Now for the modern half of my Schwarzenegger retrospective, modern in this context meaning movies where our action man uses guns instead of swords or simply his fists.
Raw Deal (1986)
Arnie is lawman Mark Kaminsky, who got a raw deal when forced to resign from the FBI after his interrogation methods got a little too up close and personal. Now a small town sheriff with an unhappy marriage, he is given a chance to redeem himself by going undercover with a Mafia outfit. His former FBI boss can’t trust anyone else, as there appears to be a traitor in his organisation. So our hero wins the confidence of mob boss Patrovita by shooting up his enemies, and then proceeds to shoot up him. In a sweet twist that has something of poetic justice about it, the FBI traitor turns out to be the man who forced Kaminsky to resign (yes, saw that coming), though we don’t address the fact that our hero was actually guilty of beating a suspect (the man was a child killer, so got what he deserved). It’s pure hokum, with a plot that might just work at some level, but here goes completely over the top, with Arnie loaded for bear and able to take on a small army without getting so much as a scratch (you feel he’s in much more danger from his cake tossing wife than from any gun toting gangster). It’s ludicrous and fun in a pass the time sort of way, if you don’t take it too seriously. And if you do take it seriously and believe that this is how the FBI and organised crime operate, then you’ve probably been watching way too many action movies.
Red Heat (1988)
This film rings a few changes on the cop-buddy movie, with Arnie as Russian police officer Capt. Ivan Danko (possibly inspired by Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko) who is sent to Chicago to find and arrest the Georgian drug lord who killed his partner. Ivan acts with extreme prejudice, breaking arms to get answers while his American liaison, Det. Sgt. Art Ridzik (James Belushi) is still trying to read the suspect his rights (there seems to be a subtext in both these movies – wouldn’t it be really, really good if cops could just take out the bad guys without all this due process bullshit). Again, it’s a decent action come thriller movie, if you put your brain in neutral and just coast along for the ninety odd minutes it takes to get from A to Z. Initially regarding each other as arseholes, the two detectives come to respect each other and appreciate their individual ways of doing things (we only make real progress in catching the bad guys when Ridzik turns a blind eye to Danko’s methods – again, subtext). Lots of gun play, a chase with buses, plus plenty of mayhem and collateral damage, for all of which there is never any real doubt how it will all turn out, who is going home in a box and who will be flying Business Class. If only the politicians could get on as well as our two cops.
Arnie plays U. S. Marshal John Kruger, a specialist in Witness Protection (he makes people disappear, erasing their tracks, hence the nickname). Kruger’s latest charge is executive Lee Cullen (Vanessa Williams) who has to be kept safe until she can testify against her former employers, whose plan to sell advance electronic pulse rifles to a terrorist group she has exposed. Of course there’s a traitor in Kruger’s organisation, and so he and Lee must go on the run, framed for a crime they did not commit. Eventually however the tables are turned, the traitor exposed for what he is, and the stage set for a grand finale involving copious use of those pulse rifles. Same basic scenario as in the previous two films, with Arnie as an honest man who has his own, highly unorthodox and probably criminal, way of doing things, here let down by treachery, but ultimately rising above it all to deliver his own brand of justice. Kruger doesn’t really seem to have much personality, except as an embodiment of nemesis or justice, depending on your viewpoint, not even as much as the acerbic Danko. I can’t imagine how he behaves when not shooting people, what his hobbies are or how his home life shapes up. Ditto for all the other characters, who at best are comic cutout bad guys, traitorous corporate shit heels vying with patriotic mobsters. On the plus side, it doesn’t demand much of the viewer and there are lots of pretty lights courtesy of those pulse rifles, which as advanced weaponry goes don’t seem all that impressive. I think this may mark the moment when Arnie’s star began to set.
End of Days (1999)
Released no doubt with an eye on the millennium, this is the film in which Arnie takes on Satan, played by Gabriel Byrne inhabiting the body of an investment banker (now this is a subtext I can really get behind). Satan is in the Big Apple to hook up with Christine (Robin Tunney), the woman it is prophesied will give birth to the Anti-Christ. There are rival teams of Vatican priests wanting to either protect or kill Christine, including a madman or two. Arnie plays former cop turned security freelancer Jericho Cane, a man who has issues with alcoholism and depression post the death of his family at the hands of gunmen. He is given a chance at redemption through saving Christine, but Satan tempts him with the offer of returning his family to life. This is probably the closest Arnie has ever come to doing a ‘pure’ horror movie, though there is still plenty of gun stuff for the action aficionado. We get numerous horror grace notes, courtesy of the central concept, Arnie’s delving into the back story of the various priestly info-dumpers, and in the special effects laden finale, when he goes one on one with Byrne’s ultimate bad guy in a church. But while there is certainly a crisis of faith and/or conscience to be resolved, Arnie’s loss engendered atheism hampering his ability to deal with Satan, the way in which he is tempted with his dead loved ones dangled before him like a carrot, it’s still a film that remains with one cloven hoof firmly planted in the action genre. There’s plenty of gun play and explosions lighting up the screen, while if the rest of the cast, including Arnie himself, seem to be going through the motions, Byrne throws himself wholeheartedly into the role of the big bad, spitting and swearing, snarling to beat the band. The ending is wrapped up in equal measures of faith and kitsch, but for all that it seems the right note on which to close, with self-sacrifice the key to undoing the Devil’s plans. I think I liked it.
So what’s everyone else’s favourite Arnie movie? For me it’s a toss-up between “Predator”, “True Lies”, “The Last Action Hero”, and “Terminator”. While I don’t feel he’s an especially good actor (euphemism), I have to admit that Arnie has been in some of my favourite films. I could never take to him in comic roles though, despite enjoying the occasional moment of humour/black comedy in the shoot ’em ups.