The 10 best Arnold Schwarzenegger performances

Better known for his brawn than his acting chops, Arnie has still turned in some great performances over the years, as Luke reminds us...

So The Last Stand hasn’t quite re-affirmed Arnold Schwarzenegger as supreme ruler of the box office. At the time of writing, its worldwide box office takings are a little over $33m. That’s someway short of its reputed $45m budget, and only a little more than Schwarzenegger’s rumoured $29.25m salary for Terminator 3. To be fair, it was never really going to propel him back to his blockbuster days of old. Especially when his co-star is Johnny Knoxville.

And to be fairer, it’s actually a much better film than those numbers would suggest. Surprisingly violent, funny in places, hilariously clichéd in others. But it’s not a great Arnie film. And it’s not a great Arnie performance. Too much emoting, not enough quotable dialogue. There’s only one line that sticks in the mind, a wonderful two syllables that are well worth the 80 minute wait.

You have to go back a long way for the really great Arnie performances, the ones that remind you how effective he was. Give him the right material now and he could still be (step forward Tarantino. Please). Because even in the midst of the gung-ho, Planet Hollywood-era 80s and 90s, when everyone was saving the world, or a really tall building, or an ice hockey stadium, Schwarzenegger ruled. No one could touch him.

A greater sense of humour and self-awareness than Bruce Willis. A better way with the one-liner than Sylvester Stallone. And, until 1996’s Eraser onwards, a much better grasp of quality control than either of them (of the ten performances below, eight of them fall between 1984 and 1994, a terrific hit rate).

Ad – content continues below

But he’s always been more than just a muscle-bound action star. Look at his work with James Cameron and Ivan Reitman and you’ll see a lightness to counteract that hulking presence, a natural charisma that’s harnessed properly when so many other filmmakers piss it away in favour of stale one liners and generic stoicism.

So these are 10 of his best performances. Not in any ‘good to better’ order or anything as cruelly subjective as that. You can’t ask me to choose my favourite Arnie performance from the below. I love them all equally.

Stay Hungry (1976)

Interesting fact number one: Arnie has won a Golden Globe. For acting. The same year that the co-writer of The Expendables 2 was winning a Best Screenplay Oscar. 1977 seems a long time ago now, doesn’t it?

Named as best newcomer for his supporting role in director Bob Rafelson’s ode to bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger’s first screen performance seven years earlier in Hercules In New York was kindly overlooked. Although he was dubbed and credited as Arnold Strong, so the Golden Globe people may not have realised it was him.

Or maybe they just realised that Arnold was actually really good this time around. If playing an Austrian bodybuilder doesn’t sound like much of a stretch for the then Austrian bodybuilder (still Austrian, of course), just watch and be amazed. Stay Hungry captures Arnie at his least self-conscious, a movie star without any movie star baggage.

Maybe it helped that he wasn’t carrying the movie, leaving Jeff Bridges to do the heavy lifting. Just as Bridges had done in Thunderbolt & Lightfoot with Clint Eastwood a few years earlier, Schwarzenegger was able to shine from under the leading man’s shadow. He plays fiddle, espouses an awesome ‘stay hungry’ speech, and looks good even when he’s got a sack over his head.

Ad – content continues below

Pumping Iron (1977)

Can you call this a performance when it’s actually a documentary? Absolutely. That was a rhetorical question. Or one that I already knew the answer to, anyway.

Like a lot of documentaries, George Butler and Robert Fiore’s behind-the-scenes look at the 1975 Mr Olympia contest is a manipulated slice of reality. They played up the difference between reigning champion Arnold and up-and-coming challenger Lou Ferrigno, persuading the latter to train with his over-domineering father in a miserable-looking gym, leaving Arnold to bathe in the warm glow of Gold’s Gym in California.

Arnie follows suit, giving a performance that deftly balances exaggeration with reality. There are outlandish claims – weightlifting is better than sex, dictators make for great role models – reeled off by Arnold in order to add drama to a film that needs it. But what stays with you most is his incredible charisma. This was the first time we got to see Arnie the larger-than-life showman, the undeniable movie star in waiting. He’s cocky, but so good for it, breaking out a goofy, infectious smile that hides the ruthless competitor within.

The Terminator (1984)

Everyone knows the story by now, right? Schwarzenegger, having just wrapped Conan The Barbarian, was being pitched as the Reese hero character. American football star OJ Simpson was in line to play the big bad (in his autobiography, Arnold even describes seeing a mock-up poster with OJ front and centre – who do we have to call to get a glimpse of that?). Director James Cameron didn’t want Schwarzenegger, they went to lunch anyway, with a pre-king-of-the-world Cameron so broke that he had to hope Arnie would pick up the bill. But before they got to that, Cameron saw something in his lunch companion that meant extra work for the poster department.

What’s incredible about The Terminator is how it inverts the natural Arnie charisma so evident in Pumping Iron, yet still shows him to be one of the most magnetic screen presences of his generation. And it marked the most important collaboration in Schwarzenegger’s career. Cameron got how to make Schwarzenegger work – if you’re not having him deadpan a one liner, don’t have him do anything. Go minimalist.

Schwarzenegger works best in the extremes: relaxed and charming or as the Eastwood-style man of few words (Red Heat is his Coogan’s Bluff with added Russian accent). The Terminator showed how good he could be at the latter, a big advert for ‘less is more’ played to perfection.

Ad – content continues below

Commando (1985)

The Terminator may be the iconic Schwarzenegger performance, but Commando launched what would become the Schwarzenegger template – guns, violence and, what Stallone’s films crucially lacked at the time, a streak of knowing humour. The first film to introduce James Bond-inspired one-liners to the Arnie film, it showed the likeable, Pumping Iron Arnie to a mainstream audience – big, funny, and kind of sweet (just look at how ordinary the subsequent Raw Deal is for starving Arnie of two out of these three).

It’s also, in hindsight, a dry run for Taken – brutally effective killing machine father rescues kidnapped daughter – although Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix is a more rounded, compassionate dad than Neeson’s Bryan Mills. He can pet a deer in the wilderness one minute, silently break a man’s neck on a crowded airplane the next.

Tellingly, director Mark Lester reveals in his DVD commentary that a studio head didn’t want Arnold to talk in the movie. Maybe they didn’t think Arnie, fresh off near-monosyllabic performances in Conan The Barbarian and The Terminator, was up to the task. Lester convinced him otherwise, but actually the less Arnie says, and the more he just reacts, the better Commando is. He gets to play a terrific straight man to Rae Dawn Chong’s comic foil. She’s part shrill sidekick, part mocking send up of how over-the-top all this action movie heroics is. If only Last Action Hero had paid more attention.

Predator (1987)

John McTiernan. On his day, an action director who deserves to sit alongside the likes of Bigelow, Spielberg, Cameron. And a director who, in the early, good part of his career, had a knack for bringing out the best in his leading men. He would kick-start Bruce Willis’s career a year later in Die Hard, then make everyone think Alec Baldwin was next in line in 1990’s The Hunt For Red October. But he cut his teeth with Predator, an action-slasher hybrid that pitched Arnie as the “final girl”.

Playing like a retread of The Thing with less paranoia and more testosterone, Predator could have drowned Schwarzenegger the action star; he’s surrounded by guys who look like they eat just as much red meat as he does. But he rises above all of them, and with an unexpected grace, too. Where others may have gone too serious (just look at Adrien Brody in Predators), Arnie is wonderfully serene, as if all this jungle massacre business is just a blip in an otherwise lovely day.

And this is the first time, maybe the only time, Schwarzenegger has had to play vulnerable (End Of Days and Collateral Damage were mock grief played too broad – they don’t count). This is Schwarzenegger in jeopardy, out-gunned, out-muscled and out-mandible clawed. He sells panic so well that when the climactic mud-man versus Predator battle erupts, it’s a beauty.

Ad – content continues below

Twins (1988)

Arnie’s first foray into comedy, the beginning of a beautiful friendship with director Ivan Reitman, and a film that features the best suit blazer-and-shorts combo you’re ever likely to see on screen.

There’s something for everyone here, from those looking for the inimitable Arnie line delivery – “You’re my farder, dis is my mudder” – to those still yearning for casual violence and gratuitous nudity (although it’s Arnold sans gun and shirt for the most part). In fact, this may be the holy grail of Arnie performances, one where he approaches an almost Walken-like way with a line reading.

When handed a plate of cookies, he turns a simple line into a work of art – “I look forward to tossing them later.”

And there’s a terrific range from Arnold the actor. He displays such wide-eyed innocence and child-like fascination that the contrived romance with Kelly Preston actually comes off as incredibly sweet. And then he knows how to underplay. Witness the scene of him knocking a motorcycle thief off his bike and you’ll see that ‘dial-it-down’ approach honed in The Terminator used to perfect comic effect. It’s like Amelie, only with less whimsy and more scenes of men getting shot in the kneecap. Pretty good trade-off.

Total Recall (1990)

Once upon a time there were two Arnolds. Arnold the businessman was a shrewd man, buying the rights to Total Recall when Dino De Laurentiis’ company went bankrupt (leaving a Bruce Beresford-directed version starring Patrick Swayze just another one of those intriguing what-ifs).

And Arnold the actor was smart enough to entrust it to director Paul Verhoeven after he’d made a splash with RoboCop. There’s lurid violence played so over-the-top it’s both horrific and laughable, a big two fingers to convention with that ending, and in the middle of it all Arnie having a huge amount of fun.

Ad – content continues below

Because this is a story with another two Arnolds: hero and villain, Douglas Quaid and Hauser. This is our first glimpse of Arnie the versatile actor, playing opposite himself for the first time (repeated in Last Action Hero, and, rather unfortunately, The 6th Day). And the joy of it is that Arnie actually makes for a much more interesting villain than hero.

True, his Douglas Quaid is intentionally a blank page of a hero (we’re rooting for a man who doesn’t exist) but Arnie gets to enjoy the dark side in a way that Batman & Robin never got near to letting him. His big bad Hauser is fascinating because he’s so likeable. Okay, for the most part he’s a villain pretending to be a hero (Total Recall may be the most gloriously layered action film ever made). But even when you watch it back knowing who’s who (or not who), you can’t help but love Hauser. And Arnie for that grin.

Terminator 2 (1991)

On paper, T2 treads perilously close to sacrilege. In order to ride the blockbuster wave that Arnie was now on, James Cameron transformed Schwarzenegger’s cold-blooded, remorseless assassin from The Terminator into a glorified babysitter. Although in this case a babysitter in throe to the child he’s meant to be looking after, taking orders from Edward Furlong’s pubescent John Connor. On one hand it’s the ultimate in action movie wish fulfilment – control your own unstoppable killing machine! – and on the other a sly frustration of what we want from a Schwarzenegger action film. This is Arnold neutered. He can’t carry out his default action hero function of dispatching anyone who gets in his way.

But all that doesn’t matter once the credits roll and Schwarzenegger takes centre stage. As much as this is cuddly and polished where the original was mean and dirty, T2 is still Schwarzenegger at the top of his game. He plays it brilliantly straight – a quick “Your foster parents are dead” is his way of breaking a family bereavement – but throws in just enough moments of levity to sell us on the idea of a robot learning to be more human.

And the easiest way to measure Cameron’s influence on the Schwarzenegger performance? Terminator 3. Schwarzenegger’s iconic creation became just another stock action hero. Let’s remember him for how he was here; no pink sunglasses anywhere to be seen.

True Lies (1994)

After Last Action Hero, Schwarzenegger needed something to reassert his box office authority. Enter James Cameron. Again. Funny where Last Action Hero was laboured, epic where Last Action Hero was grounded by unfulfilled ambition, True Lies is everything you want in a Schwarzenegger film. And everything you could want in an action comedy; it does each part equally well, with added Bill Paxton for good measure.

Ad – content continues below

It also brings out a wonderful duality in Arnie: invincible secret agent by day, lost-at-sea family man by night. Cameron must have been intrigued by what lies behind the facade of a James Bond action hero when he has to go home for dinner with the family.

It works just as well as a dismantling of the Arnie screen image – what happens in those dead spots between him saving the world? He has to rely on Tom Arnold. For the domestic stuff, anyway. Away from that, Cameron elevates Schwarzenegger the action hero to near superhero status with action scenes that tread a fine line between the absurd and the jaw-dropping.

Arnie rises to the Cameron challenge. This is his James Bond, a big, sprawling kitchen sink of an action movie on a scale even Cubby Broccoli would baulk at. And with Arnie embracing the ridiculousness of it all so well that he puts Roger Moore in a big raised eyebrow shade.

Junior (1994)

It’s no coincidence that Schwarzenegger’s last great performance comes courtesy of Ivan Reitman. Their third collaboration sees them settle into the rhythm that brings the playful Arnie back to the fore. Junior will never be mistaken for a great comedy; it stretches its ‘Arnold is pregnant!’ high concept far too thin and gives us Emma Thompson’s bumbling English stereotype when it could really do with something edgier to balance Arnie’s journey to the feminine side.

But this is a rare instance of Arnie rising above the material. So often he’s in thrall to it, held prisoner when it’s middling and uninspired (see Eraser onwards). And, on a purely Arnold-the-body level, Junior shouldn’t work. It undermines his physicality rather than building it up.

Twins and Kindergarten Cop had us gawp at the gulf in size between him and his co-stars. Junior has Schwarzenegger play them both – the giant and the other, the straight man and the comic foil. That he pulls it off is evidence of how gifted a comedic actor he had become (earning a Golden Globe nomination for his trouble).

Ad – content continues below

Let’s leave it here, though. The Reitman-Schwarzenegger show has done us well over three movies. That rumoured Triplets might just be pushing it…

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.