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.
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.
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.
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.
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: