with a fuckin’ steam pipe! (Quip: “Let off some steam, Bennett!”)
You gotta love the rah-rah Americanism of it all. The bad guys are once again darker-skinned fer-ners from nondescript south-of-the-border countries and led by a bug-eyed, psychotic Australian mercenary with just a bit too much of a burning homoerotic subtext for Matrix.
“Come on [Bennett], let the girl go. Just between you and me. Don’t deprive yourself of some pleasure. Come on Bennett, let's party!”
To be read: “Stick it in me, bitch!”
Commando also marked the beginning of Arnold’s penchant for one-liners in all their corniness. Hitchcock said humor was needed to relieve tension, but the phenomenon of an action hero delivering cringe-worthily constructed quips after disposing of a foe pretty much can be traced back to Commando—at least for Arnold.
Commando is also genuinely funny, thanks largely to the addition of the fish-out-of-water character played by Rae Dawn Chong—yes, the progeny of perennial stoner Tommy—whom Matrix ropes into assisting him rescue his daughter. Fish-out-of-water characters, especially in absurd films like these, are meant to be the avatars for the audience and ask the logical questions that we as moviewatchers do while watching. Such as “Why the fuck did this guy just tear the passenger seat out of my convertible?????” Chong’s performance is actually far better than the material has a right to, and her addition to the narrative elevates the flick from pure action schlock to slyly ironic wit.
Best moments: Too many to list, but the moment when Commando definitively takes it to 11 is when Matrix leaps from an ascending jetliner leaving LAX, lands in a swamp (having lived in L.A. for 15 years, I assure you there are no such Dagobah-ish delights anywhere in that particular airport’s vicinity), rolls over, stands up, brushes himself off, and starts the countdown on his watch. It must be seen to be suspendedly disbelieved.
Best Ahnold moment: In the one-liner sweepstakes, it’s between “Don’t disturb my friend here; he’s dead tired” and “I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now, I'm very hungry!”
What else to watch for: Bill Duke, who would later costar in Predator, is Cooke, one of Bennett’s henchmen. Duke and Schwarzenegger’s fight in the hotel room—and their ludicrous macho banter while trading blows—only works because of Rae Dawn Chong’s side-splitting asides.
Interesting factoid: The never-realized sequel to Commando wound up morphing into the first Die Hard movie.
Arguably Arnold’s most “legit” film, Predator is so fucking badass that its replay value remains undaunted after a quarter-century. The story is pure machismo on steroids, with a platoon of hardened American commandos sent into the Central America jungles to rescue a diplomat. In the grand tradition of cinema, things don’t go according to plan, and the team encounters a hostile extraterrestrial sportsman whose aim is to hunt them down one by one, taking their skulls as his trophies.
What’s interesting here is that the cast included many of the baddest mofos of the day, including Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers, Sonny Landham and two—count ‘em, two!—future governors in Arnold and real-life former Navy SEAL and professional wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura! I’ve always appreciated that this film thematically brings these hardened warriors to their knees before a superior foe, i.e., all of their muscles and combat training and machine guns can’t protect them and don’t mean shit against this sneaky motherfucker who leaps from trees like gravity don’t exist and, to boot, utilizes a cloaking device. It’s a great allegory for…whatever. But just like Aliens the year before, it showcases a pack of warriors who get their proverbial asses handed to them by an intellectually inferior species. (Interestingly, James Cameron believed Aliens to be a metaphor for the Vietnam conflict.) The characters are forced to use their wits and cunning to try to defeat the monster rather than bullets alone.
Also totally cool is that the film doesn’t even become a soldiers-versus-alien flick until nearly 60 minutes in, with the first hour devoted entirely to an arguably tossaway plot about the rescue of the diplomat…who, wouldn’t cha know it, turns out to be a CIA operative in league with Carl Weathers and his superiors in Washington. All of this stuff is actually interesting in and of itself and moves the plot forward rather than simply being a flimsy screenwriting smokescreen excuse to get the grunts into the jungle and up against the Predator monster as quickly as possible.
