Twins (1988, Ivan Reitman)

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.

Twins

Watched: 11 January 2020
Format: Channel 5 broadcast the film in the middle of the night on Boxing Day 2019, so I took a recording. Despite being on at 3am, they’d shown a version with some sex gags and mild violence trimmed out.
Seen before? Yes, I saw it at the cinema in 1989. (It was released in the UK several months after its debut in the US.)

Review: At the age of 35, Julius Benedict – a naïve, happy-go-lucky man living an idyllic life on a south-sea island – learns that he was the product of a genetic experiment. He has one mother, six fathers… and a twin brother. So he sets off for America, hoping to track down his long-lost sibling. We then cut to the brother, a ponytailed huckster called Vince, who’s constantly in trouble with wronged women and violent debt collectors.

The contrast between the two characters could hardly be more stark: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tall, muscular, idealistic, optimistic and virginal Jules; Danny DeVito’s short, stocky, cynical, cheating and womanising Vincent. (Coincidentally, DeVito’s production company later financed Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, another film that features a double act called Jules and Vincent.) The idea of twins who are so different in so many ways is the prop that holds up the comedy. The 1980s was the era of the high-concept film – gimmicks you could sell on a poster – and Twins has one of the most elegantly straightforward. You know these two movie stars who look very different? Well, now they’re playing *twin brothers*!

As the story develops Julius gets his newfound bro out of prison and helps him avoid some aggrieved crooks, all the while blissfully unaware of Vince’s dodgy dealings. He also meets Vince’s girlfriend and her sister. (The latter is played by Kelly Preston, who went on to marry John Travolta, the actor who played the other Vincent in Pulp Fiction.) Julius convinces Vince that they should head off to search for their mother, but Vince has a more illicit reason why the road trip appeals. He’s accidentally acquired some stolen scientific equipment and wants to sell it to a criminal business mogul for $5 million…

Twins was the first of several comedies Arnie made with Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, and it was certainly a big departure for an actor previously known only for action, science-fiction and fantasy. His casting is a meta gag, of course – the Terminator himself now playing a gentle pacifist – and it still works really well all these years later. In one of the movie’s more self-aware moments, Julius actually looks up at a large poster for Rambo III and modestly compares his own biceps with that of Schwarzenegger’s real-life pal Sylvester Stallone.

He may have later sullied the success of Twins with lesser comedy films, but here Schwarzenegger plays the humour with the right amount of wide-eyed wonder and sincerity. It’s lighthearted fun, with few woofers but plenty of charm, especially as Julius and Vince begin to bond. DeVito and Schwarzenegger are a terrific double act and keep the film breezing along very nicely.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘I called Ivan [Reitman] and suggested that we develop something together. He agreed. He asked some writers to come up with five ideas for me and gave me all five: two-page memos that each sketched a character and a story. We eliminated four very quickly, but the fifth – about mismatched twins who are the product of a scientific experiment to breed the ideal human – seemed great… We agreed that the title, The Experiment, didn’t work, given my Germanic background, so the project was renamed Twins. From that point, everyone fell in love with the concept.’

Eight rules in a crisis situation out of 10

Next: End of Days

Aftermath (2017, Elliott Lester)

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. 

Aftermath

Watched: 8 January 2020
Format: A DVD I found in my local branch of Sainsbury’s. It cost £3.
Seen before? No. 

Review: No one’s ever going to claim that Arnold Schwarzenegger can challenge the likes of Meryl Streep or Daniel Day Lewis. His impact comes not from acting ability, but rather from star power and physical presence. However, after half a century in the movies, he was due a decent acting performance – and it comes in the 2017 character study Aftermath. The most sombre and downbeat film Arnie’s ever made, Aftermath features no gunplay or car chases; no science fiction or Ivan Reitman comedy. It’s a thoughtful script about deep, raw emotion, and by taking it seriously Schwarzenegger impresses in a way that we haven’t seen before.

With a grey beard and an everyman tone, he plays construction worker Roman Melnyk, who’s excited that his family are due to fly in to spend Christmas with him. During a montage scored by Jingle Bells, we see Roman get ready then head to the airport. But things soon take a dark turn. A benignly calm airline clerk tells him the devastating news that there’s been a collision of two aeroplanes. They aren’t expecting any survivors… Roman’s world falls apart. He can’t resist visiting the crash site, posing as a volunteer to search the wreckage, but he steadfastly refuses to accept the airline’s thoughtless offer of a financial pay-off.

Arnie’s grieving Roman is only one half of this story, however. We concurrently follow the character of Jake Bonanos (Scoot McNairy, very good), who’s the air-traffic controller on watch when the accident happens. It *is* an accident – a perfect storm of mishaps – but the guilt eats away at Jake. He’s hounded by the press, his house is daubed with cruel graffiti, and his wife leaves him. (His wife is played by Maggie Grace, who had experience of plane crashes after her time in the TV show Lost.) Then, a year later, just as Jake is beginning to rebuild his life and his relationship with his young son, Roman arrives at his door wanting the apology that no one has yet given him…

This film is directed in an admirably unflashy style: calm and steady. Elliott Lester creates an edgy, off-kilter tone without resorting to any cheap tricks. It’s also cast well, with smart performances in even the smallest roles. The story is based on a real-life crash from 2004 and is a drama about grief, quiet anguish, the devastating consequences of death and the profound power of a genuine apology.

