The Arnold Schwarzenegger Project: True Lies

 

Have you ever killed anyone? Yes, but they were all bad!

True Lies remains one of my favorite Arnie films, because it perfectly balances humor and action; it’s his Die Hard. The funny thing there is that Bruce Willis’s breakthrough film that redefined action flicks was originally envisioned as a sequel to Arnie’s blockbuster Commando, which I feel is the most iconic action film of the ’80s. So, in essence, True Lies is Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron getting back together to show that they could out-Die Hard Die Hard. And mostly, they do. Them’s big words. Die Hard is also one of my favorite films, a Christmas tradition, and its effect on the genre is inescapable. How many movies can be described as “Die Hard on a plane/boat/Alcatraz/speeding bus”? The genre got so flood that the 3rd and 4th sequels avoided the trap entirely. True Lies on the other hand, loosely based on a French film called La Totale!, is an action movie with a simple and ingenious premise: what kind of home life does James Bond have? What does he tell his wife?

Of course Harry Tasker is not James Bond; he’s an American counter-terrorist spy who infiltrates a luxurious party in much the same way as Bond did in Goldfinger, with a white tuxedo under his wetsuit, to hammer the point home. Arnie and his groan-inducing one-liners are the perfect match, because Bond played that game first. We meet Tasker as he slips out of that wetsuit and slides into the ballroom party of an Arabian arms dealer; he’s communicating with partners in a surveillance van, Gib (Tom Arnold) and Faisil (Grant Heslov). He’s a natural, making small talk with the guests with that utter confidence Arnold exudes. He moves with a grace belying his size, from years of posing on stage, the overlooked physical aspect of his acting prowess blossoming once again under Cameron’s strict direction. After slipping upstairs to plug a hacking device onto the host’s PC, he makes his own distraction by dancing the tango with art dealer Juno, played by the exotic Tia Carrera.

Many reviewers were surprised at Arnold’s dancing, forgetting that this was Mr. Olympia, and bodybuilding at that level is not a clumsy endeavor. The comedy begins early, with Gib complaining about Harry dancing the tango when he should be leaving, and sets the tone for the spectacular escape sequence. Beginning with a classy Bond-like one-liner as he detonates the charges he set earlier as a distraction, soon he is running full blast through the snow, pursued by Dobermans, armed men on snowmobiles, and skiers with machine guns. In the film’s first 15 minutes, they throw the glove down for the Bond series, which would respond by upping the ante next year with Pierce Brosnan’s first and best entry, Goldeneye. Sadly that series would descend into idiocy until the recent reboot.

Harry makes it back to the van with a plethora of tricks- he knocks the dogs heads together, slides downhill on his back while shooting pursuers, and is cool as a cucumber as we hear bullets whip past our ears. Cameron has always paid great attention to the sound collage of an action soundtrack, and here to fit with the comic touches, the bullets are a bit quieter and almost cartoonish. We know Harry’s not going to get shot, and the final discharge of the battle is casual, “Excuse me,” as he reaches around his partners in the van to shoot one last bad guy. When they head home, Gib hands Harry his wedding ring- “Forgetting something?” and we immediately know that Gib is a closer partner than Harry’s wife will be, and when he walks through that door he’s going to his real job- pretending to be a normal guy, when he’d rather be out playing super spy with his buddies.

Harry works for Omega Sector- America’s Last Line of Defense, which is fittingly headed by Omega Man Charlton Heston. They outline their findings to their eye-patched leader at a meeting the next day, and he describes their noisy exit as a pooch-screwing of the highest order. It made me miss Mr. Heston and his fine oratory skills. I never got the hate for him, even after he worked for the NRA. This was a man who marched at Selma, but was vilified for not being a typical Hollywood hypocrite, glorifying guns in film and then saying us common folk shouldn’t be able to own them. He suffered like any man of principles, and I’m glad he got this memorable cameo in during his later years, before Alzheimer’s took him. At Omega, he’s the lone bad-ass among an office of goofs, who tango past Harry to mock him. It never flirts with late Roger Moore-era Bond silliness, and keeps things just above Our Man Flint. This was before Goldeneye briefly recharged the Bond franchise, and we were eager for a fun spy caper film.

The story is your typical “guy ignores family for his job” formula, and Harry hops into bed alongside his sleeping, mousy wife Helen (a hilarious Jamie Lee Curtis) and the next day resumes his façade of life as a boring salesman. The problem is, he’s so boring that his wife is considering cheating on him, with a sleazy car salesman named Simon, who pretends he’s a spy to get girls. While Harry is off following his lead on Juno Skinner, Helen’s having coffee with Simon, egged on by her co-workers who’re tired of hearing how Harry ignores her. And when Harry is getting attacked in a rest room by terrorists- led by the infamous “Sand Spider,” Salim Abu Aziz- Simon is taking credit for “the op,” and melting Helen’s butter.

The bathroom fight is one of the best fistfights you’ll see Arnie get into. Leave it to Cameron to make a classic set piece in a mall men’s room, having Arnie bash heads with an electric hand dryer, smash faces into urinals, and dodge AK-47 fire in toilet stalls. It’s an exciting and humorous battle that introduces us to the cold killer Aziz, played with relish by Art Malik (Ali from A Passage to India) and as expected, does not end there. Harry turns the tables on Aziz and chases him through the mall and out onto the streets, where they commandeer a motorcycle and a policeman’s horse. The chase leads across the and into a high rise hotel, through the kitchens and into the elevators to the rooftop, where Aziz makes a daring leap into a penthouse swimming pool. Harry gives chase, but his horse has more sense than he does.

