Arnold Schwarzenegger: Action Hero by Trade, Comedy Hero by Heart

Despite being a worldwide mega-star, Arnold Schwarzenegger is underrated in one area.

Mr. Universe. Mr. Olympia. Hercules. The Austrian Oak. Conan. Barbarian and Destroyer. The Terminator. John Matrix. Dutch. Wait, wait. Stop. Run that list back again in your head. This time, give every name it’s own Lock-and-Load Tooling-Up sound effect. Yeah. That feels right. A deserved opening for the man who built a church of action movies. He has a well-earned legacy as the greatest American action movie hero. (Sorry, Mr. Stallone.) In fact, my man’s at the top of the conversation for World’s Greatest Action Hero. Well, him and Jackie Chan. On the occasion of Schwarzenegger’s 70th birthday last week, I spent some time thinking about his films that I’ve dug so much over the last 30 years. And, well, a funny thing happened somewhere along the way. He isn’t my Action Hero, anymore. He’s my Comedy Hero (Who Is Still Also An Action Star, I’m Not Crazy).

We love our lists. Sometimes it’s as simple as ranking a favorite actor’s filmography. I realized my three favorite Arnold movies aren’t any of the action movies above. In fact, six of my top 10 picks for him (see below) are comedies. Granted, there’s very little of his work that isn’t based in action. But, there’s a big difference between Commando and Red Heat.

  1. True Lies
  2. Twins
  3. Last Action Hero
  4. The Terminator
  5. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
  6. Predator
  7. Total Recall
  8. Kindergarten Cop
  9. Junior
  10. Red Heat

I do not apologize. As much as I love Conan the Barbarian and Commando, these are the ones I revisit. Red Heat isn’t a masterpiece. But, when I’m sick and binge-watching movies, it makes me smile. I like Schwarzenegger’s absurd Russian cold-warrior police officer mashed up against what I can only describe as Jim Belushi’s utterly irresponsible take on the American Asshole. He plays, unrelentingly, a selfish prick throughout that whole movie. Even still, these are the ones I go to.

Twins Movie Poster

I watched Twins over the weekend. Knowing the ending, I still teared up when the guys meet their mom. The movie isn’t executed perfectly. There are some loose plot points. But, I love the earnestness that Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito bring to their roles. It’s really the first movie where we get to see Arnie fully embrace the funnier, more vulnerable side of himself.

Despite being a Cadillac lifting, genetically engineered genius strong-man, he doesn’t have any life experience. And he’s smart enough to know it. You can feel his joy the first time he wears a t-shirt or when he finally, uh, finds a profound romantic connection with a woman. He sells that experience. It’s pure joy for life. That’s right, a movie where post-WWII America-sponsored Nazi eugenics experiments meet The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I am damn right. Of course, it’s a heart movie.

I’m not knocking his action chops. I love Predator. The relationship between Mac (Bill Duke) and Blain (Jesse Ventura). The redemption of Dillon (Carl Weathers). All of that juxtaposed against Dutch’s purposeful drive, which ends in a brilliant bout with the Predator. Really, it’s predator versus predator, right? The scenes where Dutch is covered in mud and all you can see is Schwarzenegger’s eyes, white and as wide as they can go. There are some striking shots in that film.

The Terminator, for all its genuine horror, is really a beautiful movie. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is discovering, in our very contemporary understanding, the harsh realities of adulthood. Jobs suck. Especially hard working, low paying gigs. Kids will always casually wreck your day. And sometimes death machines from the future come to murder everyone with your name. Kids learn that everybody poops. Adults learn that everybody dies. The Terminator embraces it’s science fictional aspect to let us explore that very typical coming-into-adulthood journey with the terror of what we might inflict on ourselves.

The film spends its time in contemporary America, but Sarah has the dystopian future knocking on her door. Literally Death, in this case. This is mashed with Kyle Reese’s (Michael Biehn) supreme act of faith and sacrifice. They’ve won the war in the future. But, he chooses a suicide mission to try and save the past. I love it. It’s wild stuff. Arnold’s take on the embodiment of Death and his machine-like, unyielding pursuit is essential to drawing out the meaning in Reese’s choice. Even though the sequels moved away from that dynamic, I still love that whole confused and strange franchise. I’m the guy that’ll pitch you on the value of Terminator Genisys. Even if it isn’t a terrific film. For all that’s wrong with it, it’s the only movie in the franchise that is through and through a Time Travel movie. And, Schwarzenegger’s acting is on point.

It’s a funny thing we do, type-casting our favorite actors. We can go for decades telling ourselves that they are our favorite particular type of actor. Then, one day, we suddenly allow that they may have more than that one amazing gear. I’m not quite sure what the catalyst is for that revelation. I’d guess it’s usually that we hadn’t seen them in something for long enough that we’ve had some time to let some of those baked in ideas dissipate. Sometimes it’s because they’ve been busy doing something else.

