REDUX REVIEW: Batman & Robin (1997, Joel Schumacher)

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.

B&R

Watched: 5 January 2020.
Format: A DVD from my collection.
Seen before? Yes. Sadly.

Note: I’ve already reviewed Batman & Robin on this blog, back in 2015 when I wrote a series of reviews about Batman and Superman films. I was fairly damning, but rather than rake over old ground, this redux review will instead focus on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s contribution as lead villain Mr Freeze…

Review: The magic of filmmaking is in its ability to create new sensations of time and space. It isn’t theatre, which mostly plays out on a defined stage with its pace dictated by the actors’ choices. Cinema can redefine geography and chronology through editing, and create the impression of a natural flow by cutting together takes that have been filmed at different times. Sometimes wildly different times: a conversation between the characters of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), for example, had its two close-ups filmed a year apart for logistical reasons.

At least in that instance, actors Elijah Wood and Sean Astin were acting together during both performances – the fact their respective ‘over the shoulders’ were filmed in November 1999 and November 2000 is not detectable in the finished movie. The same can’t be said for certain scenes in the spectacularly terrible Batman & Robin. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was collecting $25 million for playing the villain Mr Freeze, often feels like he’s in a film all of his own – and not just because director Joel Schumacher had an ‘anything goes’ attitude to acting styles.

Watching the movie today, you can’t escape the feeling that Schwarzenegger is not exactly in sync with anything else that’s going on. He seems detached from the action, isolated from the drama, uncoupled from the cinematic flow. He doesn’t *fit*. A few years after the film came out, his co-star Chris O’Donnell – making his second appearance in the series as Robin – provided an explanation. ‘I’m in a lot of scenes with Mr Freeze,’ he said. ‘But I didn’t work one day with Arnold.’ It turns out that Schwarzenegger was not the only person to play Mr Freeze. A succession of body doubles and stand-ins were used for shots where the character’s face isn’t seen, largely because it took so long to apply the elaborate make-up and costume. Arnie’s close-ups were often filmed in isolation too, with the ‘performance’ being stitched together in post-production.

Not that the situation improves when Arnie himself is on screen. The most notable aspect of his contribution is dialogue that groans under the weight of its own awfulness. The character has around 100 lines of dialogue and every single one is dreadful. Nothing he says, in fact, sounds like dialogue. Instead Mr Freeze’s words are a combination of shallow pronouncements (‘Nice of you to drop in’, ‘I hate uninvited guests’, ‘Ah! A laundry service that delivers!’) and a never-ending conveyor belt of tedious puns. Most of the wordplay involves the character’s icy theme, with practically every variation wheeled out at some point: ‘The Iceman cometh!’, ‘You’re not sending me to the cooler!’, ‘You’re skating on thin ice!’, ‘Chilled to perfection!’, ‘Nothing frustrates a man like a frigid wife’, and many, many more of an equally tiresome flavour. For good measure, the character also insists on leading his henchmen in a singsong while wearing polar-bear slippers.

All this childish nonsense is a double disappointment because Mr Freeze is one of the most interesting villains in the Batman canon. Victor Fries is a scientist attempting to find a cure for his terminally ill wife, but an accident involving liquid hydrogen has led to him needing a cyber-suit to keep his body at a low temperature. There’s pathos in that story, even if the present film mostly ignores it. He first appeared in the Batman comic-book series in 1959 under the name of Mr Zero. Renamed Mr Freeze, he was then a recurring villain in the 1960s TV show (played by a different actor each time – George Sanders, Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach).

But it was Heart of Ice, a critically acclaimed 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series, that introduced the tragic backstory. Voiced by Michael Ansara, this cartoon iteration of the character has become the default and has inspired almost every subsequent Mr Freeze – including various comic books reimaginings and his appearances in the TV shows Gotham (played by Nathan Darrow) and Harley Quinn (voiced by Alfred Molina). In comparison, Arnie’s attempt at the character feels like something from the last Ice Age.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘There’s a moment going into [heart] surgery that I really hate. It’s the moment when the anaesthesia start to take hold, when you know you’re going out, when you’re losing consciousness and don’t know if you’ll ever wake up. The oxygen mask felt like it was suffocating me – I was gasping for air, short of breath. This was a much bigger version of the claustrophobia I fought when I was having face a body masks made to play the Terminator or Mr Freeze in Batman & Robin. For me, Stan Winston’s special-effects studio was torture.’

One chilling sound of your doom out of 10

Next: Aftermath

The Expendables 3 (2014, Patrick Hughes)

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. 

TheExpendables3_152500700_9382600-219210._V326395997_SX1080_

Watched: 14 December 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD.
Seen before? No. 

Review: More is less. This is the third go-round for the ageing action stars of a series that was never brimming with new ideas to begin with. Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his crusty cronies engage in another rescue/revenge/does-anyone-care-what-the-plot-is? mission that entails a lot of shooting and shouting. We again get bucketloads of numbskull action, some tawdry drama delivered by actors who sound like talking is a recently developed skill, and scene after scene dominated by male posturing. 

The newcomers to this retirement-home jolly include Mel Gibson, ignoring his troubled personal life to play the latest boring villain; Wesley Snipes as an original member of the Expendables; Harrison Ford, slumming it to replace Bruce Willis as the team’s CIA boss; Kelsey Grammer, who’s at least watchable playing a laid-back fixer; and Antonio Banderas, who likewise introduces some much-needed humour as a cocky recruit to Ross’s gang.

As with the previous two films, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s contribution as Ross’s foe-turned-uneasy-friend Trent Mauser can best be described as bolted-on. It’s an extended cameo, a few scenes, and he’s there because he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger not because his character is plausibly or even interestingly taking part in the adventure.

Three former brothers in arms out of 10

Next: Batman & Robin

Red Sonja (1985, Richard Fleischer)

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.

