The Terminator franchise kept itself going without Arnold Schwarzenegger during his politics-enforced acting hiatus, but it really wasn’t the same without our trusty old T-800 dispensing shotgun blasts and one-liners like only he can, so it was with great anticipation that fans of the series greeted the news that (ahem) he’d be back for the latest installment, Terminator Genisys. To celebrate its imminent arrival, we decided to take a fond look back at some of the brightest critical highlights from a career that includes plenty of blockbusters — and a few surprises. It’s time for Total Recall!
Luring action fans to the theater in 1985 didn’t come much more simply than putting Arnold Schwarzenegger in a sleeveless vest, handing him a weapon, and slapping the poster with the delicious tagline “Somewhere, somehow, someone’s going to pay.” Commando delivered as promised, starring Arnold as a retired Delta Force op whose daughter (Alyssa Milano) is kidnapped by an exiled Latin American dictator (Dan Hedaya) in an effort to blackmail him into assassinating his replacement. Loaded with heavy artillery and big explosions, Commando provides, in the words of Filmcritic’s Pete Croatto, “one of the best arguments available for the action movie as pure entertainment.”
It took a dozen years to make its way to theaters — and did it without James Cameron — but thanks to the durable mythology of the franchise and Schwarzenegger’s welcome return to the title role, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines proved audiences were still eager for more Skynet-fueled mayhem. Starring Kristanna Loken as the first female Terminator, Nick Stahl as the new John Connor, and Claire Danes as his future bride Kate Brewster, T3 relied more heavily on special effects than storytelling, leaving some critics cold — but for others, even diluted Terminator was good for a couple more hours of popcorn entertainment. “A sizable quotient of the movie’s target audience just wants to see stuff destroyed,” sighed the Chicago Reader’s J.R. Jones, “and in that regard Rise of the Machines won’t disappoint.”
Making an enjoyable movie about a monosyllabic, sword-wielding barbarian is harder than it might seem — just ask the folks behind 2011’s Conan the Barbarian, who attempted to update Robert E. Howard’s classic character for a new millennium and found themselves deluged with bad reviews for their trouble. But it isn’t impossible, as John Milius proved with his 1982 Conan, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the beefy barbarian, Max von Sydow as King Osiric, and James Earl Jones as the wonderfully named Thulsa Doom. It’s all very silly, of course, but that’s part of its charm; as Rob Vaux put it for Mania.com, “Its magnificence stems from the very properties we should be condemning with all our might.”
The death knell had sounded for the big, dumb 1980s action movie with 1992’s prophetically titled The Last Action Hero — which, fittingly, also starred Schwarzenegger — but James Cameron helped revitalize the genre with this light, funny, fast-moving thrill ride that boasted likable performances from not only its well-muscled star, but a crackerjack supporting cast that included Jamie Lee Curtis, Bill Paxton, and Tom Arnold at his funniest. Though it was heavily criticized for being misogynist and racist, True Lies combined with Speed to make the summer of 1994 feel a little like the 1980s never ended, and took Cameron’s reign as a Hollywood action king to its logical conclusion while earning the begrudging praise of critics like the Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen, who wrote, “However high your ranking on the culture scale, I defy you to watch this and leave the theatre without a whistled ‘Wow’ followed by a grudging ‘That’s entertainment.'”
Say it’s the mid-’70s and you’re making a movie with a part for an Austrian bodybuilder who plays the fiddle. What do you do? For Bob Rafelson, director of Stay Hungry, the choice was easy: Hand Arnold Schwarzenegger a fiddle. And the results weren’t as silly as they might sound, either — starring Jeff Bridges as the conflicted flunky of some crooked real estate developers who want to strongarm their way into ownership of a Birmingham gym, Hungry earned high critical marks for its assured storytelling and offbeat charm. “When the movie’s over, we’re still not sure why it was made,” admitted Roger Ebert, “but we’ve had fun and so, it appears, has Rafelson.”
Producer Joel Silver and Schwarzenegger teamed up twice during the ’80s, and the results — Commando and Predator — are among any action fan’s favorites from the era. Here, Schwarzenegger must lead a team of tough-as-nails soldiers into the jungle on what’s believed to be a rescue mission for prisoners of war — but which quickly turns out to be a bloody fight against a dreadlocked interstellar hunter (played to perfection by the late, lamented Kevin Peter Hall). Silver’s pictures from the period tended to follow a certain formula, but at this point, familiarity hadn’t yet bred contempt — and anyway, if Predator lacks a surplus of moving parts, it does what it’s supposed to with cool precision. “It achieves a sort of sublime purity,” sighed an appreciative Tim Brayton for Antagony & Ecstacy. “It is Action Movie, nothing more and nothing less.”
One of Schwarzenegger’s most quotable films (not to mention a $261 million box office smash that earned a Special Achievement Academy Award for its impressive special effects), 1990’s Total Recall returned its star to sci-fi after forays into buddy cop territory (Red Heat) and comedy (Twins). A mind-bending adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, it took audiences on a fast-paced, set piece-fueled journey from Earth to Mars, dispensing quips along the way — and proved so singularly successful that no amount of development could produce a workable sequel (or, as we learned in 2012, a worthwhile remake). “Total Recall is too much,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, “but it’s too much of a good thing.”
More often than not, if it takes seven years to put together the sequel to a hit movie, disappointment is just around the corner. In the case of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, however, the prolonged delay worked to everyone’s advantage: James Cameron, a relative newcomer when The Terminator was filmed, had spent the intervening years turning himself into one of Hollywood’s biggest directors, and one of the few filmmakers with enough clout to secure the $102 million budget necessary to pay for both Arnold Schwarzenegger and the super-cool special effects that turned Robert Patrick into a puddle of molten metal. It was money well spent, as T2‘s eventual $519 million worldwide gross proved; in fact, despite its slightly lower Tomatometer rating, many fans believe the second Terminator is superior to the original. In the words of Newsweek’s David Ansen, “For all its state-of-the-art pyrotechnics and breathtaking thrills, this bruisingly exciting movie never loses sight of its humanity. That’s its point, and its pride.”
We don’t often include documentaries in these lists — but then again, there aren’t many documentaries like Pumping Iron, Robert Fiore and George Butler’s fascinating look at the 1975 Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition. The film introduced a pair of future stars who’d trade in heavily on their physiques: Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, who went on to green-hued fame as Bill Bixby’s alter ego in the Incredible Hulk TV series — and while Ferrigno achieved his big breakthrough first, Pumping Iron finds him thoroughly manipulated and outclassed by Schwarzenegger, who spends much of the film displaying the physical skill and ruthless savvy that made him one of Hollywood’s foremost action heroes. “The movie is a very shrewd mixture of documentary and realistic fiction, put together with both eyes and ears on entertainment value,” observed Derek Adams of Time Out.
It was made with a fraction of the mega-budget gloss that enveloped its sequels, but for many, 1984’s The Terminator remains the pinnacle of the franchise — not to mention one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the last 30 years. Subsequent entries would get a little hard to follow, but the original’s premise was simple enough for anyone to follow: A scary-looking cyborg (Schwarzenegger) travels back in time to kill a woman (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to the child who will grow up to lead the human resistance against an evil network of sentient machines. Tech noir at its most accessible, Terminator earned universal praise from critics such as Sean Axmaker of Turner Classic Movies, who wrote, “Gritty, clever, breathlessly paced, and dynamic despite the dark shadow of doom cast over the story, this sci-fi thriller remains one of the defining American films of the 1980s.”