Harry’s upset that he lost the bad guy, but he’s devastated the next day when he suspects Helen of infidelity. He walks out of the house in a trance. Cameron shocks us into laughter with Tom Arnold at his smart-ass best, who laughs it all off when Harry tells him the news. “I thought it was something serious!” And he goes on to tell us of his divorce woes. “She took the ice cube trays! What kind of sick bitch takes the ice cube trays?” Giving us a little hint that Gib’s home life is spent with a drink on the rocks. When Arnie balks at his nonchalant attitude, Gib tells him, “What did you expect, Harry? Helen’s a flesh and blood woman and you’re never there. It was only a matter of time.” But he still doesn’t get it; he puts a bug in her purse to find out what’s going on…

The next day Helen meets Simon and he takes credit for Harry’s chase through D.C.; Gib appreciates his audacity, saying “I’m beginning to like this guy. But we’re still gonna kill him!” The Arnolds here have great chemistry, and it’s really too bad that a sequel never made it. Tom Arnold still dreams of one, and was overheard dropping rumors about it recently, but it is very unlikely. Personally I’d love to see post-Gov Arnie and Jamie Lee return as retiree grandparents pulled back into the spy game as cranky old farts having to show the young’uns how it’s done, but Cameron seems too busy with his 3-D movies to come back to this. And we haven’t had a funny spy movie like this since. Mr. & Mrs. Smith? Yawn.

But I digress. Bill Paxton’s Simon practically steals the movie as the used car salesman sleazeball, and the scene where Harry test drives a ’58 Corvette ragtop with him is brilliant comedy. Because let’s face it, Arnold needs serious direction to be funny; with a weak director, like in many of the ’90s and ’00 entries in The Arnold Project, his family scenes never come off as real. He phones it in. With Cameron, the director who made him a mega action star, he gives his all. Paxton is great as usual, crafting an entirely new character with a porn ‘stache and oily hair falling into his eyes, without a hint of his trademark Chet or Hudson to be seen. He makes him slimy and pathetic, but when he says, “Okay, just ask yourself: What do women really want? You take these bored housewives, married to the same guy for years, they’re stuck in a rut, then need some release! Promise of adventure, a hint of danger.” Harry listens, and gets an idea…

In a hilarious waste of government resources- which Harry talks Gib into because he knows he “blew a mission because he was busy getting a plo chob*”- they get Omega Sector to pull a black op on Helen and Simon during their tryst at his love trailer. The classic humor of misunderstanding, as Harry thinks he sees her messing around, is priceless, as are Gib’s responses. Cameron’s one-line cameo as the chopper pilot, “Yup, she’s got her head in his lap. Yahoo.” and Gib trying to cool Harry off, “Maybe she’s sleepy?” are classic, and still make me laugh, a dozen viewings in. Jamie Lee Curtis is at the top of her comedy game as well, and when the special ops team captures her and “International Wanted Terrorist Carlos the Jackal” her reaction of frantic fear keeps us laughing and not wondering how scary this all is. Later, when Harry interrogates her through one-way glass with a voice mask, he realizes that she hasn’t cheated, and just wanted some excitement. So he plans on giving her some: she’ll have to pretend to be a hooker and plant a bug in a bad guy’s hotel room if she doesn’t want to be prosecuted as an accomplice.

So when Helen shows up at a swanky hotel room dressed to the nines in stiletto heels and a slinky black dress, she doesn’t know it’s hubby in the chair watching from the shadows, as she dances for him. She’s been assured he only “likes to watch,” and that she only has to plant the bug near the phone, and she certainly gets into it as she roleplays her little spy game. If you’ve read Cameron’s unused script for a Spider-Man movie, you know he has a penchant for writing creepy erotic scenes- probably left over from his assistant directing on Galaxy of Terror, with its freaky alien “surprise sex” scene- and while this is certainly sexy, it has an odd feel to it, since we know Harry put her up to it, and he’s a voyeur of sorts himself. It’s saved by a bit of accidental ad-lib by Curtis herself, when Helen slips and falls, she picks herself up like nothing happened, and our laughter breaks the tension. You can tell it’s an accident because if you watch Arnold, he instinctively begins to get up to help her, then stops to not ruin the shot. And it works perfectly, because as a husband, Harry would do the same.

The real action of the film begins when Aziz’s goons somehow track Harry to the hotel and take them both hostage, and Helen begins to see who her husband really is. They are put on a private jet and flown to the Florida Keys, and he tries to protect her by saying she’s a “crazy hooker,” but Juno figures out what’s up. On the island, we learn Crimson Jihad’s sinister plot, with nukes smuggled in fake archaeological finds, to take the city of Miami hostage to their demands. And Helen learns Harry’s secret life, when he’s forced to identify the warheads on videotape, so they can tell the authorities they mean business. The story takes this frightening turn, but the bad guys are never really that scary- Art Malik plays Aziz like a furious mastermind hitched with hapless henchmen, and when he records his message to the United States, he rants on and on after the battery on the camera has died.

