Sabotage (2014, David Ayer)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. 

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Watched: 14 September 2019
Format: Channel 5 showed it on 7 February 2019, so I took a recording.
Seen before? No.

Review: Arnie’s back as an 1980s-style action hero! Specifically, he’s the tough, respected leader of a squad of DEA agents who split their time between going undercover, bashing down doors while firing machine guns, and bickering like children. The fact Schwarzenegger was by now in his mid 60s has a consequence or two. You have to ignore the issue that he’s too old to be an active agent out in the field, but his age does help with the weight on the character’s shoulders. John ‘Breacher’ Wharton is a man mourning his wife and son, who a few months before were sadistically murdered by Mexican drug lords. 

The exciting incident of the plot comes early. We see Breacher and his team storm a drug kingpin’s mansion. They find an enormous stack of cash in the basement… and promptly siphon off a few million for themselves, hiding it in the sewerage system. The sequence is crass – lots of swearing, macho bravado, gunplay and punch-ups – but it’s also quite slick and some fun. This is typical of the entire film, actually. It’s not great, but it is watchable in a rough-round-the-edges way. However, when the team later return to collect their skim, the money has vanished and we’re then thrown into a paranoiac mystery story.

As things develop, members of the team are killed in brutal ways by an unseen assassin, and this draws the attention of investigators played by Olivia Williams and Lost’s Harold Perrineau. They feel like they’re on secondment from their own HBO cop show; they have nicely written banter and an everyday, cynical attitude. Williams’s Caroline Brentwood soon begins to put the clues together and also forms a bond with Breacher.

All this gives Arnie a tad more acting to do than is usual. He’s grieving, he’s bitter, he’s world-weary. He leads his team like a loving father who’s not adverse to showing his anger. He has a crewcut and tattoos. The gang includes Mireille Enos as a livewire agent hooked on drugs herself, as well as Josh Holloway (also from Lost), Terrence Howard (Iron Man), and Sam Worthington (who, coincidentally, was the star of the only Terminator film that Schwarzenegger skipped). The characters have the feel of old friends and their childish name-calling reminds you of similar gangs in films like Aliens and the pre-heist scenes of Reservoir Dogs. (Caveat: Sabotage is nowhere near the overall class of those movies!)

You could argue that the story is about the hypocrisy of law enforcement, about the breakdown of trust within a team, or about how far a broken man is willing to go. But in truth, it’s a balls-to-the-wall exploitation movie and it makes no apology for that. It’s like a Tony Scott thriller done with less money, less glamour and a lot more horror-movie violence. Surprisingly entertaining.

Six sensible shoes out of 10

Next: The Long Goodbye

Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

ConanBarbarian

Watched: 7 September 2019
Format: A DVD found in a charity shop.
Seen before? Nope.

Review: In the 1970s and 80s there was a glut of films that mixed medieval settings with magic and fantasy. This sword-and-scorcery fad took in such varied movies as Jabberwocky (1977), Hawk the Slayer (1980), Excalibur (1981), Ladyhawke (1985) and others of a less interesting aspect. Conan the Barbarian, based on the pulp stories of Robert E Howard, was one of the most successful, taking nearly 10 times its budget at the box office. Sadly, it’s possibly the most boring of the whole genre.

Large portions of the film play like a silent movie. Dialogue is sparse, with director John Milius preferring to tell his simplistic revenge story via action, violence, gesture, close-up and an awful lot of Basil Poledouris’s strident, energetic incidental music. Not a bad idea per se, but a bizarre notion if you’ve cast Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first leading role of note. Playing Conan – an orphaned prisoner in a time before recorded history who hunts down the warlord who murdered his family – Arnie certainly has the physique. But as a character he’s a big blank space where our emotional connection should be.

The film looks handsome enough, thanks to the genius of production designer Ron Cobb, and there are some striking visual sequences such as ethereal demons attempting to abduct an ill and injured Conan. You can also, no doubt, read any number of historical subtexts and precedents in John Milius’s fetishistic love of weaponry and ritual. But the story drags interminably and the cast is variable (ranging from James Earl Jones to a mate of the director’s). It’s often very difficult to care what happens next.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘For Milius, Conan was making a statement that went way beyond action movies and comic books. It all went back to Nietzsche… When Conan opened nationwide on May 14 [1982], it became the first blockbuster of what is still talked about as the best movie summer ever. That summer also brought us The Road Warrior [aka Mad Max 2], Rocky III, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The World According to Garp, Poltergeist, An Officer and a Gentleman, Tron, The Thing, and, of course, E.T. Conan the Barbarian held its own among them all.’

