Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
In this week’s installment, we’re focusing on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best films. And to make it a little more challenging, we’re not including the Terminator movies — partly because we’ve already talked about those, partly because they’re so iconic that we want to show some love to his other gems.
The secret to Arnold’s success wasn’t his mountainous physique, although that no doubt helped. He was a star because he understood the power of presence, giving us a superman in our midst who seemed both invulnerable and enticing. And as his career went along, he proved adept at action, comedy... even a little drama. The world kept underestimating this bodybuilder — he kept proving them wrong.
So without further ado, here are Schwarzenegger's five best non-Terminator films. We won’t see someone like him again in our lifetime — or in the many different dystopian futures in which a lot of his iconic movies were set.
The Running Man (1987)
Whoooooooom do you love? Arnold was still in ‘80s genre schlockmeister mode here – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but starting to transition into more mainstream fare. He picked the right project with The Running Man. He’s helped along enormously by the ingenious premise (a futuristic game show in which death row convicts compete for their lives, based very loosely on a Stephen King/Richard Bachman book) and an all-timer of a villain performance from Richard Dawson, of all people, sending up essentially his life’s work. Arnold was still mostly growls and roars here, but his sense of humor and his lightness on his feet are clearly evolving. The movie remains endlessly, compulsively re-watchable.
Kindergarten Cop (1990)
It’s a great comedic premise: Pair the towering Arnold with a bunch of bratty kids. Even better, the idea works. Kindergarten Cop is a goofy delight that shows the superstar tapping into some of the same self-effacing comedy that worked for him with Twins. He plays John Kimble, a Los Angeles detective who goes undercover in Oregon as a teacher to determine the whereabouts of a runaway drug dealer. Lots of juvenile antics ensue, and Schwarzenegger is great as the film’s straight man, believably playing a high-octane cop beaten down by these adorable tykes. He’s even a decent romantic leading man, falling for a local single mom (Penelope Ann Miller) who may hold the secret to Kimble’s investigation.
True Lies (1994)
Not everything in this has held up over the years — the stereotyping of the terrorists has not aged well at all — and it’s hard to think of the film now without being reminded of the assault accusations brought by Eliza Dushku. But while this is definitely among the lesser of James Cameron’s films, it still has its moments. This is a more straightforward actioner for Cameron, and Schwarzenegger, at the peak of his movie star powers, carries it effortlessly, even if he’s pretending to play a Regular Fella Who’s Actually A Spy. Arnold has real chemistry with Jamie Lee Curtis, and he even gets to threaten a gloriously slimy Bill Paxton.
Total Recall (1990)
It’s always a little goofy to cast Schwarzenegger as a regular guy, because he so profoundly doesn’t look like a regular guy. (In fact, he looks a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
But that’s just one more loopy element to this bonkers sci-fi thriller about a blue-collar dude who decides to try a new service that allows you to take a virtual vacation — only to learn that he may have been brainwashed and his entire life is a lie. Cue tons of action extravaganza and director Paul Verhoeven’s usual mix of glorious excess and social commentary, drawing from the Philip K. Dick story’s undercurrents of paranoia and concerns about the unreality of reality. Arnold goes nuts, especially as the film rolls along, and it’s a triumph of giddy late-‘80s/early-‘90s blockbuster filmmaking.
There’s a reason all the sequels, reboots and remakes keep falling short of the original: It’s really good.
The joke of the original poster is that you think the titular predator would have to be the shirtless, hulking Austrian: He’s Arnold, after all! The terrifying joke of the movie is that he, and his fellow tough guys, aren’t just the weaker species here... they’re actually being hunted for sport.
Arnold and his gang play this just right, in a movie that’s got a little more grit and dirt under its fingers than it is often given credit for. The Predator was a worthy adversary for Arnold. It might remain one of his only ones.