Eight photographs out of 10

Next: Twins

The Pink Panther (1963, Blake Edwards)

Pink Panther

Spoiler warning: These reviews reveal plot details

When a jewel thief targets the largest diamond in the world, he becomes distracted by its beautiful owner. Meanwhile, a French detective is on the thief’s trail, unaware that his own wife is having an affair with the criminal…

In retrospect, this 1963 comedy film contains a couple of surprises. The Pink Panther series later became dominated by a single character – the bumbling, naive, earnest and overwhelmingly accident-prone Inspector Jacques Clouseau. But in this original movie he’s just one member of an ensemble. And rather than a slapstick-heavy comedy vehicle, it’s a glamorous, witty Euro-caper with some interesting influences.

A big antecedent is the gentleman thief AJ Raffles, a character created by EW Hornung for a short story in 1898. As well as a successful burglar, Raffles is an upper-case dilettante who lives in a wealthy part of London and plays cricket as an amateur. His stories are not about a seedy underworld or people pushed into crime through dire circumstance. They’re flamboyant and fun. Raffles sometimes steals because of greed or need, but his lifestyle is often closer to a hobby. Few people get seriously hurt, aside from some toffs who can afford to lose their goods anyway.

The Pink Panther’s top-billed star, David Niven, had actually played Raffles in a 1939 Hollywood production. It was a role that perfectly chimed with his developing screen persona of a dashing, elegant, unflappable rogue, and turned out to be a dry-run for his appearance here. The Pink Panther sees Niven as the affable and well-off playboy Sir Charles Litton, who is secretly a well-known cat burglar known as the Phantom. As the story gets going, he is attempting to track down the famous diamond the Pink Panther – so named because a flaw in its core creates the outline of such an animal. He travels to an exclusive ski resort in Cortina, northern Italy, where the diamond’s owner is on holiday, and engineers a meeting. That owner is an Indian princess called Dala, played by the captivating Italian-Tunisian actress Claudia Cardinale. (David Niven on his co-star: ‘After spaghetti, she is Italy’s happiest invention.’) While Sir Charles gets to work on seducing Dala so he can get to the jewel, a French detective also arrives in Cortina. He’s seemingly on holiday with his wife, but is actually on the hunt for the Phantom…

A ski resort with luxury hotel rooms and chalets populated by good-looking clientele gives the story the wish-fulfilment feel of a James Bond film, as do the early globetrotting scenes set in Paris and LA. All Bonds feature multiple countries and beautiful people, of course, while many also have cold-weather sequences (most notably in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and For Your Eyes Only). But we must admit that these similarities are coincidental. When The Pink Panther was being made, just one James Bond film had been released: Dr No, which is only set in London and Jamaica. (There is, however, an additional connection worth mentioning here. Niven and his co-star Peter Sellers would later both appear in a Bond picture: the chaotic spoof version of Casino Royale in 1967, a film that was offered to Pink Panther director Blake Edwards before he priced himself out of the job.)

More certainly an influence here is the Alfred Hitchcock movie To Catch a Thief of 1955. Although set in sunnier climes (the French Riviera), this lighthearted caper features Cary Grant as a retired gentleman thief attempting to clear his name when he’s accused of a spate of burglaries. It’s a film that shines with panache, sexiness and glamour; there are scenes of breezy romance alongside suspense, and the tone is sophisticated and as light as air. It’s not as openly comedic as The Pink Panther, but the stylistic debt is obvious.

What To Catch a Thief doesn’t have, however, is a memorable detective character. That is *far* from a failing with The Pink Panther, whose not-so-secret weapon is the French policeman Inspector Jacques Clouseau, played by the versatile and iconoclastic Peter Sellers.

Clouseau was originally written as a straight role in Maurice Richlin and Blake Edwards’s script. Peter Ustinov had been cast but then pulled out, disappointed that Ava Gardner had likewise withdrawn from the project. (She was initially going to play Clouseau’s wife.) When Sellers signed up, he immediately saw huge comic potential and an opportunity to steal the movie from under Niven’s nose, so insisted on a rewrite. Clouseau became more hapless, less authoritative and a lot funnier. Edwards later called Sellers the ‘enigma of my life’. The two men worked on several movies together, but had a love/hate relationship. (It was not the only fractious actor/director relationship of the capacious Sellers’s career.) Yet, whatever was going on behind the scenes, Edwards guided Sellers as they created something very special.

The essential gag with Inspector Clouseau, which explains why every single scene featuring him in The Pink Panther is such a success, is that he attempts to maintain his dignity no matter what’s thrown at him or how many mistakes he makes. The humour comes from this man attempting to laugh off hardships, ignore errors and cover up his accidents. We may detect moments of frustration or sadness, but Clouseau is mostly putting on a show of confidence, which makes him both hilarious and endearing. A lot of the mishaps are prop-based or minor stunt work, such as his first big laugh in the film when he falls over while leaning on a spinning office globe, and Sellers gives a performance of supreme physical comedy. It’s not as showy as a Chaplin or a Jackie Chan, but in its own controlled way it’s just as impressive. Being notionally a secondary character, Clouseau is occasionally absent from the story and you always miss him.

