Welcome back to “I’m All Out Of Love,” in which I take a pop culture subject (film series, director, actor, television show, etc) and dissect how my ‘love’ of them from early on slowly dwindled and what my current stance on them is.
On paper, a muscular hulking rock who barely speaks any English should have never worked as a major movie star, let alone thee biggest movie star for a solid decade. Yet, despite all the odds against him, Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger has managed to live the American Dream every immigrant could only faintly imagine would be possible; champion body builder, millionaire cinematic icon and governor of a major state. In the eyes of many a child of the 80s and 90s, the peak of cool was seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger quip a one liner before completely destroying some goon in a memorably gory fashion. However, times clearly changed and unfortunately, Arnold never really managed to recover that sort of fame or admiration cinematically in the years that have followed his reign as the Governor of California… much like the state of California itself.
Jokes about political incompetence aside, Arnold Schwarzenegger was an important recurring presence in the lives of many over the latter quarter of the 20th century, including myself. As of late though, his attempted comeback has proved to be less than successful, with his recent vehicles bombing at the box office and leaving audiences disinterested. What is it about this muscle bound behemoth now that makes us disinterested? Is it lingering effects from his illegitimate child scandal? Is it a lack of desire for that old school action style? Is it that he’s just too old to grab that coveted 18-34 demographic, even if many of them grew up with his more beloved efforts? Well, let’s take a look back into the past in order to understand Arnold’s present.
My father served as an early gatekeeper to my love of film. I can still remember sitting down next to him on the couch and watching everything from Star Wars to The Dark Crystal to Ishtar as a young lad. Hey, I never said he had perfect taste. Still, he exposed me to many of the films I would still call favorites to this day. Amongst all of those efforts were many selections from the Arnold Schwarzenegger catalogue. I remember specifically watching the first two Terminator films and being riddled with horrific nightmares of giant flesh covered cyborgs coming to kill me in my sleep. Much of that had to do with the intimidating appearance of a man like Schwarzenegger. He seemed more muscle than man, with an accent my young mind couldn’t fathom and strength that always seemed inhuman, even when he was playing human characters. To paraphrase a line from Pumping Iron, he was like a Greek God, coming to Earth with a fierce artillery of guns to back up his intimidating size.
Yet, my father was wise enough to follow up his more action heavy bouts with some of his more comedic works in order to give me a wider palate of Schwarzenegger’s capabilities. Kindergarten Cop and Twins showed a more vulnerable side to Schwarzenegger that made him much more endearing as more of a person than a hulking brute. He was capable of being humorous and naive to his new surroundings in a fashion that a child like myself could latch onto. The line “The pavement was his enemy” from Twins is still one of my favorite Arnold one liners because of this. Despite his clear lack of experience with the English language, he had a wide eyed innocence that endeared me to him immediately. He felt less like an intimidating force of brutal violence and more like a muscular teddy bear that only used his muscles to defend those around him. Those comedies helped ease me into appreciating Arnold for the charismatic action star he usually is, even with the inhuman amount of muscles.
The Love Affair
For all the love people heap on Arnold Schwarzenegger as a movie star, he isn’t the greatest actor. If anything, his lack of acting ability added to the more robotic characters he became iconic for. That being said, he managed to get around his lack of range by being consistently committed to his parts. When he covers himself in mud to attack his alien enemy in Predator, he has a look of determination and vengeance in his eyes that sells the oncoming action climax. Even when the action surrounding him involved the silly antics of an opera singer covered in Christmas lights, a pudgy Australian man with an absurd bowie knife or a fourth wall breaking action cliche spewing kid sidekick, Arnold never managed to break from his character, however thinly written said character may be. Even in a film as self congratulatory as Last Action Hero, he doesn’t wink too absurdly at the camera while poking fun at stuff like Planet Hollywood or the cliches inherent in most of his films. He’s game for anything, which would bleed over into his work with motivational speeches, national weight loss programs and politics.
Of course, it helped that Arnold managed to be game for some high profile projects with the perfect people behind them. He worked with James Cameron, John Milius, Paul Verhoeven, John McTiernan and many other top tier talents that saw what Schwarzenegger could do and crafted films around his limited but memorable talents in ways that few other filmmakers working with the Austrian physical specimen could. For example, Cameron’s decision to have an action set piece that’s mainly built around a terrorist on a motorcycle being chased by our hero on a horse through a fancy hotel in True Lies wasn’t made lightly. Sylvester Stallone or Jean-Claude Van Damme may have been able to do the physical stunt of riding said horse, but they couldn’t have sold it nearly as well as Schwarzenegger managed to, with on point comedic timing and an obsessive drive towards his goal of chasing his enemy down. Even with lesser directors on projects like The Running Man or Commando, he managed to showcase the type of dedication that gives a one liner spewing endless ammo shooting hero more personality than the scripts could convey. That tenacity is part of what makes Schwarzenegger’s films last so much longer than the dumb action films of his peers, at least in my estimation. However, no one stays at the top for long.
