by Rob Stimpson
The dust has finally settled on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to headlining Hollywood movies. The Last Stand has completed its course, and underneath all of the knee jerk reactions and the unimpressive box office figures comes one underlying question: does cinema still need Arnold Schwarzenegger?
In short, the answer is a resounding yes.
Let’s not get our wires crossed, Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t a honed example of his craft. He’s no Brando, De Niro or Day Lewis, but we already know that; it’s a superfluous argument to revisit. More importantly, Arnold seems to know this as much as anyone else. He is a man who seems keenly aware of his limitations in regards to acting. So as he returns to an entertainment industry now more rampant with uncontrollable egos, it is somewhat refreshing to see a serial achiever, a seven time Mr. Olympia and a former Governor of California, no less, seem grounded enough to realise that his film career is more guilty pleasure than aesthetic indulgence.
What Arnold brings to the table is something that appears to have become taboo in the cinematic world; fun. In a recent comeback interview with the Daily Mail, he dismissed retirement completely – “Retire from what? From having fun?” It’s hard to imagine any of the aforementioned masters of the acting craft ever going on the record to say that filmmaking is a fun process. What they and their elite contemporaries have offered over the years is a piece of themselves, moulded and transformed into a character entirely of their own making. It must be a truly gruelling process, and the resulting bodies of work are absolutely irreplaceable in the cinematic canon. But not everyone needs to aim for those heights. As an audience we love to see the pinnacle of this industry time and again, but that cannot be the entirety of our filmic sustenance.
In the decade or so that Arnold spent away from our screens, running the ninth largest economy in the world (as it stands), a few things changed. Comedies became less funny, action movies drowned in CGI and horror films simply disappeared off the face of the earth in a flurry of gore and entrails. The same decade saw the explosion of social networking, the age, and influx, of the amateur creator and the solidification of non-stop 24 hour entertainment of all descriptions and fetishes. Whether a direct consequence or not, this time frame also saw the creative well run dry. Franchise after sequel after prequel after failure after flop has seen cynicism replace fun in the order of multiplex emotions. Movie making is now so obviously business orientated, and thus so afraid or taking chances on originality, that the remaining shreds of magic need to be guarded intently lest going to the cinema for entertainment should turn into a thing of the past.
Maybe it’s nostalgia, then, that makes this towering, oaken Austrian, seem like some distant saviour from those halcyon days of last century. Or maybe, more than ever, the film industry needs a huge character who is full of self-deprecation, knowingly mocks at his own limitations but, most importantly, is so evidently having an absolute blast. It is often argued that escapism is a key ingredient in enjoyable movies. Although most gritty, weighty award winning films about a bitter divorce, a historical dark spot, or a fatal illness, can enchant the world, more often than not they bring issues a little too close to home rather than take an audience out of their own world. In the ten years between 1984 and 1994 Schwarzenegger can lay claim to The Terminator, Commando, Predator, The Running Man, Twins, Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and True Lies. None of these titles are classics in a traditional sense, but they have that magic that can take an audience out of their life, whatever their circumstances, and entertain them for a short period of time. Quite simply, they are fun movies that aren’t weighed down with a sense of their own importance. They are there to be enjoyed, and though critics may sneer at them, the general public hold them in very high affection. Should one of them be screened on TV on a rainy Sunday afternoon, that title will invariably start trending on Twitter, or flood the newsfeeds of Facebook. Beneath the image, the machismo, the cheesy one liners and some audacious plots, this man is relatable. Maybe these people have memories invested in these films, maybe people like the fact that he gate-crashed his way into Hollywood superstardom with nothing but muscles and the thickest Austrian accent on record, or maybe people just like his wonderfully strange comedy timing.
Arnold perfected a role, and it is one that people enjoy. During his “retirement” years, nobody stepped up to fill his boots. Nobody had the personality or the charisma to do so. But you can’t blame those who tried and failed; this is Arnold Schwarzenegger, after all. Without his presence, the action movie genre in particular seemed stagnant, bereft of ideas and personality. And now he’s back; not the same man in appearance, firmly entrenched in his mid-sixties as he is, but the same man in intent and magnetism. Even his short, Smart-car-destroying cameos in the two Expendables movies seemed to lift the mood of those respective films, however fleetingly. But now cameos are being exchanged for leading roles, but only time will tell if he can still pack the same punch as before. One thing remains certain, though; Hollywood is a more interesting place with him around.