(Netflix Streaming, July 2017) Most documentaries come and go, sinking to the depths of popular consciousness as their topic becomes of less currency, as events overtake what it presents, as everyone moves on and often retreat in obscurity. But once in a while, lightning strikes. In Pumping Iron’s case, a look at the bodybuilding culture of the mid-seventies had the incredible luck of capturing a showdown between future-megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger, and future Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno. The first half of Pumping Iron introduces its subject through beige gyms and outdated clothing styles, first focusing on the rivalry between Mike Katz and Ken Waller. Documentarian George Butler is working in the prehistory of modern nonfiction movies, but his approach is very much up to the latest reality-TV standard—focusing on drama, introducing his subjects in interviews while showing them interact. After a first half that feels like an introduction, Pumping Iron goes overseas to film the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest in Peoria (South Africa), and in looking at the personalities of Ferrigno and Schwarzenegger. It helps that even at that time, Schwarzenegger is a magnetic presence: flirting, charming, but also capable of playing pranks and demolishing an opponent’s morale. Schwarzenegger, portrayed as a charming villain, overtly discusses how bodybuilding is as mental as it is physical, and how he is willing to use underhanded means in the name of competition. If Pumping Iron remains interesting today, it’s not solely because of its good overview of the then-marginal bodybuilding subculture. It’s not simply because it presents a decent pair of rivalries between bodybuilders. It’s squarely because Schwarzenegger faces off with Ferrigno, and Schwarzenegger wins. But that’s fair—George Butler got lucky, and the only thing to do when you get lucky is to enjoy it.
(On TV, April 2017) While a let-down from the original barbarian epic, Conan the Destroyer does have a few things going for it. It embraces a more team-oriented plot than the first film, bringing a bit of diversity to the adventure while decently presenting a kind of quest fantasy Dungeons-and-Dragons dynamic on-screen. Arnold Schwarzenegger remains the anchor of the cast, but nearly everyone gets a good moment to play or two—Wilt Chamberlain and Andre the Giant show up, Olivia D’Abo is cute as the nominal love interest, but Grace Jones is a special effect of her own even if her acting talents are, well, not up to even Arnold’s standards. Much of the plot is a loose succession of adventures, reinforcing the impression of seeing a quest story on-screen. Lighter on the violence, heavier on humour, Conan the Destroyer may be a bit more accessible even if it loses much of what had made such an impression during the first film. Still, much as the first film remains noteworthy for being an almost-definitive adaptation of barbarian fantasy on-screen, this sequel gets a lot of things right in portraying classical group quest fantasy as well. It doesn’t quite have as much wit as it should, but that’s how sequels go.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) Conan the Barbarian isn’t a great movie, but it does manages to achieve almost everything it aims for and still stands as one of the best movie adaptation of the classic barbarian fantasy subgenre. Arnold Schwarzenegger brings his considerable charisma to the title role—looking like he came from a Frazetta painting could have been enough, but he happens to be immensely compelling even with his limitations as an actor at the time. The film does take a while to get going: aside from the interminable prologues, it takes time until the band of adventurers is assembled and for the film to find its groove. After that, well, it’s straight-up fantasy escapism. While juvenile, there’s a certain honesty to the way the story strips itself down to id-driven violence and ravishing. My interest in barbarian fantasy being limited, I could only appreciate the success of the execution (and there has been quite a bit worse in that sub-genre) without being particularly moved. So it goes—I’m just glad, on some level, that the ultimate barbarian fantasy movie exists … and that it still stands as the definitive one thirty-five years later. (No, the remake doesn’t count.)
