We’re failing Arnold Schwarzenegger.
We've currently got the Austrian oak putting in the best work of his entire career and audiences have abandoned him.
Arnold’s three post-Governorship films, “The Last Stand,” “Escape Plan” and “Sabotage” -- his role in The Expendables 2 is a glorified cameo -- have all bombed. Why? Have we lost the taste for Arnold, or has the Schwarzenegger legend grown too large for any film to contain him?
That’s the key problem Arnold faces in the third stage of his career. He was so successful in building his brand -- there has never and will never be a singular figure so associated with the action genre -- that “Schwarzenegger Film” became its own sub-genre. As he ages, though, Schwarzenegger doesn't fill the persona he’s built. He can’t live up to his own legend.
What’s great about the post-Governor period, is that he’s not trying to.
Time and again, he’s picking interesting films with exciting directors, never taking the easy road back to stardom. “The Last Stand” brought Korean-director Kim Jee-Woon stateside for a small-stakes, high octane throwback action flick. “The Escape Plan” makes the semi-commercial move of pairing him with Sylvester Stallone, but again partners with a foreign-born director, this time Swedish visualist Mikael Hafstrom for a movie that never delivers exactly what action fans want. The best example of Arnold’s career moves post-Governorship, is also his most recent, “Sabotage.”
The film, from the writer of “Training Day” and the director of “End of Watch” is no more an action film than any other thriller. In fact, without the presence of Schwarzenegger, the film probably wouldn't have been marketed as a men-on-a-mission revenge flick. The actual film casts Schwarzenegger as a crooked DEA agent who, together with his men, steal $10 million from a drug cartel. When they go to collect the cash, it’s gone. One-by-one, his men start to die.
It’s anchored by a great Arnold performance that plays off his age in interesting ways without trying to ignore it. This isn't "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." There’s a weariness to modern Arnold that fits him almost better than vitality ever did. Watching Arnold play a morally grey father-figure casts him in a role he’s almost never played before -- human.
Perhaps the trouble is that Arnold went out with a mild whimper. The last time Arnold tried to recapture his action-movie magic was in the post-Reitman comedy ("Twins," "Junior," "Kindergarten Cop") era. His films from 1996-2003 didn't have the same spark his earlier films did. He kept trying to recapture what made him great, and never quite found it. Each of his films in that period seem slight, and not because they’re small, but rather because they’re not iconic. He tries to ignore his age and his charisma instead of playing off of it. Arnold was never great because he was stoic, he was great because he was full of life.
Arnold’s not trying to be an icon anymore. He’s being an actor. He shows up, brings to the table something uniquely Schwarzeneggerian without looking back, and audiences keep punishing him for it. I've got a sneaking suspicion that if he goes back to the roles that made him famous, audiences will reject that as well. He’s not the man he used to be. Schwarzenegger can’t deliver a “Schwarzenegger film” any more, but in the cultural milieu any movie with him instantly becomes a “Schwarzenegger film.”
Perhaps another aspect is that the movie-star doesn't hold the same cultural cache it used to. In the era of adaptations, remakes and sequels, actors don't open films anymore, brand-recognition does. There's never been a true heir to the Schwarzenegger throne. Jason Statham has carved out his niche doing b-level action flicks, but that makes him more of a modern Jean Claude Van Damme than the juggernaut Arnold used to be.
What’s the solution to this problem? I don’t have an answer. If his movies keep opening like this, he’s not going to get a chance to make many more, which would be a huge shame, because this may be the best period in his entire career. He needs a slam-dunk hit, but part of what makes him so great nowadays is that his modern persona won’t fit into a standard Schwarzenegger-sized hit. His earlier hits don't lend themselves to a "Rocky" or "Rambo" style throwback film. He had aged out of the Terminator by the time they made the third one, and though conceptually "King Conan" seems like an easy solution, I don't think combining an actor who can't open a movie on his own with a character who can't open a movie anymore -- just look back at the awful Conan the Barbarian reboot -- will result in a Crom-sized blockbuster.
We need a way to divorce Schwarzenegger from his “Schwarzeneggerness.” I think the way to do it is to move him out of the starring role. Let him off the hook and cast him as an integral side character. Have him play the wise mentor, the retired soldier, or even just the lovable uncle. Cast him in non-action roles again. He honestly showed a true gift for comedy -- "Junior" may have an off-the-wall premise, but Schwarzenegger honestly sells the role completely straight. Imagine how unbearable that film would be in the hands of Adam Sandler. Let him stretch his acting chops. His greatest gift -- and the reason for all of his success in acting and in politics -- is his innate and incredible charisma. There’s a reason he stood out in a glutted field of action stars in the 1980s. He truly was the best. Let’s stop measuring him against who he used to be, and let’s focus on who he can be. If we let this period of Schwarzenegger films slip away from us, in twenty or thirty years, we’re going to regret it.
He won’t always be back.