Movie Marathon: Arnold Schwarzenegger Films
Nothing quite says summertime to me like the “action blockbuster.” And, as a child of the late 1980s / early 1990s, there are very few actors who I more associate with big blockbuster type movies than Arnold Schwarzenegger. So…in keeping with the season and in honor of his long and storied action-star career, I thought that I’d go back and (re)watch Schwarzenegger films, ranking them from worst-to-best in my opinion. Enjoy!
NOTE: The following films are ranked (from worst-to-first) based on the quality of the film — not necessarily on the quality of Schwarzenegger’s performance in said film, although the two criteria are often connected. Also…this post doesn’t include every Schwarzenegger film — particularly those films where he does little more than cameo (e.g. The Expendables franchise or Around the World in 80 Days). I also couldn’t find a copy of 1986’s Raw Deal; however, other than that, I think that all of his other substantial roles are included here.
The Rankings (Worst to First)
The You-Can-Probably-Skip-This Movies
31. Collateral Damage (2002) – directed by Andrew Davis
Character: Gordy Brewer
When reading about Arnold’s filmography, Collateral Damage is often in the conversation for “worst Arnold Schwarzenegger film,” and yeah…I have to agree. Arnold’s performance is only average here, though he’s definitely not the film’s biggest problem. The script — which features a truly absurd twist — is really bad, and the filmmaking is more on the made-for-TV level than what you expect. If you feel bad for missing this one, don’t.
30. Red Sonja (1985) – directed by Richard Fleischer
Brigitte Nielsen gets a lot of flak here. Some of that’s well-deserved — her performance here is very stilted — but I think it’s a little unfair to heap all the criticism upon a first-time actor thrown into the main role. Arnold is essentially Conan, and his moments in the film are noticeably better than his counterparts. One small positive is a young Ernie Reyes Jr., who would later appear in numerous martial-arts roles. Apparently, Arnold himself counts this as his worst film, and I don’t think he’s too far off.
29. Killing Gunther (2017) – directed by Taran Killam
The mockumentary structure of this film feels several years too late to be effective, and it’s not helped by a poor script and uninspired directing by former SNLer Taran Killam. Ultimately, the premise of a group of hitmen trying to kill another hitman isn’t the worst premise in the world, though things feel a little “intro-level fiction workshoppy” here. Of minor note is that this is one of the few movies where Arnold plays the villain, but this doesn’t feel like quite the right fit — though there’s some potential in the idea of a hitman who’d rather be a community gardener. Overall, Killing Gunther is a pretty lifeless effort.
28. The 6th Day (2000) – directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Character: Adam Gibson & Adam Gibson Clone
I actually didn’t hate The 6th Day, which isn’t to say that it’s a “good” film (because it’s not a good film), but there’s a certain amount of enjoyment — despite all its considerable flaws. The special-effects and filmmaking are pretty bad, and none of the characters are very memorable. That said, I could almost imagine this movie working, if it was made a decade earlier. But that’s a pretty big hurdle to overcome.
27. Red Heat (1988) – directed by Walter Hill
Character: Ivan Danko
I was a little surprised that this one ranked so low on the list, considering it was directed by Walter Hill, who’s made some good movies in his time. This is your classic “fish-out-of-water” idea with some “buddy-cop” elements and an “East-meets-West” vibe thrown in. I’ve never been a fan of Jim Belushi’s acting, and he’s one of the main characters here — so…that tells you about all you need to know. Arnold plays a Soviet police officer. *shrug*
26. Terminator Genisys (2015) – directed by Alan Taylor
Character: Guardian / “Pops” (Terminator)
The first time that I watched Terminator Genisys, I thought it was easily the worst (thus far) of the Terminator franchise. Re-watching it for this Arnold retrospective, yeah…it’s still the worst of the franchise. I actually don’t think it’s quite as terrible as some of the reviews or its reputation suggests, but it’s definitely not a good film and further pulls down a franchise that should’ve stayed done with the second installment.
25. Twins (1988) – directed by Ivan Reitman
Character: Julius Benedict
I know that there are people who grew up watching Twins and who love it. I’m decidedly not one of those people. While I like both Arnold’s and Danny DeVito’s performances, this feels like an 3-minute SNL sketch-comedy thing stretched (way) beyond effectiveness. Basically, a feature-length sight gag.