Elsewhere, The Pink Panther often leans away from its Raffles and Hitchcock influences, and towards the rough and tumble of a Whitehall farce. It’s a plot of pretence and pretending, featuring characters with differing goals crossing paths in a confined setting, and there’s scene after scene where one or more of the characters is lying. People adopt cover stories, assume aliases, come in and out of each other’s hotel rooms, hide under beds, and even get into bed with the wrong person. (The film has been called a sex comedy where none of the characters ever gets to have sex. That sums it up brilliantly.) The showpiece sequence centres on Clouseau’s wife, Simone (French model Capucine). In the best farce tradition, she has been having an affair with Sir Charles and is now being chased by his American nephew George (Robert Wagner). In an inventive 14-minute scene that maintains admirable comic energy, she must keep manoeuvring the three men in and out of her bedroom so they don’t meet, alternatively shuffling them into the ensuite or under the bed or through a connecting door into another room. There are also different levels of knowledge going on, which keeps it fun: Sir Charles knows about her connections to George and Jacques; George knows only about her marriage to Jacques; while Jacques knows nothing. It’s very funny stuff.

Crucial to this film’s comedic success, however, is that none of the characters rarely finds anything funny. It’s deadpan humour carried off by a cast relishing the situations and the interplay, and there’s a slickness to the madcappery. There’s also fun to be had with the animated title sequence (which was later spun off into a cartoon franchise), the now-classic theme tune and incidental music written by Henry Mancini, and a truly bizarre scene halfway through the movie where everything stops for a superfluous, if enjoyable, song performed by Fran Jeffries. What an enjoyable little film.

Eight Scotland Yard-type mackintoshes out of 10

Next time: A Shot in the Dark

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019, Jon Watts)

SMFFH

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While on a school trip to Europe, Peter Parker teams up with a new superhero to battle rampaging Elemental creatures…

The world is in mourning and the students at New York City’s Midtown High School have put together an in-memoriam video. After the events of Avengers: Endgame, several of the planet’s biggest superheroes are now out of the picture – including the late Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. As well as marking the start of a new phase in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series, the video also neatly reminds us of its recent ‘blipping’ storyline, which saw half of all life cease to exist for a period of time. Viewers who have only been following Spider-Man’s solo films would otherwise be justified in asking why the main characters in this sequel are still in school despite it being five years later.

Aside from not having existing for half a decade, not much has changed for schoolboy Peter Parker (Tom Holland). He still lives with his MILFy Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), is still attracted to his iconoclastic classmate MJ (Zendaya), is still best pals with the nerdy Ned (Jacob Batalon)… and is still splitting his time between studying and secretly suiting up as the superhero Spider-Man. But Pete can sense that a big change is on its way. With so many other Avengers now out of the game, Peter fears that he’ll be asked to step up and become a full-time protector of humanity. He’s even started to ignore phone calls from Avengers supremo Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, in roughly his 700th MCU appearance).

A convenient distraction then arrives in the form of an overseas school trip. We’re launched into what could be described as Marvel’s European Vacation, which sees Peter, Ned, MJ and their friends travel to ‘Venice, Italy’. There’s wide-eyed sightseeing, musical montages, romantic hijinks, language confusions, and a trip to the world’s least-well-attended opera. As with Tom Holland’s first Spider-Man film, it’s all very light on its feet and likeable – the only blemish being the overly goofy teacher characters who fail to raise a smile. Holland himself is breathlessly energetic and endearing. But just as everything is going nicely touristy, disaster strikes. A huge water monster rises out of Venice’s canals and begins to cause carnage. Peter knows he should leap into action to help people – and helpfully, Aunt May has remembered to pack his Spider-Man outfit – but he can’t risk revealing his identity. Then another hero arrives on the scene and deals with the threat…

The newcomer, who soon acquires the suitably cool name of Mysterio, is the film’s main guest star and is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. At first he appears to be a derivative mish-mash of previous MCU characters – the look of Thor, the abilities of Doctor Strange, the nobility of Captain America – and the way he bests the ‘Water Elemental’ is via a typically busy, noisy, slightly cartoony and over-scored flurry of action, stunts and CGI. We’ve seen all this before, haven’t we? Well, yes we have. Many, many times. But there’s a postmodern sting in this tale…

After the chaos has subsided, Nick Fury arrives in Venice and introduces Peter to Mysterio, who says his real name is Quentin Beck and he’s from a now-destroyed version of Earth in an alternate reality. ‘This is Earth 616,’ he tells Peter. ‘I’m from Earth 833.’ The notion of there being several parallel Earths has long been a staple in superhero comic books, which have used the idea of a multiverse to present fresh takes on the same characters as well as team-up crossover events. The MCU film series has actually sourced some of its stories and ideas from more than one of these ‘realities’, while the concept has been a big feature of both the animated Marvel film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the various TV shows in DC’s Arrowverse franchise.

