Through the 80’s and 90’s, there was no bigger action star than Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger. He was born in a small village in Austria and began his young adult life serving the mandatory one year in the Austrian military. He decided that his ticket to a better life was body building, and he eventually became one of the greatest body builders on the planet. Through his body building career, he made his way to the United States and eventually overcame a language barrier to become an action film star. The film that began his career was an adaptation of the classic Conan the Barbarian story released in 1982. He was in other films and even a little television prior to Conan, but that character really launched his career. Who would have thought he’d end up being the Governor of California? Regardless of what you think of his political career, there’s no doubt that he’s an important part of film history. Throughout his career thus far, he starred in 41 films. It’s challenging to narrow the list to the 10 best. That’s not saying that he didn’t do some duds, End of Days anyone? Here’s the list of what I think are his best efforts:
10. Conan the Barbarian
Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger could barely speak English for this film, but that was ok because this is, after all, a fantasy film where who knows what the proper language in this world. Arnold was a massive presence in this film physically and charismatically making it a cult classic and a true beginning to the Governator’s career. He returned to this character for a second Conan film and again to a very similar character for the comic book adaptation Red Sonja. Most of Schwarzenegger’s films feature great quotes. This film doesn’t find him super chatty so the quotes aren’t as strong as in other films. Here’s a bit of one of his better monologues: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
9. Kindergarten Cop
Schwarzenegger is an action star without a doubt but a few times in his career he actually starred in comedy or comedy-ish film. There’s Kindergarten Cop and of course Twins. This film works on a couple of different levels. There’s the classic “I’m big and you’re small” jokes because Arnie spends a great deal of the movie with little kids. Also, precocious little kids doing what they do and Schwarzenegger playing a grizzled cop made for some fun stuff in this film. The film also starred Penelope Ann Miller who was starting a career high at the time of this film. The film features tons of comedy, a bit of innocent romance, and even some action. This is a Schwarzenegger film after all. In this particular film the quote comes from one of the kids rather than from Arnie: “Boys have a penis, and girls have a vagina.”
8. The Running Man
The Running Man was a film based on a Stephen King novella written under a pen name. The film manages to be a balls-out action film and still keep King’s commentary on the media intact. In many ways, the film is more relevant day than ever. By starring Richard Dawson as the host of this reality based game show that is the basis of the film the story manages to focus on the game show element but now the important part of the story is the reality element. Little did King know when he wrote this story that reality based game shows would saturate TV a mere 30 years later. Schwarzenegger and other “players” are forced to play this game on live television where professional killers attempt to do them in. The film feels a little dated in its look and FX but the message is surprisingly contemporary. Even the cheesier scifi action here is still great fun though. There are tons of campy funny lines in this film but most of them require too much set up. This one line though could have been on the poster for the film and it would have been hilarious: “I’m not into politics. I’m into survival.”
Now this is true classic 80’s action. There were tons of films that were built around this formula but few are as entertaining as this one. Schwarzenegger plays a retired Special Forces officer living the good life with his daughter (played by a young Alyssa Milano). His old commander visits him to try and bring him back into the fold for his own protection. It seems that members of his unit are being executed one by one. Matrix (Schwarzenegger) won’t go back to his old gig but he will accept protection from the government for his daughter. The film that follows is an action packed romp where Matrix must save his kidnapped daughter’s life. This one also brought us a new quotable line: “Remember when I said I’d kill you last? I lied.” So, technically it’s more than one line. The film also features Rae Dawn Chong.
6. The Terminator
The Terminator came only two years after Schwarzenegger’s success in Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer. The film was directed and co-written by James Cameron which these days seems like a fantastic opportunity for a young actor but at this point Cameron had only ever directed one other film; Piranha Par Two The Spawning, a film for Roger Corman. The Terminator was a low budget film featuring Arnie as an unstoppable robot from the future tasked with killing the mother of a man that would lead people to defeat the robots in a future war. Schwarzenegger was able to be scary and charismatic with very few words in this film. His line “I’ll be back.” Remains one of the most quoted lines from any film. That line is only quotable due to the deadpan delivery and the action that followed the delivery. Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton round out the cast for a film that launched one of the most profitable and groundbreaking franchises of all time.