The “What Is This?” Movie (Part 1)
24. Batman & Robin (1997) – directed by Joel Schumacher
Character: Dr. Victor Fries / Mr. Freeze
Batman & Robin was easily the most difficult film to evaluate for this entire retrospective. Is this a film that’s really trying to be superhero film or is the whole exercise high-camp? I honestly don’t know. Arnold’s performance is (in)famously absurd as Mr. Freeze — as everyone knows by now, the script seems determined to give him as many ice-related puns as conceivable in the English language. This is either the kind of film that’s too smart for me to evaluate correctly or far too dumb for analysis. I don’t know what to do with it, so I’m just going to put it here.
The OK-But-Probably-Only-Once Movies
23. Aftermath (2017) – directed by Elliott Lester
I believe that Aftermath is the most recent film in Arnold’s filmography. Not a terrible film but also not a very memorable one. I like that Arnold gets to play an older character here — one with potentially more emotional nuance. Sadly, the script makes some poor choices and whatever potential might’ve been for emotional complexity goes out the window in the film’s final act.
22. End of Days (1999) – directed by Peter Hyams
A retired policeman with anger issues, severe depression, family tragedy, suicidal tendencies, emotional betrayal, and physical struggles against the (literal) devil, End of Days might be Arnold at his most “ragged” in terms of character. Sadly, this is one of those late-1990 / early-2000 films that relied waaaaaaay too much on some truly, truly terrible (and now laughable) CGI. Could this have been a better film with more directorial restraint, less CGI, and more atmospheric horror influence? Yeah…maybe (something in the vein of a Exorcist 3 type tone). But instead, we get a disappointing action-thriller masquerading as horror, which is a shame.
21. Conan the Destroyer (1984) – directed by Richard Fleischer
Everything weirdly meditative about the original Conan is stripped away in favor of something more akin to a 1980s action-fantasy film. I mean, I guess it’s fun to watch Arnold, Wilt Chamberlain, and Grace Jones (among others) ride horses and swing swords and whatnot; but Conan the Destroyer feels like the visual equivalent of junk food (and not necessarily good junk food). I don’t hate this movie. It’s fine, and a perfectly decent choice to half-watch while you’re doing other, more important things.
20. Sabotage (2014) – directed by David Ayer
Character: John “Breacher” Wharton
So…what can we say about Sabotage? First off, it’s got a pretty good cast full of actors who’ve been good in some other films, and it’s clear that director David Ayer knows how to frame a good-looking shot. That said, I’d have a difficult time thinking of another movie in which all (literally…ALL) of the characters are as unlikable. I think, as an audience member, I’m supposed to be interested in the mystery of who’s killing off this elite squad; however, the characters are so over-the-top detestable that I just don’t care. [In fact, if anything, I’m sorta rooting for the killer.] I think that the film has potential in terms of its visuals but yikes…these characters…oof.
The Totally Alright Movies
19. Eraser (1996) – directed by Charles Russell
Character: U.S. Marshal John Kruger
More or less the perfect “watch-and-forget” type movie, Eraser falls in that Arnold-is-a-one-man-wrecking-crew type film. It’s mildly entertaining with a couple solid action scenes — one on a plane and one in a zoo (some pretty bad CGI crocodiles notwithstanding). Plus, the supporting cast of Vanessa Williams, James Caan, and James Brolin do a nice job. Sure…you’re unlikely to remember Eraser, but you can like it for what it is while watching.
18. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) – directed by Jonathan Mostow
Terminator 3 is the last “good” Terminator movie that we’ve had, though I’m not sure if that’s really praise for this film or an indictment of the films that come afterwards in the franchise. There are some decent action scenes here — particularly a nice chase scene involving a crane. But ultimately, this just feels like a film that doesn’t really need to exist. Still…it’s decent enough.
17. Escape Plan (2013) – directed by Mikael Hafstrom
A film that was considerably better than I expected it to be, Escape Plan has a pretty absurd (and convoluted) plot but features a nice performance from Sylvester Stallone and a very unlikable villain in Jim Caviezel. Arnold plays more of a supporting role here, but it’s really nice to see an extended scene where he gets to speak in his native (German) tongue — in fact, at this point, I’m a little surprised that he hasn’t had more opportunities to play Austrian (or other German-speaking) characters.
