Things are not going well for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In the few years since his adventure as governor of California ended, Schwarzenegger has tried, with not even limited or qualified success, to resume his career as the biggest action star of his generation. But let’s not delude ourselves: Schwarzenegger is not 1993 Michael Jordan, who left the basketball world on top for a whiff in minor-league baseball, then came back to his area of expertise to win three more straight NBA championships. Schwarzenegger’s career was already on the skids when he turned to public service, and his return to movies has merely continued his losing streak, exacerbated by his advancing age and the fact that today’s target demographic wasn’t even alive during his heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, much less eagerly awaiting his comeback. Add to that the stink-trail of his ignominious final couple of years in office, when he presided over woeful budget shortfalls and an embarrassing sex scandal, and his public image isn’t what it used to be, either. People aren’t invested in his success, if they’re interested in him at all.
So here’s Schwarzenegger’s dilemma: How does a 67-year-old of diminished star power, waning (albeit still impressive) physical abilities, and limited range get back on top? The answer is, “He doesn’t,” but that’s a liberating conclusion, not a premature burial. Schwarzenegger has long since passed the torch to The Rock, Vin Diesel, and other less-weathered blocks of granite, and hasn’t really had a true hit since 1999’s End Of Days, a horror/thriller beloved by few and remembered by fewer. (The third Terminator, from 2003, was also a success, but with too long a list of qualifiers to count.) But there are advantages to being an icon of Schwarzenegger’s stature without being a star anymore, and the primary one is a freedom of movement that wasn’t possible when every single movie he did was a cultural event. Had the script for his muted new indie “zombie” movie Maggie crossed his agent’s desk in 1994, it would have gone to the incinerator before Schwarzenegger even laid eyes on it.
In other words, there’s reason to be optimistic about the places Schwarzenegger’s career can go in his twilight years, and reason to be excited about what he’s done already, even though he’s been rewarded with middling-to-poor reviews and worse box office. He hasn’t lost his essential Arnold-ness—that easy, dopey, disarming charisma that’s always been hidden beneath his Mr. Universe bulk—and he’s gained the flexibility to play antiheroes and character roles, to function as part of a larger ensemble, to try his hand at straight drama, and to bounce back and forth between Hollywood projects and independent films. Perhaps his losing streak will continue unabated, but excepting one serious miscalculation, Schwarzenegger has played his hand smartly since his return to movies, and just hasn’t been fortunate enough to be rewarded for it.
Let’s get the mistake out of the way first: Schwarzenegger should have never hitched his wagon to Sylvester Stallone. The three Expendables movies and Escape Plan must have seemed like tempting ways to resolve the Schwarzenegger/Stallone action rivalry of the 1980s and early 1990s, and combine their dimming star wattage into one big, shining light. But Schwarzenegger already won that war handily two decades ago, and he hasn’t been well-served by including himself in a Stallone-led nostalgia tour of washed-up ’80s action heroes, second-tier modern stars, and the stunt castings of assorted MMA fighters and Kelsey “Pockets” Grammer. Schwarzenegger doesn’t need to act like a member of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, still pumping out the old hits without needing to bother creating any new ones. If anything, the 2013 Stallone/Schwarzenegger team-up Escape Plan was an even lousier idea than the Expendables trilogy, because it attempted to place these stars in the context of a tech-driven, 21st-century action thriller, but didn’t have the production values to do it properly. It was the kind of movie that dangerously presages the glue factory of straight-to-video thrillers, where the likes of Dolph Lundgren, Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme have been laid to rest.
But there’s a difference between an ’80s nostalgia tour and the genuine revival signaled by The Last Stand, Schwarzenegger’s first big starring vehicle after the governorship, and a woefully underrated one at that. Rather than riding along with a fossil like Stallone, Schwarzenegger teamed up with Kim Jee-woon, the talented, bold Korean genre stylist behind A Tale Of Two Sisters; The Good, The Bad, The Weird; and I Saw The Devil. Kim updates a Western premise for The Last Stand, which basically amounts to a lawman (Schwarzenegger) squaring off in a bloody showdown in a one-horse town, but not all the way to the present. Instead, the film consciously goes against the trends of the day by reviving the physical stunts and hard-R bloodletting of Schwarzenegger’s earliest work. Though the semi-major studio Lionsgate released it to the graveyard of mid-January, which is practically begging for the derision the film got in many corners, Last Stand shows how comfortable Schwarzenegger can be returning to the mid-1980s destruction of Commando and Raw Deal without having to resort to glib self-reference. If he must return to his roots, this was the way to do it.
One year later, Schwarzenegger’s turn in David Ayer’s Sabotage, another critical and commercial failure, again showed promising signs that he’s willing to relinquish some control over his image. As the leader of a corrupt DEA special-operations unit, Schwarzenegger is first shown spearheading a mission to take down a drug fortress while shielding the feds from the $10 million he and his team are skimming from the money pile. They don’t entirely get away with it, and they have to deal with a saboteur in their ranks. Typical of Ayer—who’s turned “edginess” into a personal brand with films like Training Day, Harsh Times, Street Kings, and Fury—Sabotage goes way too heavy on the machismo, even for Schwarzenegger, who looks distinctly uncomfortable letting the “fuck”s fly. But Schwarzenegger’s character is also straitlaced relative to his team, which lands him in the moral hinterlands between a proper lawman and an out-and-out rogue. That’s foreign territory for him as an action star, and further evidence that he’s open to new possibilities.
His new film, Maggie, goes all the way. If Schwarzenegger had tried to slip this solemn, nearly action-free twist on the zombie movie into theaters at the height of his popularity, theatergoers would have torn the stuffing out of their seats. But save for a scene where he beats back a zombie in the bathroom of an abandoned gas station, Schwarzenegger spends most of the film watching over a teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) who’s been infected by a virus that’s devastated the globe, but hasn’t turned into an undead, flesh-craving beast just yet. There’s a process for “quarantining” (i.e. killing) the infected before they get to that point, but it’s up to Schwarzenegger’s father to determine when it’s time—which turns Maggie into a touching allegory for terminal illness and losing a child. Maggie is such a good idea for a zombie picture that it’s a shame first-time director Henry Hobson makes it suffocate under its own dark cloud. But the determined grimness brings out notes of tenderness and anguish in Schwarzenegger that he’s never allowed himself to express onscreen. He still has tremendous presence—a man of his size and stature will always have it—but his performance stays in line with the low-key smallness of Hobson’s film, which is not his modus operandi.
It occurred to me while watching Maggie that our retirement-age Schwarzenegger may want Clint Eastwood’s acting career. Eastwood is another star who made his bones snarling through hard-hitting genre pictures, ventured into California politics as a conservative voice in the liberal wilderness, and needed to figure out how to remain viable as he got older and the movies changed. Schwarzenegger hasn’t shown any interest in going behind the camera, but like Eastwood in Unforgiven and later films like Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino, his face has taken on a weathered character, and he knows his range enough not to push beyond it. One of the effects of being a star as long as Schwarzenegger and Eastwood have is that later roles can pay off on earlier ones, like spending from a reserve of interest that’s accumulated in their cultural accounts. Schwarzenegger is now at a point where he can put his legacy to work for him, and get audiences thinking about how the roles he takes today relate to the ones that made him a star yesterday. Now if he can only figure out how to make money doing it, he stands to burnish his legend, too.