January 18th, 2013, marks Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to film as a leading man. It will be his first leading role since the ill-conceived Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003. Since then Arnold has appeared in three cameos: as Prince Hapi in Around the World in 80 Days (2004), and as Trench in The Expendables (2010), and The Expendables 2 (2012). It was only in the latter when we finally caught a glimpse of the Arnold of old: a charismatic, semi-invincible tough guy, kicking ass and tossing out one-liners. The same character, more or less, that Arnold is so well known for portraying in films like Commando, Predator, The Running Man, Total Recall, Last Action Hero, and True Lies.
Arnold’s climb to the top was not easy nor was it done overnight. Most people still can’t get past the harsh accent and muscles, but like him or hate him, the man is truly an original. Arnold grew up a poor farm boy in a small, remote village in Austria called Thal. It took him years to become, arguably, the greatest bodybuilder of all time. He’s also a shrewd businessman whose risky investments paid off, making him a millionaire solely from real estate deals. With a name that no one could pronounce and a body that producers’ thought was only suited for Hercules films, it was also a seemingly impossible challenge to become a leading man in Hollywood. The odds that he overcame by sheer will and pure hard work are truly incredible. Later, when Arnold’s movie career grew stale and he became embittered, he even attempted to terminate California by becoming its governor – and he almost succeeded! Schwarzenegger became the first foreign-born governor of California since John G. Downey in 1862. Arnold’s governorship would solidify him as a living example of the embodiment of the penniless immigrant succeeding in the land of opportunity.Looking back on Arnold’s movie career, the decline in quality output can be attributed to the directors that he worked with. His best and most successful films, Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Predator, Twins, Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop, Terminator 2, and True Lies were all helmed by directors who were at the height of their creative powers: James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, Ivan Reitman, John McTiernan, and John Milius. These successful pairings changed around the time of Arnold’s heart surgery in 1997, when producers and studio heads became wary of backing someone they believed to have health problems. Arnold’s steely virility had tarnished in their eyes, and he was relegated to second tier fare in the succeeding years, as he appeared in lesser fare: Batman & Robin (1997), End of Days (1999), The 6th Day (2000), Collateral Damage (2002), and Terminator 3 (2003). However, even before his heart surgery, the link between failure (or at least the inferior films in his oeuvre) and director is fairly apparent. Schwarzenegger’s weaker films were headed by journeymen directors or outright studio-hacks: Chuck Russell (Eraser), Brian Levant (Jingle All the Way), Paul Michael Glaser (The Running Man), John Irvin (Raw Deal), and Richard Fleischer (Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja).
In his new film, The Last Stand, Schwarzenegger plays Ray Owens, a disgraced former LAPD officer turned small-border-town sheriff. A recently escaped drug kingpin (Eduardo Noriega) and his gang are headed toward Owens’s town, which is right in the path of their planned escape across the border. Owens reluctantly rallies his inexperienced staff for a confrontation. The Last Stand is directed by Korean director Kim Ji-woon, whose last film, 2010’s I Saw the Devil, currently has a respectable 7.8 rating on IMDB and a 79% positive review-rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a bizarre and ultraviolent but strangely entertaining movie about a secret agent who hunts down and tortures the serial killer who killed his pregnant wife, only to let the serial killer go free so he can continue to hunt down and torture him. It could be viewed as a case of style over substance, due to its excessive violence, however the film effectively examines the revenge theme, including how it can alter a person forever and the depths that one can descend to when confronting evil.Choosing Ji-woon to direct is an interesting move. Woon is a director experiencing a creating peak. However, this is his first American production, and making the transition to Hollywood can be a tricky one for foreign directors, not only due to language constraints but also studio interference and expectations – which can vary from country to country. So, Arnold is taking a big risk here, at first glance. When looking back on his career, though, the odds of choosing a more creative director appear to outweigh the risks associated with a foreign director who is making his first American film – and holding the reins of your big comeback movie. Arnold has proven himself to be a shrewd businessman and this could turn out to be a clever gamble.
The supporting cast of The Last Stand looks strong (Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Harry Dean Stanton, Luis Guzman)–until one notices that Johnny Knoxville has second billing and appears to be playing an imbecile (at least in the initial trailer). It wasn’t until later, when I saw the Red Band trailer, that I had any real hopes for the movie. The Last Stand appears to be a somewhat big budget B-movie with a lot of violence – Arnold’s bread and butter in the 80s, in movies such as Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Commando, Raw Deal, Predator, and The Running Man. Some of those films worked fairly well, and The Last Stand appears to be headed in that direction. If so, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this thriller achieve financial success, regardless of the inevitable poor reviews.
Expect Arnold’s follow up to The Last Stand, to be a break-out-of-jail buddy action flick with Sylvester Stallone, titled The Tomb, which releases next summer, to be an even bigger event. It has more than double the budget of The Last Stand and features the long awaited team-up of two of the biggest names in action movies – 20 years ago. However, Stallone is coming off of two successful action movies and Arnold’s return is a big deal in the movie world (like it or not). Whether he is still able to conjure up the old magic remains to be seen.
Regardless, Schwarzenegger has a ton of projects lined up, including David Ayer’s film Ten, which Arnold describes as an update to Predator – where members of a DEA task force are mysteriously being eliminated, one-by-one, after a seemingly successful robbery. Upon further examination Ten sounds more closely aligned with the plot of Commando, unless there is some kind of surprise-monster taking out Arnold’s team, which seems doubtful. Ten also stars Sam Worthington and Terrence Howard – so it’s more of an ensemble affair – as was Predator, which is possibly where the comparison lies. There’s also Unknown Soldier and Captive, another possible Terminator sequel, Terminator 5, and a sequel to Twins called Triplets. The Legend of Conan has also recently been announced, which promises to entirely ignore Conan the Destroyer – a wise decision. All in all, it appears as though the Arnold of old is back – lining up projects for years to come although, as in the past, some will happen and some will be forgotten. Whether he can once again become the powerhouse in Hollywood that he once was is still an open question. But there are still many out there who will be rooting for him.
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