16. Kindergarten Cop (1990) – directed by Ivan Reitman
Character: Detective John Kimble
Growing up, this was easily the Arnold film that I saw the most often, as there was a distinct time-period in the mid-1990s when it seemed to be on TV constantly. Watching it today, I’m a bit surprised by much of the film’s darkness — i.e. drug overdose, child abuse, etc. etc. Although the scripted parts for the kids are painfully stilted, Kindergarten Cop does give us some memorable Arnold-isms — my favorite of which: “Who is your daddy, and what does he do?” Bit surprised this one hasn’t been re-made yet.
The “What Is This?” Movie (Part 2)
15. Hercules in New York (1970) – directed by Arthur A. Seidelman
Character: Hercules (or “Mr. Universe”)
This is famously (infamously?) Arnold’s first major film role, although he’s credited as “Arnold Strang” or “Arnold Strong” or something like that. The plot is virtually non-existent — Arnold upsets his father (Zeus) and is tossed down to earth, where he proceeds to run around New York, stealing horses, tossing dudes, flipping cars, and whatnot. Mostly, he just brags about how he’s Hercules and how, as such, he’s a bad ass. While there’s nothing really impressive about it as a film, Hercules in New York has a mad-cap quality that I admire — the kind of film that probably couldn’t be made today.
The Actually Good Movies
14. The Last Stand (2013) – directed by Jee-Woon Kim
Character: Sheriff Ray Owens
The Last Stand is a pretty underrated film in my book — best appreciated if watched as a kind of re-imagining of the Western. With a title hearkening back to High Noon and a director (Jee-Woon Kim) with a history of updating Westerns (e.g. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), I appreciate the film’s genre influences despite some of its pacing / focus issues on the level of narrative. This is Arnold’s first post-governor role, and he brings an interesting mix of both calmness and weariness to the role of a small-town sheriff, who — with the help of a few local misfits and deputies — attempts to capture a rich and powerful escaped convict. A pretty fun, pretty enjoyable movie!
13. Junior (1994) – directed by Ivan Reitman
Character: Dr. Alex Hesse
Of the three cinematic team-ups between Arnold and director Ivan Reitman (the other examples being Twins and Kindergarten Cop), I feel like Junior is the oft-forgotten and least-viewed of the bunch, which is a shame since it’s easily the most enjoyable of the three films. [Partially, I think it’s overlooked because of when it was made; in many ways, it belongs in the 1940s.] I can’t quite decide how transgressive the film might be. On the one hand, it often presents pregnancy as a kind of (easy) hormonal joke; then again, it seems to want to inspire genuine empathy and understanding. It’s a film that can understandably be interpreted as a pro-life text; however, moments within are decidedly pro-choice (as when a pregnant Arnold shouts, “My body, my choice!”) Ultimately, it’s these ambiguities that serve, rather than detract, from the film. A weird, messy, but interesting comedy.
12. Jingle All the Way (1996) – directed by Brian Levant
Character: Howard Langston
I remember seeing Jingle All the Way when it was first released and really hating it. [I am and always have been a big fan of Christmas-related films, so this was a serious negative judgment on my part.] However, rewatching the film for this retrospective, I was frankly amazed by how much I enjoyed it as an adult. Now…this isn’t a “great” Christmas movie, but it is a good one — anchored by supporting roles from Sinbad, Rita Wilson, and, particularly, the amazing Phil Hartman. Arnold gets to poke some fun at himself and his own action-figure career (“Put that cookie down!”). There’s some nice social commentary on consumerism, as well as satire on children’s entertainment, and features probably the greatest Santa Claus brawl ever put to film. Jingle All the Way feels like a film that needs some critical re-appraisement.
The “What Is This?” Movie (Part 3)
11. Commando (1985) – directed by Mark L. Lester
Character: John Matrix
This movie basically invented all 1980s / 1990s action films, at least those in the American tradition. In the first few minutes, Arnold carries a freaking tree, chops wood, pets a deer, and eats ice-cream; later, he brutally destroys an entire army with a combo of machine-guns, grenades, saw-blades, and even a steam-pipe. Everything John Matrix does — whether killing folks or being a dad — he does at 100. Commando so revolutionized the action genre that it feels like a parody due to its subsequent influence. A brilliant crazy brilliant crazy brilliant film.
The Actually Good Movies (cont.)