RedSonja

Watched: 8 December 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD bought in a branch of CEX in Stratford-upon-Avon in October 2019.
Seen before? No. 

Review: The Sonja of the title is a woman living in a time before recorded history who is wronged by an evil queen. She was based on a character from a run of Marvel Comics who in turn had been taken from the writings of the fantasy novelist Robert E Howard. By 1985, Howard’s work had already provided Arnold Schwarzenegger with an early signature role for two films, the mighty Conan the Barbarian. But while Red Sonja nominally takes place in the same fictional world, here the top-billed Arnie has been given a new character.

The plot is humdrum beyond belief: Arnie’s wandering Lord Kalidor delivers a message from a dying woman to her sister, Sonja, who has recently been imbued with great strength by a goddess for not terribly clear reasons. But there’s a caveat: she can’t sleep with a man unless the man first defeats her in combat. (Riiiiiight….) Sonja then sets out on a vague mission to get her revenge on the evil Queen Gedren.

The script was the product of George MacDonald Fraser (he of the very funny and smart Flashman novels) and Clive Exton (who was later a driving force behind the classy TV shows Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Jeeves & Wooster). But they can’t give us much more than a boring, oomph-less and episodic plot with pompous characters pontificating rather than talking. There’s also a muddy hint of mysticism and a hopeless attempt at a feminist subtext. At least the film looks good, thanks to some grand sets, a few dramatic locations and the kind of costumes where the designers’ imaginations have been allowed to fly free.

Starring as Sonja (‘Sow-ne-ya’ if Arnie says it) is Brigitte Nielsen. It’s probably fair to say that she was cast thanks to her sultry, Nordic looks rather than any acting ability. She gives a completely dreadful performance, lacking any naturalism or charisma at all. Arnie’s no better either, so their shared scenes are a real test of your patience. Elsewhere, Sandahl Bergman – who was initially considered for the title role – is game enough as Gedren, while Ernie Reyes Jr and Paul L Smith have relatively enjoyable supporting roles as a puffed-up child prince and his last remaining loyal aide.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Before I hung up my broadsword for good, Dino [De Laurentiis, who had produced Arnie’s earlier Conan films] said, “Why don’t you just do, you know, a cameo?” He handed me a script called Red Sonja… Maria [Shriver, Schwarzenegger’s then girlfriend] read the script and said, “Don’t do it. It’s trash.” I agreed, but I felt I owed Dino a favour… My so-called cameo turned out to involve four whole weeks on the set. They shot all the Lord Kalidor scenes with three cameras, and then used the extra footage in the editing room to stretch Kalidor’s time onscreen… I felt tricked.’

Two talismans out of 10

Next: The Expendables 3

REDUX REVIEW: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003, Jonathan Mostow)

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.

Terminator3Arnie

Watched: 1 December 2019
Format: A DVD from my collection.
Seen before? Yes, at the cinema on 19 August 2003 and a couple of times since.

Note: I have already reviewed this film as part of another blogging series – you can read it here. So instead of focusing on the film itself, this article is about how its iconic star turned his back on acting soon after the movie’s release…

Review: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final films before his move into professional politics. He announced his candidacy for Governor of California in August 2003, just six days after T3 had been released in the United Kingdom, and then won a recall election in October. Almost inevitably, he was soon nicknamed the Governator.

He’d made no secret of his electoral ambitions while an actor, talking publicly about his Republican leanings, attending a rally for George Bush Snr in 1988, and later serving in some ambassadorial-type roles for President Bush. Considered a moderate Republican – a centrist who advocated financial conservatism but also supported liberal issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage – Governor Schwarzenegger was initially a popular leader. For many, he came across as sensible, no-nonsense and conciliatory, even appointing a Democrat as his Chief of Staff. In 2006, he claimed a second term by a winning margin of more than a million votes. However, his approval rating dropped appreciably during his time in the Governor’s Mansion, finishing on a record low of 23 per cent, and he was dogged by allegations about sexual misconduct.

All this meant that Arnie’s movie appearances were put on ice for a few years, with the period 2003 to 2012 notable only for some cameos. He’d already filmed an ear-scrappingly awful appearance in 2004 adventure film Around the World in 80 Days before running for office, then he took time away from his political schedule to work briefly on comedy The Kid & I and action mash-up The Expendables.

An actor who deliberately engineers such a long break from a Hollywood career is an oddity. Studios clearly favour stars with recent cachet and assume audiences have short memories. So when Arnie returned to the movies full-time after seven years as California’s 38th Governor, he found that the world had moved on. He was now on a noticeably different level of the industry. It’s true that his star had begun to wane anyway, his appeal lessened by age, over-familiarity and the fact that his style of high-concept action film was going out of fashion. His starring roles in the years immediately before his gubernatorial adventure – End of Days, The 6th Day, Collateral Damage – were simply not in the same class as his 1980s heyday. But not playing a lead character for nearly a decade resulted in the post-Governor Arnie having to accept roles in what were essentially straight-to-video projects.

He starred as a sheriff in The Last Stand, a prisoner in Escape Plan, a SWAT team leader in Sabotage – undistinguished parts in films that most people have now forgotten. In fact, the return to the big time came only when Arnie went full circle. In 2015 and then again in 2019 he returned to the Terminator series, essentially short-circuiting the two halves of his movie career.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Another close friend I wanted to touch base with was Andy Vajna, who with his business partner, Mario Kassar, had produced Total Recall and Terminator 2 and owned the rights to Terminator 3… If they were enthusiastic [about Arnie’s political ambitions], I meant to hit them up for a lot of money for the campaign… When I went to their office to talk about the governorship in April 2001, I didn’t expect them to bring up Terminator 3. I’d signed a “deal memo” to star in it if it ever got made, but the project had been in development limbo for years… Jim Cameron had moved on to other projects, and as far as I knew, they didn’t have a director or a script. But as I made my pitch about politics, I saw them looking at me as if to say, “What the fuck are you talking about, running for governor?”‘

Seven nano-technological transjectors out of 10

Next: Red Sonja

Pumping Iron (1977, George Butler and Robert Fiore)

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.

