The rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s is a thing of legend. After a highly successful bodybuilding career (and a not so successful film career) in the 70s, “Aunold” would break out onto the scene in a big way with 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. His ascension through the ranks of Hollywood was driven by the equally meteoric rise of action cinema in general. More than any other action star, Arnold was a brand unto himself; and with the 90’s fast approaching, he and the genre he now dominated were poised to take over the cinema landscape.
WHERE IT STARTED
June 1, 1990. Summer movie season is in full swing and Arnold is about to unleash his biggest movie to date: Total Recall. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” and directed by master of violent satire, Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall is about as next level as a movie can get. With a (then) massive $65 million budget, Schwarzenegger and the action genre were about to enter true blockbuster territory. The film would go on to gross over $260 million dollars and currently has a near constant presence on streaming services.
In its day, Total Recall was an unprecedented film. The sets were positively massive and the practical effects were EVERYWHERE (the triple-breasted prostitute on Mars would become the thing of legend in playground discussions). For those of us too young to watch rated R movies, Total Recall had a level of mystique to it that Arnold’s previous films never had. Even watching it on tv couldn’t convey just how extreme it was; with its cartoonishly bloody squibs, casual ultraviolence, and creative methods of killing bad guys, it felt like the ultimate action movie experience before we’d even watched it.
Total Recall was prophetic of what action movies would become over the next decade, and there’s no better example than the space port sequence. When our protagonist, Quaid, is trying to slip his way onto Mars, he has to get creative with his disguise. Wearing a robotic head over his own, he tries to slip by future TSA in the guise of a conspicuously burly woman. When he’s found out, the head disengages in a masterful display of make-up and animatronics and Quaid tosses the thing to his attackers. The head spouts a one-liner and then explodes with the force of 10 lbs of dynamite (because subtly is for quitters). He then rushes through a wall-sized x-ray machine, which promptly freaks out due to the gun he has on his person. It’s a shockingly good use of early CGI before Quaid crashes through the x-ray wall and continues his escape. In 1990, no one had ever seen anything with this kind of outlandish ambition.
It’s hard to imagine a stronger start to a decade than Total Recall. Schwartzenegger and Verhoeven would be elevated to new heights and the action movie was about to go prestige in a way it never had before. The winds were changing and the 90s showed limitless possibilities.
As it turns out, the prophecy of Total Recall would be fulfilled; action cinema would go on to dominate Hollywood, although not in the way that many were expecting. With the increased status came more interest from actors who were not traditionally known as “action stars”. Suddenly, actors like John Travolta, Wesley Snipes, Tom Cruise, and Nicolas Cage were dipping their toes into the genre and showing that acting ability and action ability were not mutually exclusive. Action cinema also became considerably more complex, with filmmakers like John McTeirnan, Jan DeBont, and Michael Bay elevating action cinema as an artform. What’s more, Hong Kong filmmakers would soon find their way to Hollywood and upend the genre further. Many 80s action stars learned the hard way that the only way to survive was to evolve…
Schwarzenegger seemed uniquely qualified to navigate this changing landscape. Recall that he came to the U.S. with practically nothing, then became a millionaire, and THEN became a movie star; this is a man with a strong head for business and what it takes to be successful. That’s not to say that he had much in the way of acting range, but Schwarzenegger was good at choosing projects that challenged him and evolved his brand beyond the scrappy actioners that made him famous in the past. He’d go on to work with James Cameron twice, which resulted in two of his best movies (Terminator 2 and True Lies). He’d make the ultimate meta-commentary on his own career in the grossly underrated Last Action Hero (directed by John McTeirnan and written by Shane Black). He’d even reteam with his Twins co-star Danny Devito to make Junior; an extremely weird but still charming comedy about a large Austrian man who gets himself pregnant. But that was the first half of the 90s…
By the back-half of the decade, though, Arnold’s brand was starting to feel tired and formulaic. 1996’s Eraser was a solid actioner, but it had to compete with Broken Arrow from John Woo and The Rock from Michael Bay – two movies that helped to change the action movie landscape that Arnold had once ruled over. He followed this up with Jingle All the Way (possibly his worst movie) before camping it up as Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin. Things were not looking great.