(On TV, April 2017) I managed to avoid most of the Arnold Schwarzenegger early comedies the first time around, but now that I’m checking off the last few titles in his filmography, I can’t say that I feel as if I truly missed something. After being underwhelmed by a first viewing of Kindergarten Cop and a second look at Last Action Hero, here is Twins to underwhelm me once more. The basic premise is actually amusing: What if Schwarzenegger played an impossibly perfect guy who suddenly discovers that he’s got a fraternal twin brother played by… Danny Devito. The two offer a striking visual contrast, and their respective styles of comedy are also an interesting match. Unfortunately, once you get past the poster, Twins doesn’t have much more to offer. There’s a bog-standard plot to move things along, but nothing truly interesting other than a clothesline on which to hang the expected comic bits. Some of the humour isn’t tonally consistent—the climactic chain gag seems to belong in another film. It doesn’t help, I suppose, that by 2017 (or, heck, by 1994’s True Lies, four comedies later) we know how Schwarzenegger can actually play comedy—the shock value of seeing an action star mugging for laughs is considerably diminished. I’m not saying that there’s nothing to see here: There’s a funny moment in which Schwarzenegger measures himself against a Stallone poster, Kelly Preston is very likable as half the love interests and DeVito does manage to get a few laughs of his own. But the movie itself is a bit dull and unfocused. Twins still holds interest through its high-concept premise, but the execution isn’t quite up to its own requirements.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) I had managed to miss this film from the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger period, but after finally watching Kindergarten Cop I’m not sure it was much of a loss. As a hybrid between family-friendly comedy and action thriller, it falls uneasily between two chairs: It doesn’t tone town its PG-13 action sequences (meaning that you’ll see people getting shot, even if with only a modest amount of blood), and yet spends a lot of time on the comedic section of its story, with plenty of easy gags about a bulky policeman confronting a group of small children. It doesn’t help that much of the film feels unpleasant, focusing on child endangerment, making so-called jokes about divorce and abandonment, using a script that takes plot contrivances to an entirely new level within a predictable structure. What saves the movie are largely the performances, with Schwarzenegger in fine form as he goes from action to comedy. (He even sports a stylish bead in the film’s first sequence.) In retrospect, it looks as if Kindergarten Cop was a prototype for an entire sub-genre of movies featuring action heroes in kid-friendly movies. The Pacifier, The Spy next Door, The Tooth Fairy … all stem from the same core idea of expanding an action persona to a wider audience. None have worked perfectly yet, largely for the same reasons why Kindergarten Cop feels incoherent most of the time: It’s not easy to pander both to the demands of the action fans and the family-entertainment crowd at once—the slightest hint of violence makes the film unsuitable for younger viewers even despite the promises of the premise.
(On TV, September 2016) I had managed to avoid seeing Commando until now, and it strikes me that this is exactly the kind of movie they’re talking about when they’re talking about generic 1980s action movies. This is the archetypical one: eighties atmosphere, straightforward plot, ho-hum action sequences, a pre-prime Arnold Schwarzenegger (physically impressive, hugely charismatic but not yet comfortable as an actor or taking full advantage of his persona) and Regan-era politics—or whatever passes for them. This, I’ll hasten to clarify, doesn’t make Commando any good. In fact, it’s terrible in many ways: from the get-go, in which a father-daughter-bonding sequence seems to skirt self-parody, this is a film directed without grace or deeper ambition: It simply moves from one generic action sequence to the next without smoothing over the inanity of its plot points. Schwarzenegger’s acting is not good, the lovely Rae Dawn Chong is asked to deliver some rotten lines, Vernon Wells does the best he can in a ridiculous character … and so on. Clunky, naïve and unpolished, it’s a wonder why Commando has endured even today. But, of course, it has Schwarzenegger, a clever succession of chases and explosions, and just enough substance to matter even as other similar movies have disappeared in time. The pacing moves at a breakneck speed, to the point where it’s hard to begrudge anything to a film that wraps up neatly within 90 minutes. Commando is a template more than a film, but—wow—was it ever imitated afterwards. Consider it a lesson in whether it’s better to do something good or memorable.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) As much as I’d like to claim that the zombie subgenre is played-out and should go away, there are always new off-beat ways to approach the same topic. In Maggie, the emphasis is placed on a very low-key family drama set in a post-apocalyptic world, in which a father faces the gradual transformation of his daughter after she’s been infected. It obviously won’t end well, which puts even more importance on the moment-to-moment character journey of the story. Maggie isn’t your usual action-driven horror movie: it’s an extended mourning period, with occasional flashes of danger considering what she is evolving into. The big draw of the film, from a mainstream perspective, is that the role of the father facing the gradual end of his daughter has been given to Arnold Schwarzenegger, here playing a solid man made powerless against what is happening to his child. He does well despite being asked to venture outside his usual persona, but if this is the kind of role that actors cherish, it’s not likely to be considered a must see. Maggie is a quiet, mournful, low-intensity drama and it works at what it does. On the other hand, stretching even a requiem to feature-film length will test the patience of a number of viewers, despite the odd glimpses at a world where zombies have been normalized. Maggie is an average movie, which means that it will work best for those who are already predisposed to the story it means to tell—people outside that group may not find it as compelling.
