There has been an enormous sense of finality to the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, at least if you judge by the titles: "The Last Action Hero." "End of Days." "The Long Goodbye." "The Terminator," of course. But after all the mayhem, muscles and mangled dialogue, one should never forget the most famous Ahnuld-ism of all:
"I'll be back."
And so he is. This Friday, the onetime Mr. Universe, governor of California and recent target of tabloids opens in a new feature, "The Last Stand," which promises no more sense of conclusion to Schwarzenegger's acting career than any other movie he's done since 1969 and "Hercules in New York" (in which he appeared as "Arnold Strong"). In fact, the Austrian Oak, as he has been known, has about six films in the pipeline, including a rumored "Terminator 5" and another one with a funereal title, "The Tomb."
"The Last Stand," directed by the South Korean Jee-woon Kim-- and shot in a manner that implies far more action than it actually captures -- finds Schwarzenegger in a familiar role: gun-toting avenger and champion of goodness. His character, the Germanically accented Ray Owens, is sheriff of sleepy Sommerton Junction, a town where almost everyone has left for the weekend and through which a ruthless South American drug lord/ FBI fugitive is planning to make a dash for the Mexican border (racing a customized Corvette C6 ZR1 in one of the more prolonged cases of product placement in movie history).
Alienated at first by the dismissive agent in charge of the case (Forest Whitaker), Ray decides to take on Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), even though he's surrounded by a misfit crowd of imbecile sidekicks that includes the aptly named Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville), a local moron with a huge at-home arsenal.
"The Last Stand," Schwarzenegger's first starring role since "Terminator: Rise of the Machines" in 2003 (the year he was elected governor), isn't likely to supplant any of the actor's better-known films, which include "Total Recall," "True Lies" and "The Running Man." But it does provide an excuse to look back at one of the more remarkable careers in the history of movies. Schwarzenegger was, after all, a heavily accented Austrian immigrant, a star in a sport usually subject to public derision (body building) and a physical specimen unsuited to most lead roles, and unknown to leading men. Despite a star quality (and ruthlessness) evident in the documentary "Pumping Iron," no one knew what to do with Schwarzenegger -- until "Conan the Barbarian." After that, he didn't so much adapt to Hollywood as bend it to his will.
"Conan," after all, was camp: Part of the joke was that there was an actual human being who so closely resembled the Frank Frazetta illustrations that graced Robert E. Howard's tales of the Hyborian Age. That Schwarzenegger wasn't an actor didn't matter; the whole thing was a good-
natured joke (including Conan's declaration about what is best in life: "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of the women").
Yet, little by little, one Stallone at a time, the nature of the action movie hero changed from being tall, dark, handsome and serious to being sometimes short, and definitely droll: The Schwarzenegger-style punch lines to what would otherwise have been dark scenes became de rigueur in action films ("Considah dat a divorce," he tells "wife" Sharon Stone in "Total Recall," after shooting her in the head; "Let off some steam, Bennett," he tells Vernon Wells in "Commando" after pinning him to a boiler with a 10-foot pipe). The groaners, mixed with Schwarzenegger's inflection-free delivery, changed action movies forever.
All the tropes are revisited in "The Last Stand," although the action star isn't quite up to the action; Kim does what he can to make Schwarzenegger appear limber, but he seems barely able to cross the street. There are long, Schwarzenegger-free stretches of story line involving that Corvette, the runaway drug lord, the pursuit by the FBI and a protracted car chase through a cornfield that could well involve anybody, not necessarily the kid who came out of Thal, Austria, to become one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
But don't count him out. Or gone. It may well be time to say, "Hasta la vista, baby," but the Governator's going nowhere.
5 Schwarzenegger films to remember, forget
It's almost impossible to curate an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie festival: The badness of his early work is precisely what makes it fun, and because his career is rooted in camp (beginning with "Conan the Barbarian"), the worst is the best, almost by definition. But some entries in the Schwarzenegger filmography are more tolerable than others, and the following aren't really sorted by quality, but rather by what movies define the Schwarzenegger phenomenon. Some are actually quite watchable. Others suggest he should have gone into, say, politics.
THE TERMINATOR (1984) James Cameron's story of an android assassin sent back in time to kill the leader of a future revolt probably would have been a sci-fi classic regardless. But Schwarzenegger's robotic/ Teutonic presence added just the right note of menace to a film that would spawn a very sustainable franchise and cement several careers.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991) Turning the Terminator character from evil to good was a masterstroke, and Cameron, availing himself of the latest technology, created one of those anomalies, a sequel better than the original. It also provided some trademark lines, including "Hasta la vista, baby," and of course, "I'll be back."
KINDERGARTEN COP (1990) Not everyone's cup of tea (the ending is violent for a movie aimed at a family audience), but the Schwarzenegger who had established himself as half man/half machine in "Terminator," "Predator," "Commando" and "Total Recall" was funny as an undercover cop wrangling with a class full of 5-year-olds who gave him a headache ("It's not a toomah!!!).
TOTAL RECALL (1990) Philip K. Dick's marvelous story and Paul Verhoeven's direction made this a standout psycho-sci-fi romp across time and space.
THE VILLAIN (1979) Arnold was just an Austrian bodybuilder when Hal Needham cast him in his live-action comic book about the nefarious Cactus Jack (Kirk Douglas), the beautiful Charming Jones (Ann-Margret) and the heroic Handsome Stranger (Schwarzenegger). Rent it, if possible.
TWINS (1988) Not happy to leave bad enough alone, this Mutt-Jeff comedy is apparently being sequeled by director Ivan Reitman ("Triplets," due date unknown). One can only imagine the horrors in store, because the original was a too-obvious idea in search of a script: The genetically perfect Julius Benedict (Schwarzenegger) tracks down his long lost brother, the profoundly imperfect Vincent Benedict (Danny DeVito).
JINGLE ALL THE WAY (1996) Schwarzenegger is a harried father, constantly disappointing his son and wanting to make up for it by getting Junior the hottest Christmas toy -- which is, naturally, impossible to find. Sinbad co-stars, which pretty much sums it up.
BATMAN & ROBIN (1997) Everyone involved would probably like to forget this turkey directed by Joel Schumacher, from George Clooney (Batman) to Chris O'Donnell (Robin), to Alicia Silverstone (Batgirl). A.S. is Mr. Freeze, the very idea of which makes you feel kind of clammy.
RED SONJA (1985) Inexplicable return by post-"Terminator" A.S. to sword-fighting fantasy genre (albeit in a film based on a series by "Conan" creator Robert Howard), this inept adventure does star Brigitte Nielsen, who provokes a certain morbid curiosity. It will give her fans an idea of what she was up to before she started appearing on reality shows like "Flavor of Love."
THE EXPENDABLES / THE EXPENDABLEs 2 (2010/2012) No slab-o'-meat party would be complete without at least a cameo by A.S., who joined Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme in these arthritic exercises.