10. Maggie (2015) – directed by Henry Hobson
Character: Wade Vogel
It’s somewhat understandable to me that Maggie is a bit overlooked. For viewers suffering from post-peak zombie fatigue, the film’s synopsis was probably enough to keep them away; meanwhile, viewers expecting some kind of action zombie flick (…it is Arnold, after all!) were likely surprised to see a very quite, meditative movie with a noticeable lack of…um…zombies (there are maybe 3-4 zombies in the entire film). Really…this is less a horror film and more of a family drama, exploring grief and loss and the guilt that the dying feel (for being a burden to the living) and that the living feel (for still being alive). The zombies are beside the point and play an extremely minor role in the film’s emotional stakes. This is the absolutely the best “old Arnold” role thus far, as his performance is restrained and heartbreaking.
9. Conan the Barbarian (1982) – directed by John Milius
In an oeuvre full of movies that are surprisingly hard to talk / write about (see: Commando, Batman & Robin, etc.), Conan the Barbarian is another that is more complicated than one might initially believe — I often found myself thinking back to this movie during the retrospective, although I wasn’t sure (and am still not sure) what entirely to make of it. On the one hand, Conan is unabashedly masculine and all about physical prowess — Arnold punches out a camel at one point — but, on the other hand, I couldn’t help get drawn into some of the film’s more pensive moments. One senses influence from a lot of traditionally masculine genre work here — e.g. fantasy, war, Westerns, etc. — but the direction often provides a meditative tone. My understanding is that director John Milius — someone whose films I’m largely unfamiliar with — was a similarly complicated character. Definitely worth watching.
8. The Running Man (1987) – directed by Paul Michael Glaser
Character: Ben Richards
Based on a Stephen King story, I believe, The Running Man tops this specific category of Arnold films — i.e. the movies that are definitely good enough to watch but not quite “iconic.” That said, this film feels more prescient today than it did when I originally saw it back in the mid-to-late 1990s. At its core, there’s a pretty damning commentary about entertainment / voyeurism and our complicity (as audiences) of supporting systems that oppress the many and enrich the few. Some suitably goofy character designs, and Arnold has some memorable quips — including one about punching someone so hard in the stomach that it breaks their spine. (Ouch!) But the person who steals the film for me is Richard Dawson, whose real-life hosting experience with The Family Feud undoubtedly helped him in his role here as the villainous host of the most deadly reality-show on TV. The satirical notes remind me a bit of another classic 1980s movie from the same year, Robocop, if you’re familiar with that one.
The Required Viewing Movies
7. True Lies (1994) – directed by James Cameron
Character: Harry Tasker
Now we’re getting into the true “classic” Arnold Schwarzenegger films — the ones that you MUST watch at some point. True Lies is one of several Arnold – Cameron collaborations, and they’re all great in their own way. Tonally, this feels like several types of films mashed together — the opening scene seems very James Bond-ish, much of the middle of the film feels almost like 1940s screwball comedy, and the end moves toward the brand of 1980s action that Arnold helped create. Somehow…all these shifts really work to create a very entertaining experience. Arnold is effective as the all-star secret-agent with family concerns, and both Tom Arnold and Bill Paxton are great in support. But Jamie Lee Curtis steals the movie for me — with one of my favorite gags throughout being that she’s surprisingly good at hurting people. The title — True Lies — is one that I continue to ponder.
6. Stay Hungry (1976) – directed by Bob Rafelson
Character: Joe Santo
Stay Hungry seems to be one of those 1970s moves that has sorta drifted into obscurity — at least I had never heard of it prior to doing research for this retrospective. While the last act has a narrative sub-plot that is played (unfortunately) for absurdity / laughs, I was surprised to find a movie that is mostly thoughtful in its quirkiness, its exploration of a particular place (Birmingham, AL) not often in film, its navigation of the amateur body-building world, etc. The cast here — notably Jeff Bridges and Sally Field — shines, and the direction feels intuitive and surprising. This is, I believe, only Arnold’s second major role (after Hercules in New York), and his Joe Santo is more nuanced and multifaceted than one would expect. Revising the third act of the script would’ve resulted in an even stronger film.
5. Last Action Hero (1993) – directed by John McTiernan
Character: Jack Slater / Arnold Schwarzenegger
In many ways, Last Action Hero suffered in my memory from Jingle-All-the-Way syndrome — i.e. I watched both films as a child and didn’t understand much of their subversive humor and satire. However, watching Last Action Hero as an adult is, thankfully, a completely different experience. While it’s not, in my opinion, the greatest action-film satire of all time (I would give that honor to Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz), it’s a fun film that effectively blasts the genre in which it is a part. Many would argue that Arnold helped birth modern (Western) action in movies like the aforementioned Commando, so it feels appropriate that he’s here at the genre’s death as well.
