Arnold Schwarzenegger and his post-politics movie choices

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Ten years after completing his tenure as the Governor of California, Arnie has split his time between sequels, team-ups, and a couple of surprises – and we’ve been looking back at the movies he’s made.

This feature contains spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate.

He told us he’d be back. When Arnold Schwarzenegger left Hollywood behind to successfully run for office in California back in 2004, his parting shots were a cameo in the Jackie Chan movie Around The World In 80 Days, another go as the Terminator in Rise Of The Machines, and a symbolic passing of the torch to Dwayne Johnson in Welcome To The Jungle (not the Jumanji one), even if it took the then-up-and-coming star a while longer to fill those shoes.

During his time in office, his turn to politics brought plenty of ridicule from satirists and commentators. Schwarzenegger has previously said he would definitely want to run for the presidency if he were a US-born citizen, a prospect which doesn’t sound so bad now that The Simpsons' other worst-case scenario for a celebrity president has come to pass instead. And since completing his term in 2010, Arnie has returned to acting.

Mind you, not all of his plans have come to fruition. Beyond reprising his role in the Terminator franchise, he’s been long beating the drum on a Twins sequel called Triplets, starring Eddie Murphy as another sibling of Arnie and Danny DeVito, a film that keeps teetering on the edge of production. He’s also expressed interest in making a third Conan movie, which would take a page out of Logan's book, but that story is still yet to be told.

On occasion, he’s looked to be on the verge of a shift to the small screen. Shortly after leaving office, he revealed that he was developing an animated superhero series called The Governator with the late, great Stan Lee, but this fell by the wayside after a very public divorce case in 2011. He also spent a much-ballyhooed spell as the host of Celebrity Apprentice USA (Arnie said “You’re fired” better in True Lies anyway) and he’ll soon take his first scripted television role in Amazon’s western series Outrider.

But for most of the last decade, Schwarzenegger has maintained a big-screen profile through a series of ensemble action movies, sequels to previous outings, and one or two departures from the sort of fare we usually expect from him.

Burying the hatchet

Towards the end of his term of office, the Governor was already eager to return to making movies, and his initial return felt like something of a statement. There are many amusing stories about the behind-the-scenes rivalry between Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone during the 1980s and 1990s, not least the one about each of them demanding bigger guns or knives than the other had used in successive movies.

But over time, when the box-office battle was done, they’d found they had more in common than they realised and became friends. And so, the overture to Arnie’s return to acting came with a much-hyped cameo appearance in 2010’s ensemble actioner The Expendables. Schwarzenegger’s brief role as the marvellously named mercenary Trench Mauser was uncredited, but it was a landmark in Hollywood action cinema for having the two mega-stars properly share a scene.

Schwarzenegger didn’t actually leave office until the end of that year, but the timing of this return to action cinema was auspicious. While he hadn’t intended to go straight back into a franchise, he wound up reprising the role of Mauser for a slightly larger role in 2012’s The Expendables 2 (in which Bruce Willis’ snippy retort “You’ve been back enough” is a rare, genuinely funny moment) and a functional “the gang’s all here” cameo in 2014’s The Expendables 3.

In between those sequels, Schwarzenegger and Stallone shared top billing on Mikael Håfström’s Escape Plan. Released in 2013, the prison-break thriller had their characters on the same side, but still found a reason for them to trade blows in a crunching, knock-down brawl that had everything action fans had ever wanted from a “versus” match between the two, albeit a quarter of a century later than they had wanted it. That aside, Arnie is on scene-stealing form as a dark-horse inmate with a tendency towards screaming fits.

While egos may have cooled over time, the difficulty of these collaborations is that they rarely felt like the big events that they should have. Escape Plan is a perfectly serviceable three-star action movie, but the Expendables movies have a terminal problem (for lack of a better term) with not living up to their titles and letting all the big names out alive. Heck, wouldn’t the movies have had greater stakes if a Schwarzenegger cameo appearance had been used to kill his character off in the first act?

Back again

Reportedly, it was original director James Cameron who hit upon the idea of a Terminator’s synthetic skin ageing as a human’s skin would, essentially granting the franchise’s stakeholders a way of bringing back Schwarzenegger as different T-800 models. He has duly appeared in two new sequels since, both of which use this approach while being utterly separate from one another on the increasingly unstable Terminator timeline.

Notably, neither film credits him as the Terminator. In Terminator Genisys, he’s billed as Guardian and affectionately nicknamed “Pops” by Emilia Clarke’s alt-timeline Sarah Connor. Alan Taylor’s reboot of the series reconciles various casting changes with a Star Trek-style contrivance about multiple timelines.

Having skipped 2009’s Salvation (which featured CG-body double Roland Kickinger as a T-800 instead), Schwarzenegger was the main focus of the marketing for the film, particularly for a brawl with the model that arrives brand-new at the start of the 1984 original. In the film itself, he’s largely used as the silver-haired comic relief, taking any opportunity to revisit a deleted scene from Terminator 2 where he does a big awkward grin.