The thing is, though? It’s all a lie. The multiverse idea in Far From Home is just sleight-of-hand intended to disguise Beck’s true identity and motivations. After Peter and Mysterio become close and even fight side by side when a Fire Elemental monster roars through Prague, the movie pulls one of those bold plot twists that occur every now and again in the MCU series. The reveal comes at the end of a downbeat, confessional scene around the hour mark. Peter has been struggling with his destiny as the new Tony Stark, and Mysterio – still in his superhero get-up – offers kindly, avuncular advice while the two chat in a quiet Prague pub. However, once a pepped-up Peter has left, the furnishings slowly fade away, as do some of the patrons. The scene was a piece of theatre, refitting an abandoned building as a busy bar via hologrammatic projectors. Beck then breaks character and we realise that Peter has been had. He’s the mark in the kind of long con used in The Sting or Ocean’s 11.

But there’s more going on here than just a flip-flop story point. ‘Someone get this stupid costume off me,’ Beck cries to his team, now he can stop acting like a hero. That disparaging remark about the ‘Mysterio’ outfit is the start of a smart and self-aware deconstruction of the Marvel house style. It soon becomes clear that Spider-man: Far From Home is having some fun at its own expense. In fact, it’s spoofing the whole superhero-movie genre.

We’re quickly told the backstory and the team’s motivations. Beck *is* from Peter’s version of Earth, and was actually a colleague of Tony Stark’s. Furious that Tony stole some of his breakthrough work without adequate credit – and jealous that Iron Man’s mantle is now being passed on to a teenager – he wants revenge. He’s rounded up some similarly aggrieved people and devised a plan. The destroyed version of Earth in an alternate dimension is just a cover story, an invention designed to fool Peter and Nick Fury. In con-artist terminology, it’s the convincer. It also fools us viewers, because it’s precisely the kind of plotline that today’s superhero films dabble with. ‘A soldier from another Earth named Quentin fighting space monsters in Europe is totally ridiculous,’ sneers Beck to his minions. ‘And apparently the kind of thing people will believe right now.’ He’s talking as much about modern cinema-goers as he is about Peter and Nick.

We also learn that Beck’s team are using holo technology and covert weapons to stage the Elemental attacks. The monsters themselves are just part of the illusion. This means an extra level of self-aware tomfoolery, because we then see Beck reviewing the ‘special effects’ beforehand. He watches a rehearsal of the faux carnage behind closed doors, and asks for tweaks and changes like a movie director approving the work of his VFX team. The sequence is fun and unexpected, but it’s also ridiculing the artifice of modern blockbusters. That’s an admirable joke for a billion-dollar franchise to pull.

If there’s a downside, then perhaps it’s that the metatextuality draws attention to this version of Spider-Man sometimes not feeling very Spider-Man-y. The MCU approach to the character has been to mould him into a replacement Iron Man. The character’s original USP – a friendly neighbourhood crime-fighter – is being ignored in favour of him acquiring a can-do-anything cybersuit, a pair of hi-tech smart glasses and help from an AI voiced by a sexy female. There’s fun in the way Peter – sometimes inadvertently – uses his new tech to get the upper hand in his bid to date MJ, but the youthful, playful distinction of the original character is being blurred. Perhaps the MCU creative team have sympathy with Quentin Beck. After all, Beck and his associates want the power that comes from being the planet’s biggest superhero – and, as Beck says, if you have a cape and some lasers then everyone will listen to you.

Eight Night Monkeys out of 10

Red Dwarf: The Promised Land (2020)

RDTPL

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written and directed by Doug Naylor. Broadcast on Dave.

The Promised Land (9 April 2020): Having abandoned Red Dwarf due to a reinstalled Holly deciding to decommission the ship, the crew encounter a trio of refugees from the same species as the Cat… 

Regulars: Lister (Craig Charles), Rimmer (Chris Barrie), the Cat (Danny John-Jules) and Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) are still in place (it’s been 23 years now since any of them missed an episode), while Holly (Norman Lovett) makes another cameo appearance. The latter is rebooted as Red Dwarf’s main computer for the first time since series eight. The gang upload him from a giant five-foot-square floppy disc (good sight gag, this), but at first he’s at his factory settings so has no idea who they are.

Observations:
* The fact the main characters are no spring chickens is acknowledged, which is a rarity in Red Dwarf. Kryten looks battered and rusty, for example, while Rimmer would rather kick back and enjoy his middle age than respond to an SOS.
* The Cat’s fellow evolved felines were established in the very first episode of Red Dwarf – 12 series, 73 episodes and 32 years ago! We learnt back then that they considered Lister to be their god because he had saved their forebear, a moggy called Frankenstein, from death and that he was fated to return so he could lead them to ‘the promised land’.
* Rimmer gets a temporary upgrade to a hyper-hologram akin to a Marvel superhero. Before settling on his new look (pictured above), the process clicks through several of his previous costumes (the bland shirt from series one, the Captain Scarlet tunic from series three, the blue bomber jacket from series six, etc).
* Ray Fearon guest stars as Rodon, the brutal, arrogant leader of the Cat’s race, while the rebel cat clerics who venerate Lister as their god are played by Mandeep Dhillon, Tom Bennett and Lucy Pearman.
* Starbug is featured (and for the first time since the 1999 series we see more than just its cockpit).
* The Cat makes a joke about the third series episode Backwards.

