Comfortable and Furious

Cream Turning Sour: Episode One-Schwarzenegger

Schwarzenegger peaked in the 1980s, his legacy built on iconic performances in The Terminator, Commando and Predator. These were lean, mean flicks and while his hugely enjoyable, bullet-proof turn in Commando was ridiculous, the other two have serious artistic merit and are surely among the best action/sci-fi pics ever made.

In keeping with his pre-Twins period, 1987’s Predator is as macho as hell. Arnie plays Major ‘Dutch’ Schaefer, the leader of an elite group of military badasses tasked with rescuing a kidnapped South American cabinet minister from jungle-based insurgents. Good grief, Dutch’s crew is as hard as nails. These guys are nothing but an endless parade of bulging muscles, stubble, iron stares, massive knives, cleft chins, mustaches, awe-inspiring guns and off-color jokes about cavernous pussies. Christ, what I’d give to see them have a dustup with those Marines from Aliens. After a minute or so aboard a helicopter in their brawny, cigar-puffing, tobacco-chewing company, I couldn’t help but notice my knock knees and pigeon chest. The crew is completed by Dillon (Carl Weathers), a duplicitous, ring rusty CIA operative who also boasts granite-like biceps. Frankly, I don’t think this lot would ever let me join their gang, even as a mascot or tea boy.

“I always wanted to do a film like The Wild Bunch or The Magnificent Seven where a team of guys works together, rather than just relying on yourself,” Schwarzenegger says in If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It, a 2001 documentary about the film’s making. “It’s much more realistic, but each one of these guys is very powerful. They’re physically very strong, very experienced and equals of mine.”

Few movies get underway so quickly and surely as Predator. Thanks to its economical writing, within five minutes the mission is explained and we are heading into the tropical forest. Of course, the assignment is baloney and Dillon wants to find out what happened to a missing bunch of Green Berets he’s already sent in to investigate the Soviet-backed insurgents. The answer comes quickly when they find a downed copter and three strung up, skinned corpses.

Someone is playing hardball.

Scout Billy Sole (the six-foot-three, former porno actor Sonny Landham) is the first to suspect their enemy doesn’t even have the decency to be from Earth. Just look at the suspenseful way he chops a vine in half to drink, senses something watching and turns to scan the vegetation, leaving the water to trickle onto the floor. “There’s something out there, waiting for us…” the tracker tells the others, “and it ain’t no man.”

The technologically advanced alien turns out to be a triumph of design. Sure, it lacks personality barring the adjective mean, but it does have a code in that it won’t kill anyone unarmed before pulling them up into the trees like a super strong, extra-terrestrial leopard. As played by the seven-foot-two Kevin Peter Hall, the creature is a trophy-collecting, dreadlocked killer with jowly, oversized mandibles and a seemingly endless bag of tricks that include thermal vision, a glassy, shimmering incognito mode, a pivoting shoulder gun, double-bladed forearms, and the ability to mimic human speech.

Or as the Vietnam vet Dutch puts it a little more concisely: “You are one ugly motherfucker.”

Bafflingly released to lukewarm reviews, Predator is now seen as one of the decade’s best. It succeeds for many reasons, with the slimmed-down Arnie a major plus. He might be a limited actor, but this deficiency is well-disguised because everything moves at such a cracking pace. Plus, for more than an hour he’s part of a charismatic ensemble, only forced to take center stage when no one’s left. Mind you, as he turns into a mud-covered Tarzan/Rambo hybrid, he still manages to do some excellent work with his eyes. When Arnie’s intent on killing and blowing shit up, he’s perfectly convincing and for just about every moment of Predator that’s his raison d’être. Thankfully, there’s also no romantic interest to sidetrack his lust for destruction, a development that invariably turns things to awkward shit e.g. Kindergarten Cop.

Everything in Predator is tight from its small cast and John McTiernan’s claustrophobic direction to the well-performed stunts and skittery score. Built on a simple idea, it doesn’t put a foot wrong. No one makes speeches and the terse dialogue is often on the money e.g. “I’ll bleed you, real quiet, and leave you here”, something about a ‘broke-dick dog’ and a ‘goddamned sexual tyrannosaurus’, “I ain’t got time to bleed” and, of course, “Get to the choppah!” Yes, I would’ve trimmed some of Dutch’s post-kill quips and the monster’s maniacal cackling at the end, but Predator still adds up to a tense ride laced with booby traps, profanity and glorious bursts of carnage. Just like a scorpion impaled on the tip of a knife, it holds you fast for the entire 105 minutes.

