Often we speak of acting muscle. Colin Firth has it, Dustin Hoffman definitely has it, and Robert De Niro had it before he started a career of self-parody. They are all terrific actors who have given us some truly astonishing performances in a variety of brilliant movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, has a different kind of acting muscle.
Arnie, the Austrian-born bodybuilder who would eventually become Governor of California, is the literal form of acting muscle. Unlike his contemporaries, Mr Schwarzenegger never had the greatest range or skill as an actor, but what he did have, above and beyond all that fell before him, was huge, rock-solid, man-mountain muscles. Arnie became a star because of his body. He was aided by an under-appreciated talent for picking the right scripts and directors to work with.
But by no stretch of the imagination is Schwarzenegger a good actor. But at least he knows his limitations and works within them, becoming, as he did in the 1980s and 1990s, the biggest action star in Hollywood.
What is your favourite Arnold Schwarzenegger film?
10. Eraser (Russell, 1996)
Big guns. Very big guns. That’s the only reason you need to watch Arnie in Eraser. The man-mountain plays John “Eraser” Kruger, a U.S. Marshal who helps give people new identities in the Witness Security Protection Programme. When electronic pulse rifles, the most powerful weapons of their type, fall into the wrong hands, Arnie finds himself fighting those he thought were his friends and needs to protect his own life as well as that of key witness Dr. Lee Cullen (Vanessa L. Williams). Silly stuff but fast-paced and lots of fun.
9. Commando (Lester, 1985)
Dan Hedaya is stupid enough to steal Arnie’s daughter, played here by a young Alyssa Milano, and has to suffer the big man’s wrath. Commando possibly features the most bad guy kills by the Austrian bodybuilder as he takes on a whole army all by himself. Far-fetched and thinly plotted but nevertheless prime 1980s action-adventure.
8. Kindergarten Cop (Reitman, 1990)
Arnie was never afraid to poke fun at himself. His huge bulk was easy prey for cunning comedy writers who eagerly picked away at his machismo. In Twins he was matched up with mini-man Danny Devito, while the pair would work together again in Junior when Schwarzenegger became the first pregnant man. In Ivan Reitman’s Kindergarten Cop, Arnie meets his match in the form of pre-pubescent school kids when he goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher. There’s a good bit of tension to go with the comedy and Schwarzenegger is brilliantly game as the hard man who has to find his softer side.
7. The Running Man (Glaser, 1987)
Set in the year 2017 which looks uncannily like 1980s Los Angeles, The Running Man gets something right: it pits convicted criminals against professional killers in a prime time game show where viewers bet on who will die next. Of course, these pro-murderous gladiators didn’t figure on facing the “Terminator” and Arnie goes about his business tearing off limbs and generally causing carnage to save the day and win the girl. This exciting film benefits from facing Arnie off against increasingly menacing foe.
6. True Lies (Cameron, 1994)
Arnold Schwarzenegger has done much of his best work with two directors – the first is John McTiernan, the second is James Cameron. In True Lies, Terminator writer/director and star reunite for a tale about a husband who leads a double life as a secret agent, covering his tracks from his clueless wife by pretending to be a computer salesman. When Arnie finds out his wife, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, might be having an affair, he uses his agency’s resources to track her movements and uncover the truth. It leads to some highly amusing events involving a brilliantly funny performance from Cameron regular Bill Paxton and Arnie interrogating Jamie Lee Curtis from behind two-way mirror. Of course, it proceeds to the pair having to save the human race from nuclear war. Great fun and one of the big man’s best performances.
5. Last Action Hero (McTiernan, 1993)
Last Action Hero pips True Lies to the fun-Arnie winner’s medal by virtue of its superb self-reflexive nature thanks to Shane Black’s sparkling script. Schwarzenegger pokes fun at himself, playing Jack Slater, a version of his macho persona on screen, as well as turning up as himself. There’s a great moment when Schwarzenegger has to tackle himself when he sees his twin wielding a gun in a theatre auditorium.
Despite Last Action Hero’s financial failure (largely due to it being released alongside Jurassic Park) the film is a real treasure. It sees a young boy magically transported into the world of his favourite film series starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Once there he tries to tell his idol that he’s in a movie but it falls on deaf ears. A fantastic scene sees the boy taking Arnie into a video store to show him the poster of Terminator 2. However, when he finds the poster, Sylvester Stallone is pictured in the iconic image of the Terminator on the Harley to which Arnie says, “He’s fantastic. It’s his best performance ever.” Great comedy, great action, great story. If the film was released today it would be much better received than it was on its original release.
4. Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990)
Another Schwarzenegger film set in the future, Total Recall sees him play Douglas Quaid, a freedom fighter from Mars who has his memory wiped by an unscrupulous Mars official after Quaid threatens his rule on the planet. Placed on earth under the watchful eye of Sharon Stone, who Arnie wrongly believes is his wife thanks to the memory wipe and subsequent implant of new thoughts, the Austrian Hulk gets on with life as a mild-mannered construction worker. But he dreams of visiting Mars so visits a company which has the ability to implant thoughts and emotions directly into the brain. Choosing a holiday to Mars for his implant, the procedure affects his earlier memory wipe, forcing him to go on the run. Agents from Mars want to either kill him or bring him in for another memory implant, while Quaid begins to piece together his real life from clues his former self left behind. It sounds complicated but it isn’t. It’s fast-paced, suitably violent and features some great special-effects.
3. Predator (McTiernan, 1987)
Part of the Schwarzenegger legacy is the increasing menace and ultimate power of his foe. From the T-1000 liquid metal robot in Terminator 2 to the Devil in End of Days, Arnie has flexed his muscle against great enemies. But none have wielded the sort of terror as the Predator, which proceeds to wipe out Arnie’s entire military team before turning its attention to him. In Predator Arnie has met his match and it makes for an exciting, suspenseful film with some great action sequences and brilliant support performances.
In the film, Arnie plays Dutch, a tough, battle-hardened commander of an elite military unit sent into the South American jungle to rescue three presidential cabinet ministers. But once there they find themselves tracked by an unseen enemy, picked off one by one.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991)
One of the best sequels ever made sees Arnold Schwarzenegger reprise his role as the Terminator only this time he’s a good guy. Sent back in time to protect humanity’s saviour John Connor during his childhood, the T-800 robot must fight the much more powerful and technologically advanced T-1000. This would be Arnie’s greatest film if the original wasn’t so good.
1. The Terminator (Cameron, 1984)
Arguably the easiest performance of Arnie’s career, in James Cameron’s The Terminator he only needs to utter a couple of words and walk round looking like he’s spent the last ten years living in the weights room at his local gym. In the only film of his career where he plays the bad guy, Arnie proves to be one frightening and mean enemy. That Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese is the only man who has ever managed to defeat the big man says a lot about the actor’s brilliant performance, as well as the film’s superb battle of good versus evil.
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.
Discover More on Top10Films.co.uk:
Search our collection of Top 10 lists sorted by type:
THEME | ACTOR | DIRECTOR | TIME PERIOD | GENRE | COUNTRY | SPECIAL INTEREST | FUNNY
See the A – Z of films featured on Top 10 Films / Check out our film review database