Best gag: There are big laughs from the Cat race’s similarities to domestic pets, such as a door on their spaceship being a gigantic cat-flap and various cat characters getting distracted by laser pointers. (The worst gag, incidentally, must be Kryten’s speech about sex-change operations, which starts to date badly while he’s still talking.)

Review: Red Dwarf has been reliably enjoyable since its return after a long break in 2009, even if the episodes have rarely done much more than retell the same kind of spoof sci-fi stories. Now, given the canvas of a feature-length special, the show opens up the format. This one-off contains lots of good laughs but also sees moments of pathos for all four regulars and has something to say. In fact, it’s not just the running time that makes it feel like a movie. There’s a cinema-like scope and ambition too. The plot is structured across 100 minutes; there’s CGI that wouldn’t embarrass a mid-range film; Paul Farrer’s score is huge and orchestral; and many scenes are shot in a filmic style. The episode even begins with backstory-explaining on-screen captions that are suspiciously similar to those used in 1979’s Alien. (Having said all that, an actual movie would have ADR’d the guest cast’s dialogue to remove the awkward sound of actors not used to wearing fake teeth.)

Writer/director/co-creator Doug Naylor had wanted to make a Red Dwarf movie since at least the mid 1990s. Adding a female regular to the show in 1997 was an early step. It was intended to prepare the ground for a more cinema-friendly line-up. Over the next few years, various draft scripts were written and some were actually rehearsed by the cast in the hope of going into production. Investors and production deals were courted, including with Miramax in Hollywood and a shadowy figure who claimed to be the Duke of Manchester. For a while, it looked like Peter Jackson’s special-effects company, WETA, was going to work on the project. But, for whatever reason, a cinematic version of Red Dwarf was not to be. 

We’re probably better off with The Promised Land. Red Dwarf is at its best when poking fun at big-budget concepts rather than competing with them and, even while the production values have demonstrably risen over the run of the show, it’s always had an underdog quality. This is a show about losers, not heroes, and it’s debatable how well a £50million movie made for a mass audience would have worked. However, that’s not to say Red Dwarf can’t have more substance than usual. Because this is Doug Naylor returning to the throwaway jokes in series one about Lister being a god to a race of cat people descended from his pet moggy, the script of The Promised Land soon features plenty of religious satire. There are subtexts (and actual spelling-things-out dialogue) about how myths can build up from mundane events; and about how acolytes can misunderstand, misinterpret, and see flukes as fate. The Promised Land is no fluke, though. Neither was its scheduling: it was originally broadcast the day before Easter. The resurrection continues.

Eight holy papadums out of 10

REDUX REVIEW: Predator (1987, John McTiernan)

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.

Predator

Watched: 28 September 2019
Format: A second-hand DVD found by my friend who works in the St Christopher’s Hospice charity shop in Sydenham, south-east London.
Seen before? Yes, when it was first released on VHS and a few times since.

Note: I have already reviewed Predator on this website. I wrote about it in 2016 when I considered all the Alien and Predator movies as if they were part of the same series. You can check out my original Predator blog here, while this piece will focus on the film’s star.

Review: Before he was an actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a bodybuilder. A childhood liking for sports led to a teenage fascination with physical training, and while completing his Austrian national service in 1965 he actually went AWOL in order to attend a bodybuilding competition. (He subsequently served a short spell in the cells.) Titles such as Mr Universe and Mr Olympia followed, the latter seven times between 1970 and 1980. Schwarzenegger’s global fame began to grow.

At the 1975 Mr Olympia championships in South Africa, in fact, Arnie’s experiences were documented by a film crew and the resulting feature, 1977’s Pumping Iron, went a huge way in popularising both the sport and its most notable competitor. (It also boosted the career of Schwarzenegger’s rival Lou Ferrigno, who was soon cast as the title character in the TV show The Incredible Hulk.) Having appeared in some small films and a major Robert Altman movie, Schwarzenegger now shifted focus to an acting career…

He’s far from the only Hollywood performer to have transferred into the profession from elsewhere, and indeed there’s been a constant stream of action stars who were known in other fields first: swimmer Johnny Weissmuller and diver Jason Statham, footballer Vinnie Jones and gridiron player Fred Williamson, fighters Steven Seagal, Bruce Lee, Gina Carano, Hulk Hogan, Chuck Norris and Jean Claude Van Damme, drummer Luke Goss… The 1987 jungle-mission movie Predator actually has a trio of them. Supporting Schwarzenegger in the cast are ex-NFL player Carl Weathers and pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura.