Greater success lay ahead for Arnie, though, with the release of T2, the highest grossing film worldwide of 1991. It’s tremendous, but not as good as the sleek, Edward Furlong-free original. Sequels rarely are and in this case Arnie was repeating himself while often being upstaged by Robert Patrick’s liquid metal shape-shifting and Linda Hamilton’s buffed bod. Still, the public loved it and Arnie’s box-office clout rose to an all-time high.

Then came Last Action Hero, a hideously unfunny meta-mess. Despite begging to be put out of its misery after a quarter of an hour, it staggered on for more than 130 minutes. Herein lay one of the problems with Arnie’s 90s flicks – apart from not being as good, they outstayed whatever welcome they had. During the 80s the average length of one of his action movies was 103 minutes, but with T2 the runtimes started ballooning. 1994’s True Lies became the worst offender at a whopping 141, which is an awful long way from Commando’s fat-free 90.

Arnie never recovered his mojo from Hero’s mauling, but at least True Lies (the first film to cost $100m) was a big hit. However, it offered further evidence that Arnie’s ability to come up with memorable characters was over. Like Hero, Lies is an excessive muddle, although it does have its strengths. I think James Cameron wanted it to be a high voltage pantomime and it’s probably best to watch with that idea in mind, especially as it came out seven years before 9/11. Now Cameron might not be the king of the world, but he’s one fuck of an action maestro.

First things first, Lies is a Bond knock-off. This is the bedrock of its many problems in that the formula for this kind of thing was established at least twenty-five years earlier. And so Harry Tasker (Arnie) is a super-cool, multi-lingual, gadget-packed secret agent who can beat the shit out of anything that moves before delivering an appropriate one liner. The ‘twist’ here is that his mousey wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) and bratty teenage daughter think he’s a rather dull computer software salesman, but that front comes under enormous pressure when he zeros in on an Arab terrorist.

Lies offers an all right opening forty-five minutes. Harry wangles his way into a swish party at a heavily guarded mansion to steal some computer files before he’s twigged, but the sequence is so Bond-like it’s like watching a beefed-up Roger Moore go through the motions. Much better is an excellent horse/motorbike chase that ends on a hotel roof, the first indication that the ol’ Schwarzenegger-Cameron combo is firing on all six again.

Then everything falls into a giant, female-sized hole.

Helen, you see, is so bored of her humdrum life with Harry that she tries to have it off with Simon (an overacting Bill Paxton) who, lo and behold, is pretending to be a secret agent to help him score with the chicks. Can you feel the contrivances piling up? And so Harry kidnaps Helen and uses his agency’s hi-tech resources to find out the truth about her dalliances. Painfully, we have to watch Arnie try to do jealousy, despondency, tenderness and all those other emotions he doesn’t have a hope in hell of nailing. 

What’s more, this part of the story requires Helen to be as dumb as fuck and unable to recognise her own hubby while Lies forgets about its main terrorist-foiling storyline for almost an hour. It’s an impossibly stupid segment, among the most ridiculous Hollywood has ever coughed up, and further evidence that women are the equivalent of kryptonite for Schwarzenegger.

Lies never recovers.

Of course, it’s important to bear in mind that it is an action-comedy. It’s clearly going for an OTT, fun tone, but this attempt sits uneasily with the oft-nasty violence, high body count, multi-million-dollar stunts, expository dialogue and overlong scenes. The casting doesn’t help with Tom Arnold as an unappealing comic sidekick and Art Malik as a mediocre villain while the scarred, eye patch-adorned Charlton Heston is given zip to do. Some also complain about its mean-spirited attitude toward the fairer sex (‘Ditch the bitch’, ‘Skanks’, ‘Women. Can’t live with ’em, can’t kill ’em’) but I find this a bit rich considering hundreds of men get slaughtered. However, although the odd joke works (e.g. the recording of a jihadist video is ruined when the camera battery runs out) Lies’ mix of comedy and action meshes about as well as oil and water. You’re much better off with something like Romancing the Stone.

Cameron returns to surer ground when putting together a brilliant sequence on a seemingly endless bridge involving trucks, catfighting babes in an out-of-control limo, and air to surface missiles. It’s not enough, though, to save Lies from being a sub-par, nonsensical and wildly implausible Arnie outing, one in which the intravenous injection of drugs doesn’t even slow him down. Ahead lay dreck like Batman and Robin and End of Days, ensuring the Austrian Oak’s fantastic contribution to action cinema was over.



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One response to “Cream Turning Sour: Episode One-Schwarzenegger”

  1. Goat Avatar

    Great article. Arnold should have stuck to being….Arnold.

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