That said, the sequence of the commandos wrecking the shit out of the enemy guerilla compound is one of the most enervating set pieces in late-‘80s action cinema. Jesse Ventura picks up a fucking mini-gun for Chrissakes!!!! (And you guessed it, the bad guys are once again brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking types, in keeping with the general meta-theme of jingoism.)
Then the Predator shows up and shit gets real. Yes, there are lame clichés, such as the Native American character of course being in tune with the spirit world, and dude knows, just knows, that something ain’t right out there. You know, just once I’d like to see the nerdy character (played by screenwriter Shane Black in Predator) be the one who is down with the spirit world rather than the hackneyed Indian trope.
And yes, once it gets going, Predator borrows some rather standard slasher flick beats, but it works.
There’s never been anything like it before, though it’s been imitated to far lesser results ever since. This is sci-fi/action/horror at its very best!
Best moments: The raid on the village is drool-worthy. In a movie as slam-bang as this, a little quiet time can also be both suspenseful and memorable. After the unintentionally homoerotic steroid commercial where the bare-shirted commandos set up the trap in the woods, there’s about a ten-minute stretch of everyone simply…waiting for the creature to show up. During the same sequence, Elpidia Carillo, the film’s only woman, has the one and only monologue in the film, delivering a speech about how in the hottest years, a mysterious demon returns to her native village in Mexico to collect human trophies—a creature she refers to as El cazador trofeo de los hombres, or “the demon who makes trophies of man.”
Best Ahnold moment: Arnold impales a poor bastard by tossing his machete through his body. “Stick around!” he smirks.
What else to watch for: Screenwriter/director Shane Black, whose script for Lethal Weapon was filmed the same year, is Hawkins, the dorky, socially aloof, bespectacled soldier in the platoon. He was initially brought on to brush up some dialogue but wound up being cast due to his improv skills. Indeed, many of Hawkins’ lines, including his notoriously off-color jokes about the u-s-s-y, were ad libbed by Black.
Interesting factoid: A young, unknown Jean-Claude Van Damme was initially cast as the Predator, but upon learning he would be entirely replaced by a special effect in post, the Muscles from Brussels up and quit to do…well, whatever menial job he was manning at the time.
Total Recall (1990)
When I first saw this film in a Chicago theater in August of 1990 with my mother, brother and aunt…it pretty much scared the hell out of 11-year-old me. Not the crazy mutant-and-creature stuff on Mars, but rather the implosion of Douglas Quaid’s (Arnie) daily world after a trip to the “memory service” company called ReKall, which implants phony memories into your noggin that are “cheaper, safer and better than the real thing.” Doug starts out as a mild-mannered—though still Arnold-rific—construction worker in a near future who has recurring (not reoccurring, for you grammar Nazis out there!) nightmares about the Red Planet next door to us. He holds down a working class job, a nice apartment and has a real hottie for a wife (a pre-beaver-displaying Sharon Stone). But those thoughts of Mars won’t leave him alone. So he does what anyone would do: Heads to ReKall to be implanted with a “memory package.” The swarmy salesman/doctor (funny how even in the future, the word “doctor” is used loosely), suggests Doug try the “Ego Trip,” which allows the implanted memory to be not just Doug as construction worker, but as a playboy or a famous jock or a…
“…secret agent! How much is that?”
I remember smiling in that air-conditioned comfort against the bitter Chicago summer at that moment, knowing that I had just been hooked. This shit just got real! Wouldn’t you know it, the memory implant goes awry, Doug wakes up in a Johnny Cab taxi (voiced by Robert Picardo, he of the holographic doctor persona on Star Trek: Voyager), and before he knows it, his friends, coworkers and even his wife are trying to kill him. Mysterious spies are right behind. And Doug realizes he has innate combat skills that would make even Jason Bourne look like a pussy.