(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) Where to begin? Terminator Genisys is a big mess of a movie. Not that I care all that much: After all, I’m on record as saying that the first two movies of the Terminator series are bona fide classics, and that the third and fourth ones are nothing more than ascended fan fiction. This fifth instalment has the saving grace of being more ambitious than it could have been, but at this point the Terminator mythos has been trampled so thoroughly that we’re well into the degenerate phase of the franchise: everything gets remixed endlessly and the result is best appreciated as postmodern mush for the fans. Enough is enough: let the whole thing go! But that will never happen and given this certitude, the only thing left to do is to appreciate the good bits and moan about the bad ones. What works is Schwarzenegger being cast age-appropriately and the various contortions the plot has to go through in order to make it happen. The re-creation of the 1984 original is interesting, and so is the craziness of seeing so many temporal loops crashing into each other. On the other hand… Emilia Clarke and Jai Courteney are terrible lifeless choices for the iconic roles they’re meant to reprise. Jason Clarke does better—but while I like the manic episode he gets to play, it severely undermines that character he’s supposed to be. The dumbness of the film can’t be overstated, and its self-conscious status as the first in a new trilogy means that it can’t be relied upon to answer some basic plot questions, leaving them to a sequel that looks as if it will never exist as of this writing given Genisys’s tepid commercial success. (Forget Terminator 6: I want a movie about how the Terminator franchise is being sabotaged by time-travellers who fear that the next film will succeed and bring untold devastation to the world.) At charitable times, I’d call Genisys “interesting”—but at others, I’d call it overstuffed, under-thought, meandering and frustrating. The ruthless simplicity of the first film’s ongoing nightmare has been replaced by a tangled web of fan-service, while the themes and pulse-pounding action of the sequel have been muddled in generic action sequences and puddle-deep snark about modern technology. I would at the very least expect any new Terminator to have something to say about our relationship to machines. Otherwise, well, we’re back to ascended fan fiction.
(Second viewing, on Cable TV, March 2016) I remember seeing Last Action Hero in theatres in 1993, days after graduating from high school, and liking it quite a bit better than the reviewers did at the time. I approached it again with nostalgia-tinted intentions, ready to make a bold claim that its action movie self-referential satire would have been far more successful in today’s vastly more irony-friendly culture. But after actually watching the film, I reluctantly concede that the critics were right then and are still right now: Despite an engaging premise, some spectacular set pieces and a self-deprecating performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Last Action Hero ends up as a film too flawed to be considered successful. Reading up on the film’s troubled production history certainly helps clarify why the result seems so haphazard: the involvement of so many people in writing the script explains why it feels so disjointed and underwhelming. The rushed post-production certainly led to the slack moment-to-moment pacing. Worse: Last Action Hero takes a sky’s-the-limit concept and beats it down to a dull rooftop rainy climax, ignoring dozens of better ideas along the way. It fatally chooses to set its climax in the dingy real world rather than the sunny fantasies of the movies. It doesn’t just make jokes, but underlines each of them twice to make sure that we get it. The kid protagonist is more annoying than sympathetic, the all-evil portrait of New York feels dated (although that one isn’t the film’s fault—NYC’s murder rate is now an astonishing 15% of what it was back in 1990) and much of the plot mechanics should have been simplified to focus on the fun-and-games of the premise. I still like much of Last Action Hero: some moments work really well as comic throwbacks to a specific type of early-nineties action film, director John McTiernan manages to make some of the movie-world action sequences a lot of fun (most specifically the hotel rooftop sequence) and some of the individual jokes do land. But the key word here is “some”: As a whole, Last Action Hero doesn’t manage to achieve what it sets out to do. Why doesn’t anyone think of remaking this film rather than successful ones?