However, Aziz does get to be cool and competent. He leaves Harry with a torturer to “find out what he knows” under truth serum, and Helen uses the opportunity to finally get some straight answers out of her husband. I always found this the funniest part of the film, and some of Arnold’s best comic acting.
“Ask me something I’d normally lie about.”
“Are we gonna die?”
“Yup!”
So of course Harry escapes, with the hero monologuing his plans for a change- how’s that for a little poke at the Bond films it apes?- and he and Helen begin wreaking havoc all over the compound with guns, grenades and makeshift flamethrowers. While his men scamper and scream, Aziz just kicks open a crate with a rocket launcher, picks it up, and blows Harry to smithereens. As far as he knows. Juno grabs Helen, and they head out in a limo along the Florida Keys highway while Aziz takes one of his nukes with a helicopter to cause more mayhem…

As with most Cameron films, the action is pretty much nonstop from here, with minor comic interludes. Gib tracks Harry & Helen to the island with a bug they planted when they were monitoring Helen’s infidelities, so he can pick Harry up before the A-bomb goes off. He calls in Marines in Harrier jets to take out the trucks with the nukes, and they actually blew up part of the old Key West highway with real Marines flying by in real Harriers! He infuses lots of slapstick in this sequence, from a truckful of terrorists foiled by a pelican, to the great catfight between Juno and Helen in the back of an out of control limo heading towards the blown up end of the bridge. Harry begins his marriage repair by hoisting Helen from the car via helicopter, the ultimate test of trust. They later seal it with a kiss before a mushroom cloud backdrop, which still kicks the ass out of Indy 4’s “nuke the fridge” moment.

The movie does have some flaws- Harry & Gib’s partner Faisil, despite being played perfectly by Grant Heslov, is rather obviously the token “good Arab” character. Even so, the movie was picketed by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for its “depiction of Middle Easterners as homicidal, religious zealots.” I thought it was to the movie’s credit that Aziz and his terrorists come off more like the Three Stooges with an atom bomb; they’re just typical movie bad guys, and their bumbling makes them less terrifying than Bond villain henchmen. Another shortfall to me was Harry’s interrogation of Helen; it goes a little too far, and we’re sort of happy when she bashes him in the head with a phone during the phony spy game he makes her play, because it’s damn creepy to make your wife pose as a hooker for a sleazeball, even if you’re playing the sleazeball! We get stronger hints of the Cameron formula here. His films have slowly diluted since The Terminator‘s perfection, but this one is still strong and not as preachy and hackneyed as Avatar. It’s one of Arnold’s best, giving him some range, even if he looks positively maniacal during the “thumb war” with his family at the end.

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* How Arnie pronounces “blow job.”

The Running Man

SubZero… now plain zero!!

I love bad Arnold movies. This is miles ahead of Raw Deal but behind Commando. In a prescient future, the government depends on reality shows to distract us from the horrible economy, and when chopper pilot Ben Richards refuses to fire upon a food riot, he is framed as the engineer of the massacre, and of course gets pulled in to the biggest game show on TV: The Running Man, where criminals run from maniacal stalkers with flamethrowers, chainsaws and operatic voices, to gain a chance at a jury trial. Arnie’s one-liners are at their worst, some of them barely make any sort of sense, but the TV satire with Richard Dawson from Family Feud is just too good to miss. It’s not a bad movie, but like most futuristic satires it has to wink at the camera instead of playing it straight like the original Rollerball (the James Caan one) or just going with it like Commando. It’s definitely worth seeing once, and bares little resemblance to the Stephen King story it’s based on, but this ain’t Arnie’s best. It’s also a lot far from his worst. This is probably the best example of an Arnie movie, come to think of it- it’s the median.
The movie has a lot to like. Arnie may be running around in yellow tights like Bruce Lee in Game of Death, but he gets to cut a guy’s nuts off with a chainsaw! Dweezil Zappa plays a leader of the revolution! Old grannies say they want to see him kick some ass! And best of all, Richard Dawson plays it completely straight, playing a real sonofabitch of a TV host and loving every minute of it. If you ever wanted him to say Survey Said… FUCK YOU! This is your chance.
It goes crazy to the camp side, with an opera-singing Hunter named Dynamo driving around in a dune buggy covered in Christmas lights. Even Arnold’s jokes on him make fun of how awful this concept is. “Aghgghg!! you big light bulb!” Jesse Ventura has a small role as a former gladiator, but we don’t get to see them really fight; that’s too bad, it would have been awesome. The Running Man remains a guilty pleasure in the Arnold compendium, but it shows that he can make a hit even out of a ridiculous, campy ’80s flick.

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IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: This movie came from Milky’s Netflix, and he watched it with me, and farted on my couch a lot, and did slap my belly with glee. There, now quit whining.

Top Ten Arnie One-Liners

Arnold Schwarzenegger is more than a movie star, he’s a force of nature. The Austrian Oak come to America in the ’60s when he was Mr. Universe, and started by making awful movies like Hercules in New York (full review). Even though he barely had a command of English, you could see the charisma, ambition, and the sick sense of humor in his eyes. Then Pumping Iron came out, and we could see the mind games he played on his opponents. But the biggest joke is on us- the awful puns he loves inserting into his movies. I’ll be back? Hasta la vista baby? Talk to the hand? Bah! Here are the real classics:

10. Consider zis a divorce.

from Total Recall

9. What is best in life?

from Conan the Barbarian

8. Agaahhaahahahaaggghh!

from every damn Arnold movie!

7. He had to split

Bonus: you also get the rest of the Running Man ones.

6. Yakety Yak, don’t talk back!

from Twins

5. It’s not a tumah!

from Kindergarten Cop

4. You’re fired!

from True Lies

3. Stick around!

from Predator

2. Let off some steam, Bennett!

Commando, being the best movie ever made, gets three!


1. Right? Wrong!

Wait, these go up to 11!

I lied!

One we’ll forget:

You should not drink and bake

from Raw Deal

Let’s hope he gives up politics and gives us some more!