That was what scared me! The notion of what we perceive as our daily reality is a self-imposed cushion against both chaos and insanity. And to have that security suddenly upended and taken away was about the most terrifying thing I could imagine at that tender age. Doug does what any of us would: resist and fight to put meaning to it all. It’s an existential premise if ever there were one.
But enough about little EFA and his nightmares. The fact is that Total Recall is an effin’ good flick. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, it toys with both the notions of reality and perception: Are you in fact the sum of your memories, or do your current choices negate what you know about yourself…or are told about yourself? It tinkers with the very idea of solipsistic self-determination and free will. This is heady stuff, and a decent enough premise for a summer action flick that could easily have gone off the rails had it not been handled as well as it was.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert maintained that it was Arnold’s performance that was central to selling the film. Despite Arnold/Quaid’s physique, Schwarzenegger “isn't a superman this time, although he fights like one. He's a confused and frightened innocent, a man betrayed by the structure of reality itself. And in his vulnerability, he opens the way for Total Recall to be more than simply an action, violence and special effects extravaganza.” This vulnerability of Quaid’s, and Arnold’s believability in embodying same, is key to the film’s success. It is Arnold playing against his own type—not a commando or soldier, but just a guy who finds out more about himself than he’d dared imagine.
And the film is fun. Quaid’s journey takes him to Mars, where he meets the woman of his dreams (literally) as well as a planetful of mutants, psychics and, of course, the three-breasted prostitute. The revelations of the plot are secondary to Quaid’s internal struggle with who he is or isn’t, what is real or imaginary and whether or not he can “control” his own fantasy (if it is a fantasy, that is).
It looks cool, it’s entertaining, overly violent, great special effects, and the ride is well worth the price of admission. The fact that it’s actually thematically deep and invites the viewer to determine what really happens is bonus to this killer sci-fi mystery.
(Oh, and if you want to listen to one of the most hilarious DVD commentaries ever, toss on the flick and listen to Arnold and Dutch director Paul Verhoeven explain away the movie in dueling European accents.)
Best moments: Expanding and exploding Rob Bottin dummies becoming puffy when characters are exposed to Mars’ low-oxygen atmosphere. It’s scientifically beyond bogus, but it’s damn entertaining to behold.
Best Ahnold moment: This film has numerous one-liners, but the most politically incorrect—and therefore best—has to be when Quaid plugs Sharon Stone in the forehead and then quips, “Consider dat a de-vorce.”
What else to watch for: Marshall Bell, who plays Kuato’s “host,” appeared as the villainous Webster only a year prior in Arnold’s comedy Twins.
Interesting factoid: The film sat in development hell for years, during which time the part of Douglas Quaid was tailored for Patrick Swayze. Due to numerous delays and rewrites—not the least of which being that Act III continued to be a problem, with the alien air machine being the ultimate “solution” reached—years passed. Arnold’s schedule opened up, while P-Swayz (ironically) moved on to Ghost.
THE MINOR CLASSICS
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (aka T2) (1991)
I rewatched this seminal work about a month back, and I gotta say…it hasn’t aged well, mostly because of its attempts to be funny rather than just being awesome. This time around Ahnold goes from heavy to hero, with the second Terminator 800 sent back to 1994 to protect young John Connor from the T-1000, the crazy-awesome liquid metal Terminator played by the underappreciated Robert Patrick. Granted, the effects still look killer (it was the film to see in that magical summer of ’91), the lengthy action sequences are top-notch, James Cameron transformed Sarah Connor from a hapless waitress into a cray-cray female Rambo…but I found the viewing experience to be, well, not as it once was.
For me anyway, the tone is not quite right compared to its predecessor. It’s not nearly as dark and bleak as the original, and the timbre of the picture is tempered with too much dopey humor. What made the original so fucking creepy was the sheer vacancy of the machine’s empathy. But now we gotta sit through a nearly three-hour machine-attempting-to-act-like-people play, which *does* produce some genuine laughs—including a scene in the extended director’s cut where the Terminator attempts to smile, with side-splitting results (and if Arnold never teased his kids with that face, they had a deprived childhood indeed)—but mostly brings the level of awesomeness down from the sublime to the ridiculous. (And am I the only one who’s weary of the premise that robots can be “just like people”?)
