Reviews

Schwarzenegger Collection

Andrew Winistorfer

Schwarzenegger has brought his unique brand of underacting to movies of wide-ranging quality.


Terminator 2: Judgment Day / Total Recall / The Running Man / Red Heat

Director: Various
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: R
Year: 1991
US DVD release date: 2009-05-19

As anyone who has ever seen an Arnold Schwarzenegger film can attest, the brawny Austrian has never, ever been cast for his acting chops. He’s not Daniel Day Lewis; his only assets are the ability to look like he was sculpted out of marble and to utter lines like, “You wanna be a farmer? Here’s a couple of acres,” with a straight face before punching a nameless villain in the face.

We’re cool with it as long as the movie has a lot of explosions and fistfights, and he’s cool with it as long as he gets paid. It was a great arrangement that led to more than 25 films, most of them blockbusters of varying degrees, before Schwarzenegger decided to pack it in and run for governor of California. Which is why it’s delightfully hilarious that Lionsgate is releasing Arnold Schwarzenegger Collection, a four-movie set that posits that you need more than one of his movies to understand him as an actor, when any of the three Terminators would surely do.

Schwarzenegger has brought his unique brand of underacting—he exhibits the polar opposite of scenery chewing, since he never seems truly invested in behaving like anyone other than himself—to movies of wide-ranging quality, but showing off the better works in Schwarzenegger’s catalog isn’t the goal of Arnold Schwarzenegger Collection. It’s to rid distributors’ shelves of their back catalog -- the set is just four movies in their normal packaging with their meager, original extras packaged together in a new box -- including Red Heat, without question, the worst non-comedy film Schwarzenegger starred in.

Despite the lack of high quality acting from Schwarzenegger, the guy has been in some pretty forward thinking sci-fi films. The Running Man, visually, hasn’t aged well—what with its day-glo colors and effects—but thematically it’s proven rather prescient. In the film, Schwarzenegger is unwillingly entered into the most popular show in 2019, “The Running Man”, a game show that lets criminals compete to stay alive against gladiators who are trying to kill them.

The gladiators never lose, and audiences cry for blood on a nightly basis. It probably seemed like a horrible possible future TV show in 1987 when it was released, but a show like Running Man seems to be an almost certainty following the success of shows like Survivor and Dog Eat Dog.

Total Recall, with its twisting plot and body count in the hundreds, also hasn’t aged all that well, but its central core of what makes a person (actions or memories) is still intriguing. That last bit is naturally underdeveloped in the film—we don’t pay to see Schwarzenegger movies to think philosophically—because the over-the-top costuming (the legendary woman with three breasts) and violence (at one point Schwarzenegger uses a person as a human shield long after he’s dead), often take center stage.

But in some ways, Total Recall (and to a lesser extent, The Running Man) is a vital movie in Schwarzenegger’s canon, because it pointed the way for him in the future. He would go on to act as the star of stock action movies wrapped up in ridiculous plots that are less intellectual than they would like to be (see End of Days, The Eraser, and Last Action Hero).

For my money, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the finest Schwarzenegger film, since it’s the benchmark by which every big, dumb robot movie will be judged against for the next 30 years. It dances with the question of free will or fate in the John Connor storyline, and it features what are still some of the most well choreographed set pieces in the history of blockbusters (the chase that ensues following the scene in the mall has been copied by Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, and every big budget chase movie since).

Plus, the Terminator is the best role of Schwarzenegger’s career.

Casting Schwarzenegger as the robot in the first Terminator happened by chance after James Cameron passed on OJ Simpson, but it was a work of kismet. Arnold is incapable of acting vaguely human-like in his films, so having him play a non-human is perfect. The fact that his dialogue is stiff and his facial expressions are minimal is a positive in Terminator 2.

Red Heat, however, is without a doubt the worst film starring Schwarzenegger, discounting his ill-advised comedic turns in Twins and Junior. Its buddy cop plot—Schwarzenegger is a commie sent to arrest a drug lord with help from American cop Jim Belushi, with hilarity ensuing when they try to work together—was outdated three years later when the Soviet Union opened itself to capitalism. It features a drawn out opening scene in a bathhouse that exists solely to show Schwarznegger’s bare rear and chiseled pecs.

It has more limp jokes about the differences between the Soviet Union and the US than a Yakov Smirnoff routine. Pistol shots sound like boulders hitting concrete after falling from the sky. And did I mention it co-stars Jim Belushi? He couldn’t convincingly play a serious role if his life depended on it (see his equally hilarious “serious” turn in The Principal).

If this was a real Arnold Schwarzenegger Collection, it would include Conan The Barbarian, a sloppy, epic movie that finds Schwarzenegger as a mostly mute warrior who punches out camels, but which also capitalized on his underacting by painting him as a menacing killer. Or Twins, which would showcase how easy it was to get a movie made in the ‘80s.

Someone (who was probably high at the time) had the idea of pairing Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito together as twins, and not only did someone else like the idea, it actually got made (by Ivan Reitman, no less).

But really, you could probably package Total Recall, any of the three Terminator movies Schwarzenegger starred in, and two other films, and keep selling them as Arnold Schwarzenegger Collections until the end of time, and it would make sense.

What’s clear from the four films of The Arnold Schwarzenegger Collection is that Schwarzenegger is the most over-achieving B-actor of all time. While the similarly toned army of impersonators that followed in his wake (like Jean Claude Van Dame and Steven Seagal) starred in schlocky direct-to-DVD fare, Schwarzenegger was spending close to 20 years doing big budget blockbusters that have become some of the most beloved popular films of this generation.

While big-name actors known for their craft (like Al Pacino or Robert Deniro) disappoint in later years for starring in bad films, Schwarzenegger was in a position to always surprise, because any movie he starred in could be god awful or somehow enjoyable. And either way, you were hardly ever disappointed with his (non)performance. And for that, he’s probably worth remembering.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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