The Arnold Schwarzenegger Project: The 6th Day

This is Arnie’s take on the near future, it’s not quite as amusing as Demolition Man though. Point for Sly, sadly enough. This really gives End of Days a run for its money.
Arnold has always had amusingly conservative family lives in his movies, but few of them work; John Matrix was believable when he said “He should be called Girl George!” and in True Lies, Cameron wisely makes his daughter an important part of the story. Here, he’s a lone Luddite standout in an advanced future, who has a classic ’54 Cadillac in his garage while everyone else lets their OnStar GM vehicles drive themselves. Unlike Minority Report, and even Freejack, where the cars look futuristic, they just use late-model cars. It doesn’t help, in a movie where we just saw remote-control gyrojets flying through the mountains. It’s not quite a believable future. Total Recall and Demolition Man do it better.
Roger Spottiswoode directs, the guy who gave us Turner & Hooch, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, and the Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies, which was only memorable because Michelle Yeoh was in it. This time he decides the tone should be somewhere between Enemy of the State and Cherry 2000, both infinitely more entertaining and original films.

Sometime after Conan, he got his teeth done.

Robert Duvall plays Dr. Weir, the pioneer of cloning who saved the world by somehow cloning the fish population, and CEO Drucker is the guy who saved our children from crying by creating RePets, cloned pets so they never know their puppy died! They run a quasi-criminal empire that is secretly cloning humans, which is against the law ever since the Supreme Court ordered the first human clone destroyed. They can feed your memories back with a fresh brain, fastforwarding your memories through screens in front of your pupils, but while they play it partially for laughs, it was done so much better years later in The Venture Bros. animated series. They bring back dead henchmen in this one too, but it isn’t as funny as it should be.
Arnold is his usual super-killer self, but as the entrepreneur of an Extreeeeeme Skiing Tour Guide service, there’s no reason for his combat skills. In Total Recall he’s a rogue agent (or it’s all the Ultimate Ego Trip) and in most other roles he’s some sort of cop or ex-military; here he’s just Arnold, I mean, Adam Gibson, and brings us out of willful suspension of disbelief even further. I just assume since he’s a pilot, he’s ex-chair force. Anyway, the plot is he falls asleep on a cab ride to his birthday party and when he wakes up… he’s just not right. When he makes it home, he sees himself getting served birthday cake through the window, and he knows somethin’ ain’t right Lucy. Weird goofy henchmen (the best being Terry Crews) try to kill him in an uninspired car chase with his ’54 Cadillac.

In ze future, Manic Panic hair dye is expensive

After the first hour when the laser guns start flying like mad, things get a little easier to take. The problem is it has no consistent tone. There’s a henchman named “Wiley” who is repeatedly killed due to incompetence, a virtual sexpot for Mike Rapaport, creepy discolored SimPal toys reminiscent of that “My Buddy” doll from the ’80s; but it also crams in a smary subplot with Dr. Weir’s wife being a clone of a clone who keeps dying of congenital diseases, and “just wants to die.” Religious nuts picket Weir’s institute, when no one’s supposed to know he clones people; but sports stars on TV with obviously broken necks show up the next day back in the game. If only this had the charm of The Running Man!

send in ze clone!

In this intolerably long movie, the most anticipated part is when Arnie meets Clonie and they team up to beat the evil CEO who wants his family dead for some reason. Sadly, he’s a pretty boring character in this- he’s no John Matrix or even a Ben Richards- so doubling him only makes the movie less tolerable. It manages to crib here and there from Blade Runner‘s replicants, and Spottiswoode even re-uses the lamest part of Tomorrow Never Dies, attacking people with the helicopter rotors. Arnie manages to wipe out the evil corporation at the end because in 2015, CEOs still haven’t learned the value of offsite backup storage solutions. To quote Professor Frink: mm-hey.

Rating: You should clone yourself while you are still alive. So you can go fuck yourself!

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The Arnold Project #16: The Jayne Mansfield Story

Arnold, I want you to know the things I do for you. 90 minutes of Loni Anderson playing buxom star Jayne Mansfield in a TV biopic? Thankfully in the first five minutes you called her “Chenny,” and saved it for me. Directed by the guy who’d give us Kenny Rogers: The Gambler and starring one of my least favorite actresses, I had a feeling this was going to be a tough one. It even won a Razzie award.
Arnie ends up narrating much of the movie, and you have to wonder what the hell the director was thinking. We love Arnold but in 1980 he didn’t have the best diction of the English language. But about 20 minutes in, when we see Jayne give up on acting and go for cheesecake, the film gets a little more interesting. In fact, Loni does a decent imitation, but it’s a tall order. The screenplay is pretty poor and accompanied with an insipid piano score, but the re-enactment of famous scenes in Jayne’s life makes it easy to please. For example, they suggest that she got the part in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? by auditioning in a towel that she let slip.
Arnold plays Micky Hargitay, the Hungarian bodybuilder who also starred in some exploiters like Hercules vs. the Hydra. They meet when he’s the beefcake in a Mae West show, and he’s a better fit than her first husband; they are both performers and don’t have a problem baring their bodies for audiences. With his strength and her squeal, they made double the public impression that she did before, as he carried her into a room, with her busting out of her dress.
The problem is how the story is told; it begins with her infamous death in a car crash in Slidell Louisiana between gigs, and then is told through flashbacks as a woman goes through photographs with Mickey Hargitay. It’s clumsy and forces the narration on us. Arnie is good as Mickey, but it isn’t much of a challenge. But it’s one of his few pre-action star roles, and he’s eager to show that he’s more than muscles.
Jayne just wants to be a star, so she cultivates a busty bimbo persona that makes men melt; the story suggests that the studio used her as leverage against moody Marilyn Monroe, and veteran character actor G.D. Spradlin plays the cranky exec who wants her to date studio boys and dump Mickey. The story follows the traditional TV biopic formula- rise to stardom, devoured by fame, drinky drinky, sad sad. This makes for some entertaining marital spats between Arnie and Loni, as he pins her to the bed and bellows “I LUF YOU!!!”
He’s a long-suffering husband in this one as Jayne makes their wedding a huge Hollywood spectacle and makes him drive her to the hospital in her pink Cadillac when she gives birth to their baby. Her drinking and refusal to give up on being the blonde bombshell drive them apart, and she ends up doing lame lounge shows. In case we missed the car crash opening, we get to see it again at the end. For die-hard Jayne Mansfield fans only- or if you want to see Arnie play a beleaguered Hollywood husband!
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The real Jayne and Mickey

Rating: Don’t disturb my friend. He’s DEAD tired.

