The context of Schwarzenegger: Whither Arnold?

January 28, 2013

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Now that his first comeback movie has seriously bombed, what’s next for Arnold Schwarzenegger?

I’m here to suggest that, in fact, “The Last Stand,” which opened to slim box office in the U.S. a couple of weeks ago, is actually a step in the right direction for the aging action star. Working for Korean director Kim Jee-woon, he didn’t try to come back as the same he-man action-figure that he was in the 1980s and 90s. Though he did go hand-to-hand with villain Eduardo Noriega at the conclusion of “The Last Stand,” he also made jokes about his age (he’s 65, after all) and let younger actors do most of the stunts and heavy-lifting (though he’s still obviously a pretty hearty physical specimen).

Still, this is a watershed moment for Schwarzenegger, in terms of his movie career. He obviously doesn’t need the money and probably can no longer command the eight-figure salaries he once did. Yet if he makes smart choices and tries to repurpose himself as a movie actor, he could create a new career and a legacy that could easily eclipse the work he did in films prior to his terms as governor of California.

Working with adventurous young directors is a step in the right direction. They can give Schwarzenegger new context, reimagine him in a way that the Hollywood studios never could. If he’s really interested in a comeback that will last, why not make himself available to the hottest directors out there – to say to them, “Look, I realize I am what I am. Now find something unique and interesting for me to do that utilizes that in a new way.”

At this point in time, what does Arnold Schwarzenegger mean? To the studios, Arnold is either the Terminator or something close – or else he’s a has-been who should still keep doing what he always did. To the audience that made him a star and has aged with him, he’s an old favorite, a physical presence who could be counted on to kick ass, take names and crack wise from time to time. To the audience that rules the box office now, however, he’s old hat, a relic whose movies belong to their parents’ generation, but who holds no particular place in their hearts or their consciousness, beyond those “Terminator” movies.

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Truthfully, at the point when he retired from film to be governor, Schwarzenegger was already passé, ready to be replaced (whether he would admit it or not) by a younger generation of action stars, including Jason Statham, and comic-book action heroes with super-powers. Schwarzenegger, along with Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis and a couple of others, have seen their relevance to the popular culture evaporate. Not that they stopped working – but they needed to figure out a different approach to keep themselves relevant.

If Schwarzenegger were truly interested in creating a new niche, he would stop trying to be the headline star of films and, instead, put himself in service to a younger generation of directors – the Tarantinos, the Paul Thomas Andersons, the Coen brothers – who could provide Schwarzenegger with a new context.

Schwarzenegger probably has storage units full of scripts about bad guys with big guns being chased by good guys with bigger guns. But “The Last Stand,” with its director’s fresh approach to the modern western, offered a twist. And so could other directors. James Cameron knows how to bring out the best in Schwarzenegger; why not J.J. Abrams?

It’s not as though Schwarzenegger has ever been accused of being a major acting talent. His body-building nickname, “the Austrian Oak,” proved apt in describing his thespian efforts. On screen, he had personality and timing – but the only time he didn’t seem mechanical and stiff was when he was playing a robot. Yet he has an undeniable presence and an iconic stature that could work for a director who figured out what to do with it or an interesting way to play against it.

What would Arnold Schwarzenegger mean in a Wim Wenders film? Or a John Woo movie? Instead of making the obvious choice and working for Michael Bay or McG, what if Schwarzenegger put his talent at the disposal of David Fincher or Richard Linklater or Guillermo del Toro? Not that even a great director could turn Arnold into an actor – but a great director would know how to use what Schwarzenegger brings to the show.

Why not play with that a little? Let him stretch just enough to surprise audiences, without having to carry the films he’s in. Arnold is certainly an interesting choice for oddball casting. Let him play a gay man or an intellectual.

That kind of unexpected supporting role is the stuff that Oscar nominations are made of. Look at Jack Palance in “City Slickers” or John Gielgud in “Arthur” (yes, I know – it seems pretty weird to mention Arnold and Gielgud in the same sentence). If Schwarzenegger would become a player for hire, looking for tasty small roles in boundary-pushing films instead of trying to recapture past blockbuster glory, he would build a new audience and perhaps a legacy that goes beyond “The Terminator” and “Kindergarten Cop.”

Give him some good writing and strong direction. Have him do something unexpected (instead of his upcoming lineup of films with big guns and action sequences). He might wind up surprising us all – and himself.

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