This was also around the time that Schwarzenegger started experiencing heart problems. He’d be out of action for a year as he recovered from heart surgery, with insurance companies hesitant to cover him for fear of him dropping dead mid-scene. And funally, after ten years and nine films under his belt, it was time to take a bow for the decade.
WHERE IT ENDED
November 24, 1999. The new millennium is upon us and everyone is absolutely terrified. Talk of the Y2K bug shutting down the worldwide infrastructure is dominating the news. Talk of the rapture is on the lips of everyone crazy enough to believe in the rapture. Armageddon is clearly upon us, and the only thing standing in its way is…. Arnold Schwartzenegger!
When End Of Days hit theaters, it was a massively hyped departure from Arnold’s previous films as well as being one of the LAST action movies to hit American theaters before the new millenium (if not THE last). The first thing you’ll notice about this movie is that it is DARK. Like, literally dark in that most of it happens at night and even the rare daytime scenes are overwhelmed by oppressive shadows. But it also happens to be a surprisingly dark story; Satan has taken human form and needs to effectively rape a woman named Christin York to create the anti-christ. The only man who seems capable of stopping it is a grieving bodyguard name Jericho. The fact that we’re introduced to Schwarzenegger’s character in the middle of an attempted suicide should say everything about what kind of film this is.
By 1999, Hollywood action movies were practically at their peak. CGI had gotten to the point where it was convincing, but still too expensive to rely on exclusively. This meant that most big budget movies still relied on practical effects like miniatures, optical effects and good old fashioned stuntwork. End Of Days makes effective use of all these tools and is directed with aplomb by Peter Hyams. That name will sound familiar to action fans for his duology of Van Damme thrillers, Timecop and Sudden Death. Being a former cinematographer, End Of Days is a beautiful as it is grimy and the set pieces are shot in ways that put the film’s $100 million budget to good use.
To watch Total Recall and End of Days back to back creates a sense of whiplash. These movies could not be any more different. Hell, even Arnold saw a dramatic change. 90s action movies were defined by heroes that audiences could relate to (a la Die Hard); in response Schwarzenegger is noticeably leaner and almost tries to hide his physique under coats and long-sleeve shirts. He was going out of his way to play a character who was more vulnerable. More human. This is something he would build on after his return to acting in 2013, but at the time it may have proved to be too much of a departure from the brand he’d created around himself. All his previous movies, no matter how violent, had always been intended to be fun crowdpleasers, something that End Of Days clearly wasn’t. Arnold may have been ready to evolve, but audiences were clearly not. He’d become a victim of his own success.
Despite all the pre-release hype, the film’s theatrical debut was surprisingly muted, only bringing in about $20 million – a far cry from the glory days of the early 90s. It would go on to gross about $212 million before leaving theaters, making it a success albeit far from a blockbuster hit. At this point, all the biggest names in 80s action were either falling on hard times or looking for success in other genres. It says a lot that of all the big name action guys, Schwarzenegger was the only one to release an action movie to theaters, let alone one that made money.
At the start of the decade, both Schwarzenegger and the action genre seemed poised to take over the world, and in a way they did. It was the decade that Arnold would become one of the first actors (along with Jim Carrey) to join the $20 million club. It was the decade of Terminator 2, Die Hard With A Vengeance, Speed, Face/Off and The Matrix. By 1999, the genre he’d helped to grow had blossomed into its own artform.
In the end, Schwarzenegger would manage to navigate the changing tides better than any of his peers. Hell, for all the ink that has been spilled about Batman & Robin destroying his career, he did manage to negotiate a sizable portion of merchandise sales (in addition to his $25 million paycheck), and for what it’s worth, he’s still starring in movies, including the upcoming feature film release of Kung Fury 2: The Movie from David Sandberg, among other things. Trust me, he was (and is) doing just fine.
Having entered his 50s at the time, Arnold would start to be viewed less as a viable action star and more as the elder statesman of the action genre. Many thought he’d be the one to help guide a new generation of action stars to carry the torch for the next decade. Little did anyone realize that by 2020, all our most successful action stars would be in their 50s and 60s.