Being governor was a speed bump to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career. He left public office in 2011 and got busy again in front of the camera.
Arnold’s career had slowed down in the new millennium, as other, younger action heroes emerged. He tried another Terminator film, without any of the past team; it made money, but lacked real impact. He hooked up with Sylvester Stallone for several undistinguished films; the world had moved on from Arnold.
After nearly two decades of success, things started going south with End of Days (1999), and then The 6th Day (2000). Neither were Arnold-size hits. When Collateral Damage arrived in 2002, it felt like Arnold was struggling. It was a revenge film, which was by this time a cliché story device. The film’s violence was meant to be realistic; the impact was nauseating. A snake is put down the throat of a man to suffocate him. Like Stallone and the Rambo series, the comic book violence of past films was replaced by the fashionable graphic style of bullets, blood and body parts.
This new realism separated both Arnold and Stallone from their past work. Their action films were always high on body counts and gunplay; the difference being the level of visual and visceral carnage. Did audiences expect more? Or were these guys trying to keep up with the new breed of action stars and filmmakers? Probably both.
Carnage is not a substitute for good drama. Dialing up the grotesque death and dismemberment quota is a gamble, and a sign of desperation. Today’s films and television programs are very violent by past standards. In an action or horror film, audiences expect it. I have always found the level of violence to be like driving a stick shift automobile. There is a friction point for depressing the clutch, engine speed, and smoothly shifting the gear. Failure to coordinate those results in a bumpy ride. Many of you are probably wondering what a stick shift is? Google it, or ask your grandparents. Violence as an effective story devise consists of the right amount of violence, the graphic display and visceral intent, and the ability of the audience to process it.
Let’s look at one of Arnold’s post-governor films, The Last Stand (2013). This film could have been made a decade or even three decades earlier, it is like an “old” Arnold film. It had humor, comic book violence, a really bad bad guy and Arnold using his skills from a former career to save a small, sleepy town where he is now the sheriff. The difference is that Arnold is now 66 years old, he hasn’t had a hit in many years, and audiences are flocking to movies about comic book heroes now.
The film’s producer hires Johnny Knoxville as one of the goofy featured players, in addition to Luis Guzman for more comic relief, and Forest Whitacre for a bit of class for the cast. The real problem is how to make this film hip as it will be competing against bigger, slicker action films. Include a supped-up Corvette and some skilled stunt driving. Great addition, but still not enough. The big attraction is Arnold in a role that feels like a cross between Kindergarten Cop and Total Recall, except that he is no longer in his peak leading man days. The filmmakers decide to make sure the action is tough and that the violence is not over-the-top, but still threatening and very realistic. Remember the stick shift example. All of these parts must work together.
The Last Stand is a reasonable effective action-suspense film. Sheriff Arnold and his deputies are out numbered against a drug lord and his army, and the FBI is like the cavalry that won’t arrive in time to help. This is very much an old-fashioned Western. If this had been made earlier in Arnold’s career, I believe it would have been a hit. The reviews were mixed, but some critics liked it. Audience reviews were better than average, but fans stayed away. It’s U.S. box office gross did not make back it’s budget. Counting overseas receipts and income from other sources, it might have been a modest hit, but overall, a disappointment.
Let’s move on to Sabotage (2014), made one year later. This is a grim, revenge film, the violence graphic and unrelenting. Like Stallone’s Rambo (2008) and Rambo: Last Blood (2019), Sabotage is hard to watch. The plot of these films is merely the spine to hang blood splattering shoot-outs and gruesome body dismemberment displays. Sadly, Sabotage wastes a good cast and a storyline that could have been thrilling, almost a who-done-it type action film. Instead, director Davie Ayer (Training Day, Fury) goes with a river of blood rather than focusing on the script. The result was a box office dud and a low score on Rotten Tomatoes. Arnold actually gives a reasonable performance, but it is wasted in the carnage.
In 2003, Arnold starred in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Arnold was the only member of the series to return and James Cameron was not involved. The film grossed over $400M worldwide, so it was a hit, but it paled in comparison, financially and critically, to Terminator 2. Arnold was not involved in Terminator Salvation (2009), but returned in Terminator Genisys (2015) which grossed $440M worldwide, but was savaged by critics and the audience. Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) reunites Arnold, Cameron and Linda Hamilton. The film grossed half that of the previous Terminator film, but got better reviews. The Terminator franchise, through films, television, video games and other media, has generated billions of dollars. Money talks and there is always a new audience, so we have not heard the last of the Connors or the Terminator.
Action stars do not live forever, they get old, can’t do the big physical requirements, and younger actors ride the new audience wave. Arnold still makes action films, but he is wise enough to be surrounding himself with other actors and sharing the load. What we haven’t seen a lot of are projects that focus on comedy, which can be ageless. Looking at IMDB.com, Arnold has a number of live action, voice projects, a new Conan film…and a sequel to Twins, called Triplets.