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The Arnold Project #15: Kindergarten Cop

It’s not a tumor, but Kindergarten Cop began one of many attempts Arnie made to soften his action star image. We already saw the one-joke Junior, and here we get a fish out of water treatment putting the Terminator in charge of a bunch of 5 year olds. Who destroy him faster than Sarah Connor ever could. 19 years later it still holds up, but has a lot of fat that could have been trimmed.
The story centers on that Hollywood cliche of a grizzled undercover cop, John Kimble, who doesn’t like partners and works alone. He’s also so obsessed on getting bad guys that his family life has disintegrated so much that we never even see his estranged wife and son. He finally nabs drug lord Cullen “cookie” Crisp, a pony-tailed uber-douche with a domineering mom (Carroll Baker, infamous for playing Baby Doll back in the ’50s), but his junkie witness isn’t enough to satisfy the D.A. The only solution, the plot suggests, is for them to hunt down the drug kingpin’s own estranged wife and son, who supposedly fled with $3 million.

The cops have a clue that her kid goes to a private school in Oregon, so they send Detective Phoebe O’Hara (Pamela Reed, also in Junior) to pose as a Kindergarten teacher so she can investigate, with Kimble there as backup. But instead she eats too much at a buffet and gets food poisoning, so Arnie has to cover for her. By now it’s so contrived that I wish they’d made it even goofier, like Jackie Chan goofy. Why bother with all the coincidences? It takes us good while before tough guy Kimble is before the classroom, but it’s worth it.
Arnie’s gift for comedy under the right hands is almost as good here as in True Lies, and Ivan Reitman manages to make him ignore W.C. Field’s warning about never working with animals or children to great success. Kimble also has a pet ferret. Despite these classic saboteurs, Arnie’s considerable presence manages to keep him the center of the laughs, even against a little kid whose Dad is a gynecologist, and constantly recites “boys have a penis! girls have a vagina!”
The meat of the film is watching Arnold play a tough guy who’s used to bashing heads to get his way deal with a gaggle of chaotic little kindergarteners with no attention spans. He loses it almost immediately, and has a classroom full of bawling children. But the ferret saves the day. He’s under the close eye of Principal Schlowski (now there’s a ’90s made-up movie name if I ever heard one) played by the inimitable Linda Hunt from The Year of Living Dangerously and Silverado. I’m sure part of the reason she was chosen was that she’s 4’9″ and her bulldog tenacity could make a fitting foil for Arnold. And it works. She’s always good, and gets just the right note here. We know she has the children’s interests at heart and isn’t just there for tension.

Soon Kimble is running the class like a drill instructor, getting the kids to play and clean up at the toot of a whistle, and even fall asleep when he reads them stories. All the while he plays sneaky games like ”Who is my daddy and what does he do?” to identify the kid, and therefore the mother. But it’s pretty obvious that the best child actor will be the kid, and the cutest mom will be the mom. This is Hollywood after all. And of course, Evil Dad has to show up to try to get his son back.
While I usually never eschew violence in a movie, I think this one would have been better if it was less bloody. We get to see the junkie witness O.D. thanks to the mobster’s evil mom, a school set on fire and shootings. Now i don’t think Columbine et al means we can’t have violence set in schools, but the film’s tone varies a lot thanks to this. Now, we all love the catharsis of watching abusive husbands and evil matrons get what’s coming to them, but I wanted more of Arnold’s classroom antics than action. If this was Arnie’s first post-action star comedy I could see him taking baby steps, but I liked Twins in 1988, and think that proved he could hack it.
Kindergarten Cop feels a bit too long (it’s nearly 2 hours) and a little dated nowadays, but it is still very entertaining, and one of Arnold’s classic roles. Everyone remembers “it’s not a tumah!” but there are plenty of hilarious scenes as the kids test his mettle. It was a bit tedious at times, but this would still make a nice movie for a weekend afternoon. And compared other comedies from the same era it’s definitely one of the better ones.

Rating: It’s NOT a tumah!
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The Arnold Project #14: The Terminator

The Terminator blasted onto the scene in 1984, and action films- specifically science fiction stories- were never the same since. Now we’re poised for the fourth entry in the series, Terminator: Salvation to appear, so let’s look back at the one that started it all. It’s still one hell of an action film.

A simple title card with vague computer type reads Los Angeles 2029 A.D., and we are thrust into a post-apocalyptic nightmare where hulking machines roll over battlegrounds paved with human skulls. The smoke-blackened sky of nuclear night is only light by the rapid fire of machine lasers peppering the ruins to blot out whatever human life remains.

The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire.
Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.
It would be fought here, in our present.

Tonight…

And then a perfect cut to machine crushing down on us from above- but it’s only a garbage truck. But the point is made, we are surrounded by machines, and our cities barely resemble the Earth they are built upon. An electrical disturbance interrupts the garbage man, and when the smoke clears, a hulking man appears. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mister Universe. Mister Olympia. The pinnacle of physical human achievement, we saw him a few years back in a fantasy film called Conan the Barbarian that was sure a lot better than those Hercules movies bodybuilders usually did, dubbed from Italian. We figured he might make a few more of those and retire. He had bigger plans. He is naked, and approaches three street punks.

