Here’s another installment of my Weekly Top 5, and since we’re getting a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie this weekend, I thought I’d keep it simple this week with the Oak’s top 5 movies. Let’s start with JUNIOR, at number 1… kidding.
As I said in my LAST STAND review, Arnold’s my favorite of the 1980s action movie icons. And the reason for that, I think, is that he picks great directors to work with. It’s interesting to watch Arnold in interviews when he talks about making movies – I always got the feeling that it wasn’t simply marketing for him. The impression I get is that Arnold loves movies. He loves making them, talking about them, and I think he gets more of a creative rush when he’s working with good people and imaginative people than he ever did when he was in politics. There’s a light in his eyes when he talks about working with James Cameron, for example. He gets that creative charge.
So let’s celebrate all things Arnold this week with the Top 5 Schwarzenegger movies!
5. THE RUNNING MAN
As far as one-liners go, THE RUNNING MAN seems to be the king. It’s certainly one of the most fun movies in Schwarzenegger’s catalog. It’s certainly not a deep movie, and even though it’s based on a Stephen King novel (writing under pseudonym Richard Bachman) it bears very little resemblance to that novel. If it did I’d be very curious to see how a movie that featured Schwarzenegger purposefully crashing a jumbo jet into a skyscraper would be perceived today.
Doesn’t matter, because THE RUNNING MAN is still a lot of fun. It’s Arnold at his campiest, with lines like the previous clip, a hammy performance by Richard Dawson, and we even get a Schwarzenegger/Jesse “The Body” Ventura fight (which turns out to be staged). It’s funny to listen to Schwarzenegger in promotions at the time – he talked up THE RUNNING MAN like it was especially important science fiction, but it’s just a good old-fashioned asskicking at the movies.
4. CONAN THE BARBARIAN
I’ve read most of the Robert E. Howard Conan stories. And although John Milius’s film isn’t directly adapted from any of them, and Schwarzenegger, physically, isn’t really right for Conan – the character is more lithe and wiry than Schwarzenegger could ever be – I’ll be damned if this isn’t the best adaptation of any of Howard’s work. Milius gets the spirit right, which is the most important thing. Even if it’s not a direct adaptation, I think Howard would have approved.
People love to quote the “Best In Life” speech, but for me, the above clip is still probably my favorite bit of Schwarzenegger dialogue ever. It still gives me goosebumps when I hear it. Sure, it’s hammy, but Schwarzenegger puts a lot of passion and yes, acting, in that performance. Milius knew just how to use Arnold in that movie, and the resulting world feels straight from Howard’s pages. Of all the projects circling Arnold right now, the one I most want made is THE LEGEND OF CONAN, and I want great writers to read Robert E. Howard’s work and create something truly amazing. I may be setting myself up for disappointment. But THE LEGEND OF CONAN should get a great, half-insane director like Milius to make it, and Arnold should give the great Conan performance we know he has in him.
3. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY
First off – if I didn’t limit this list to one James Cameron movie, there wouldn’t be much else on it. In a lot of ways, I prefer the original TERMINATOR to this one. That was James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger at perhaps their hungriest, and they both came at that movie with real ambition and flair, even with its limited budget. But TERMINATOR 2 is probably Schwarzenegger at his most iconic, and it’s at a certain point in Cameron’s career that he leaped into the upper echelon of great directors. Sure, you could say ALIENS and THE ABYSS are better movies (and in my humble opinion, they are), but Cameron and Schwarzenegger together had a chemistry that is hard to deny, and at this point in both their careers, they created a movie truly for the ages.
Arnold is helped by his supporting cast, who all do amazing work. Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, the villainous Robert Patrick, Joe Morton, and the incredible special effects team which created the groundbreaking technology that made the T-1000 possible. Most of all, it had James Cameron’s heart, and that ending is still the emotional powerhouse all these years later. It’s still one of Arnold’s signature acting moments. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY is one of the best sequels ever made.