But there’s something different about Arnie, something that distinguishes him from all the others. It’s not his acting, which even by the time of Predator (his 12th movie) was still flat and unconvincing. (Carl Weathers, conversely, makes you believe in his character totally.) No, it’s that indefinable X factor: star power. In Predator, for example, Schwarzenegger’s performance is in no danger of being confused with Robert De Niro. The appeal and success of Major Dutch Schaefer as a character is not in the delivery of the dialogue or an ability to convey hidden meaning. It’s in the sheer charisma, the panache; the way Schwarzenegger lights up a cigar or arm-wrestles with a colleague or smirks in the face of adversity. It’s physical, visceral, primal, even a bit sexual. (Predator is loaded with homoerotic visuals.) By 1987, with hits such as Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator behind him, Schwarzenegger was a huge draw who commanded a salary of $3 million. People liked him and there was patently something special going on in these films. Something that still defies reasoned analysis. Simply put, they were *cool*. So was their star.

And while Predator has its flaws – see my earlier review for a more detailed discussion – it’s still a well-staged and exciting action movie. Having enjoyed seeing it again, in fact, I think that my 2016 review was a touch harsh in scoring it seven out of 10. Let’s boost that up by one here.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Predator was more of an ordeal than a pleasure to make. There were all the hardships you’d expect in a jungle: leeches, sucking mud, poisonous snakes, and stifling humidity and heat… [Director John] McTiernan turned out to have been a great choice, and you could see from Die Hard the next year that his success with Predator was no fluke.’

Eight ugly motherfuckers out of 10

Next: The 6th Day

The Long Goodbye (1973, Robert Altman)

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.

TheLongGoodbye

Watched: 22 September 2019
Format: A DVD found in a great little shop called Music & Video Exchange in Greenwich, south-east London. Its basement of secondhand DVDs is an absolute treasure trove.
Seen before? Yes, when I was at university, though I didn’t remember much.

Review: Released the year before Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, The Long Goodbye is a similarly revisionist film-noir. It’s a movie that is aware of the genre’s clichés – a cynical private detective, a convoluted case, a parade of oddball characters – but it’s willing to subvert and mock as well as celebrate them. We’re in the modern day of 1973. Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe is a perma-smoking, sarcastic and drily laid-back private eye who becomes embroiled in at least two mysterious cases, neither of which he fully understands. Bad guys are searching for some missing money, while a writer’s wife is searching for her missing husband. The fact we all know that these two strands will eventually intertwine is part of the fun. There are also assorted diversions along the way such as a hungry cat, yoga-loving hippies, frustrated cops, the sinister manager of a dry-out clinic, and a recurring piece of lounge music. 

The film is directed by Robert Altman in his idiosyncratic style – a drifting camera, long lenses, slow zooms, low-level lighting, an unpolished sound mix, a mixture of toughness and humour. Like much of his work, the storytelling also veers from the sharp and vital to the loose and meandering. Meanwhile, the script – which is more or less based on  Raymond Chandler’s original story – is by Leigh Brackett. She was a woman with superb film-noir credentials, having co-written Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, a 1946 mystery film that brought new meaning to the word labyrinthine. (She also later wrote an early draft of The Empire Strikes Back.) Partly a satire, partly an exercise in style, and mostly an examination of existential angst, The Long Goodbye is a marvellously enjoyable experience. But where does Arnold Schwarzenegger come into it?

In 1973, he was a bodybuilder in the middle of a five-year reign as Mr Olympia, essentially making him the best bodybuilder in the world. But, ever ambitious, he was already keen on a movie career. The Long Goodbye was his second film, and in some ways it was a comedown. After the starring role in Hercules in New York (1969), here he’s simply an extra: a dialogue-less goon who hangs around in a gangster’s office. Arnie’s one scene is largely comedic. In an attempt to intimidate Marlowe, the gangster orders all of his henchmen to strip naked; the astonishingly ripped, pumped-up and moustachioed Arnie gets down to his briefs before the scene moves on.

Schwarzenegger Says: Nothing. Very oddly, Arnie fails to mention his uncredited cameo in his autobiography.

Eight tins of Courry Brand cat food out of 10

Next: Predator

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.

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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

Captain Marvel (2019, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A female soldier from a far-off world crash-lands on Earth in the 1990s and soon begins to piece together her mysterious past…

‘So Captain Marvel zaps him right between the eyes,’ John Lennon once sang. That was in 1968, more than half a century ago. But the Beatle could have been psychically predicting the impact of this 2019 superhero film, because the character of Captain Marvel is slick, fun and focused. She aims, shoots and hits her target. (Yeah, yeah, when Lennon made that throwaway reference in the lyrics to his song The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, he actually meant a different comic-book character altogether. *That* Captain Marvel now goes by the name Shazam and, coincidentally, also had a solo superhero movie in 2019.)

But the fact that, for some of us, the film’s title brings to mind a track from the Beatles’ White Album is more than just vague thought association. Captain Marvel is dominated by a theme of nostalgia, of longing for a bygone time, of revelling in reminiscing. It even begins with a unique production-company logo that pays tribute to the Marvel universe’s founding father, the late Stan Lee. Whether you were alive to experience the Beatles first hand or have come to them after the fact, they cast an enormous shadow over pop culture. For most of us, they are one of the pillars of what we think of as ‘the 1960s’; for many, they’ve played a huge role in our lives. But they spilt up 50 years ago. We all have to *remember* them in order to enjoy their music.

