Schwarzenegger has brought his unique brand of underacting to movies of wide-ranging quality.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day / Total Recall / The Running Man / Red HeatDirector: Various
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger
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.