Nothing Lasts Forever
The beginning of the end of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career is up for debate. Some may say Jingle All The Way, others may say Junior and many would say Batman & Robin. All of those are potentially worthy candidates, but for me those awful films still managed to display his striving effort even when others around him didn’t seem to care. No, the first true sign of doom for me was the forgettable religious themed action clunker End of Days. The role called for Arnold to play a dejected bitter ex-cop who lost his family, a role the action star would commonly play during this lull in his career shortly before he entered the political game. While these parts could have served as solid counterpoints to the constantly ahead take-no-prisoners father figures he once played, they were often too somber to make up for their generic arcs and Schwarzenegger rarely seemed that comfortable in such a role. There was a need to evolve from the over the top action films of his heyday, but the morose flat characters never managed to give Arnold the chance to show off his energetic charms that often saved his less engagingly written parts. By the time he did manage to return to his roots with the lackluster but entertaining enough Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, it was too late. The action star would leave to run the very state that made him an icon into the ground like so many of the buildings he ended up destroying during his prime years on the silver screen.
When Schwarzenegger eventually returned to acting at the start of this recent decade, it was a very different time. Action films had long evolved from what was considered popular in his day, with more emphasis on quick cuts, franchises and more down to earth characters kicking ass. All Arnold really could do was bank off the nostalgia of his era, which managed to work from some financial stand point with the first two entries in The Expendables franchise. However, watching both films just emphasized to me what was missing from those days. It seemed like Arnold was having fun, but there still seemed to be a lack of dedication to the character. Even if said characters were flimsy, it never stopped him before. The man who once put his all into premises far dumber, but that dedicated performer just wasn’t there anymore, cast aside for an older man that seemed to be more amused that he was back on the set. This translated to more significant box office disappointment, with new Schwarzenegger vehicles like The Last Stand, Escape Plan and Sabotage. The latter of those films really seemed to show how out of touch Arnold could be with choosing his roles, with an ugly mean spirited venture that cast Arnold as the head of a squad of DEA agents hellbent on showing how edgy they are by cursing profusely and murdering others in some of the most needlessly gory deaths in recent cinematic memory. Audiences had clearly left behind this Schwarzenegger like an elderly uncle at a family reunion trying to be hip and I couldn’t help but join them in crushing disappointment.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone through an interesting, if highly inconsistent transformation over his career. The once barely intelligible Austrian beefcake morphed into the male power fantasy of a generation before withering into a time tolled shell of his former self. What’s honestly kept Arnold from being a total forgettable has-been beyond nostalgia these days is his self-effacing attitude following his string of recent scandals. He’s consistently shown his appreciation towards his fans, but hasn’t been as vocally appreciative as he has been over the last few years. That authenticity can occasionally seep into his newer film roles, particularly with his very recent horror drama turn in Maggie. Despite that film’s amateurish quality, Schwarzenegger managed to finally find a dejected patriarchal role he seemed to be genuinely invested in bringing to life, working well off his onscreen daughter Abigail Breslin while showing off a touchingly solum performance of a man wrestling with his inability to protect his daughter from the zombie infection that’s slowly consuming her. Turns like this give me hope that Arnold can end his career on an impressive uncharted note. One that takes risks and challenges expectations in a way that sends him off right…
… Then I remember Terminator: Genysis is being released later this summer, which promises to be another contrived retooling of a popular franchise for a mere cash grab based on all the trailers. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t look all that invested in what’s going on, spouting either cringeworthy new one liners or blandly regurgitating the same old ones without any new spin or twist. Its a shame, especially since the franchise revisit with far more potential that Arnold has been pitching since he returned to acting; King Conan, the final entry in the Conan The Barbarian series that would see Schwarzenegger return to the first role that made him a star as an aging king coming to terms with the end of his reign. That could serve as Schwarzenegger’s perfect Unforgiven-style swan song that brings his career full circle if it ever gets off the ground. If not, we’ll always have the good kind of nostalgia to warm our hearts… the kind that is shamelessly used as fun fodder for late night talk shows.
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