When Bad Action Heroes Get Worse
posted by Mike on 7/07/03
A year or so ago I wrote an article on the top action heroes of all time. I touched briefly on the decline of Ahnold's career, which at the time had hit a low point with Collateral Damage. Now, he's banking on sequels to bring him back to the top, 52 year old wrinkled ass and all... But I'm not buying what he's selling. After actually getting a chance to see T3 while still in the theater (a rare treat for me these days) I have to say that Arnold isn't on his way out. He already left.
Gotta get back in time (to when I had a career)
Terminator was the first Arnold movie I ever saw, if you don't count that Z flick Hercules Goes Nutzoid (AKA Hercules In New York) that he made back in the 70's. I'd never really seen anything like it. Of course I was ten at the time, so pretty much anything with an R rating was unlike anything I'd seen before. It was supposed to be an action/sci-fi film, but as I sat there watching it with my dad, I kept thinking that the Terminator was just a futuristic Jason Vorhees, a killing machine that simply would not stop. And after a recent repeat viewing, I still think that. The original plays more like a horror film than an action flick, and that's what I like about it, and also why I strongly disliked T2, and now even moreso, T3.
That's not Arnold's fault, of course. Well, perhaps with T3 it is, but T2's suckitude can be traced right to James Cameron. It's no big secret that action movies make more than horror films. They appeal to a broader audience. He did the same thing with Aliens. He took the original Alien, which was, let's face it, a horror film disguised as science fiction, and turned it into a full-on action fest. Whereas the first Xenomorph was practically unstoppable, now comes Cameron, who turns them into a plethora of exploding props, cardboard targets to jump out at our heroes so they'll have things to shoot their massive guns at. He did the same with T2, and replaced all the fear and foreboding with big explosions and CGI. Sure, it made money out the ass, but what did it really have to compete with that year? Not much. As April proved, people will go see the worst shit imaginable (*coughDaredevilcough*) if there's no viable alternative. I think T2 is looked back on as a classic because of how much money it made, so surely it MUST be good... right?
What's this have to do with Arnold's career decline? A lot. There are actors out there who can take a shitty script and make it shine through the brilliance of their performance. Robin Williams comes to mind. Can you imagine sitting through the shit that was Patch Adams if it had starred, say, George Clooney in the title role? Doesn't quite work, does it? Well, Arnold is decidedly NOT one of those actors. He succeeds or fails purely on the strength of the script he's working with. And he hasn't had one worth a damn since True Lies. In fact, let's look back at some of his more recent endeavors and see if any could be in any way construed as entertaining.
Oh My Gahd! Mein son ist Dart Nader!
Jingle All The Way (1996)
Arnold has had a past with comedy. Not including the aforementioned Hercules film, his first was released in 1977, a western comedy called "The Villain," wherein he payed a true-blue cowboy (and I mean that literally, as he wore a sky blue coyboy outfit through the whole film) named Handsome Stranger, who was trying to save his lady love from an evil black-hearted cowboy played by Kirk Douglas. Most of the gags in the film were ripped straight out of Wile E. Coyote cartoons, but it still has a certain charm to it. Arnold returned twice more to comedy with Twins in 1988, and Junior in 1994 (we'll skip Last Action Hero, since it was hilarious as hell but was SUPPOSED to be a legitimate action flick.) Both were critical failures but made decent money at the box office. Then in 1996 came Jingle All The Way, the story of a father who'll go to any length not to disappoint his son on Christmas morning.
This movie is notable for only two reasons. First, his son is played by Jake Lloyd, who three years later went on to become young Anakin Skywalker in Stars Wars: Episode 1, and made classic SW fans the world over add George Lucas to their lipstick deathwish lists. Secondly, Arnold's neighbor was played by the late, great Phil Hartman, the funniest character in the whole film. Those who miss Phil's work would be shooting themselves in the foot by not adding this one to their video collection, just to watch the 30 or so minutes of the film that focus on Hartman's brilliant performance.
Arnold is as wooden as ever and, as always, no reason is given for his inexplicably annoying accent. At least Van Damme was always a Frenchman, or a Belgian, or so on. Owing to Arnold's complete lack of understanding towards who is hot and who isn't, (he insisted on having a new Guns N' Roses song on the T3 soundtrack because hey, it worked 12 years ago) the role of the evil mailman was given to Sinbad, an actor whose film credits read like a Darwin Awards list. They chase each other back and forth through the whole film, desparate to get the last Turboman doll (a toy that looks like the offspring of Barbie and a Power Ranger.) In the end, Arnold himself gets dressed up as Turboman and uses his super suit to fly up and down the street, ruining the parade his son had come to see, just to impress the kid (we'll ignore the fact that the suit was fully functional and more advanced than anything the U.S. military has put out in the last 30 years.)