Four giant snakes out of 10

Next: Sabotage

Red Heat (1988, Walter Hill)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

RedHeat

Watched: 31 August 2019
Format: I’d recorded it from TV channel 5Spike on 25 March 2019.
Seen before? Once before, on TV a few years ago. I may have also seen it at the time on VHS. I was a huge Schwarzenegger fan as a child so it seems strange if I didn’t watch this one, but I don’t remember specifically.

Review: Director Walter Hill had energised the buddy-movie format a few years earlier with the caustic 48 Hrs, pairing a racist white cop (Nick Nolte) with a motormouth black crook (Eddie Murphy) to entertaining effect. The clash this time is that James Belushi’s underwritten American policeman must work alongside a stoic and humourless Soviet counterpart played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It all feels tired and sluggish.

The film begins with a bizarre prologue, which sees a near-naked Arnie undercover (well, under loincloth) at a sauna. But outside the steamroom, cold-war Moscow is a snowy, harsh, drab place. This makes the contrast all the more effective when events then shift to America: Chicago is vibrant, colourful and scored by some prime James Horner funk-bass and saxophone. It’s a city where violence is never far from the surface and the police are coarse men willing to plant evidence to coerce a confession. Peter Boyle is the frustrated captain, Larry Fishburne an angry lieutenant: good actors going through the motions. Later, Gina Gershon shows up for a perfunctory role as the bad guy’s wife.

The rumours have it that the script was in flux during filming, with several hands at the typewriter, and that sense of messiness is evident in the finished movie, which is both aimless and shallow. The plot – a Russian drugs baron flees to the US, so Arnie’s Captain Ivan Danko gives chase – is simplistic and you never at any point believe in or care for any of the characters. It’s competently filmed in the right-wing, tough-guy mode – wetted-down streets, savage gunfights, police stations full of bored prostitutes being booked – but compare it with 48 Hrs, or the previous year’s slick and smart Lethal Weapon, and Red Heat is dead cold.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Red Heat was a success, grossing $35 million in the States, but it wasn’t the smash I’d expected. Why is hard to guess. It could be that audiences were not ready for Russia, or that my and Jim Belushi’s performances were not funny enough, or that the director didn’t do a good enough job.’

Five sacks of shit lying on the sidewalk out of 10

Next time: Conan the Barbarian

Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TotalRecall

Watched: 26 August 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD bought for £2 from the Oxfam Bookshop in Greenwich, south-east London.
Seen before? Yes, when it came out on VHS and several times since.

Review: This is more like it! After seeing a few underwhelming Arnie flicks recently, it’s great to return to the kind of high-concept sci-fi/action thriller that’s exactly in his wheelhouse. We get a story and a tone that play to his strengths and don’t require him to be anything other than a movie star.

It’s the year 2084. Schwarzenegger plays everyman construction worker Doug Quaid, who keeps dreaming of a life on Mars so wishes to move there. But when his wife (a very sultry Sharon Stone) resists the idea, he instead visits a company called Rekall and buys an implanted fake memory of an action-packed holiday on the Red Planet. However, the implant procedure goes wrong. Doug had chosen to spice up his fantasy by assuming the role of a secret agent on a dangerous mission. But after being injected by Rekall’s doctors he now thinks he *is* a secret agent on a dangerous mission, and his life as a construction worker was just a cover story. Has he been duped into believing the artificial memories he asked for? Or did the implant process uncover a real personality, which had been hidden for unknown reasons?

Loosely based on a Philip K Dick short story, and then focused through the sharp storytelling lens of director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers), the story is a spiritual sequel to Arnie’s previous sci-fi film The Running Man (1987). It’s easy to imagine this being the same world but 60 years on; there’s still the Brutalist design aesthetic, a totalitarian state and 80s fashions, but now we also have an off-world colony and radiation-affected mutants. We also get Michael Ironside as a typically watchable villain, some eye-popping special effects (literally so in the opening scene), and masses of tech-noir embellishments (driverless taxis, instant nail varnish, walls that turn into TVs, the scene where Doug disguises himself as a woman by using a fake robotic head). It’s frenetic, fun and fantastic, with scene after scene of surprises and shocks and excitement. *Huge* tongue-in-cheek entertainment. 