PumpingIron

Watched: 28 November 2019
Format: A DVD bought online, second-hand.
Seen before? No. 

Review: The opening moments of this 1977 documentary – which explores the world of competitive bodybuilding – see Arnold Schwarzenegger and fellow bodybuilder Franco Columbu being taught dramatic posture by a ballerina. It quickly becomes clear that the sport is as much about show as substance. The Mr Olympia competition that all the bodybuilders are working towards is not about strength; it’s about style.

Directors George Butler and Robert Fiore initially planned to have their cameras follow the actor Bud Cort as he took up bodybuilding as a novice. But after a rethink that idea was dropped and focus switched to the charismatic Schwarzenegger, then 28 years old and the king of the sport after five consecutive Mr Olympia titles.

We meet Arnie as he hangs out and trains at Gold’s Gym in Venice, Los Angeles – and he’s clearly the leader of the pack. He’s popular with his colleagues, can charm a gang of inmates when he visits a local prison, and relishes a saucy photoshoot with a trio of bikini babes. He also pontificates passionately about the benefits of bodybuilding, likening the rush that comes from a workout to sex: ‘It’s as satisfying to me as coming, as having sex with a woman and coming,’ he says, beaming. ‘I’m coming day and night.’

But Pumping Iron is not just the Arnold Schwarzenegger show. Occasionally the documentary eye moves to other competitors, such as amateur rivals Mike Katz and Ken Waller, who are involved in a surprisingly moving sequence when the former loses out to the latter in competition. Katz says he’s happy for his colleague, but you can plainly see the pain behind his eyes. Katz also misplaces a lucky T-shirt, compounding his bad day. It was stolen by Waller as a prank, and we even see Waller impishly planning the joke beforehand with some pals. However, this is where the line between fact and fiction becomes a little fuzzy. Katz and Waller were actually friends and the scene of Waller mooting the theft was staged later in order to massage the drama. In fact, given that people in Pumping Iron rarely acknowledge the presence of the camera – aside from one moment during competition when Arnie winks at a female camera operator – this documentary often feels like a scripted drama.

This sense of a directorial hand guiding events is stronger still once Lou Ferrigno enters the story. Acclaimed as the ‘largest bodybuilder ever’, Ferrigno was then a gentle 24-year-old with hearing problems who was coached by his clearly devoted but perhaps too-eager father, Matt. Compared with the brash, arrogant and charming Arnie, Lou comes off as childlike and full of doubt – despite being 6’5” and 275lb. However, the pair are destined to meet at the 1975 Mr Olympia tournament in Pretoria.

The contrast between these two ‘characters’ must have been a documentary-maker’s dream, and Pumping Iron uses various tools to amp up the differences. Schwarzenegger is filmed in airy, sunny spaces; he’s smiling, laughing, hanging out with acolytes; he’s been there, done that, and got the too-tight T-shirt. When we see Ferrigno, however, he’s serious, frowning, worried; his gym is a windowless room. Whereas Arnie talks about sexual contests, Lou has dinner with his working-class parents. It’s clear Ferrigno is desperate for something to happen, to be able to burst out of his confined world. Pumping Iron was eventually released in 1977, the same year as Saturday Night Fever, and there are eerie similarities between Ferrigno and John Travolta’s character in that movie, Tony Manero. We even see Lou delicately drying his bouffant hair – all that’s missing is a Bee Gees soundtrack.

After the kind of training-regime montage that would later become a backbone of the Rocky movies, the two men cross paths in South Africa. In these sequences, a Schwarzenegger victory is never really in doubt. He openly announces his ability to unstable opponents just by talking to them, then brazenly puts down Ferrigno at every opportunity – even slighting him while having breakfast with his parents. But despite his arrogance and cockiness and undoubted bad behaviour, it’s incredibly easy to see why this film sky-rocketted Arnie into a Hollywood career. He’s a gigantic personality.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘My job, of course, was to play myself. I felt that the way to stand out was not just to talk about bodybuilding, because that would be one-dimensional, but to project a personality. My model was Muhammad Ali. What separated him from other heavyweights wasn’t only his boxing genius – the rope-a-dope, the float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – but that he went his own way, becoming a Muslim, changing his name, sacrificing his championship title by refusing military service. Ali was always willing to say and do memorable and outrageous things. But outrageousness means nothing unless you have the substance to back it up – you can’t get away with it if you’re a loser.’

Nine people who could be remembered for hundreds of years, or even, like Jesus, be for thousands of years remembered out of 10

Next: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

REDUX REVIEW: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron)

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.

Terminator2

Watched: 21 November 2019
Format: A DVD copy I’ve owned for many, many years.
Seen before? Yes, many times. This film was released when I was 12 years old – I sneaked into a cinema to see it.

Note: I’ve already reviewed this film, and you can read my thoughts here. So instead of going over old ground, this redux review will instead look at how wonder-director James Cameron actually damaged the film by giving us too much of a good thing… Spoilers ahead…

Review: When released in the UK in August 1991, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was so impressively sharp and focused that few viewers would have taken out a single frame. But what about adding some? Well, that’s what its writer/director, James Cameron, did when the movie was issued on VHS and LaserDisc in 1993. He used the opportunity to add back some footage he’d been persuaded to leave out of the theatrical release. For better or worse, this longer cut – known as the Special Edition – is now the default version of the film, being shown on television and released on home video as if the 1991 cut had never existed.