Blue haired punk is Bill Paxton, before he was Chet in Weird Science

His first words are “Nice night for a walk.” The punks are reduced to dogmeat in seconds; the violence is shocking and early as he tears the heart out of a knife wielding thug. The message is instant- humans are weak. We’re little more than fleshy bags full of blood and organs, as any car accident photo will tell. And seconds afterward, another man appears from the same kind of light Arnold did. A lean, scarred fellow with animal eyes, who “rabbits” down an alleyway as police see him, and deftly disarms them as they foolishly come close. But instead of knocking the cop out as our anti-heroes are expected, he points the gun at him and demands to know what day it is. And then, more puzzlingly, what year.

We’re given little time to think as the chase goes on through a department store, where he picks up a trench coat and a pair of now-sought after Nike Vandals, snags a shotgun from the cops’ prowler and disappears into the grimy city like one of its own rats. His first stop: a phone booth, with a phone book- a relic nowadays, but an icon when the film came out, before cellular phones, telemarketers and do-not-call lists; he pulls out a page with the “Connor, Sarahs” on it and dashes away.

Sarah Connor is definitely an ’80s lady.

Who’s Sarah Connor? Cut-, she’s riding past us on her Honda scooter. Feathered hair, big sunglasses, a smile for the morning sun. She’s the all-American girl, off to work waitressing at a diner. See her punch card? Yup, that’s her. Cut back to the big guy, he’s breaking into a car nonchalantly, driving off with it; to a gun shop, going on a shopping spree worthy of an NRA member who just won the lottery. The 12 gauge autoloader. The .45 longslide with the laser sight. The Uzi 9 millimeter. The phased plasma rifle in the 40 watt range. Hey, just what you see pal. Howya gonna pay for this? BLAM, with lead, buddy. (Actually, he loads the shotgun with one round, and when the gun store guy says “You can’t do that!” Arnie practices the best line from his future film Commando, and says “Wrong!”)

Meanwhile Sarah’s having a bad day at work. She has no idea how much worse it’s going to get. As these two unsavory characters- a musclebound monster toting an arsenal and an attitude of kill whatever gets in my way, and lean and hungry street rat with a shotgun and pants he stole off a hobo- converge on this every-gal’s happy little life, cinematic history was made. Two enormous careers, those of Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, met for the first time. They’d reunite twice more to make films that broke box office records and set the bar for action entertainment- the next would be a sequel to The Terminator, and the last would be True Lies, the only film that managed to make Arnold seem like a real guy, and make us really laugh. Though that thumb war scene was still pretty creepy.

But before that, Arnold had to deconstruct himself, and play the bad guy. He’d already become a star with Conan, and could easily have skated along taking roles in similar, but lesser films; he would, in fact with Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja. We needed to take the muscleman out of the fantasy world of swords and loincloths and turn him into an action hero; but first, he’d have to play the ultimate villain. An unstoppable killing machine. The Terminator.

The famous poster.

James Cameron’s lean script careens along at a relentless pace, something he’d repeat with Aliens and the sequel. In the first fifteen minutes we’ve met the Terminator, the hero, and the damsel in distress- though she’s anything but- and the characters are sculpted before our eyes with very few words. Linda Hamilton gets the least credit but her Sarah Connor is as naturalistic as can be, and sets the foundation for the outer-limits characters of Kyle Reese- the apocalypse warrior who volunteers to go back in time to save her- and Arnold’s stone-faced cyborg, who still manages to crack wise without a single emotional inflection. Without a good Sarah Connor, it would all fall apart. She has to believe it, so we will. The wrong actress could not take it seriously, and laugh at it- or worse yet, take it too seriously. You can’t expect us to believe two warriors from the future coming back to present L.A. because a waitress will decide the fate of humanity right away. It takes just the right amount of skepticism from the target, and she handles it beautifully. She’d only been in Children of the Corn, a few episodes of “Hill Street Blues” and Tag: The Assassination Game before this and her best role would be in the sequel. Not to say I didn’t love watching her on TV’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Cameron and his future wife, Linda Hamilton.

The cops are brought in early, part of the brilliance of the script. In most monster films, and that’s what this is, at its core, the authorities are malicious, stupid, or apathetic. In this one, they know Sarah’s in danger before she does, and believe her immediately. It’s not their fault that they can’t protect her from the most efficient war machine yet devised! Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Millennium)plays one of the most human of the second tier characters, Detective Vukovich. He spots the two Sarah Connors in the daily reports and talks Lt. Traxler (the excellent Paul Winfield, White Dog) to protect the last one in the phone book. This once again solidifies the realism; Keystone cops would not work with this storyline, as our suspension of disbelief is already strained.

It takes 35 minutes for the battle between Reese and the Terminator to begin; we don’t even know their names yet, and we are riveted. We know who the bad guy is- we’ve seen Arnie mow down a housewife and Sarah’s roommate already- but she doesn’t know. She only sees a creepy guy in a trench coat stalking her at the Tech Noir danceclub (perhaps the perfect term for the early ’80s grimy tech shown here and in Blade Runner). And she doesn’t see the Terminator until the laser dot is right between her eyes. While the previous killings mimicked the gruesome exploiters of the ’70s, where the victims were so much lamb for the slaughter, this one is a slow-motion ballet of modern gunslingers facing off on a strobe-light painted dance floor. Everything freezes like our memories of trauma in recollection, for a few seconds, before the thunder of the shotgun breaks the spell and sends the hulking menace to the floor.

