Has there ever been a more unorthodox American movie star than Arnold Schwarzenegger? With his heavy accent and unreal, barrel-chested physique, the idea that Schwarzenegger was once America’s biggest film star seems surreal.
Yet, such a thing happened. And Arnold reigned as one of the major faces of American action films throughout the ‘80s and much of the ‘90s. Then, after a downturn in his career (ahem, Batman & Robin) Arnold surprised audiencees again by not only running for Governor of California but also serving two terms. Needless to say, Arnold’s movie career was essentially non-existent in that time.
Today, Arnold returns to the big screen in his first lead role in a decade. Directed by acclaimed South Korean director Kim Ji-woon (I Saw The Devil), The Last Stand casts Arnold as the sheriff of a Texas border town seeking to stop a group of fugitive criminals. While addressing the Governator’s advanced age, the film appears designed to assure moviegoers that Arnold can still kick ass at the age of 65.
Of course, not all Arnold films were created equal. For every Conan the Barbarian, there’s a Red Sonja; for every Kindergarten Cop, there’s a Jingle All the Way. The following will highlight some of the best that Ah-nold has to offer.
Character: Jack Slater
Centering on a young boy who finds himself sucked into the movie world of his favorite action hero Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger), Last Action Hero was dubbed a critical and commercial failure during its run in theaters. And, yes, it’s far from Arnold’s best hour. The plot is frequently messy and some the jokes and gags feel half-baked at best. Much of this can be attributed to the film’s convoluted production process. Writers Zak Penn and Adam Leff originally wrote the film to parody the type of films being churned out by megastar screenwriter Shane Black (he of Lethal Weapon fame) at the time. Ironically, Black himself would eventually be brought in to do a rewrite. No matter, for all its flaws, Last Action Hero’s send-up of the tropes and clichés of action films gives it a playful sense of self-awareness that’s more than welcome in a genre prone to taking itself so seriously. This is especially true when Slater and the boy end up teleporting back into the real world where Slater quickly realizes that his movie logic does not apply (i.e. cars don’t explode after you shoot them once with a gun). If nothing else, this film has Arnold doing Hamlet. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Character: Ben Richards
While The Running Man lacks the sophistication and dynamic pacing of a certain other Schwarzenegger-starring/dystopian sci-fi/satire film, its entertainment value is nothing to sneer at. Adapted loosely from a Stephen King novel of the same name, The Running Man depicts a future where everyone dresses like it’s an ‘80s-themed Halloween party and citizens regularly tune into a show where convicted criminals must fight to survive against both their fellow contestants and professional killers. Insert Hunger Games reference here. Between the absurd production design and Paula Abdul-choreographed dance sequences, any attempted satire is all but buried in a thick layer of silly. Still, in terms of sheer fun value, this film is quite the gem.
Character: John Kimble
Sure, Arnold can deliver a well-timed one-liner, but can he do comedy? Director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) certainly thought so, casting the action star as Danny DeVito’s twin brother in the 1988 comedy Twins. Kindergarten Cop, however, marked Arnold’s first attempt at carrying a comedy on his own. Despite some glaring tone shifts (the film’s transition into dramatic hostage movie in the latter half is so abrupt, it risks whiplash), Kindergarten Cop serves as one of Arnold’s more endearing performances. Certainly, it’s caused no shortage of amusing GIFs and memes over the years. On the downside, let’s try not mention the plethora of hackneyed tough guy-turned-babysitter films it later inspired (The Pacifier with Vin Diesel, The Game Plan with Dwayne Johnson, the list goes on).
Character: John Matrix
Commando is, in many ways, the quintessential Schwarzenegger picture. No it’s not his best. But Commando was the first film to really lock down the Schwarzenegger algorithm: introduce Arnold as a tough guy with a heart of gold, add explosion-friendly action set pieces and mix in a few quippy one-liners when needed. Here, Arnold plays a one-man army fighting to rescue his young daughter from a group of vicious mercenaries. Out of all the film’s in Arnold’s oeuvre, this one boasts perhaps the most memorable Arnold puns and come-backs. That’s got to stand for something, right?
After the cheap disaster that was 1969’s Hercules in New York failed to exploit—ergh, I mean capture—Arnold’s unique presence for American moviegoers, writer/director John Milius brought the Austrian bodybuilder to fame and glory more than 13 years later with Conan. Like a good portion of the films on the list, this adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s stories is ungodly stupid. Yet, as executed by Milius—the man behind the “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” speech from Apocalypse Now, the haunting “Indianapolis” monologue from Jaws and the inspiration for Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski—the film is, at least very least, bombastically entertaining. Add in James Earl Jones as a mind-controlling baddie and a brilliant score from the late great Basil Poledouris and you have one of the best action films of the ‘80s.