Cameron has form for this kind of thing. He likewise re-edited 1986’s Aliens and 1989’s The Abyss, releasing longer versions a few years after their cinema runs. In the cases of those sci-fi greats, the longer cuts were even better than what had come before. Both now had deeper, more resonant subplots that shed intriguing light on the main stories, as well as some fun extra details. Crucially, the pacing of neither film was damaged. Both still played extremely well.

Sadly, the same can’t be said about Terminator 2. An extra 16 minutes were added in 1993, coincidentally the same minute-count that Cameron had added to Aliens: Special Edition. However, a lot of the additions come during the middle phase of the story, meaning a tight, tense chase plot now feels a bit flabby. The result is *far* from awful. It’s still a wonderful movie, whichever version you watch. But by expanding Terminator 2, Cameron slackened the tightness and few of the extra moments justify their inclusion. 

Early in the film, for example, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is locked up in a psychiatric hospital. The heroine of 1984’s The Terminator has gone off-the-rails since her encounter with a time-travelling killer android, but we viewers know that her ‘paranoid’ ravings about the imminent end of the world are spot on. If being incarcerated wasn’t bad enough, the Special Edition has some bonus footage of the institution’s sadistic porters abusing her. The original cut had trimmed this plot point back to a perverted moment where one of them licks her face, but now they beat her with nightsticks. All this emphasises her awful existence some more, but the original cut played fine without it.

Also in these sequences, Sarah now has a lengthy dream in which her lost love, Kyle Reese, appears to her and tells her to stay strong for their 10-year-old son, John (Edward Furlong). The scene was Michael Biehn’s only contribution to the film, so he ended up being cut out entirely in 1991. It’s a decent character moment, for sure, but the movie didn’t suffer from its loss. We understand Sarah’s motivation perfectly well without it. More interesting is how the scene develops: after Kyle’s pep-talk, Sarah’s dream takes a very dark turn. In a brilliantly surreal moment, she runs (in nightmarish slo-mo) out of the hospital and straight into an idyllic park, where children are gleefully playing on slides and roundabouts. Sarah, of course, knows that the world is heading for an apocalypse – and her unconscious now conjures one up: a massive fireball that graphically rips across the whole area, blowing buildings down and immolating everyone in sight. Trapped behind a wire fence, Sarah screams until she too burns – and then she wakes up in the hospital. In the 1991 version of the film, she only describes this nightmare. Seeing it, rather than talking about it, has several advantages. It ramps up Sarah’s already intense fear; it’s a very visually striking sequence; and by using children it ties thematically to Sarah’s desperate need to protect her son.

Later, after John breaks Sarah free from the hospital, with help from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘good’ Terminator – the movie heads into its middle phase. The ‘bad’ Terminator, a T-1000 played by Robert Patrick, is chasing the others across country – and he’s intent on killing John, who is destined to grow up to be the leader of the human resistance in a war against sentient machines. James Cameron was a marvel at these kind of stories, building and maintaining suspense and mixing it with muscular action and character insights. In the theatrical release print, the balance was perfection. But in the longer cut, we now get quite a few extra dialogue exchanges between Sarah, John and Arnie’s T-800. Each moment is fine in and of itself: well written, well played, enjoyable. (Mostly: a quick scene of John trying to teach the T-800 how to smile is far too goofy.) But they all whiff of ‘deleted scene’ material. They underline or spell out subtexts that already exist in the 1991 version, and – more importantly – let too much air into the taut chase plot. The film is better without them, for the most part.

The one addition with the biggest claim on being an improvement is when John and Sarah operate on the T-800, who has revealed that he has a chip in his processor that prevents him from learning. It idea to deactivate it expands the nice character thread about John’s relationship with the T-800. While his mother considers Arnie to be purely a machine, John – who has already grown to trust the T-800 – knows he can crack the programming if they switch off the chip, and this will allow their ally to be his own person. It also shows us John’s burgeoning leadership skills, as he pushes through the plan and even confronts his mother when she attempts to destroy the chip. Moreover, the operation is dramatised via a sensationally complicated shot in which we see the side of the T-800’s head opened up, revealing the mechanical innards, while at the same time we can clearly see it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger sat in the chair.

How was it done? The shot is a mirror trick: near the camera is a prop head but we read it as Schwarzenegger facing a mirror. In fact, the mirror is an open break in the wall, through which is the real Arnie. Linda Hamilton is on one side of the divide, with her *twin sister* doubling her in the ‘reflection’. Terminator 2 has always been justly praised for its revolutionary CGI, but old-school gags like this make a film buff swoon.

Elsewhere, there are changes centred on the character of Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the scientific engineer whose work will one day trigger the apocalypse. We now see more footage of him working at home, and his two young children playing in the house. There are also extra shots of Sarah outside the house as she gets ready to assassinate him. Again, it simply expands ideas and plot points that are already there in the 1991 cut, which sold the notion of Miles as a decent family man well enough.

That sums up the 1993 re-edit. It takes a spectacular action movie – one of the finest ever – and makes it longer. It adds, it expands, it over-explains. And in doing so, it reduces the effect and the power. Less is more.

Schwarzenegger Says:Seven years had passed since The Terminator lifted both our careers, and Jim Cameron and I had always felt committed to a sequel. He’d directed a couple of huge pictures since then – Aliens and The Abyss – and, finally, in 1990 he got the rights and preliminary financing in place for Terminator 2. Still, I was a little thrown when Jim sat me down at a restaurant and told me his concept for my character in the film. “How can the Terminator not kill anyone?” I asked.’  

Nine dipshits out of 10

Next: Pumping Iron

Acknowledgements: To make sure I wasn’t missing any extra footage, I checked my notes against these excellent posts that also look at the Special Edition’s changes:

https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2018/04/battle-of-the-cuts-terminator-2—theatrical-vs-sp.html

https://stason.org/TULARC/movies/terminator/1-2-2-What-scenes-were-added-to-the-T2-Special-Edition.html

https://www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=5698359

The Expendables 2 (2012, Simon West)

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.