4. The Terminator (1984) – directed by James Cameron
James Cameron’s The Terminator helped launch a number of careers — not the least of which his own — and helped to popularize the blending of action and science-fiction that would dominate much of the best 1980s / 1990s era genre films. Iconic in its look and ambitious in its world-building (perhaps too ambitious?), The Terminator created the most iconic Arnold one-liner (“I’ll be back…”), which would appear in many more of his films. The idea of a force that is always coming after you is legitimately terrifying, as horror films like It Follows have shown, and you can see the influence of this film on those latter ones. Arnold doesn’t do much “acting” here, but he’s part of the tapestry of a dark, no-nonsense look at fate and obligation.
3. Total Recall (1990) – directed by Paul Verhoeven
Depending on who you ask, Total Recall is often in the conversation for the best Philip K. Dick adaptation — which is pretty significant when you think about all the other good-to-great films based on his work (e.g. Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, etc.). Director Verhoeven — whose other movies include the iconic RoboCop and the underrated Starship Troopers — shows that he has a strong sense of the potentialities of the science-fiction genre and a good understanding of Dick’s characteristic trippy questioning of reality. An infinitely quotable film with lots of weird visuals and healthy doses of dreams, paranoia, corporate greed, and class warfare, Total Recall is boosted by a good performance from Arnold as the “Is-he-or-isn’t-he…?” protagonist who may / may not be imagining the whole thing.
2. Predator (1987) – directed by John McTiernan
Personally, Predator is my favorite Arnold film of all time because I find it to be immensely re-watchable. Anchored by a great score, several strong performances, and a steady directorial hand (for the most part), the movie oozes 1980s machismo, while also demonstrating the limits of that physical strength — after all, it’s mostly dumb luck (and a little smarts) that win out. It also features the greatest, most over-the-top handshake ever captured on film — the perfect encapsulation of 1980s filmmaking — between Arnold and Carl Weathers. At its core, Predator is a horror movie about manly men who encounter something they cannot explain in a place where it shouldn’t be. [Think some of the horror stories by Ambrose Bierce or especially Algernon Blackwood — the premise of Predator feels very akin to the latter’s Wendigo or The Willows, etc.] An enjoyable action film; an even better horror one.
The Best of the Movies
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) – directed by James Cameron
As much as I might personally prefer Predator (due to its re-watchability and horror aspects), I feel that Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is, objectively, the greatest Arnold film. Everything that made the original is improved upon here — better effects, better performances, more at-stake, etc. etc. Linda Hamilton reprises her role as Sarah Connor and effectively complicates her character here from the “last girl” trope in the original to more of a bad ass in the sequel. Robert Patrick is intimidating as the rival, more advanced version of the cybernetic monster (i.e. the T-1000). While Edward Furlong’s pubescent voice-breaks can be grating at times, he also contributes to some of the more personable scenes in the film — especially those moments of one-on-one time with his protector Terminator. Speaking of that Terminator, Arnold is given much more to do here — he’s essentially a Michael Myers / Halloween clone in the original, but T2 thankfully gives him more opportunities to develop and evolve as a character so that, by the end, the audience actually finds itself caring for the discovered humanity in this decidedly non-human figure. Simply put: one of the best movies of the 1990s and one of the greatest action films ever made.
Undoubtedly, Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the biggest blockbuster stars of all time and a truly influential actor — to the extent that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine an entire genre of filmmaking without his significant contributions. Sadly, I think the temptation today for many critics is to think of Schwarzenegger as only a beneficiary of the action film rather than a key contributor to the form — which, upon rewatching, I think is a mistake.
Looking back at his career, the number of great films that Schwarzenegger has directly contributed to is truly remarkable, especially if you’re a fan of genre work. In the list above, you get arguably the greatest action film of all time (Terminator 2), one of the best action sci-fi films of all time, and one of best action horror films of all time (Total Recall and Predator, respectively). You get both a film that basically invented modern action (Commando) and a film that successfully lampoons those very same tropes (Last Action Hero). Throw in a solid action fantasy (Conan the Barbarian), some passable broad comedies (Junior and Kindergarten Cop), a Western riff (The Last Stand), and a quiet zombie flick (Maggie), and that’s a damn impressive, sustained body of genre work!