Schwarzenegger was signed up for two further sequels to make up an intended new trilogy (there’s a lot of that going around in the Terminator franchise) and after Genisys failed to set audiences alight, he was still invited back for last year’s Dark Fate, a softer reboot with a harder edge, courtesy of a new story devised by Cameron.

The domestication of this model, credited as Carl, is played for as much pathos as comedy, positioning Schwarzenegger as a Terminator who achieved its mission and spent 30 years working on himself. Playing second banana to Linda Hamilton for the first time since 1984, he’s the logical extension of an infiltrator or a learning computer here.

Given the box-office underperformance of Dark Fate, further outings seem unlikely, but for a role that’s had so many different iterations across five films, this does feel like the logical conclusion of Schwarzenegger’s time in the franchise. Both this and Genisys are variations designed to account for his advanced age, matched by CG body-doubles along the way, but there’s not much else he can do that he hasn’t already done in almost 40 years of playing it.

Branching out

Arnie may not be famous as a thespian (there’s a reason why the “Not to be” Hamlet gag is the best-loved part of 1993’s Last Action Hero), but the Austrian Oak has taken the opportunity to branch out over the last 10 years too. While he’s unlikely to make a bid for the Oscar, he has at least made a few left-field choices outside of his more typical fare.

One outing that showed a bit of promise was 2014’s Sabotage. With the calibre of Training Day, Fury, and End Of Watch behind director David Ayer, we hoped for more from the promise of a hard-boiled update of And Then There Were None, based around a corrupt DEA task force. Unfortunately, the result is so nasty and cynical that it’s a rare film in which it’s really difficult to care about anything Schwarzenegger is doing.

2015’s Maggie was arguably more successful as a showcase of Arnie’s range. Released in selected cinemas a few weeks after Genisys, this indie zombie drama was chronically underseen and the star’s work as a Kansas farmer caring for his infected daughter (Abigail Breslin) was sadly underrated as a result. Likewise, 2017’s violent revenge drama Aftermath went straight to video-on-demand but didn’t earn as many warm notices as Maggie.

Later that same year, he had another run at comedies, taking the title role in the hitman mockumentary Killing Gunther. Written and directed by Saturday Night Live's Taran Killam, the movie’s absurd sense of humour aspires to documentaries like Exit Through The Gift Shop with its numerous twists and turns and boasts a suitably ludicrous performance from its star.

And then, bizarrely, there was that one time he played Captain Hook. Viy 2: Journey To China is a Russo-Chinese fantasy adventure sequel that was released overseas last summer, with Jason Flemyng and Charles Dance reprising their roles from 2014’s Viy and Schwarzenegger joining the cast as a version of the famous fictional pirate. We’ve yet to hear about a UK release date yet, but we have to admit, we’re curious to see it.

At long Last Stand

We’ve deliberately saved the best for last here, because there’s exactly one film Schwarzenegger has made since returning to acting in 2010 that shows exactly how to use him in this era of his career. Directed by South Korean maestro Kim Jee-woon, The Last Stand is a terrific modern remix of High Noon, set around a tiny American border town that’s besieged by a drug cartel.

Schwarzenegger plays Sheriff Ray Owens, whose Sommerton Junction police department awaits a high-tech onslaught from an escaped drug lord (Eduardo Noriega) who is high-tailing it back to Mexico. Produced a little while after Machete lampooned the Mexican border but a long time before supposedly ordinary Americans started chanting “build the wall”, this is a really solid Western actioner.

Most movies don’t try to hide Schwarzenegger’s European origins, but barely pay lip service to them either. In this case, as well as being a really fun movie to sit and watch with a couple of drinks and a takeaway, The Last Stand engages with the star’s age and Austrian-American heritage like nothing else he’s ever made before.

Sure, the jokes about his age are foregrounded (“How you feeling, sheriff?” “Old.”) but this uses his status as an immigrant-turned-American citizen to startlingly strong effect, allowing Owens to act out of duty as the strong arm of the law but also bristle at the anti-immigrant sentiment that surrounds US-Mexico relations. It’s not nuanced, but Jee-woon makes it a lot of fun.

And maybe it’s just us, but it seems like Arnie’s performance is better and more engaged than in anything else he’s made since 2010 as a result of the character being tailored to him. Certainly, it’s the only film in which he has ever convincingly played an everyman. Plus, it’s a film that has aged exceptionally well with the ongoing furore over the border, especially with a film like Rambo: Last Blood putting their foot in it as recently as last September.

In the end, Lionsgate dropped The Last Stand in cinemas in January 2013, traditionally a dumping ground for films like these, and it didn’t make as much of a splash as it deserved. For our money, it’s the best Arnold Schwarzenegger film of the last 10 years, if not the 21st century altogether, but then it’s always been better to see him in roles that play to his strengths, acting or otherwise.

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