Expendables2

Watched: 12 November 2019
Format: A secondhand DVD bought from a branch of CEX.
Seen before? No.

Review: Much like the first Expendables movie, this is a nonsensical script dressed up with videogame violence and macho clichés. If it had been given an ironic, self-aware edge, it could have been quite fun. But the cast and director Simon West (who also made the video to the Rick Astley single Never Gonna Give You Up) are constantly aiming for metal-grinding, hammer-heavy, brain-aching blandness.

We focus on the same gang of crusties we met the first time round – Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, that guy from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Jason Statham showing them all up by displaying a bit of charisma here and there – and they’re involved in much the same kind of story. Meanwhile, the budget has been increased so there are even more outlandish, James Bond-aping stunts and spectacle (with none of 007’s wit, of course).

There are also a few add-ons to the formula. Liam Hemsworth is a young and damaged war vet, there to inject some ‘drama’ to the team because he’s young and damaged, while the gang’s paymaster Mr Church (a coasting Bruce Willis) insists that a woman join them for their latest mission. Now, as poor as these films are, the whole theme of the Expendables series is giving screentime to mature action icons. So is the new recruit The Terminator’s Linda Hamilton? Alien’s Sigourney Weaver? Asian film star Michelle Yeoh? Stallone’s ex Brigitte Nielsen? Grace Jones? Geena Davis? No, it’s a hot woman in her 30s who can’t act.

Jean-Claude Van Damme also shows up as a pretentiously awful villain who has some plan or other that involves forcing slaves to break rocks. And Chuck Norris gets the kind of cameo that might work in an Austin Powers film – he turns up inexplicably, saves our heroes from an ambush, imparts some vital plot information, makes a self-aware joke about his own public image, and leaves – but is risible when part of an action thriller that you are supposed to take vaguely seriously.

At least we’re promised some Arnold Schwarzenegger action. When Barney Ross (Stallone) and his team smash into a Nepalese compound to rescue a hostage, they’re surprised to find another prisoner there – Ross’s old rival from film one, Arnie’s Trench Mauser. After this fleeting appearance, Schwarzenegger is then off-screen for more than an hour, only returning to rescue the gang after they’ve been trapped in a mine. (Why does he do this? How does he know how to do this?) ‘I’m back!’ he says, which is just one of a plethora of tedious meta gags in this film that refer to actors’ previous characters.

Schwarzenegger had filmed a one-day cameo for the first Expendables movie, but here he opened up a whole four days in his schedule. Perhaps he should have given the production team a fifth. Even by Arnie’s variable standards, he’s fairly rotten in this film – he seems unsteady with the lines and you’ve never quite sure that he knows what’s going on. Having said that, with this movie that’s probably for the best.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Sly was shooting The Expendables 2 in Bulgaria, and when I arrived on location in September 2011, it was my first time back as an actor, except for cameos in The Kid and I and The Expendables while I was governor [of California]. I was eight years out of practice with shoot-outs and stunts. The other veteran action heroes in the cast – Sly, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris – were really nice to me and kind of protective.’

Three big weapons (hanging right where it is) out of 10

Next: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

REDUX REVIEW: The Terminator (1984, James Cameron)

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.

TheTerminatorRedux

Watched: 14 October 2019
Format: A 35mm print projected at the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s West End.
Seen before? Yes, many, many times. 

Note: I have already reviewed The Terminator as part of another blogging series – you can check it out by clicking on this link. So instead of focusing on the film itself, this article is about one particular viewing…

Review: It’s a rainy October evening as I head into central London to watch The Terminator, a film I’ve loved since I was a child, on a big screen for the first time. I don’t specifically remember my first viewing of this sci-fi action masterpiece, but it will have been on VHS in the mid-1980s. At that time I adored films; I adored Hollywood films; and I especially adored Arnold Schwarzenegger films. I also, thankfully, had a mother who let me rent violent movies. I’ve watched it many times in the 30-odd years since, but tonight I get the chance to see it projected in a cinema setting. I’m excited beyond measure.

The Prince Charles Cinema, housed in a 1960s building that was initially a theatre, is the only independent cinema in the West End and is located on a pedestrianised side street to the north of the tourist-heavy Leicester Square. I’ve been here several times before, so am well used to the set-up: the small entrance where you can buy popcorn, the small bar where you can buy drinks, the chalkboard where they invite you to suggest movies they should run. It has two screening rooms – a 104-seater upstairs, a 300-seater downstairs – and at 6.15pm tonight The Terminator is being shown in the latter.

I get out my phone and show the email containing my pre-bought ticket to a friendly guy at the door. This has been a big change to cinema-going in recent years, hasn’t it? Not only the notion that you pre-book online rather than just show up and pay there and then, but also that your ‘ticket’ is a barcode in an email. Part of me – a rather big part of me, if I’m honest – misses the old system. I fret about my phone battery dying and them not letting me in, or the barcode not scanning properly. I worry that too many things can go wrong. In fact, the day before my Terminator trip, I went to see the newly released movie Joker at the Everyman Canary Wharf (a very fine little cinema indeed). I’d bought my ticket on their website the night before, but the email never showed up. In the end it hadn’t mattered: I’d simply strolled in, taken my seat, watched the film and strolled out again afterwards. Not one member of staff had challenged me. But it had added an unnecessary level of anxiety to the process.

It’s not a huge turnout tonight at the Prince Charles, which is a bit of a surprise. There are only perhaps 20 to 30 of us here. But this cinema has a brilliantly eclectic programme – later this week, for example, it’s also showing a documentary about Miles Davis, Eddie Murphy’s new film Dolemite Is My Name, a recorded performance of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show Fleabag, the horror film Get Out, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and 80s flick The Lost Boys. A screening of James Cameron’s 1984 classic doesn’t therefore stand out, no matter how much I adore it. There’s just so much choice.