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Paul [Verhoeven, who Schwarzenegger headhunted for the director gig] added a dimension of realism and scientific fact… So many things he said were brilliant. He had a vision. He had enthusiasm… The story twists and turns. You never know until the very end: did I take this trip? Was I really the hero? Or was it all inside my head, and I’m just a blue-collar jackhammer operator who may be schizophrenic? Even at the end you’re not necessarily sure. For me, it connected with the sense I had sometimes that my life was too good to be true.’

Nine women who make you wish you had three hands out of 10

Next time: Red Heat

Collateral Damage (2002, Andrew Davis)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

CollateralDamage

Watched: 24 August 2019
Format: Secondhand DVD found in a branch of CEX.
Seen before? No.

Review: The wider world didn’t do this film any favours. It was set to be released in October 2001, but then pushed back because – in the immediate wake of 9/11 – no one was in the mood for a story about terrorist attacks on American soil. By 2002, however, the action-thriller genre was getting a psychologically deeper reboot thanks to The Bourne Identity. In comparison, Collateral Damage feels simplistic and immature.

It’s directed by someone who knows how to put these things together – Andrew Davis, who also made Under Siege and The Fugitive – so it has a certain energy and zip about it. But it’s a cookie-cutter action thriller where American individualism outfoxes foreign aggression, and the lack of any new ideas is a real issue. Essentially a rejigging of the much more nuanced 1994 film Clear and Present Danger (the same kind of plot, bad guys from the same country, even the presence of actor Miguel Sandoval), it sees Arnie star as fireman Gordy Brewer. After witnessing his wife and child being killed in a terrorist explosion, he feels the authorities are not pursuing the perpetrators for political reasons. So he decides – rather implausibly – to travel to Colombia to seek out the terrorists himself.

Maybe it would sing better with a more capable actor in the lead role, but Arnie’s performances have often struggled without a sci-fi or fantasy crutch to prop them up. And here he really feels lacklustre and laboured. At least there are some fun supporting roles, with Elias Koteas, John Turturro and John Leguizamo all working hard to elevate the flat script. The film passes the time but won’t linger in many people’s memories.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Any other year, Collateral Damage would have been exciting, big-budget action entertainment, but after 9/11 it just didn’t work… It felt both irrelevant and painful to watch in light of the actual events.’

Five prison breaks out of 10

Next time: Total Recall

The Last Stand (2013, Kim Jee-woon)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheLastStand

Watched: 21 August 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD I bought from a branch of CEX while on holiday in Whitby, North Yorkshire, in February 2019. It cost £1.
Seen before? No.

Review: Arnie’s first leading role after his seven-year stint as Governor of California sees him as local sheriff Ray Owens, a man who lives in a sleepy border town where everyone knows each other and Harry Dean Stanton is a cantankerous farmer. But the film often feels bored by this setting and its characters, because we cut away for long stretches to Forest Whitaker’s FBI agent. He inhabits a coarse, CSI/techno-thriller world and is called into action when an elaborate heist busts a drugs kingpin free from federal custody. (Meanwhile, back in Somerton, Arizona, Arnie gets a call from a woman who’s worried because her morning milk hasn’t been delivered.)

The criminal – Eduardo Noriega’s stunningly uninteresting Gabriel Cortez – then speeds off in an easily recognisable, one-of-a-kind, 1000-horsepower Corvette ZR1. It’s a sub-Fast & Furious plan to race for the Mexican border, and when Ray gets wind of it he and his cohorts (Luis Guzmán, an irritating Johnny Knoxville, Jaimie Alexander from the Thor films) prepare for the kingpin’s arrival in their town…

There are half-hearted nods here and there towards the Western genre, but the film is overwhelmed to the point of suffocation by macho A-Team action and misfiring comedy. There’s an appalling script – heavy on jarring exposition, light on any character depth – and some truly dreadful bad guys. This could have been Schwarzenegger’s Copland or Logan, a meditative drama about an ageing tough guy in an increasingly unhinged world. Instead it’s more like his Death Wish 5.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘With that movie, a lot of the pressure did fall on me. In fact, the script had been written for me… It’s a great, great role. The sheriff knows if he succeeds, it will mean everything to his town. His reputation is on the line. Is he really over the hill or can he do it?’