(On Cable TV, January 2015) It’s hard being an aging action star. Stallone seems unwilling to acknowledge that it’s happening to him, but Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to be trying a few strategies to remain in the game long after his retirement years. In Sabotage, he takes up guns and a leadership role as an alternative to fisticuffs and stunts, and he’s easily the best in an ensemble cast. Alas, he may also be the best things in a dirty violent thriller that seems delighted in its own gory nastiness. Sabotage is all about dirty special agents who have come to believe their own mystique and proceed, in the opening sequence, to try to rob Mexican gangsters out of a few million dollars. It doesn’t go well: one of them is killed on-site, prompting an official investigation. When no evidence of wrongdoing is found, the aging leader of the gang goes back to find a unit that has lost its morale. Thing seem to perk up as they train together, but then they all start dying one after another is a series of bloody murders. We’d probably care more about the mystery if the victims weren’t all hyper-aggressive killers –it takes a long time for a lawful character to be introduced, and even then all she can do is being duped and witness the carnage. The ending is very weak, although we’d told that the studio interfered and that the alternate endings available on the DVD are both stronger than the one that ended up in the theatrical release. Even then, Sabotage remains a far-too-violent routine thriller –much like for his previous Olympus Has Fallen, director Antoine Fuqua ought to lighten up a bit. In the meantime, it’s a perfectly acceptable entry in Schwarzenegger’s post-governorship career.
(On Cable TV, September 2014) Once upon a time, in the early nineties, a film featuring both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone would have been An Event fit to explode all box-office records, fannish expectations and critical snark. Now, more than twenty years later, Escape Plan is… just another action B-movie, anchored by familiar faces but not nearly as earth-shattering as it could have been. It probably doesn’t help that the film revolves around Stallone (rarely a good actor, now increasingly ridiculous in his mumbling old age) and a rather hum-drum plot the likes of which we’ve seen a few times already. The action sequences are limp (although two of the fight scenes offer the expected pleasure of seeing Stallone and Schwarzenegger trade a few body-blows), the villains are bland and the film doesn’t build up to much more than the obvious conclusion. Sure, there’s a few twists and turns and flashy “here’s how I did it” explanations… but the film simply has the feel of a low-budget action movie that just happens to feature two of the biggest box-office stars of two decades ago. Escape Plan has the merit of not being actively bad or unpleasant, just not as distinctive as it should have been considering the past caliber of its stars.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) Fast cars and big guns are near-essential ingredients of B-grade action films, and if nothing else, The Last Stand doesn’t try to camouflage its high-concept plot devices. There’s a crazed Mexican druglord high-tailing it to Mexico with a fast car, and there are plucky heroes who literally stand in his way. The entire film leads to its final confrontation, and it’s the kind of structure that’s ideally suited to a low-budget action film. The Last Stand is most notable for being Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring role in a decade (you may recall him as acting as California’s governor during that time), and it’s an adequate return to form for him: his role is generally (despite the usual action-hero heroics) age-appropriate, and while he stars, he doesn’t hog all of the spotlight. Much of the film is forgettable, though: the night-time action scenes blur together, while the engaging cornfield climax leads to an overlong bridge fistfight. While The Last Stand remains well-directed enough (by acclaimed South Korean director Kim Jee-Woon in his American debut) to hover comfortably above most direct-to-video titles, it’s not special enough to warrant more than an evening’s easy entertainment. It would have been nice to see something a bit more ambitious.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I was left unimpressed by The Expendables’ mixture of self-satisfied machismo, gory violence and incoherent direction, so to say that this sequel is better than the first one only requires slight improvements. By far the best creative decision taken this time around is to give directing duties away from Sylvester Stallone and to veteran filmmaker Simon West –an inconsistent director, but one who at least knows what he’s doing. The macho bravado and CGI gore is still there, but at least the film doesn’t struggle to make itself understood once the relatively coherent action sequences are put together. The tone is much improved: Rather than trying to be a humorless pastiche of 80s action films, The Expendables 2 regularly acknowledges its own absurdity, whether in the form of stunned one-liners, or avowed deus-ex-cameo plot developments that allow icons such as Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis to come in a save the day even at the expense of basic suspension of disbelief. As with the first film, it’s the casting that provides much of the entertainment: Sylvester Stallone is still obnoxious in a self-indulgent lead role, but Jason Statham is reliably good, Jean-Claude van Damme relishes his role as an eponymous Vilain, Dolph Lundgren gets a bit more of that “mad chemist” character, while relative newcomer Nan Yu makes a bit of impression as a welcome female presence in the middle of so much testosterone. As far as action is concerned, the beginning of The Expendables 2 is generally getter than its second half for reasons linked to the film’s intention: R-rated Eighties action film were heavy on violence (ie; personalized deaths, usually at gunpoint) while subsequent Nineties PG-13 action films relied more on, well, bloodless action: chases and explosions. This sequel has more action at the beginning, and far more violence at the end, especially when is starts shooting up an airport terminal where no innocent travellers are to be found. Dialogue and plot don’t deserve much of a mention, except to note their role in setting up the action sequences or the terrible self-referential humor. While the film is definitively an improvement over the original, the final result isn’t much more than a routine shoot-‘em up: there is little in The Expendables 2 to spark the imagination or even to discuss once the credits roll. It goes without saying that the entire thing is still an exercise is self-absorbed nostalgia. There is no need for a sequel, even though one is nearly certain given the nature of the franchise.