Captain Marvel’s lead character, however, can’t indulge this kind of nostalgia because she can’t remember her past. In Hala, the capital of the Kree civilisation – which is another of those skyscraper-heavy alien cities realised via CGI that we always get in these types of films – a young woman called Vers (Brie Larson) is being trained by a mentor-type called Yon-Rogg (Jude ‘Does anyone not guess that he’ll turn out to be a bad guy?’ Law). She’s spunky, sassy and headstrong, has superpowers, and works as part of a gang of military commandos. She’s also sexy, but not in the usual superhero-film way. This character’s allure comes from self-assuredness and arch lines of dialogue delivered in heroic close-ups. She may wear a figure-hugging uniform, but she feels quite different – more confident, more independent, less fanboy-baiting – from Wonder Woman’s cosplay costume or Harley Quinn’s Lolita act. This film doesn’t succumb to ‘male gaze’ objectifying.

Early on, Vers has a one-on-one chat with a mystical deity, the Supreme Intelligence, which seems to run the Kree civilisation. Everyone sees this spirit as someone unique, and Vers’s vision is of a middle-aged American woman played by Annette Bening. Sadly, it’s a fairly clunky opening act, inelegantly full of setup rather than storytelling. In fact, it’s not so much storytelling as ‘storytold’: we have to take in a lot of information, which isn’t always elucidated very clearly.

The upshot is that Vers is struggling to remember her past. When some bad guys later rifle through the deep folds of her consciousness (it’s that type of film), she sees glimpsed flashbacks to what we recognise as a Top Gun-style life on Earth (‘Higher, faster, further, baby!’ being the Marvel equivalent of ‘I feel the need: the need for speed!’). The villains are looking inside her mind because they’re hunting for a faster-than-light engine, which Vers was somehow involved with. But inconveniently for both her and them, she has amnesia.

Thankfully, after 22 minutes, Vers is flung across space and crash lands onto Earth – specifically into a LA branch of Blockbusters in 1995. Our theme of nostalgia really kicks into gear now, whether you’re old enough to remember the 1990s or not. If you are, there’s a whole level of pleasure-through-recognition to be had: we see a poster for True Lies, a VHS copy of The Right Stuff, a GameBoy, cyber-cafes. We hear tracks by Smashing Pumpkins and Elastica. We smirk at the now-dated technology and cars and fashions. It’s all joyful nostalgia, well deployed to get both laughs and to set the scene. (The later use of the No Doubt track I’m Just a Girl in a fight scene, however, may be a contender for the most literal-minded use of a song in any movie ever.)

The film is also wallowing in its own history. The character of Nick Fury – who arrives on the scene after Vers’s crash-landing into the video store – has been an MCU stalwart since the first entry in the series in 2008. Now we have the joy of seeing him at an earlier stage of his life – before the Avengers, before his ‘death’, before he was the leader of SHIELD. The role is still played by Samuel L Jackson, but he’s been de-aged digitally. The special-effects work is utterly magnificent. Seriously, it is a seamless piece of artifice. Fury looks to be about 40 and you very quickly forget that he’s being played by a 69-year-old. All this wizardry also means that we get an additional level of Proustian recollection: Sam Jackson was already a huge Hollywood star in the mid-90s, and another chance to see the actor who played Jules from Pulp Fiction or Zeus from Die Hard with a Vengeance running around on the cinema screen is a real thrill.

Soon, Fury and Vers are thrown together by the plot and they make such an entertaining buddy-cop team-up that you’re left wondering whether we needed all that boring setup on Halo. The actors’ chemistry and comic timing are wonderful and the film comes alive any time they’re in the same scene. How much more elegant and more instantly fun would it have been to *start* with Vers’s arrival on Earth, and for us to learn about her as she and Fury discover things together?

But, a bit regrettably, there’s a plot to service. At least we have Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, a leader of the antagonistic Skrull race who’s seemingly the bad guy of the story but who actually turns out to have a more noble intent. The actor is developing a nice career of playing entertaining foes in genre films (cf Rogue One, Ready Player One), and is great value here. But as the film develops, there are two strands going on at the same time: a story in the present with Talos and his plans, and a story in the past. It’s the story in the past that’s the more resonant.

Via an impressive variety of means – snatched memories, secret military files, exposition from other characters, photos, audio recordings – Vers pieces together her backstory. She was, as we suspected, originally from Earth and was a hotshot test pilot called Carol Danvers. (When taken away from Earth by the selfish Ron-Yogg, his only clue to her identity was a damaged military identity badge showing just the final four letters of her name.) This mixture of tools to tell the story keeps things fresh and interesting, and we feel like we’re discovering information along with our central character. The quest to find out what’s going on – who exactly Vers is, who Annette Bening’s Supreme Intelligence was based on – leads Vers and Fury to a old fighter-pilot colleague of Carol’s called Maria (Lashana Lynch) and her young daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar). The latter can remember Carol from six years previously, despite only being about eight years old – another instance of this film playing with how memories work.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now reached 21. Captain Marvel is the 21st film in the megalithic series that shows no signs of slowing down now it can buy alcohol in America and adopt children in the UK. Whether this entry becomes as memorable as some of the big-hitters that have come before is debatable. But it’s enjoyable, entertaining and well made. It’s also very funny. A scene where characters need to wait several, silent seconds for an audio file to load on Maria’s 1990s PC is a mini-masterpiece of humour and deserves to be remembered for a long time.