2. TOTAL RECALL
This is where the list gets a bit fluid, because depending on my mood, I can switch 3 and 2 pretty much at will. Today’s a TOTAL RECALL day. Tomorrow may be otherwise. And of course, you may rank this entirely differently. But Paul Verhoeven is one of the most wickedly subversive directors alive, and I always got the feeling that behind those eyes, Arnold is just as subversive. Sure, considering his public persona, you may think otherwise, but you don’t make a movie with Paul Verhoeven (or even with Kim Jee-Woon, whose I SAW THE DEVIL feels very much out of Verhoeven’s wheelhouse in a lot of ways) without wanting to cause a little mayhem. It bears very little resemblance to Philip K. Dick’s original story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, but that’s pretty much true of all of the movies adapted from Dick’s work. The reason I loathed the recent remake is because it’s got no sense of the playful depravity that the original has.
To those who judge Schwarzenegger’s acting skills, I’ll simply say this – I really believe in his arc here, as a simple man who discovers that he’s really a secret agent, and I love how Quaid/Hauser develops through the course of the movie. I also love how Verhoeven doesn’t shove the ambiguity of the whole “reality or dream” aspect of the movie in your face, and allows the audience to decide what they like best. You also have Arnold carrying a corpse as a human shield, and probably one of the most violent movies in his catalog. It’s got insane special effects, from the set design, to the creature design and makeup effects – this is the whole package. TOTAL RECALL is a nasty bit of anarchic fun, and it’s Paul Verhoeven continuing to thumb his nose at the American audiences that ate it up.
Bar none, this is my favorite Schwarzenegger movie. It’s the most watchable, has his greatest performance, and features his best enemy in all of his movies (one could argue that the T-1000 is his best foe, but since he’s a robot in that movie, I’m going for a more flesh-and-green-blood enemy). The Predator has superior firepower, superior strength, and (it could be argued) superior intelligence. All Arnold has is his knowledge of combat and his skills as a warrior. The second half of PREDATOR has very little dialogue, and all the intensity one could stand.
I’ve written about this before, and it still stands – Arnold’s Dutch is a thinking man’s warrior. He’s not above fear, he thinks tactically, and knows when to fight, when to run, and when to hide. He’s probably the most realistic soldier in Arnold’s character catalog. Too many people dismiss Arnold when it comes to his performances, and while I’m not saying the man could give lessons to Julliard or anything, in PREDATOR Arnold goes through a whole range of emotions in a realistic manner.
John McTiernan, of course, went on to direct DIE HARD, an action movie classic if there ever was one, but I don’t think that movie, with it’s very human, flawed hero, would have been possible without Arnold’s work in PREDATOR. McTiernan had a knack, with PREDATOR and DIE HARD, of creating situations where the audience legitimately wondered whether the hero would make it through alive. He made compelling drama out of what could have been another routine action movie. That’s why people are still talking about PREDATOR and DIE HARD today.
It’s also full of great dialogue and great character actors like Carl Weathers (“You saying that Blain and Hawkins were killed by a fucking lizard?!”), Bill Duke (“You’re ghostin’ us, motherfucker.”), Jesse Ventura (“I ain’t got time to bleed.”), Sonny Landham (“There’s something out there waiting for us. And it ain’t no man.”), and even a young Shane Black (“Geez, you got a big pussy! Geez, you got a big pussy!”)
And then there’s Arnold, where every line is quotable and launched a thousand memes, but it wouldn’t be so if he wasn’t as good as he is. PREDATOR gets better and better with each viewing and out of all the movies in Schwarzenegger’s roster, it’s the one I return to the most. “What the hell are you?” the Predator asks, and we answer, “He’s the goddamn Arnold.”
Your list, of course, will differ from mine – where’s TRUE LIES? Where's RED HEAT? Where’s COMMANDO? Where’s JINGLE ALL THE WAY? Okay, no one will be asking that last one. But I think this list covers most of, if not all, of Arnold’s best movies. Time will tell if the next act of his career will give us anything as good as these (I enjoyed THE LAST STAND, but it’s simply not on the level of these greats, and I don’t think anyone expected it to be) and I eagerly await what’s next from the man. It’s hard as hell not to use an “I’ll be back” cliché here, but I’m certainly glad he’s returned.