Eraser is a much more modern action film, a product of the 90’s change in the sociopolitical environment of the United States. The over the top patriotism of the 80’s is throttled back in favor of a darker tone. Schwarzenegger plays a U.S. Marshall given the mission to protect an employee of a weapons company who has discovered an evil plot within her company. Shady men involved with the plot want her dead because without her the FBI can’t bring a case against the company. There are great twists and turns, stellar action scenes, and even some reasonable comedy relief provided by Robert Pastorelli. The film also stars Vanessa Williams and James Caan. This one was made in 1996 and it still plays great, better than most current action films in fact. Here’s a quote: “You’ve just been erased.”
Predator manages to cross classic 80’s action elements with sci-fi adventure to craft one of the best boss fights ever. Schwarzenegger plays Dutch, the leader of a group of mercenaries for hire that have been tasked to go into a hostile jungle to save victims of a plane crash. All goes well as Dutch and the gang hunt down the villains and dish out the killing in a fantastic action sequence until they realize that they are in fact being hunted by something that’s not human. The final chapter featuring Dutch battling it out against the Predator is classic but the surreal almost creepy second chapter of the film is also riveting stuff. Here’s a quote from the film: “You’re one ugly mother f@#ker.”
3. Total Recall
That’s right: Arnie is back in another science fiction film. What happens when you get a highly stylized over the top director like Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) and you give him access to a story from one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner)? You get a fast paced cool looking action/sci-fi film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct another Verhoeven film), and Michael Ironside (V). In the film, Schwarzenegger plays a man obsessed with Mars so much so that he decides to take a virtual trip to the planet. Once on Mars, he fights against a company he once worked for to save inhabitants and discover the mysterious truths left on the planet by aliens. The question remains did he do all of this or is it just part of his virtual reality trip? The film came out 20 years ago and it still holds up great all of these years later. One of the great quotes in the film features Schwarzenegger’s character talking to himself via recording: “Get your ass to Mars.” There’s also “give these people air!”
2. True Lies
No director is more skilled at utilizing Arnold Schwarzenegger than James Cameron. In their third outing together, they do a film that’s a little more conventional than their previous efforts in that this isn’t a time traveling Sci-Fi epic. This film finds Schwarzenegger playing a secret agent running major special operations around the world with his wife played by Jamie Lee Curtis completely unaware. The film is extremely action packed as you might expect but there’s also some great comedy and even a little romance. Bill Paxton and Tom Arnold are in the film both brilliantly providing comedy relief. This is one of those films that fans have begged for a sequel to for years, but unfortunately much of the cast may have aged out of it. This film features an iconic dance from Jamie Lee Curtis who plays Schwarzenegger’s wife in the film that’s probably the last time she ever tried to appear sexy in a film. This one’s not as full of simple quotable one liners as other Schwarzenegger films but there is: “Yeah I’m going to kill you pretty soon.”
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
James Cameron is a director that always seems to know what to do and when to do it. At the penultimate of the Governator’s career, Cameron chooses to do a sequel to his classic Terminator film. While he was at it, he also managed to bring the cutting edge of CG technology to bare and create one of the scariest and coolest villains to ever hit the silver screen. In this film, Schwarzenegger reprises his role as a robot killing machine from the first film except this time he has been reprogrammed to protect John Connor rather than kill him. The robot that has come back to kill Connor is made of liquid metal he’s faster and smarter than Arnie’s antiquated model. The great thing that Cameron did with this film is that he was able to sandwich the iconic action scenes with really unique character moments between the emotionless Terminator and the young John Connor played by Edward Furlong. This is one of those very rare summer films that rise above its popcorn action. It featured fascinating characters, groundbreaking technology, and a water cooler story that’s still discussed almost 20 years later. The quote “Come with me if you want to live.”
Ok, there are 31 other films to pick from. What’s your list?