In Schwarzenegger’s case, he stepped away for politics for about 10 years. On his return, he teamed up with Stallone for a small part in that action hero nostalgic franchise The Expendables. He took a turn as a lone sheriff, out of his depth, trying to stand up to professionally violent men with nothing more than a Texan’s sense of pride and a comedic side kick in The Last Stand. He got a bit violent and vengeful in Sabotage. But, Maggie and Terminator Genisys are a renewed exploration of that aging man father figure role. These are the types of roles I really dig him exploring. It opens us up to the idea that his career has been more than action flicks and family movies.

We saw his acting chops start to come out very early on. His choices in The Terminator create the space for Biehn and Hamilton to shine. It isn’t just stature that makes him such an imposing figure. His bodybuilding background and his thorough embrace of competition gave him the tools to effectively marshal that stature into something that filled the screen. He knew any fool could stand on a stage. It took skill to make people want to watch you. He brings all of that to bear in the action movies. But, as he allowed himself to take on more comedic roles, he very quickly demonstrated more of an aptitude for acting than just being an imposing presence.

Last Action Hero and True Lies are two amazing films. We don’t talk enough about the brilliance of Last Action Hero. He plays an action movie star who gets brought into the real world through the film fanaticism of a young man and his magic movie ticket. It is a perfect satire of all the most ridiculous movie tropes. It’s definitely under-seen. So, I won’t share any of the plot points. Most important for this conversation, it is the literal embrace of the idea that actors can bring more to their characters than the movies generally give us a chance to see. Action Heroes are people, too. If we cut them, do they not bleed? If you haven’t watched this movie recently, or ever, do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s streaming on Hulu right now.

True Lies Movie Poster

A year later, True Lies came out, and he was at the absolute height of his game. Maximum physicality matched with unrelenting perfect comedic timing. Remember the eyes from Predator? Think about the scene in the hotel. His face is mostly in shadow. His eyes are still lit. And those eyes! So sexy. So silly. His timing and deployment of expressions are perfect. He flows from straight-(action hero)-man to punchline as fluidly as the film demands. The action at the mall towards the beginning of the film climaxes in a sincere horse versus motorcycle chase that ends on the roof of a building. Peak action-hero absurdity. But goddammit it’s fun.

We ride a glass elevator with Schwarzenegger mounted on a horse. He makes nasty I’m-going-to-get-you eyes at the bad guy, riding up another elevator. He also makes small talk by way of apologizing to an unfortunate couple stuck in the elevator with him and his police horse. In the conclusion to the scene, the villain rides off the edge of the building and launches to a rooftop pool in an adjacent building. Schwarzenegger spurs his horse in pursuit, but the horse balks at the last moment, nearly catapulting him to his death. After the horse pulls him to safety, Schwarzenegger sincerely scolds the horse for being a police officer with insufficient resolve.

Then, there’s one of my no-foolin’ all-time favorite scenes. He and his wife, Helen, (Jamie Lee Curtis) have been captured by the Crimson Jihad. He’s about to be tortured. She’s freaking out, coming to terms with the immediacy of her death and that her husband is a secret spy action hero.

Helen Tasker: “Have you ever killed anyone?”

Harry Tasker: “Yeah. But they were all bad.”

The exchange in that scene is comedic perfection. Schwarzenegger sells every single line flawlessly. “Are we going to die?” “Yep.” The excellence comes from his ability to transition straight from that comedic exchange to murdering the holy hell out of the camp. All while his wife stumbles along, caught in the wake of an untimely visit to his day job. This movie would not sizzle were it not for Schwarzenegger’s ability to do so much more than striking intimidating poses for the screen. He’s also got the ability to work with his actors and create space for them to hit their comedic beats.

It’s Schwarzenegger’s skill with finding real emotion in his characters that keeps his movies in my heart. It’s his flair with a comic line and understanding the timing of the scene that psychically imprints his work in my brain. I don’t think about the mud-fight with Predator when you say his name. I think about the joy of his hip-thrusting waltz with Danny DeVito in Twins. I think about him apologizing for all the collateral damage he does in True Lies. That’s his mastery of the art of comedy.

I’m super excited to see what he does with Taran Killam (writer/director/co-star) in Killing Gunther. Schwarzenegger will play the titular Gunther, an arrogant hitman marked for death. His peers have decided they have had enough of his superiority complex and that he needs to be rubbed out. Tell me that isn’t the perfect role for Schwarzenegger’s talents and sensibilities. Saban Films picked up the rights in July, and hopefully, we’ll see it on big screens later this year.

More to Read: