The many characters of Arnold Schwarzenegger
Arnold Schwarzenegger has been featured in nearly forty movies over the years. Curiously, few film makers have bothered to explain why their beefy hero has a thick Austrian accent or even changed the name of the character to one that sounds like it might be worn on the name tag of a guy with a thick Austrian accent. Let's examine the major roles.
Ahh, Hercules, of Hercules in New York. It all started here for the small town boy from Thal, Austria with a big dream and a bigger mountain of muscle in 1970, just after winning his first of seven Mr. Olympia competitions. Arnold was credited as "Arnold Strong." That's, frankly, a much better name than "Schwarzenegger," but I would have recommended "Arnold Awesome."
A body builder in Jeff Bridges's gym in 1976's Stay Hungry, Joe is a guy I don't remember, even tho I just caught this relic on TV a few months ago. And Arnold is pretty much the only reason for watching the movie, as I recall—unless you've got a thing for Sally Field. Maybe "Santo" is a stage name for his bodybuilding career.
The Villain was the first film I personally recall the Austrian Oak in when I was a kid, back in 1979. A weird film by any standard (it's basically a live action cartoon set in the Wild West), the characters have names like Charming Jones (Ann-Margret) and Cactus Jack (Kirk Douglas), but "Handsome Stranger" has to be the weirdest. It's everybody-hop-on cast is its main draw, but Arnold plays second fiddle to the aforementioned. Ruth Buzzi is in it, and Paul Lynde plays and Indian. Foster Brooks even plays—get this—a drunk.
One of the very few Arnold character names that makes any cultural sense at all, "Lars" is a big, muscley guy collected by the players in 1979's Scavenger Hunt. The film had a certain Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World charm in that it mainly showcased its cast which, in this case, featured Dirk Benedict, Richard Mulligan, Roddy McDowell, and a dozen other hey-I-recognize-him-guys. It's still not available on DVD for some reason. Come on Hollywood! I'm a completist!
Conan and Kalidor
Ludicrosity: 7 and 9
His first really big role: Conan the Barbarian (1982), followed by Conan the Destroyer (1984). He perfectly embodies the famed Cimmerian—which, I've always assumed, is a part of central Europe, even tho "Conan" is a Celtic name. And who does he go up against? Darth Vader. Or Thulsa Doom, rather, but whatever—it's James Earl Jones, man. That's cool.
But "Kalidor"? Who the hell is "Kalidor"? I always thought Arnold's character in 1985's Red Sonja was Conan. After all, he's a barbarian. They're both Robert E Howard inventions. And he plays against Brigitte Nielson, another Teutonic titan, but she gets a perfectly believable German barbarian chick name. Who dropped the ball on that? I recall an interview with the big man in which he said he was asked to do a "cameo," and then they used every bit of footage they shot of him to enlarge his role to near co-star status. I don't know who has the guts to trick Arnold Schwarzenegger and then hand him a giant sword, but that's a man who carries his balls in a gunny sack.
T-800 and T-850
Ludicrosity: 1 and 1.5, based on my belief that Arnold Schwarzenegger really is a robot
Perhaps his most apt name, T-800 was the model number of Arnold's character in 1984's The Terminator. In 1991's Terminator 2 , he was a suspiciously similar T-850, the difference between them mainly being the addition of seven years of wrinkles. The original concept was that the Terminator was a non-descript-looking guy—the better to infiltrate human encampments. But when you cast Arnold, you don't get nondescript. You get descript. Very descript.
1985's Commando was Arnold's first real vehicle. A role custom-tailored to him... except... "John Matrix"? They explain away the shoe-leather tongue by saying he's East German, but they don't bother to change the name to something German-y. Unfortunately, there's not much that's memorable from Commando. Rae Dawn Chong is cute, and Alyssa Milano shows what she could parley into a TV career, but the plot is just a vague shoot-'em-up. I do recall the fine Arnold line about killing one particular guy last and being a liar on that count.
Mark Kaminsky aka Joseph P. Brenner
Somehow, in my whole entire life, I don't think I've ever come across the 1986 gem called Raw Deal. I don't know what happens in it other than that Arnold shoots people, which is all he did in the 1980s—I think even Twins had a body count of around 30. And I don't know why he sports two names, one even more unlikely than the other. "Kaminsky"? I might buy that. Polish or something, but on the Sudetenland side. But "Brenner"? Not buying it.
Somebody got smart and gave Arnie a believably Teutonic name at last in the 1987 blockbuster Predator. It's just a nickname, presumably, but it means that the character actually is a Nederlander. But beyond that, he's a cipher. Where did Dutch come from (other than Dutchland, of course)? Is there a Mrs. Dutch? Are there any Dutchlings? This guy is nothing but muscle, guns, and insults toward illegal aliens. And what about Dillon? That sonofabitch set us up! And he came with us! Get to da choppa!