After a refreshingly brief period of ads and trailers – no multiplex-style half-hour of tedium here! – the lights go down and the film begins. They use a variety of formats at the Prince Charles, sometimes loudly trumpeting the fact they have a 70mm copy of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey… or sometimes whispering that they project a few films digitally. Tonight, I’m watching The Terminator on an old 35mm print, which is occasionally scratchy and damaged.

Rather than detract, I find that this actually enhances the experience. We’re living through a shiny, sleek era of apps and high-def and broadband, and of course that’s great and has brought untold benefits. But it’s wonderful, once in a while, to be reminded what popular culture used to be like. To wallow in the nostalgia of imperfection and to feel a bit more connected to the world around you.

The print I’m now watching is clear and sharp and shows off Adam Greenberg’s cinematography brilliantly. But it’s also undeniably aged, gritty, textured. It’s been round the houses. It has history. The reel changes are also noticeable – if, that is, you know to look out for an occasional flashing dot in the top right-hand corner of the screen. (This device tips off the projectionist that they need to switch over to a new reel. I first learnt about it when I saw an old episode of Columbo in which the murderer’s alibi was based on making a reel change at a certain time. The practice has now vanished from multiplexes due to digital projectors.)

All this is part of the fun of seeing a favoured film on the big screen. It’s not a dispassionate experience; it’s emotional and visceral. When you know and love a movie as much as I know and love The Terminator, you’re viewing it in a different way from most people. Most people, it seems to me, watch a film once. Their pleasure comes from experiencing a new story for the first time, and after that they’re not sure what you’d get from it. They perhaps find the idea of repeat viewings peculiar, but for people like me rewatching movies is a vital part of the process. I once heard the film critic Mark Kermode being challenged about this on the radio. Sounding bemused by the notion of watching one film many times, the presenter Richard Bacon asked how often Kermode had seen his favourite movie, The Exorcist. Kermode guessed at least 200. ‘It works for me every time,’ he explained, ‘and every time I see it, it looks like a different film.’

I haven’t seen The Terminator or any other film quite that often, but tonight could easily be my 20-something-th viewing. Therefore the story doesn’t take me by surprise any more. I know every scene, every beat, and I can – and this evening I occasionally do – mouth along with the dialogue (‘The Uzi 9mm?’, ‘Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who’s gonna care?’, ‘Fuck you, asshole!’). But my enjoyment isn’t lessened any by this. It’s partly due to familiarity. It’s like seeing and hanging out with an old friend, even if you know it’ll mean hearing the same anecdotes and the same jokes. It’s also the effect Mark Kermode mentioned about The Exorcist. Each time you watch a cherished film, in some ways you see it anew. Already knowing *what’s* happening on screen means you can focus on *why* and *how*. You can appreciate the detail, you can track certain aspects, you can try to understand why it works so well.

Also, having it projected onto a big screen, which of course is how director James Cameron intended it to be seen, gives me a new context this evening. All my previous viewings had been on a TV. The early ones were also cropped into the ghastly pan-and-scan format. Now I can look up from my comfortable seat and enjoy The Terminator in its correct aspect ratio (it was shot with spherical lenses and is projected at 1.85:1), playing on a screen around 10 feet tall by 20 wide. I can be thrilled by the story, excited by the action, entertained by the wit, intrigued by the clever storytelling, wowed by the intensity and the sharp direction, charmed by the cast, impressed by the craft in the art design and music and camerawork. Outside it’s raining. In here, I’m safe and happy.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Released just a week before Halloween 1984, [The Terminator] was the number-one movie in America for six weeks, on its way to grossing close to $100 million. I didn’t quite realise how successful it was until… some people stopped me walking down the street in New York. “Oh man, we just saw The Terminator. Say it! Say it! You’ve got to say it!” “What?” “You know, ‘I’ll be back!'” None of us involved in making the movie had any idea that this was going to be the line people remembered.’

Ten plates of burly beef out of 10

Next: The Expendables 2

Commando (1985, Mark L 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. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

Commando

Watched: 6 October 2019
Format: A DVD I bought many years ago.
Seen before? Oh fuck yes. 

I first saw Commando soon after it was released on VHS. I was only about eight years old and was absolutely enraptured: it felt like the perfect film. I’ve rewatched it many times in the three decades or more since, always thoroughly enjoying it, so here are 10 reasons why this 80s action classic is so entertaining. Spoilers ahead…

1. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Commando presents Arnie in such a way that all the aspects of his carefully moulded Hollywood persona are contained in one character. The plot features plenty of action and violence, for example, which utilise his enormous muscular body and towering presence. (His first shot is a mission statement: he’s carrying a fucking tree.) The script also uses the kind of comedy that Schwarzenegger was developing film by film in the 1980s. His dialogue around this time often favoured deadpan, James Bond-style quips and puns, which pepper and enliven Commando, adding a self-aware edge to the macho storyline (‘Where’s Sully?’/‘I had to let him go…’). But there’s also a big change going on here too, one that’s very important in the context of Schwarzenegger’s career. John Matrix is arguably the actor’s first *normal* character. (Well, relatively speaking.) He’s not a Greek god, a prehistoric warrior or a cyborg from the future – the roles that had made Schwarzenegger’s name but which didn’t call for much emotional depth. Here, when we meet Matrix during the film’s opening credits, he’s a kindly single father living a life of pleasurable retirement. He takes daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano, spirited) for ice cream and teaches her self-defence. We soon learn that he has a past as a stealthy military assassin, but – give him his due – Schwarzenegger never forgets that Matrix is a reluctant hero who just wants a quiet life…