You never really believe that Lloyd is his son. You just watch to see what ridiculous situation the Terminator is going to get put into next. The movie tanked at the box office, and hit video faster than the latest Disney sequel. It also didn't help metters that Tim Allen had redefined the family Christmas comedy two years before with The Santa Clause. People can only handle a film that sickeningly sweet every seven years or so...
It's da best US Marshall movie EVAH!!
Arnold plays John Kruger, a US Marshall assigned to the Witness Protection Program. He's an "eraser," an agent who specializes in making the past lives of government protectees vanish. This time, he has to protect Lee Cullen, (played by Vanessa Williams) who discovered that the weapons development company she was working for was conspiring with government officials to sell advanced weapons to terrorists (this is before we learned that all a terrorist needs is a plane ticket and a box cutter.)
The head villain is played rather lackadaisically by James Caan, Kruger's former mentor. Short of a few memorable scenes (due more to the FX used than Arnold's performance) such as the sniper shooting through the house with his new high tech pulse weapon, or when Arnold gets into a fist fight with a CGI alligator, the film is just one long drawn-out chase scene (similar in many ways to T2's plot structure.) The film did alright at the box office, but not as well as past Arnold actionfests.
Then came 1997's Batman and Robin, which I won't bother to cover in any great length because it's awfulness has already been examined from every possible angle. Suffice it to say that Arnold plays a villain best when he doesn't speak. The movie was a disaster, even though it grossed over 100 million dollars (about 200 million less than the prior Batman film.) Arnold's performance was rated the worst, second only to Clooney, who put no effort into the role of Batman at all. He was just his ER character in a Batman costume.
With films bearing his name grossing less and less, Arnold was starting to get worried. So worried, in fact, that he blew a gasket and had to have open heart surgery, putting him out of action for over a year. When he finally came back, his choice as the vehicle for his return to super stardom was a script that read like equal parts Exorcist and Commando, a film wherein Arnold goes toe to toe with Satan himself... and wins.
It's Da Best Cop VS Satan Exorcist/Omen Ripoff Movie EVAH!!
End of Days (1999)
I watched this one again on TV a few weeks back, and am still at something of a loss for words. I can't imagine what made Arnold think that this would be the big one, that THIS would be the movie that revitalized his sagging career. It is flawed in every conceivable way, from plot continuity to set design to the effects to the soundtrack to the direction, and of course, the acting.
Arnold plays a former policeman-turned bodyguard with the unlikely name of Jericho Cane (they were pushing the biblical connection a little far on that one.) Cane is hired to protect Christine, a woman who Satan has chosen to bear his son, the Antichrist. Satan is played by Gabriel Byrne of Stigmatta and Ghost Ship fame, who spends the whole film walking around with a satanic boner, just itching to get into Christine's pants.
A priest in the film, played by veteran actor Rod Steiger, tells Cane "There are forces at work here that you couldn't possibly comprehend." Judging by the final product, I'd guess that one of those forces was the script, as it becomes clear as the film rolls by that Arnold just doesn't have the acting chops to pull off the role he's trying to portray. Arnold is best as the unstoppable action hero. Here, he's a failed cop who ends up facing off against an enemy so more powerful than he that the script resorts to stealing the ending of the Exorcist, having Arnold become possessed by Satan and killing himself to stop Beelzebub from using his body to rape Christine.
Now don't get me wrong. I've been itching to see Arnold buy it in a movie for years, (his quasi-touching ending in T2 notwithstanding) but I didn't know I'd have to sit through such an exercise in plot retreading as this to see it.
Double your Arnold, double your pain...
The Sixth Day (2000)
For any of you who've seen Total Recall, but haven't seen the Sixth Day, don't bother. It's almost the same film. Arnold plays Adam Gibson, a helicopter pilot who lives in an age when human cloning is common place. He narrowly survives a helicopter crash and comes home to find that someone has illegally cloned him, his family completely unaware that they have a fake living in their midst. So he must find out who cloned him, and why, whilst getting involved in many convenient action pieces, including one admittedly cool chase scene involving futuristic helecopters.
The plot is pieced together from bits and pieces of the work of cyberpunk god William Gibson (Arnold's last name in the film being an obvious homage) and the works of Philip K. Dick, the writer of "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?" the novel on which Ridley Scott's classic 1982 Harrison Ford vehicle Blade Runner was based, not to mention several plot points from Arnold's own film Total Recall, which was also based on a Philip K. Dick short story entitled "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." I find it rather amusing that a film whose central plot point is the evils of cloning, is itself a mutated clone of several previous (and superior) endeavors. Its lack of imagination and vision just hammered in the point that Arnold had lost the ability to choose a script that would support and showcase his meager talents. Which brings us to last week's lackluster effort...
