It's Arnold week at Screened, and that would call for a list of his best roles, wouldn't it? Thing is, it'd be a boring one, because we all know it would just come to some jockeying between between Conan, Matrix and the Terminator for the top spot. Thus, I've barred those to make this whole thing more interesting. Even without those, I'd say that the man's actually been pretty shrewd (for the most part) about picking parts that either played to his strengths or craftily played against them. Get ready for some surprising choices, here, and I absolutely guarantee that you won't be able to call #1, even though it'll make perfect sense after you see it.
As frustrated as I am with how roles like this--where tough guys play against type for the kiddies--have actually become the type tough guys must play to, there’s no denying that it’s one of Schwarzenegger’s most influential roles. Action man Eastwood may have already broke his image with comedies like Paint Your Wagon and Every Which Way But Loose, but this role, with all its quotes about ferrets and tumors, effectively created a whole sub-genre. Without John Kimble and his wacky undercover assignment, we wouldn’t have the Pacifier, the Tooth Fairy and Are We There Yet?, et al. For better or worse.
4. Captain Ivan Danko in Red Heat
A little “racebending” was going on in the 80s when Hollywood pitched audiences an Austrian bodybuilder as a Russian narc. The Motherland might see this as camp classic for its mangling of the language, but I was too busy punching my palm over all the wicked one-liners Arnold utters in this sardonic and stone-faced part. Seriously… Arnold + Walter Hill = One Mean, Manly Moive. The team-up with Belushi is perhaps a dark mirror of the one with Danny DeVito in Twins. Both characters are goody two shoes, but this one's going to smash your sorry face through a window if you ever try to step on either of those shoes.
3. Douglas Quaid in Total Recall
The brilliance of Schwarzenegger’s career management lied in how he was keenly aware of his own limitations and of people’s perception of him. If he’s having trouble with English and looks grossly larger than most modern men, then playing a barbarian in some larger-than-life primitive era turns those setbacks into advantages. Similarly, this shrewdly takes his unconvincing appearance as an American everyman and throws it, head first, into a plot about a secret agent’s obviously-bogus cover. He did something similar in True Lies, but I prefer this one 'cause... well.... "Get your ass to Mars!"
The only time Arnold’s ever been eclipsed by another character in a franchise. This is the dude who got top billing over Batman, so that’s saying something. Anyway, Dutch might not be have been that memorable on the page, but he’s unforgettable in action because of how nasty a wringer Arnold got put through on this jungle shoot. My problem with a lot of modern action flicks is credibility. I’ve got to believe that the lead can get his hands dirty and, all too often, a coat of make-up and tidy costume makes that real hard to buy. Dutch looks like he’s suffering from one hell of a fever all throughout this and, when you pile all the mud and blood on top of that, you feel a much greater sense of accomplishment, fatigue and wiped-out relief when he’s sitting in that chopper on the way out of the brush.
1. “Arnold Schwarzenegger” in Pumping Iron
The Austrian Oak's taken plenty of opportunities to stress that this is more accurately described as a “docudrama” instead of a documentary because he and the director intentionally staged and skewed some of it to make Arnold out to be the machine-like “villain” of a more dramatic feud with the “hero,” Lou Ferrigno. Maybe that’s actually him trying to cover his ass for the portions that are less-than-flattering to watch now, but I think it’s more likely that this is where he developed the larger-than-life persona that finally made him a star. If we’re ranking these roles in terms of importance, then this is really the most vital one; the role that got him out of embarrassing flicks like Hercules in New York and into big pictures like Conan the Barbarian.