2. The script
In fact, the only reason Matrix leaves his idyllic rural cabin and gets involved in the wider world is because Jenny is kidnapped by mercenaries. They then attempt to blackmail John into killing a Central American politician, which they hope will incite a fascist coup. But of course our hero is smarter than the bad guys. He gives his handlers the slip (by, you know, killing them) then ignores his mission and heads off to rescue his daughter… The fictional country at the centre of the plot, Val Verde, was later referenced in 1990’s Die Hard 2, which like Commando was written by Steven E de Souza. A writer whose style is full of attitude and momentum, de Souza was brought onto the project to rejig an existing script after Arnold Schwarzenegger had been cast. Commando might not be Shakespeare, but it’s not trying to be. It’s a sugar-rush, action-driven thriller, with stunts and spectacle as well as humour and humanity. It’s full-on and full-throttle, but the closer you look the more you also see a sense of playfulness. Far from spoof, it nevertheless has its tongue in its cheek.  

3. Rae Dawn Chong
John Matrix is on a mad dash to find Jenny before the bad guys realise he’s free, and he soon crosses paths with a woman called Cindy, played by Rae Dawn Chong. She’s an air stewardess whose sports car Matrix appropriates when he needs to give chase to the slimy henchman Sully. At first Matrix’s terrified hostage, Cindy then realises that this is a desperate man who needs her help and the pair become allies. (Extremely conveniently for the plot, she has been learning to pilot small aircraft, which comes in handy when Matrix learns that Jenny is being held on an island.) Playing the frustrated, sarcastic dialogue for all its worth, the actress lifts the character above the usual ‘female sidekick’ function and adds a huge amount of fun to the film, not least when she haphazardly uses a rocket-launcher to rescue Matrix from a temporary spell in police custody. Refreshingly, there’s no romance between the two leads. Why would there be, when Matrix is focused on saving his daughter’s life? (A sex scene was shot then wisely cut from the finished movie.)

4. The violence
The film’s opening scene is murder in suburbia. A middle-class couple are awoken one morning by the sound of a garbage truck, so the husband races outside to make sure they collect his bags. The two binmen then starkly gun him down in the street… We later see many more scenes of brutality: deaths, gunplay, stabbings, explosions, scalpings, dismemberments, a man plummeting down a cliff, a man being impaled on a pipe, and so on. (Some of the more extreme shots were trimmed out of the print originally released in the UK.) It’s the kind of ultra-violence you don’t get in this type of film any more. The 1980s saw savagery go alongside sass in many high-profile genre films, especially those starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was understood that adult audiences could decode fact from fiction, and take harmless pleasure from the cartoon action. But since then – for financial reasons – there’s been a split. The big-budget action successors to movies like Commando (the Avengers series, for example) are courting a wider age range of viewers so contain watered-down violence. It’s never too graphic, never too challenging. The really hard-core stuff, meanwhile, is mostly found in lower-profile films like John Wick and Drive. Times change; fashions shift; cinema evolves. Commando now feels old-fashioned but – if you’re of a certain age – in a brilliantly nostalgic way.

5. Vernon Wells
Every great action thriller needs an entertaining bad guy. And Commando has a beaut. A colleague of John Matrix’s from their old special-forces days, the thug Bennett is a moustachioed Australian dynamo of testosterone and arrogance. He dresses in a macho-gay outfit, all string vest and tight leather trousers, and comes off like some kind of sadistic Freddie Mercury. Bitter at his firing from the military (for being a nutjob), he teams up with Central American fascists and helps kidnap Matrix’s daughter; he even stages his own death to disguise his involvement. A thoroughly nasty piece of work, Bennett snarls and snarks and smirks his way through the movie. This is not a misunderstood character with a deep psychology: he’s just a shit. But actor Vernon Wells (Mad Max 2, Weird Science, Innerspace) knows that and plays up the campy villainy in such a gleeful way that you miss Bennett whenever he’s not on screen.

6. The other bad guys
Bennett is just one of a gaggle of entertaining foes in this film. The boss is pompous wannabe dictator Arius (Dan Hedaya), and like a Bond villain he has baroque underlings. The goons who try to coerce Matrix into flying to Val Verde, for example, include Cooke and Sully. The former is an ex-Green Beret (‘I eat Green Berets for breakfast!’ quips Matrix) and is played with a stern expression by Bill Duke, who co-starred again with Arnie in 1987’s Predator. The latter, meanwhile, is a slimy, suit-wearing 80s twat who thinks his seedy chat-up lines will work on Cindy. He’s played by David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors, 48 Hrs).

7. The director
When Mark L Lester got the Commando gig, his CV was a mixture of now-forgotten genre flicks, a roller-disco musical featuring Linda Blair, and the hit horror film Firestarter. Tasked with an Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle, he pushed all the dials up to 11. This is not a movie about nuance. Made today, Matrix would have a drinking problem or an estranged wife (Jenny’s mother is never mentioned), but Commando works so well because it’s stripped down to the essentials. There’s nothing but plot, action, humour and excitement. It might have cost $10 million to make, but it’s essentially and tonally an exploitation film; directed crisply and sharply, with lots of driving momentum and no flab to the storytelling. Lester understands the idiom so well, taking the story *just* seriously enough that it flies but never forgetting that this is an arch, escapist fantasy. He also provides us with plenty of vivid, well-chosen locations, such as the Californian woods where Matrix lives, a vibrant shopping mall (which was later used in another Arnie classic: Terminator 2), and Arius’s island compound (which was actually an estate built by the silent-movie star Harold Lloyd). The action sequences, meanwhile, often have a James Bond-style panache, whether it’s Schwarzenegger swinging across a food court or jumping off the undercarriage of a jumbo jet during take-off. Commando is 90 minutes long and packs a huge amount in.