But it’s just to trick us; the Terminator is as surprised as we are, and picks itself up off the floor with a frown of disdain for its maker; I thought I was supposed to be tough? We chuckle a bit, but then the real chase begins, and it’s something we’ve never seen before. An indestructible walking arsenal trying to kill two people on the other side of a crowded nightclub, firing through the fleeing bystanders indiscriminately. As I’ve said before in my review of Junior, Arnold is a physical actor of some prowess, who rarely gets a chance to utilize it. He’s waiting for a slapstick script if someone had the balls to write it and the brains to make him take it. Here he looks nothing like Conan, the warrior proud of his genetic gifts; here he walks smoothly, with a mechanical grace and economy of movement, glancing only at his targets and looking through everything else. Look as he crushes the hand of a bouncer, without even glancing back at him. Or my favorite, when he’s firing the Uzi, and suddenly sinks half back into a crouch, tilting right to fire, so he doesn’t have to take a step. Surely there were steps taped on the floor, and perhaps he was coached, but his control over his body from decades of sculpting it made him anything but clumsy.

“Come with me if you want to live.” Kyle’s immortal first words to Sarah exhibit the same economy as Arnold’s movements, as the chase continues down back alleys, gives us our first tease of “Terminator vision” with its red tinge and gun sights, and the first hints of just how tough he will be to kill as Kyle shoots a car’s gas tank and the cyborg leaps through the flames, punches through the windshield of their escape vehicle and tries to strangle Sarah to death. And its other skills, like imitating the voice of a police officer whose car it steals, come clear. Sure, a few blasts with a 12 gauge might buy you some time, but this cybernetic organism absolutely will not stop until you are dead.

The technical details are monologued in some deftly written scenes as they hide from the Terminator and the cops in a parking garage. Michael Biehn, who’d played a few previous roles in The Lords of Discipline and as the demented stalker of Lauren Bacall in The Fan, gets to play hero in perhaps his most iconic role but for Cameron’s next blockbuster, as Corporal Hicks in Aliens. His intensity makes his tale of a future holocaust where humans are herded for slaughter, and his mission to protect Sarah’s future son easy to swallow. Sadly he’d get few roles of any caliber since, except for Johnny Ringo in Tombstone. Here he channels a sort of likable madness, required to make us want him to defeat this awesome new movie star. For as cold as the Terminator is, the audience certainly gleans a certain enjoyment from watching him wield his awesome power. And without any emotions to allow for scenery chewing, we just might root for him.

Sarah Connor quickly shows her mettle as Reese and the Terminator duel with shotguns from moving cars down a dead end. Reese is too busy blowing big holes in the bad guy to notice the wall they’re hurtling toward, so she throws the gearshift into first and slams the brakes. And when the cops surround them, she saves his life by informing him that they’ll kill him- in our time, all humans aren’t fighting together against the machines. So before he can try to finish off the machine, he has to surrender.

Back at the police station house, Reese is interviewed by psychiatrist Dr. Silberman, who gleans even more details from him. Of course they don’t believe him, and they try to convince Sarah the same. He could be wearing body armor, and be on PCP. But even when they crack jokes, Cameron keeps them on the macabre side. The tone is never allowed to be jocular. Even earlier, when Sarah is waitressing and spills a drink, only to have a kid put a scoop of ice cream in her apron- the humor is all downers. Lance Henriken’s Detective gets some laughs at his own expense- he’s a jaded blabbermouth who the Lieutenant has to cut off a lot- but every joke is at someone’s expense. The bleakness of the future permeates the entire film, and we are kept on edge throughout.

Even the biggest gag- three words that would be synonymous with Arnold for over two decades since- is the darkest humor imaginable. The Terminator, after repairing itself with some of the best latex special effects yet seen at the time- shows up at the police station, now in its famous black leather motorcycle jacket and sunglasses to hide the bullet holes and gleaming red eye. When the desk cop blows him off, he quietly surveys the lobby and says, “I’ll be back.” Seconds later, he’s back, driving a car through the building and flattening the rude authority figure in a an unforgettable scene of wish fulfillment for anyone in the audience who’s run into a wall of bureaucracy. Not that I condone such behavior, but in 1984 you could film this sort of thing. Now, he’d have to be seen diving clear of the wreckage.

But this movie isn’t squeamish about the Terminator mowing down cops. For the cherry on top of the second act consists of him walking through the entire police station and killing everyone in his path, with a shotgun on one arm and an assault rifle on the other. The sheer amount of violence in this film caused quite a stir at the time, so much that in the sequel, most of it is between two cyborgs to keep the blood spill and body count low. It’s almost more effective now, when most action films eschew it. The special effects were groundbreaking for the time, and Stan Winston made his bones … by making the Terminator and his metal skeleton. Before this, he’d done make-up for The Bat People and an Italian production entitled Dracula’s Dog, so it was amazing how he and Cameron leapt from the B movie pit into creating one of the most stunning spectacles of the decade.

Cameron has some favorite shots- he loves filming someone getting killed with a beverage in their hand. He loves things getting stepped on or run over. Before this, he’d only directed Piranha 2: The Spawning and a short film called Xenogenesis, though he was a unit director on Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror. After writing the script, he managed to get his soon to be wife, Gale Ann Hurd, to get her production company to buy it for $1 with the condition that he direct, and history was made. They would collaborate through the ’80s.