Come with me if you want to vomit
Terminator 3 (2003)
Just the fact that Cameron refused to be in any way involved with this film was omen enough for me to suspect it would suck, but the action scenes in the previews looked decent, so I decided to take a risk. Now I wish I'd stayed at home at watched the Wiggles with my kid.
T3 takes all the mythos of the previous two films and shits on it. Everything you know about Skynet, and Cyberdyne, and Judgement Day, is wrong. I won't get into any spoilers, just in case any of you fail to heed my advice and actually pay to see this cinematic plastic surgery disaster. Let's just say that the film is full of plot holes when compared to T1 and T2, and leave it at that.
It's 10 years later, and John Connor is now "off the grid," devoid of anything that could identify him to the authorities. He spends his time hacking into Cyberdyne's network with stolen accounts, trying to wreak as much havok as he can. And then, along comes yet another T-800 (also known as Cyberdyne Systems Model 101) warning him that a new Terminator has been sent back to destroy him (even though they destroyed every last bit of research that Cyberdyne had in T2, along with Miles Dyson, their lead designer.)
This new model is the TX, a female Terminator (also known as the Terminatrix.) The role was shopped around Hollywood for years, at one point landing briefly in the masculine lap of former WWE star Chyna. Instead, the producers went with Kristanna Loken, an unknown actress and former supermodel. John Connor also has new blood in the hands of Nick Stahl, perhaps best known for his childhood role opposite Mel Gibson in The Man Without A Face, replacing Edward Furlong, who's been playing the part of a drug addled Hollywood child actor for the past 10 years.
One thing that you could say about T2, it was heavy on story. Not so here. The story acts as nothing more than the support structure for the action scenes, which are impressive, but not enough meat on the bone to make a full meal, so to speak.
Arnold plays the T-800 like he always has, but is really starting to show his 52 years. This is explained in the film by suggesting that this particular Terminator has already seen a lot of battle, and is a rather worn-out unit... How apropos.
By the time the closing credits roll, not only is another sequel a seeming inevitability, but the possible quality of said sequel is put into serious question. the concepts the screenwriter uses to explain the changes discovered since the previous film seem thrown together at best, and one can only imagine how much more convoluted the series mythos will be by the time it's finally (and hopefully) concluded with T4.
Not that that's dissuading Arnold from his sequel fever. In recent interviews, he's mentioned pre-production ramping up for King Conan, (who the hell wants to see a wrinkly 52 year old Austrian in a loin cloth?) along with True Lies 2 (this one supposedly WILL be done by Cameron) and a sequel to Total Recall, though it could be argued that he already did that one with the 6th Day... Once those three are done, however, where will he go from there? Predator 2 was done with an amazing lack of flourish by Danny Glover, of all people, and Aliens vs Predator starts production in the fall. Commando 2? Nah. Hardly anyone remembers that one to begin with. Red Heat 2? Nope. The Russians are our friends now. No one gives a shit anymore. Red Sonja 2? Fuck no! Brigette Nielson has denegrated in the last 15 years into a skank of Anna Nicole Smith proportions. His only hope are new projects, and as we've already seen, he can't pick a good script any better than Ross Perot can win elections.
Arnold also recently listed a part in next year's comedy remake of Around The World In 80 Days in an as yet unnamed cameo role, and that's where I see his future... playing himself in bit parts in genre comedies like 1993's Dave and 1979's Scavenger Hunt. Pretty soon, he'll be just another direct-to-video star, a road already well paved by his contemporaries: Stallone, Seagal, and Van Damme. He's already ventured briefly into voice work, following in the foosteps of another former superstar-turned almost-was Mark Hammill, lending his indecipherable diction to the animated educational cartoon Liberty's Kids. Oddly enough, he's already offered his voice talents to a series of documentaries about the life of Abraham Lincoln back in 1992... can you picture it? "Fowar Scoware und seben years ago, owar fowarfodders..."
Gnaws at the mind, doesn't it?
But who knows? Maybe that one, surefire script will drop into Arnold's lap, and he'll again ascend into the loving eyes of the mainstream. Until then, we can look forward to more retreads and films that Vin Diesel refused to look at, and remember a time when an Austrian body builder with an accent thicker than quick-drying concrete could be somebody in this country. Damn, we were easy to please...