Eight Stan Lees on a bus reading the script for Mallrats in preparation for his real-life cameo in that 1996 comedy movie out of 10

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Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler)

Creed

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The illegitimate son of Apollo Creed asks for Rocky’s help in training to be a professional boxer…

What does Stallone do? For the first time with a movie featuring the character of Rocky Balboa, its star didn’t work on the script. He didn’t direct either, but takes a producing credit. Playing the Italian Stallion for a seventh time, Stallone is pretty impressive in this film; the performance reminds you that, for all the clichés about his slurring and mumbling, he’s not talentless. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Creed, and it’s easy to see why… Rocky is now the same age his mentor Mickey was in the first movie and is still running the restaurant he had in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. One day, a young man comes to visit him and reveals he’s the son of Rocky’s old foe/friend Apollo Creed. Adonis is an aspiring boxer and wants Rocky to train him. Rock resists, but is then swayed by the younger man’s hunger and spirit. He trains Adonis at Mickey’s old gym from the previous movies and the sequences neatly echo Rocky’s old regimes. But then Rocky collapses suddenly, and the doctors discover he has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At first, he refuses treatment because he doesn’t have much to live for – his wife has died, his best friend Paulie has died, his son has moved to Canada – but Adonis manages to talk him round. The bond between the two men grows stronger: it’s father/surrogate son, mentor/pupil, friend/friend. The two then prepare for Adonis’s big shot: a fight against the world champion…

Other main characters:
* We first meet Adonis Johnson as an 11-year-old in a juvenile detention centre. Having recently lost his mother, he’s angry and fights with the other boys a lot. He then learns that his biological father was champion boxer Apollo Creed, who died before Adonis was born. Eighteen years later, and now played by Michael B Jordan, he’s got a boring office job in LA but is also earning cash from boxing in Mexico. Unable to ignore his paternal heritage, he quits his job and moves to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s old pal Rocky Balboa. Rocky agrees to train him, and even becomes his landlord. After Rocky falls ill, their relationship becomes moving: Adonis looks after the older man; Rocky encourages and supports him. They then fly to England for a title fight with champion boxer ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan, which takes place at football stadium Goodison Park in Liverpool… Jordan is terrific as Adonis, taking a character with anger issues and daddy issues and either too much or too little confidence and making him someone real and sympathetic.
* In 1998, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) seeks out Adonis and tells him he’s the son of her late husband – the famous boxer Apollo Creed. She offers the troubled lad a home, and – in an 18-year period skipped over by the movie – they begin to see each other as mother and son.
* ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Tony Bellew) is an Everton-supporting fighter from Merseyside and is the current world light heavyweight champion. His reign is due to come to an end because of an upcoming prison sentence. So when he reads in the local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, that an American upstart called Adonis Johnson is actually the son of the revered Apollo Creed, he wants him to be his final challenger.
* Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is Adonis’s neighbour when he moves into an apartment in Philly. She’s a reasonably successful singer and musician – in fact, Adonis only meets her because he bangs on her door to complain about the loud music. They soon become involved romantically. She’s not happy, however, when the news breaks that Adonis is Apollo’s son. He’d been keeping it under wraps, wanting to prove himself rather than rely on a surname, but she feels betrayed. Thankfully she gets over it.
* Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish, who Stallone had worked with on 2008’s Rambo) is Conlan’s manager. He flies to Pennsylvania to pitch a Conlan/Adonis fight to Rocky, which would no doubt earn everyone involved a huge amount of cash. His one big condition? Adonis needs to adopt the Creed surname. Adonis reluctantly agrees.

Key scene: Adonis’s first bout under Rocky’s tutelage is against a Philly brawler called Leo Sporino (Gabriel Rosado). Before he enters the ring, there’s the comedy beat of Adonis having to have his taped-up gloves cut off because he needs to take a last-minute shit. Then the entire fight is filmed in one, fluid Steadicam shot that lasts for an astonishing 260 seconds. Beautifully choregraphed, lit and played, it’s the kind of baroque cinema that would have us all swooning if Scorsese or Tarantino had made it. (The next scene has an exhausted Adonis falling asleep on the sofa while watching Skyfall.)

Review: There’s a lovely clash going on here, between Adonis (young, gifted and black, full of attitude and hunger) and Rocky (in his 60s, white, sedate, whimsical and a rather lonely older man who doesn’t understand how the Cloud works). On the face of it, the two characters have nothing in common save for their connections to a man who’s been dead since 1987. And yet, thanks to good, solid writing and two really good performances, there’s a largely unspoken yet intensely strong bond between them. Rather than the kind of schmaltz sloshed all over the similar storyline in Rocky V, Creed makes you care about the characters. The storyline doesn’t rewrite the Marquess of Queensberry rulebook – it’s not far off a remake of the original Rocky from 1976 – but the film punches above its weight. A fine continuation of the Rocky series.

Eight toughest opponents you’re ever going to have to face out of 10

Next: Creed II