8. The tooling-up scene
If one moment typifies both Commando as a whole, and Arnie’s mid-80s career generally, then it’s when Matrix has arrived on the small island where his daughter is being held prisoner. Cindy has flown them the two hours off the Californian coast in a seaplane, and now Matrix has come ashore in a dinghy loaded down with supplies. In a meticulously edited montage lasting 19 seconds, we see our hero ‘suit up’. He ties laces, clicks buckles, straps on guns, pockets ammunition, sheaths knives, cocks handguns, zips up his jacket, streaks war paint across his muscles and face, then strikes a pose like a superhero on the cover of a comic book. It’s a scene that adds little to the plot – all it’s saying is that Matrix has guns with him – but it’s hugely important on a more primal level. Psychologically – if that’s not too highfalutin a word to evoke when it comes to this film – we’re seeing Matrix prepare for the most important battle of his life. It’s pure ritual. (In 2007, this kind of tooling-up scene was spoofed with affection in Edgar Wright’s millimetre-perfect action comedy Hot Fuzz.)

9. The music
Commando’s score was written by James Horner, a man whose career was typified by exciting, vibrant and memorable work on films such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, The Rocketeer, Sneakers, Patriot Games, Titanic and many more. Riffing on ideas he’d recently used in the cop film 48 Hrs, here his music is a joyous collision of electro sounds, sax gurgles and steel-drum melodies. (What do steel drums have to do with the plot of Commando? Nothing. They just sound cool.) The score drives the action and embellishes scenes with wit. As the credits roll at the end of the movie, with the bad guys vanquished and Jenny returned safely to her father, we also get to hear a rock song that was specially written for the film. Sadly, We Fight for Love by the supergroup The Power Station is one of those tracks you start to forget while it’s still playing.

10. The line
‘I’ll be back, Bennett,’ promises John Matrix when he’s being shipped off to Val Verde. As most viewers – both then and now – will have realised, this is a reprise of an especially memorable line of dialogue from The Terminator. In fact, it’s the *first* reprise of ‘I’ll be back’ – and it would be far from the last. The line has since been repeated or referenced in many other Arnie movies: all the subsequent Terminators, Raw Deal, The Running Man, Twins, Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop, Last Action Hero, Junior, Eraser, The 6th Day, The Expendables 2… But here is where ‘I’ll be back’ evolved from a quotable bit of one movie and became a Schwarzenegger-specific catchphrase.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘I was riding the great wave of action movies, a whole new genre that was exploding during this time. Stallone started it with the Rocky movies. In the original Rocky, in 1976, he’d looked like just a regular fighter. But in Rocky II, he had a much better body. His Rambo movies, the first two especially, also had a giant impact. My 1985 movie Commando continued the trend, coming out in the same year as the second Rambo and Rocky IV. Then The Terminator and Predator expanded the genre by adding sci-fi dimensions. Some of these movies were critically acclaimed, and all of them made so much money that the studios could no longer write them off as just B movies. They became as important to the 1980s as Westerns were in the 1950s.’

Ten promises to kill you last out of 10

Next: The Terminator

The Expendables (2010, Sylvester Stallone)

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.

TheExpendables

Watched: 6 October 2019
Format: A DVD bought from the Rochester, Kent, branch of Oxfam.
Seen before? Yes, on TV a few years ago.

Review: Featuring a cast of grizzled, ageing action stars, this rather laughable film pays homage to the tough-guy movies of the 1970s and 80s – both top-end fare such as Commando and First Blood, and the kind of exploitation knock-offs like Missing in Action and Invasion USA. It’s headlined by Rambo himself, Sylvester Stallone, who also co-wrote the script and directed this first instalment of what became a trilogy. Assisting him are old war horses such as Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke and Jet Li as they take on Eric Roberts’s bad guy. It’s a midlife-crisis Ocean’s 11, with the comparatively fresh-faced Jason Statham as the Brad Pitt to Stallone’s George Clooney.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s involvement is minimal (just one day’s filming, actually). Early on, lead character Barney Ross (Stallone) is hired for a dangerous mission by a shadowy man known only as Mr Church – so named because that’s where, for some reason, their meeting takes place. Mr Church is played by Bruce Willis, but before he and Ross get down to business they have to wait for the arrival of a third party. Right on cue, Trench Mauser – an old adversary of Ross’s – walks in. Schwarzenegger’s entrance into the scene of course means that the three most famous backers of the restaurant chain Planet Hollywood are in the same room. It’s quite a collision of movie stars, but cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball doesn’t seem keen to frame more than two of them at the same time. (You wonder if Willis shot his coverage separately.)

Quite why Mauser shows up at all is a bit of a mystery. He stays less than two minutes and is happy to let Ross take the gig on offer because he’s too busy to do it himself. When Mr Church wonders why, Ross says, ‘He want to be president.’ This in-joke references the fact that Schwarzenegger was still the 38th Governor of California when this film was made. The US Constitution actually barred him from going one step up the political ladder, because to be President you must have been born in the United States, but Arnie was then lobbying for a change to the law.

Compared to the stories it’s evoking, The Expendables is stunningly lacking in any irony or flair. As violent and harsh as some of those old movies could be, there was often some substance, some self-awareness or a heightened sense of popcorn entertainment. Here, though, we get ludicrous macho posturing; videogame-style fight scenes edited to within an inch of their stunt doubles; a grimy, dour colour palette; and earnest actors taking themselves seriously as they wade through a humourless storyline about mercenaries hired to destabilise a crackpot dictator on a fictional Central American island. An interesting comparison can be made with the rival Fast and Furious series, which also gives us overblown action and tough-guy characters – but does it with a knowing smirk.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Humor was what made me stand out from other action leads like Stallone, [Clint] Eastwood, and [Chuck] Norris. My characters were always a little tongue in cheek, and I always threw in funny one-liners.’

Five half-ass governments out of 10

Next: Commando