Plus, I firmly believe that T2 marked the beginning of the inevitable downturn in Arnold’s action career. Dude was 43 when the film was shot, and while still in tip-top physical shape, the subtext of the movie is that the T-800, like Ahnold himself, is rapidly becoming outdated and obsolete. Nowhere is this more summed up than after the climactic fight with the T-1000 (whose destruction in the molten metal tank is guaranteed to give you nightmares) when the Terminator, busted up after being shot, stabbed, blown up, run over, burned, chilled, smashed in the face with a steel girder, had his metallic arm shredded to bits in a gear AND impaled with a steel pole, wearily moans, “I need a vacation.”
With those four words, Arnold, knowingly or otherwise, entered the descent of his career as action superman. Everything has been downhill ever since, with the macho, invincible paragon persona he cultivated in the ‘80s torn apart and brought down to earth in increasingly subpar attempts at keeping himself relevant into his fifties and beyond.
T2 truly was the last of the “great” Arnold movies.
Granted, the film still works from start to finish, and the state-of-the-art special effects still look convincing 20-plus years later. It’s solid action/sci-fi entertainment all around, but if given the choice, I will take the original Terminator—even with its creaky and dated stop-motion effects—every time.
True Lies (1994)
Reteaming with Jimbo Cameron for the third go-round, the dynamic duo went full-bore action-comedy in this little gem that starred Schwarzenegger as Harry Tasker, a secret superspy whose wife (a well-utilized Jamie Lee Curtis) believes him to be nothing more than a boring office drone. As with all things Cameron, it’s big and overblown, but that’s why we like his shiz. The comedy works for the most part, despite (or perhaps because of) its none-too-subtle bite of misogyny. (For a filmmaker who frequently places strong women at the center of his work, Cameron can be a bit of a woman-hater.) Cameron regular Bill Paxton shows up in the priceless minor role of a used car salesman out to seduce Harry’s wife with the cover story that he’s some kind of spy (is there really much difference in those two lines of work anyway?).
Continuing the trend of Arnold in decline, Harry is portrayed as sexually vacuous, with his unsatisfied wife out to get some action (pun intended) of both the nookie and adventure varieties once Harry’s real occupation is made known to her. It makes for good comedy when Jamie Lee joins the fun and of course is both clumsy and unwittingly pulls a Homer by dropping an Uzi down a flight of steps, taking out multiple bad guys (this time of the Middle East variety, so apparently we’re giving those Central and South Americans a break) in the process.
This being a Cameron movie, there are enormous set action pieces, not the least of which is a car/helicopter chase through a Florida waterway, with an actual former highway bridge blowed to smithereenies by Harrier jets in the process. This is followed by Jamie Lee Curtis dangling from said helicopter. That’s no stuntwoman; that’s really Janet Leigh’s daughter hanging off a flying metal heap and screaming for her life.
Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984)
This character was tailor-made for Arnold at the height of his bodybuilding days. A strongman warrior who says little and hacks to bits creatures and other humans alike with a broadsword, both of these films are appreciable in their own way. Personally, I prefer the Destroyer because it’s more fun and also funnier all around. The Barbarian is more a serious, Wagnerian, Baroque tale of a child rising from nothing to become the über-Mensch and vanquishing great evil. Barbarian is elevated from schmaltz thanks to a truly chilling performance by James Earl Jones as cult leader Thulsa Doom. In one crucial scene, the voice of Vader entreats one of his minions to leap 200 feet to her death just because he fucking says so. “That…is power!” that impossibly rich basso profundo informs Conan before commanding “Crucify him at the Tree of Woe.”
I know I’m in the minority for preferring Destroyer, but sometimes you just want an adventure with plenty of good laughs, which Destroyer has in spades, thus beginning the showcasing of Arnold’s ample comic talents.