Part of what makes The Terminator so engrossing is how he keeps cutting to scenes of the horrible future through Kyle’s dream sequences. They re-use the same models but manage to keep it fresh by showing something new each time. The resistance can take out some of the fearsome Hunter-Killer tanks and hoverjets through guerrilla tactics, but the fragility of human existence is always kept clear. Perhaps the most chilling scene is when Sarah is tending to Kyle’s wound and he remembers how he lost her photograph. It foreshadows their bonding, but also shows a Terminator (not an Arnold model, but his bodybuilding pal Franco Columbu) infiltrating their hideout and going on a killing spree. As it soullessly guns down their dogs and then stalks forward in shadow, we see it from Kyle’s prone position, its eyes afire with cold red light. It’s an image so effective, they reuse it throughout the franchise.

Cameron is also wise to not make the Terminator too superhuman; it has to repair itself, it rots and draws attention with the smell, and has to track them down. It can’t just show up outside their window like a boogeyman. My favorite is how it finds Sarah’s mother using her address book (remember those?) and then waits for her to call. The simple pan across her mother’s devastated cabin, and the slow reveal of Arnold talking to Sarah on the phone using her mother’s voice, is chilling and effective. Later, when we see him knocked off his motorcycle by a truck after dodging pipebombs, only to get plowed into by a tanker, and still get up- with a limp- we finally get a hint that he may be defeated, but he is one tough cookie.

Get. Out.

The film is as relentless as the Terminator itself; the truck barely dented him, and the famous scene were he climbs in the cab, his face half metal and half flesh, and merely says “Get out!” was so good they used it again with the T-1000 in the sequel. The make-up is particularly impressive here; in some of the repair scenes it’s obviously a latex head, but this still looks real, before CG. When the tanker truck explodes through Kyle’s own unstoppable perseverance, we think it’s all over. Brad Fiedel’s amazing, dissonant score- something he’d been doing since ’71 with the “Cannon” TV series- even tricks us by taking on a mournful, triumphant tone. Talking about the movie without mentioning its unforgettable score is impossible, and Brad Fiedel would never make one this good again. He was the perfect choice.

From here to the end, the monster movie formula moniker is more apt, as the Terminator rises from the flames of the tanker without its Arnold shell, and instead is a metal endoskeleton created by Stan Winston. Looking at it now, many of his tricks of forced perspective and puppetry by keeping only so much of the robot on screen are more noticeable. The movements are sometimes jerky, showing the stop-motion animation work. But even 25 years later, the Terminator is real enough to be frightening as its severed torso hunts Sarah through machines on the factory floor. The score takes on a Psycho aspect and the scrapes of metal on metal and the howl of hydraulics and servos becomes horrific in itself. And Sarah’s triumph, with her infamous line of “You’re terminated, fucker!” is hard bought. By the end of the movie, we believe she can raise the son who will lead the resistance.

The fantastic script stood on the shoulders of giants, however. Science fiction writer (sorry, speculative fiction) Harlan Ellison would eventually sue Cameron and win, claiming that the movie was derivative of three of his works: an Outer Limits episode entitled “Soldier,” about a warrior from a desperate future accidentally sent back to our time; another episode “Demon with a Glass Hand,” where humanity’s savior travels back in time to save it; and his novella “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” one of the most important works of science fiction, about a defense computer who decides humanity is the enemy and wipes most of us out. There are many differences between The Terminator and those works, but the similarities are quite damning. Cameron never admitted consciously plagiarizing the ideas, but if you hunt down the Outer Limits episode called “Soldier,” the image of the postapocalyptic future looks a lot like this one. Ellison is now credited as an influence in the credits of the first film. Cameron would go on to make an even better sequel, and continue to break box office records by raising the bar on action films and epics, culminating in Titanic.

The latex effects may look fake now, but they are top notch.

By playing what is possibly his most memorable role as The Terminator, Arnold took a huge gamble by going from Conan the Barbarian to science fiction films as the bad guy. He originally auditioned for the role of Kyle Reese, but after speaking with Cameron it was decided he would be better as the cyborg, and how true it was. It showed he had range, even if he only spoke a few lines. His powerful presence paired to a powerful and memorable character cemented his star status, and by the time they made the sequel together, Arnold and Cameron were two of the biggest names in Hollywood in their respective professions.

James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger today.

But the original vision was much different. The Terminator was supposed to be an average guy more capable of blending in, something they used in T2 with the T-1000 played by Robert Patrick. Lance Henriksen originally auditioned for the part- infamously kicking the door in of the casting director, with his hair oiled back and tinfoil on his teeth- and even O.J. Simpson was on the short list, but Cameron thought “such a nice guy couldn’t be a ruthless killer.” And many of the plot points used in the second film were already planned for the first, such as attempting to destroy Cyberdyne Systems before they can invent Skynet. In fact, shots were filmed that showed technicians picking up pieces of the destroyed Terminator at the factory as Sarah was wheeled away in a stretcher, showing Cyberdyne logos on the building.

This movie bears rewatching because it has become part of the culture. It was selected for inclusion into the National Film Registry in 2008. The film’s open ending, where Sarah is driving a Jeep into the desert with a pistol at her side, hardened from her experience and recording messages to the unborn son she now carries, made us yearn for a sequel and in 1992 they delivered, topping the original in almost every way. The second sequel without Cameron got a lot of fan flack for how it stooped for jokes such as “talk to the hand” and suggesting that the future cannot be changed, but it was still a solid entry and deserves kudos for its dark ending. The upcoming Terminator: Salvation which opens today starring Christian Bale as John Connor and apparently no Arnold Schwarzenegger is much anticipated, despite director McG’s track record. Let’s hope it stays true to the original vision. And IMDb shows a Terminator 5 in development by Cameron; I’d love to see him return to both the Terminator and Aliens franchises that he contributed so richly to.

All the entries in The Arnold Project