Come on. Seriously? "Ben Richards"? They couldn't rename Arnold's character from 1987's The Running Man "Ben Rickaert" or something? Or, better still, "Richard Bachman." That's the pseudonym Stephen King used when he published the story. "Ben Richards" always made me think of "Reed Richards," the real name of Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four. And that always makes me think of the way Arnold pronounces "fantastic" as "funtaaastic."
An Austrian as a Russian? Oh, okay, I'll buy that. 1988's Red Heat brought Arnold together at last with Jim Belushi to answer the question nobody asked. What would a terrible movie be like if it featured Schwarzenegger and Belushi as cops? It didn't help that it came out the same year as Dead Heat, the movie with Treat Williams as a zombie cop.
I don't remember the excuse they made up for Arnold to sound Austrian while his anti-twin is a Jersey boy, but I don't remember thinking too hard about 1988's Twins in general. Kelly Preston was cute, and the story was boring as hell, but there were probably a few laughs. Danny DeVito is always good for a few, and Arnie can hold his own if the lines suit him.
For my money, 1990's Total Recall was all a dream, and construction worker Douglas Quaid is, to this day, resting in a persistent vegetative state, attended by his loving wife Lori and brothers Randy and Dennis, while Rekal went out of business for giving people schizoid embolisms left and right. My guess is that the embolism was caused by Doug's subconscious trying to make up a more believable name for himself, like "Houser." I detail it all in my fan commentary.
You're not going to get me to see Arnold in a thriller/rom-com like 1990's Kindergarten Cop, regardless of what eye candy you flavor it with; and Penelope Ann Miller and Pamela Reed are like basil and pepper, anyway. Children and Schwarzeneggers don't mix. But, for pity's sake, you can't change the line to "Maybe it's a schizoid embolism"?
A fake name for a fake action hero seems appropriate, but 1993's Last Action Hero was just a big, expensive turd. The production is legendary for the mess made of the script and schedule, but it's hard to imagine a good movie coming out of the idea of a kid getting a magic ticket to enter a movie and meet his hero, a mindless action hero. While deconstructing the genre could have been fun, they film makers just mostly made a genre film with a few winks to the audience delivered by an annoying kid.
1994's True Lies marked a resurgence for Schwarzenegger for many audiences. The turn away from simplistic action films that started with Twins and culminated in Last Action Hero was a permanent thing, except that he would still do movies in which he spent most of his time shooting people. Still, the plots are more engaging, and the dialog doesn't consist mostly of cringe-enducing one-liners. But "Harry Tasker" is still a dumb name for an Austrian-American secret agent.
Bolstered by the success of Twins and wanting to further distance himself from dumb plots where he shoots people, Arnie boldly chose a film with a dumb plot where he gets pregnant. Junior seems like an idea for a Carey Grant or Ronald Reagan vehicle (depending on whether you can get A-picture or B-picture funding), rejected on the grounds that it's stupider than doing a sequel to Monkey Business or Bedtime for Bonzo. Alex Hesse is, however, a believable name, at least. "Hesse," after all, is the name of a region in Germany.
1996's Eraser is a clear successor to True Lies in that it is a smarter screenplay than his earlier genre work, and Arnie's character works for the government, as a proper Republican should. All that rebel, lone wolf, rogue commando stuff is for hippies. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a patriot. The name "John Kruger" is another of the handful of names that make sense for the actor playing him.
Which is a dumber name: "Howard Langston" for a transplanted Austrian or "Myron Larabee" for a streetwise black man who made it to the suburbs? That's correct; the answer is "Sinbad" for anyone who isn't an ancient sailor. 1996's Jingle All the Way brought them together to fight over toys.
"Mister Freeze." Get it? At least Arnold's character in the 1997 megaflop Batman & Robin was supposed to be German. And say horrible one-liner jokes. "Ice to see you" indeed.
I don't understand actors who agree to play a character called "Jericho Cane." I don't understand writers who think that drunkards/heroes in a biblical crapventure like 1999's End of Days need biblical names. Sure I can understand how you wouldn't want to name your guy "Marty McFly" in that situation, but be a little serious, for pity's sake.
2000's The 6th Day isn't a particularly bad film. It feels like we've seen all this before in different guises: the futuristic setting, the aircraft piloting, the shooting of the guns and whatnot. And the name Adam Gibson. It just has a bland, non-ethnic-y flavor that says "this character could be played by anyone, maybe even a chick." In fact, in my fan commentary, I suggest Judi Dench could have played the role. A little less fist-fighting, a few more meaningful glances.... Don't underestimate Judi Dench.
And last, and possibly least—I don't know; I haven't seen this one—2002's Collateral Damage brought us sort-of-Germanic-sounding Gordy Brewer. It's a little too Olde-English-pub for my taste, but it will have to hold us over until Arnie leaves the governator's mansion to take back his mantle as the king of action flicks.
Of course, he's 13th billed on The Expendables, behind every other action-movie actor still alive (and just ahead of Brittany Murphy), and his character doesn't yet have a name, but I have faith. If there's one thing you can say about Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's that he can't be bargained with. He can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are thrilled.
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