(On DVD, August 2010) It’s said that films should be judged on the basis of their ambitions, and the least one can say about writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables is that it really wants to be a gift to 1980s action movie fans. The ensemble cast is among the most extraordinary ever assembled for an action film, in between Stallone, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li and others, with great cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, the cast (Statham in particular) is about the only thing going for this film, which is so successful in recreating the eighties that it has forgotten that most action films of the era were deathly dull. Reviving Regan-administration Latin-American politics, the film is mired in a dull banana-republic setting where only Americans can kill the right people to restore peace and deniable capitalistic hegemony. But even worse is Stallone’s action direction, which cuts away every half-second in an effort to hide that the actions scenes don’t have a lot of interest. The explosions are huge, but the rest is just confused: in-between the excessive self-satisfied machismo of the film, it’s not hard to grow resentful at the stunning waste of opportunities that is The Expendables. A perfect example is a dock strafing sequence that could have been great had it actually meant something: instead, it just feels like the gratuitous hissy fit of a pair of psychopaths. But the nadir of the film has to be found in its script, especially whenever it tackles perfunctory romance: Sixty-something Stallone may helm the film, but it’s no excuse to slobber over a girlfriend half his age. Another dramatic monologue delivered by Rourke stops the film dead in its tracks and sticks out as the endless scene that doesn’t belong. Too bad that the script doesn’t know what to do with what it has: despite the obvious nods and little gifts to macho cinema, The Expendables quickly indulges in the limits of the form. Guys; don’t argue with your girlfriend if she wants both of you to see something else.
(Second Viewing, On DVD, July 2010) I hadn’t seen True Lies since it was first released in theatres, and while it has visibly aged since then, it hasn’t lost much of its appeal. Beginning like a competent James Bond clone featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film soon takes a then-unusual turn in portraying a secret agent dealing with matrimonial issues. While this trope isn’t so fresh now after such films as Mr and Mrs Smith (and was adapted from French film La Totale in the first place), it’s still rich in possibilities that True Lies exploits relatively well. Unfortunately, what seems more obvious now are the pacing issues: There’s a mid-film lull that more or less coincides with increasingly unpleasant harassment of the lead female character by her husband, and even the reversal/payoff later in the film doesn’t completely excuse the bad feeling left by the sequence. On the other hand, the action scenes are almost as good as they could be despite some dated CGI work: True Lies may be among director James Cameron’s lesser work, but it shows his understanding of how an action scene can be put together and features mini-payoffs even in the smallest details. The last half-hour is just one thrill ride after another, culminating in a savvy Miami high-altitude ballet. In terms of acting, it’s fun to see Eliza Dushku in a small but pivotal pre-Buffy role as the hero’s daughter or Tia Carrere as an evil terro-kitten –although it’s no less strange to see Jamie Lee Curtis get a few minutes of screen time as a sex symbol and I can’t help to think that Schwarzenegger, however great he is playing up to his own archetype, is singularly miscast as a character who should look far meeker. Uncomfortable mid-film harassment sequences aside, True Lies nonetheless holds up fairly well more than a decade and a half later, thanks to a clever blend of action, humor and married romance. What really doesn’t hold up, though, is the bare-bones 1999 DVD edition, which is marred by a poor grainy transfer and a quasi-complete lack of supplements. We know about James Cameron’s reputation for excess during the making of his movies: There’s got to be an awesome documentary somewhere in this film’s production archives.