Four wheat fields out of 10

Next time: Collateral Damage

The Villain (1979, Hal Needham)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheVillain

Watched: 17 August 2019
Format: I’d recorded the film from the amazing TV channel Talking Pictures on 3 May 2019.
Seen before? Never. I’d not even heard of it before researching this blog.

Review: Who knew that, early in his film career, Arnold Schwarzenegger played a major role in a comedy Western that mixes the spoofiness of Carry On Cowboy with the physics-defying gags of a Wile E Coyote cartoon? Not me, anyway. This movie’s tone is set up early on: after a lengthy title sequence full of Monument Valley grandeur, we’re introduced to an enigmatic loner played by a game Kirk Douglas. Jack Slade attempts to jump onto the roof of a speeding train… only to miss it and fall flat on his face. This hapless crook then does a deal with a corrupt banker to steal some cash that’s being transported across country by a woman called Charming Jones (Ann-Margret, flirty and funny).

However, she has a protector: a handsome stranger actually called Handsome Stranger, played by a spectacularly miscast Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bulk of the film is episodic nonsense as Slade makes several idiotic attempts to nab the money, often with Charming and Stranger oblivious to what’s going on. Bless him, at this stage of his career all Arnie really had to offer was his body-builder’s physique – and the role of Stranger doesn’t especially need it. His stilted line-readings and charisma vacuum are difficult issues to ignore.

The Villain is directed by stunt expert Hal Needham, who was then in the middle of making assorted Smokey and the Bandits and Cannonball Runs, but this pushes even further into childish humour than any of those movies. There’s slapstick, cartoon absurdity (even a real-life recreation of the paint-a-tunnel-on-a-rock-face gag), lots of awful ‘comedy’ sound effects, an intelligent horse, a sexist ending, and white actors playing Native Americans as if they were from the Midwest. Fun at times but the shallowness doesn’t sustain.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘The name of my character was Handsome Stranger and the rest of the movie was just as lame… The best thing I can say about it is that I improved my horse-riding skills.’

Five runaway horses out of 10

Next time: The Last Stand

The Running Man (1987, Paul Michael Glaser)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheRunningMan

Watched: 10 August 2019
Format: DVD. I’d owned a copy for years, but then the week before I started this blogging process I was in Fopp – a wonderful shop near London’s Covent Garden – and upgraded to a reissue with extras and commentaries.
Seen before? Yes, several times over the last 30 years. 

Review: The first film picked out of the Schwarzenegger hat is a pleasingly relevant one: sci-fi flick The Running Man may have been released in 1987, but most of the story is set in 2019… and I started the research for this odyssey in August 2019. I first saw this film on VHS as a child and have always adored it for its fast-paced, gleefully bonkers vibe. We’re in an 80s vision of a dystopian future made up of haves (corporate types, celebrities, attractive women), have-nots (slums, hobos, resistance fighters), tech-noir aesthetics and overt commercialisation.

It’s a violent, harsh and cynical plot, which sees Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ex-cop Ben Richards framed for a massacre then forced to compete on a garish TV game show that features duels-to-the-death with spandex-suited ‘stalkers’. Sadly, we must admit that Arnie is not quite the actor this kind of story requires and his character comes off as pretty facile; the James Bond-style quips also ring hallow.

But as a satire of the crassness of reality TV, the movie gets more and more depressingly insightful with every passing year. What once seemed fanciful is now only a degree or so off-truth. There’s also a lot of other kitsch pleasures in this film, such as the crazy casting choices (an ex-NFL star, a wrestler, the drummer from Fleetwood Mac) and some terrific electronic incidental music from Harold Faltermeyer. It’s rough round the edges, but so much fun.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘The Running Man didn’t turn out as well as it should have… the film was totally screwed up by hiring a first-time director [Starsky & Hutch actor Paul Michael Glaser] and not giving him time to prepare.’

Eight court-appointed theatrical agents out of 10

Next: The Villain