Monday, January 04, 2016

Of recent Arnold Schwarzenegger

So has anyone else out there been curious what the Governator has been up to since he left office? I have been.

It's a bit odd, actually, because there are very, very few early Arnold films I liked. Neverminding his limitations as an actor, he's too cute, too smug, too often miscast as some sort of American everyman, and, worst of all, the people who preside over his films have an almost insulting prediliction for playing on his past successes by repeating aspects of them. Nevermind all the sequels: it's the whole 80's tag-line thing, in particular, that dates and diminishes so many of his films. Like, when "I'll be back," from the first Terminator film, caught on as a (natural, authentic, and obviously pre-internet) meme, someone apparently decided that - nevermind repeating that exact phrase, which I believe happens at least a couple of times in his filmography - giving Schwarzenegger corny one-liners was an essential aspect of his success, that had to be forced into every film to guarantee its bankability. He can't defeat villains without a closeup and a smarmy punchline: "you're fired," at the end of True Lies, say. These moments become as indelible an aspect of his presentation as "Yippee-kay-yay motherfucker" was (is?) to Bruce Willis' character in the Die Hard franchise. I guess catch phrases have a venerable history in comic books, and I suppose it's a reasonable surmise that people who go to sequels aren't exactly hungry for originality, WANTING to see certain formulae repeated from film to film, but what pleases an audience during the initial run of a film, by making them feel like they're participating in some mass phenomenon (groaning en masse at the corny joke), often ceases to work outside the context of mass participation, years later, on home video. The catch phrases cease to catch anything, seem dated and unnatural, threaten to take you out of the context of the film and into an imaginary behind-the-scenes meeting room where producers and studio honchos and such sit scheming: "what can we have him say here? Hmm. How about..."

Anyhow, Schwarzenegger's filmography suffers from such phenomenon more than most. It's actually kind of a rare treat to stumble across one of his films from back in the day that actually feels FRESH still, that DOESN'T seem dated, DOESN'T seem like it was written in a boardroom. My favourite is probably Commando - a film that holds up far better than I could have imagined. Seeing it recently reminded me that there were actually things I genuinely ENJOYED about Schwarzenegger when I was a kid, before they got ruined by repetition, over-formulation, boardroom manipulation and such. 

So I've been watching some of his other movies, made since he returned to acting full-time, and what do you know, I've enjoyed two out of three of them!
The Last Stand is directed by Kim Jee-Woon, who made a terrific, if nasty, Korean revenge film called I Saw the Devil awhile back.  ( I haven't seen Kim's A Tale of Two Sisters. I was less fond of his spaghetti western tribute, The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, but I generally don't care for homages to spaghetti westerns, unless they're directed by Alex Cox). While this is very much a formula film, it believes in itself and its characters and manages to have fun with them, without feeling like it's pandering. It kind of reminded me of the movies Walter Hill went on to make after his classic period (1975-1982), except it actually works: you like the good guys, dislike the bad guys, and get invested in the final confrontation. Along the way there's a fun supporting cast - Johnny Knoxville plays his character like he's Brad Dourif's understudy, Forest Whitaker and Luis Guzman do what they do well, Harry Dean Stanton has a fun cameo, and Peter Stormare does the best job I've seen him do of disguising his accent as something almost believably American. Schwarzenegger is at least believable as a former big city cop trying to find peace by policing in a small town, and not being allowed; interestingly enough, he actually refers to himself as an "immigrant" at one point, which is kind of refreshing, given how many films he's acted in where he's been given implausibly American names and somehow supposed to represent the average Joe. 
Escape Plan - the title is usually stupidly presented so that the word "plan" almost vanishes  teams Schwarzenegger with Sylvester Stallone, who is actually the star. It's maybe not as a satisfying a formula film as The Last Stand, but there are tons of interesting aspects to it, not the least of which is seeing two men associated with some of the most conservative and reactionary films of American cinema of the last thirty years playing prisoners who suffer in a maximum security lockup alongside detained Muslim jihadis; who are subjected to the equivalent of waterboarding and other Gitmo-ized torture strategies; and who - especially as their tortures get worse - embrace, apparently, an anti-government, anti-authoritarian worldview, with Schwarzenegger being associated with a character plotting to bring down the banks, worldwide, and Stallone - whose character is seen originally co-operating with a privatized penal system designed to replace extraordinary rendition, which is explicitly mentioned - eventually becoming his ally. It's not the first time either actor has played characters who were at odds with authority, of course, but it's still dizzying to see the star of True Lies - one of the most harmful/ dangerous/ racist propaganda films around - fighting alongside a radical Muslim against a common enemy, and still being one of the good guys. Even more interesting is the fact that Schwarzenegger does something that I don't recall ever having seen him do in a film before: he has a freakout scene where his character, so distressed by the tortures he's experiencing, REVERTS TO GERMAN for a several minutes. Correct me if I'm wrong: I don't think he ever did that when he was trying to sell himself as Mr. America.  Hell, they even give him a believably foreign name - Emil Rottmayer! 

There are plenty of things that don't work so well about the movie, mind you. For one, the prison guards all wear masks, for no reason that is ever explained, presumably because it looks cool, and so Stallone and Schwarzenegger, when they team up, can use their powers of observation to figure out who they are despite the masks. But the surprises the film offers are striking enough that I enjoyed it immensely no less. Jim Caviezel, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Vinnie Jones pitch in ably, and Sam Neill pops up in a role so minor you wonder if he's had a career setback or something (still always good to see him in a movie, though).  
Last and least; Sabotage. Skip this dog. Confusing story that seems unclear what it wants to accomplish or what its moral centre is; it's not even clear who or what is being sabotaged. An elite DEA team steals money from a cartel, but the money goes missing, then members of the team - mostly unsavory characters - start turning up dead; is it the cartel exacting revenge, or is one of them betraying the others to get the money themselves? The film doesn't know how to make you to care about or identify with them; only one, played by Joe Manganiello - a werewolf in True Blood - manages to be vaguely charismatic in his bad-assedness, but he doesn't get to do much with it. The film even provides alternate heroes and points of identification, in Olivia Williams - whom I best know from Polanski's The Ghost Writer, where she played Pierce Brosnan's wife - and Harold Perrineau (under-used as usual; I like him, but he's wasted here). They play internal affairs types investigating the murders. Williams very nearly makes the film worthwhile, but the star power is with Schwarzenegger, who heads the corrupt DEA team, and he seems as confused as anyone as to whether he's supposed to be a hero or villain. Maybe at some point people thought of him as a Hank Quinlan character, whose larger-than-lifed-ness will impress even as his evil dismays? They don't really pull it off, if so, and it's not the only thing about the film that seems a bit bungled. I've respected (though haven't loved) all other David Ayer films I've seen - he also directed Harsh Times, Training Day, Street Kings, and End of Watch (and Fury, unseen by me) - but he seems to have lost his way on this one.   

All of this leaves me kind of curious to see Maggie, the only recent lead role of Schwarzenegger's I've managed to miss thus far - and a zombie film, no less! But I'll hold out until I stumble across it for $5 at a pawnshop (or less at a thrift store), which I'm sure I will eventually. I didn't miss Schwarenegger at all while he was off being a politician. I'm kind of surprised to discover that I'm glad he's back. 

(No reference to The Terminator intended). 

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