For better or worse, Arnold Schwarzenegger occupies a prominent place in the science fiction and fantasy of the late 20th and early 21st century. Years from now, scholars of film will no doubt wonder how it happened: a muscleman from Austria with a thick accent and dubious acting chops somehow enjoyed an incredible run of blockbusters from the early 1980s to the late-1990s. Action stars of the past—like Steve McQueen or John Wayne—were generally respected as actors as well, with both being recognized by the Academy. Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, crafted himself into something entirely different, a pop cultural oddity combining athletics, politics, and (intentionally or not) comedy. While there are no Oscar nominations on the horizon for Arnold, virtually everything he says becomes a quotable line. And, improbably, he has successfully cashed in on the nostalgia craze of our time, making movies that relive his glory days.
The Expendables franchise notwithstanding, Arnold has not headlined a blockbuster since Batman and Robin (1997), and that disaster of a film proved to be a harbinger of a long decline. I’m therefore writing this for those people who remain mostly unfamiliar with his work. Especially those who have an annoying friend—let’s call him Robert—who constantly, incessantly quotes Arnold’s most memorable one-liners. Such people may wonder: where do I begin with the massive Schwarzenegger archive? Consider this a brief guide.
Ranking Arnold’s movies is difficult because there are so many that are, ahem, ironically good. By that I mean movies that are enjoyably cheesy, or that conjure memories of youth. But I offer these films, without apology, as the ones that I think can be enjoyed even if you don’t think you’re the target audience for a Schwarzenegger movie:
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day
What’s incredible about these movies is how timeless they feel. If you had never heard of them, you would think they were made in the last few years—only that redheaded kid’s mullet in T2 gives it away. The action is tense and tight—not surprising, given that they were directed by James Cameron (Aliens) and John McTiernan (Die Hard), respectively. T2 in particular has a surprising amount of heart, with its themes of family, loyalty, and sacrifice. You might even get a little verklempt in the end. And perhaps most important: Arnold is used in a way that feels believable, combining an appropriate level of seriousness with a healthy dose of fun. Let it be proclaimed without caveat: Arnold can play a hardened warrior. Or a robot. Anything beyond that gets a little tricky.
- Conan the Barbarian
- The Terminator
- Total Recall
Though I love these films, I cannot in good conscience rank them among Arnold’s best. The excessive violence in Conan and Total Recall will turn off some people, while the original Terminator is overshadowed by its big-budget sequel. That aside, these movies are a blast simply because of how bonkers they are. Total Recall is almost giddy, with its wacky effects and R rating. It has to be seen to be believed, and the big guy is clearly having a great time making it. Meanwhile, Conan acknowledges the most important aspect of Arnold’s talent: he simply looks cool, especially in a key scene in which he infiltrates a temple in full camouflage. At the same time, Arnold has only a handful of lines in the script, and they are spent wisely. The same principle works in Terminator, when he has even fewer lines, and spends much of the film stomping around, looking menacing.
Enjoyable (as a Comedy)
- The Running Man
I want to stress that these movies are not “so bad they’re good” (those are listed below). They are, instead, comedies, and very original ones at that. Before Commando, no one had ever seen a film in which a passenger on a plane breaks a guy’s neck, props him on a pillow, and nonchalantly tells the flight attendant: “Don’t disturb my friend. He’s dead tired.” The rest of the movie proceeds accordingly—a sort of Three Stooges routine with Arnold in the role of Moe, and everyone else taking turns as Larry or Curly. The Running Man, on the other hand, is a ruthless satire—not as biting as They Live and Robocop, but still alarmingly prescient about America in 2017. Here, the one-liners reach a fever pitch, with Arnold barely able to keep up. When he kills poor Fireball (played by football legend Jim Brown), he can hardly get them out fast enough. “Need a light? [Fireball explodes.] What a hothead.”
Love It or Hate It
- Last Action Hero
- True Lies
Tough call with these. Last Action Hero is a parody of Arnold’s career, and the actor is game for a little self-effacement. The jokes often aim for die-hard fans, and the script veers into a realm of silliness that becomes difficult to take. Exhibit A: a cartoon cat voiced by Danny DeVito (I’m not joking). It’s very uneven, but at least Tywin Lannister is the bad guy. And Arnold briefly playing Hamlet might make it worth your time. (“To be, or not to be. [Lights cigar.] Not to be.” [Explosion.]) Meanwhile, True Lies is a well-made, funny, original action movie that nevertheless manages to offend large swaths of the human population. For example, a subplot involves Arnold stalking his wife and eventually baiting her into doing an anonymous strip tease for him. The villains are part of a comically sadistic terrorist group known as the Crimson Jihad, so you can imagine how enlightened that depiction is.
- Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
- Kindergarten Cop
T3 is a rehash of the first two films in the series, a sequel that no one needed or asked for. And yet it’s so damn fun—a reliable chase movie with an intriguing twist at the end. Kindergarten Cop is one of several forays into (intentional) comedy for the big guy, and in my opinion, it’s the best (though many prefer Twins). No, it’s not science fiction or fantasy, but, as many critics have pointed out, it has unexpected depth and substance, thanks in large part to the fact that it features four(!) female characters who are actually—get this—developed, treated with respect, and given a chance to advance the plot. I realize it’s sad to treat such a simple act as a huge accomplishment; still, the screenplay turns what could have been a campy vehicle into something memorable, and uses Arnold perfectly as a fish out of water whose superpowers are useless in the jungles of elementary school.
So Bad It’s Good?
- Hercules in New York
- Batman and Robin
Look, I don’t know if you’re at the right place in your life to enjoy these nearly unwatchable films. Arnold’s puns as Mr. Freeze are legendary, and every winter I find myself saying the words “cold” and “ice” in an Austrian accent. Hercules is practically a drug trip, and the filmmakers make the mistake that James Cameron avoided in The Terminator: they give Arnold too many lines, and this at a time when the poor guy was clearly still learning the language. If illicit substances are your thing, you’ll need them to get through these stinkers.
- Red Sonja
- Conan the Destroyer
- Raw Deal
As the kids like to say, I just can’t with these. Notice that these films are all trying to recreate something Arnold did better somewhere else, and often with much lower production values. Red Sonja and Conan the Destroyer misfire badly by aiming for a PG rating, thereby losing the rawness of Barbarian. Raw Deal is a dumb shoot ‘em up that is unpleasantly cynical even by the standards of the Reagan era. Junior may be one of the most ill-conceived (pun intended) films of all time.
The Arnold Renaissance
- Escape Plan
- The Expendables
- The Last Stand
If you have actually made it to the point where you want to watch Senior Citizen Arnold, I would exercise some caution. You probably have a friend who swears that The Expendables is “SO AWESOME!” …Beware. The franchise exists solely to placate a juvenile urge to resurrect every goddamn thing from our youth. While I loved watching it with some friends who are well-versed in Arnold’s movies, I can’t ask a newbie to try it. Same goes for The Last Stand and Escape Plan. Maggie, however, is an interesting case. Schwarzenegger stars in a stylish, quiet film about a doting father trying to protect his daughter as she slowly succumbs to a zombie virus. Though it loses steam halfway through, it has prompted Arnold to continue taking on more serious roles, like the recent Aftermath. Some critics have reluctantly, cautiously admitted that his acting has, in fact, improved with time. But it might be more accurate to say that he has grown into the grizzled old man roles once occupied by the likes of Clint Eastwood.
Arnold appeared in over sixty films, so this list represents a mere sample. The bottom line is that there are a handful of great Arnold movies surrounded by a sea of schlocky ones whose value depends greatly on (1) when the viewer first saw it, and (2) the viewer’s sense of humor. But don’t let this lukewarm assessment scare you off entirely. For a huge chunk of my life, it was a given that Arnold would be starring in the next big popcorn movie. It was as reliable as the changing seasons. When Terminator 3 was released, a friend begged me to see it with him. When I hesitated, he pulled the nostalgia card: “Come on, Rob,” he said, “you owe him!” Indeed, I still do, and I hope this guide pays him back just a little.
Robert Repino (@Repino1) grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. After serving in the Peace Corps in Grenada, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. He works as an editor for Oxford University Press and has taught for the Gotham Writers Workshop. He is the author of Mort(e) (Soho Press, 2015), Leap High Yahoo (Amazon Kindle Singles, 2015), Culdesac (Soho Press), and D’Arc—book three in the War With No Name series, available May 9th from Soho Press.