Red Heat (1988)
An Austrian guy trying to speak with a Russian accent is just plain funny. So is teaming him up with devil-may-care Chicago cop James Belushi to take down a Russian drug czar (or tsar, depending on which style guide you prefer). Best scene is right at the start, when Arnold blasts his way through a Soviet-era spa and punches out a baddie in Moscoviansnowdrifts while in the buff. Sadly, stuntman Bernie E. Dobbins, who fought Arnie in said nudie boxing match, contracted pneumonia and passed away from complications not longer after. Red Heat was dedicated to his memory.
The Running Man (1987)
Yet another dystopian cautionary tale, this one about a futuristic game show where players actually fight for their lives against the show’s resident mercenaries. Quite ahead of its time (c’mon, how far off are most contemporary reality shows?), the casting people pulled off a coup by landing former Family Feud host Richard Dawson to portray slimeball MC Damon Killian. This was pretty much the nadir of Arnold’s one-liner films, with Arnie dropping one tailor-made for each successive killing of his nemeses. And, of course, the requisite “I’ll be back.”
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
Much better than you’ve heard and a decent entry in the series despite the notable absence of James Cameron. Then in his mid-fifties, Arnold fought the biological clock and got back to his T2-era musculature in order to reprise the titular killer yet again. Scrumptious, teutonic blond-later-turned-lesbian Kristiana Loken was the Terminatrix, or TX, who not only turns her arms into various firing weapons but also increases her boob size in a key size in order to distract a cop (yep). This was Arnold’s final film before his stint as Governator of California, and pretty much the close of the bronze age of his career (not to be confused with his “bronzed” younger age). It also features Arnie delivering the cringeworthy line “Basic psychology is among my sub-routines” as well as the laughably serious line “Your confusion is not rational. She is a healthy female of breeding age” directed at no-longer-quite-so-young John Connor (Nick Stahl) in reference to future mate (hottie Claire Danes). T3 was also noteworthy for retracting the hopeful ending of T2 in favor of a grimmer, apocalyptic finale—that war with the machines is not only inevitable, but Judgment Day will happen before the end credits roll.
IF YOU HAVE TIME
If nothing else, skip to the CGI alligators that tear apart bad guys at about the midway point. Arnold caps one and then drops the fabulous bon mot, “You’re luggage.”
Last Action Hero (1993)
It’s not without its charm. Despite its overall failure at the box office and among critics, there are some good ideas here about the “rights” of fictional characters as well as a few decent scenes, most notably a postmodern car chase in the “movie within a movie” that parodies all of the clichés of car chase movies in the process. Self-reflexive cinema before Scream, LAH was a decent enough idea that needed about another year of script rewrites and the exfiltration of annoying kiddie star Austin O’Brien.
Collateral Damage (2002)
Arnold’s first post-9/11 actioner was delayed by six months in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington due to some elements of the plot being a bit too close to home for comfort (including an attack on DC).
Kindergarten Cop (1991)/Twins (1989)
Arnold’s “comedies” were by turns entertaining or excruciating to behold—sometimes at the same moment. These two entries were fine in their own way, but neither is great cinema.
The 6th Day (2000)
I include this film for one reason only: It features Arnold’s best one-liner EVER. “[Well, Drucker] Ihope they clone you before I kill you…so you can go fuck yourself.” I’ve laughed that hard in a movie theater maybe three times in my life.
End of Days (1999)
Arnold fights the Devil on the eve of the millennium. A movie no one wanted to see (or make, judging by its overall sloppiness).
Raw Deal (1985)
This Arnold-versus-the-Chicago-Mob film is so embarrassingly terrible it defies explanation how it was ever greenlit. When Arnie actually pauses to put “Satisfaction”by the Stones into his car’s tape deck just before blasting his way into the bad guys’ hideout, there was no going back to even turkey status.
Batman and Robin (1997)
Arnold is Mr. Freeze and…ah, fuck it.
Jingle All the Way (1996)
“Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in Jingle All the Way.” And with those eight words, his career was officially over.