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The Action Icon Gauntlet: Schwarzenegger

Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, Statham, The Rock. January and February will see new releases from these titans of action cinema on a near-weekly basis. In The Action Icon Gauntlet, Jeremiah will evaluate their performances and rank their icon standing based on box office take, critical reception and personal bias.

Too old for this shit?

The Action Icon

Arnold Schwarzenegger is the greatest action icon of all time. Not because his movies are the best (that’s a discussion for another time, but his resume is pretty stacked). Not because of his acting (obviously) or his physical abilities (he’s built like a tank, but he’s also as graceful as one). It’s because he embodies the idea of violence on film. His name is displayed prominently on posters for all but his earliest starring roles (sometimes more prominently or larger than the movie title itself) because that name is synonymous with action. No further advertising needed. Going to see a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger means, with extremely few exceptions, that you’re going to see people get bludgeoned and sent to the cinematic afterlife with a well-placed, awkwardly-delivered quip.

Olympus Has Fallen… starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

Regardless of reputation or resume, Arnold’s first starring role since running away from Hollywood to play politician did absolutely abysmal in its opening weekend of business. The $6.2 million that The Last Stand brought in over a holiday weekend is the worst for any Arnold vehicle ever when adjusting for inflation. It’s less than half of what some of his most unimpressive late-career efforts did in their opening weekends: Jingle All the Way, End of Days, Collateral Damage (and we don’t even need to adjust for inflation for these lightweights to trounce The Last Stand). The critical reception hasn’t been quite as discouraging as the anemic box office. The Last Stand rests above 50 on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Not good, not especially bad, but coupled with the ticket sales, it looks like people aren’t that interested in Schwarzenegger movies right now.

People Are Stupid

The Last Stand is good. As a fan of 80s and 90s action movies, I ate it up. The ironic thing is that Hollywood prognosticators are questioning Schwarzenegger’s ability to open a movie based on the poor performance of what is surprisingly not much of a “Schwarzenegger movie”.

He doesn’t kill an army’s worth of thugs. He needs help from his small-town community to stop a cartel boss from crossing into Mexico. He does not show off his muscular physique. His advanced age is referenced a handful of times. He doesn’t deliver post-kill puns (this is the one thing that disappointed me). Hell, he shares equal billing on the poster with Johnny Knoxville. The guy from Jackass!

Instead of Arnie barreling through waves of henchmen, director Jee-woon Kim approaches the story from a variety of angles, detailing the efforts of the cartel boss racing for the border, the FBI agents chasing him and the gang preparing for his arrival, all while Schwarzenegger and his small staff slowly realize the trouble that is heading their way. It’s fast, it’s varied and it removes the onus from Schwarzenegger as others with equally intriguing speaking cadences (Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, Rodrigo Santoro) help advance the plot.

The whole Rio Bravo “community bands together” vibe may be a little corny for those weaned on Predator, but I enjoyed seeing Schwarzenegger at the center of a robust cast of competent characters diverse in ethnicity, gender and age (without anyone making a big deal out of it). The script even works in a bit of personality or backstory for just about everybody (economically and with a minimum of clunky exposition).

At times, The Last Stand feels a bit mechanical in the way it chugs toward the eponymous event, but it’s a well-oiled machine that knows just when to shift in to high gear.

Aging Gracefully

Schwarzenegger can’t keep up with the breathlessly paced modern fight scenes of Bourne and Jason Statham. And he can’t sell the super-serious, psychologically tortured action heroes that have become the norm. Late in a historic 90s run, Schwarzenegger starred in Batman & Robin, the complete antithesis of Christopher Nolan’s mega-successful trilogy. Schwarzenegger needs to be a little goofy. His size and accent demand it, and Last Stand allows it.

Maybe he can’t carry a movie anymore, but he can certainly function as part of an ensemble. Here, he lays low, gets laughs just by saying normal stuff like “citation”, and steps up when called on for an excellent final boss fight. I don’t care what the critics and box office receipts say, this was a great way for Schwarzenegger to reintroduce himself to audiences. His days as an action icon may be over, but his future as an action anchor looks bright.

***

Chill out, Andrew O'Hehir.

Statistics

Opening weekend: $6.2 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 58/55

Best Line: After going all Outlaw Josey Wales on the bad guys, Arnold deadpans a “Welcome to Sommerton.” (I told you it’s not a good movie for quips)

Best Kill: Arnold tackles a guy off a rooftop and as they both fall to the ground, he puts a bullet in the guy’s head.

***

Rankings

1. Schwarzenegger

Analysis: There’s no competition yet, but be prepared for my affinity for The Last Stand to carry Schwarzenegger further than you might expect based on the pathetic opening

***

Next Up: Jason Statham in Parker, yet another adaption of the Point Blank/Payback source material.

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  1. The Action Icon Gauntlet: Statham | Culture Blues
  2. The Action Icon Gauntlet: Stallone | Culture Blues
  3. The Action Icon Gauntlet: Willis | Culture Blues
  4. The Action Icon Gauntlet: The Rock | Culture Blues