Character: Alan “Dutch” Schaefer
A slasher film where battle-hardened soldiers replace the traditional nubile teens. Sounds like a recipe for a good time. And, indeed, Predator delivers all fronts, from its cheesy approximation of “manly” dialogue (“I ain’t got time to bleed”) to the slightly dated-yet-still impressive special effects to the abundance of gory, creative violence. Subsequent installments in the franchise have never truly captured the original’s meathead appeal. And, as any frequent viewer of VH1’s I Love the ‘80s can attest, the decade just wouldn’t have been the same without it.
Character: Harry Tasker
Arnold was rarely better than when he was under director James Cameron’s guidance. In this loose remake of the French comedy La Totale! , Arnold plays a James Bond-type agent who must keep his day job a secret from his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter Dana (future Buffy star Eliza Dushku). However, a bored Helen inevitably becomes involved in a case and the two must band together to take on a militant Islamist organization. A movie that mixes high-octane action with screwball comedy, True Lies may be bloated (upon its release, its budget was a record-breaking $120 million) and it may be long (its running time totals 141 minutes), but Arnold and Jamie Lee Curtis’ chemistry in addition to Cameron’s full throttle-pacing make it a roller-coaster worthy of anyone’s time.
Character: Douglas Quaid
The best “bad” movie ever or a sly, subversive treatise on cinematic escapism? You decide. Considering that Total Recall was directed by none other than Robocop and Starship Troopers director Paul Verhoeven, a man who thrives on irony and hidden satire, my money is definitely on the latter. Here, Arnold plays Quaid, a construction worker dissatisfied with his mundane life and wishing for more excitement in his structured existence (how any man could look like Arnold, be married to Sharon Stone and still be unhappy is probably the most baffling part of the movie). Seeking a break from routine, he impulsively decides to visit a company that offers memory implants designed to provide clients with an exciting, dream-fufilling experience. No sooner has the procedure begun, then Quaid begins remembering that he’s actually a sleeper agent. Or is he? People debate the true nature of the movie to this day. Yet, one thing’s for sure, between some striking practical effects, a high body count and the infamous three-breasted bar patron, this is one Arnold venture that deserves to be called essential. And let’s not mention that dull, unnecessary remake, okay?
Character: The Terminator
If Conan the Barbarian introduced Arnold-the-movie-star to the American public , then The Terminator embed him firmly in their subconscious forever. While the concept of a robot assassin from the future with a heavy Austrian accent is easy to joke about in retrospect, all laughter takes a back seat the moment you see a naked Arnold brutally murder a group of L.A. gangsters in the film’s opening moments.
This robot, in question, has been sent back in time to kill a woman named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) who will eventually give birth to a boy destined to save humanity from the machines. Everything about Arnold’s performance is unnerving, whether it be his towering presence, his emotionless face or the way his eyes so conspicuously move before his head does. While some can chalk it up to Cameron working around the actor’s limitations, the fact remains that Arnold is nothing short of terrifying. Incidentally, Arnold only got the role after Cameron decided against casting O.J. Simpson. Cameron’s reasoning? Simpson was “too nice.” Yep…can’t make that up.
Character: The Terminator
Calling T2 the greatest Arnold Schwarzenegger film of all time may be a cliché at this point, but it’s a cliché for a reason. Today, James Cameron’s very expensive sci-fi masterpiece remains the summer blockbuster that all films released during those crucial three months must aspire to. Switching up his villainous role in the original for that of a mechanized anti-hero in this installment, Arnold heads up an impressive cast which also features a returning Linda Hamilton as a rougher, more jaded Sarah Connor and Robert Patrick as the menacing T-1000. Besides standing in that small pantheon of great popcorn movies, T2 also marked a breakthrough in CGI technology. Seeing Robert Patrick’s face morph and conform into the silvery liquid of the T-1000 remains a marvel of modern special effects. Despite these advancments, however, Cameron still wows with more practical effects-based sequences. The scene where The Terminator and John Connor are pusued through a canal by a truck-driving T-1000 still invokes visceral thrills. Though many find Edward Furlong’s obnoxious performance as John Connor distracting, Furlong’s poignant connection and relationship with The Terminator ultimately transcends any of the character’s more abrasive, dated qualities. All this leads to an emotional conclusion where Arnold delivers an intense emotional beat simply by raising his thumb. As Tim (Simon Pegg) once claimed in the classic British series Spaced, “I cried like a baby at the end of Terminator 2!” You and everyone else, pal.