He said he’d be back, and we should have believed him. This weekend, Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in The Last Stand, his first feature film as a headliner since 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, following a stint as the Governor of California and a string of brief cameos in movies like The Rundown, Terminator: Salvation and The Expendables 1 and 2. Only time will tell if The Last Stand is another classic in the making, but at least it gives us an excuse to look back at the ten best (and five worst) movies Schwarzenegger has made in 40+ year career in motion pictures.
There was a time when the actor was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, an idol for young men, a sex symbol for women and a hot commodity for the industry. He’s starred in some of the best movies ever made, and a handful of the absolute worst. Let’s look back at his career now, starting with The Ten Best Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies Ever Made.
The Running Man (dir. Paul Michael Glaser, 1987)
It seemed ridiculous at the time, but The Running Man, based on a story by Stephen King, only seems more prescient as time goes on. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Ben Richards, a falsely-convicted man who winds up fighting for his freedom on a TV game show that pits felons against government-sanctioned homicidal maniacs with crowd-pleasing superhero identities like “Subzero,” “Buzzsaw” and “Captain Freedom.” Subversive, violent and clever, The Running Man – directed by Starsky from the original “Starsky and Hutch” (yes, really) – always gets our hearts racing.
True Lies (dir. James Cameron, 1994)
Arnold Schwarzenegger played an American James Bond in True Lies, one of the lighter-hearted films ever directed by James Cameron. As Harry Tasker, Schwarzenegger takes on an army of terrorists but gets sidetracked when he realizes his absenteeism might be costing him his family, and decides to use his government resources to give his wife a little adventure of her own. True Lies rather famously gets slow in the middle, and the gender politics of the Jamie Lee Curtis subplot are worthy of a long, measured debate, but the action is incredible and Schwarzenegger has rarely been this charming. That’s a fact.
Kindergarten Cop (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1990)
Arnold Schwarzenegger made a lot of comedies, but none of them have aged as well as Kindergarten Cop, a film that deftly evolves from a plausible cop thriller – with Schwarzenegger on the trail of a drug kingpin and his malevolent mother – to a heartwarming family comedy that’s actually pretty danged funny. The bad guy’s searching for his young son, and all Schwarzenegger knows is that the kid is in kindergarten at a specific elementary school. He goes undercover to find the boy and swiftly loses his mind trying to keep order in the classroom, only to ultimately discover that he actually has the chops to be a positive role model, not just a killing machine. Unusually dark for a family film (there are a few scenes they could never get away with today), Kindergarten Cop comes out on top.
Commando (dir. Mark L. Lester, 1985)
Commando may be the prototypical Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: big, dumb, action-packed and really, really macho. Arnie stars as John Matrix, an ex-black ops commando fighting to rescue his kidnapped daughter (Alyssa Milano) before the bad guys realize he’s ignored their demands to assassinate a South American dictator. Commando is 100% pure testosterone, and so ecstatically over the top that it seems to capture the entire American badass genre in a single film. And oh, those one-liners: “I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now, I’m very hungry.”
The Terminator (dir. James Cameron, 1984)
Before Arnold Schwarzenegger started getting really good roles, The Terminator seemed like the perfect typecasting: an emotionless killing machine. It was a great fit, but luckily for Arnold (and the rest of the world), it was also a really great movie. Schwarzenegger co-stars as a cyborg sent back in time to kill Linda Hamilton, who will one day give birth to a resistance fighter who stops an artificial intelligence that wiped out nearly all of humanity. Michael Biehn stars as the human sent back in time to save her. The action is incredible, but the unstoppable Schwarzenegger feels straight out of a horror movie, particularly as the flesh starts peeling off of his metal endoskeleton, revealing the iconic monster within.
Conan the Barbarian (dir. John Milius, 1982)
Arnold Schwarzenegger got his first big breakout role with Conan the Barbarian, an adaptation of the hard-boiled fantasy character created by Robert E. Howard. He barely speaks in the film, but his rippling muscles and stoic machismo can be read in volumes. Schwarzenegger takes on cult leader James Earl Jones, beds the sultry Amazon Sandahl Bergman, fights giant snakes, gets totally stoned and punches out a llama. Conan the Barbarian teaches us what is best in life: to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. And to watch movies like Conan the Barbarian.
Pumping Iron (dirs. George Butler & Robert Fiore, 1977)
Before he was Arnold Schwarzenegger, action star, he was Arnold Schwarzenegger, bodybuilding champion. George Butler and Robert Fiore’s 1977 documentary Pumping Iron revealed the inner workings of the competitive body building circuit, focusing on the competition for the 1975 Mr. Universe pageant, when Arnold Schwarzenegger took on Lou Ferrigno. Schwarzenegger dominates the film as a larger than life personality, genuinely dedicated to the art of physical fitness while simultaneously and unapologetically sabotaging his competition for personal gain. It’s a complex portrayal of an unexpectedly complex guy, and an excellent documentary too.
Predator (dir. John McTiernan, 1987)
A sort of horror movie for badasses, Predator introduces a squad of unstoppable mercenaries – led by Schwarzenegger, but also including Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura and Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black – and then pits them against an alien menace that emasculates and eviscerates them. The scene where our heroes unload thousands of rounds of ammunition and barely wing the Predator has to be one of the most obvious impotence metaphors in the history of fiction. Finally, the battle comes down to just Arnold, the manliest man in movie history, fighting an alien with a Georgia O’Keefe painting for a face. Unusual, exciting and unexpectedly satirical, Predator is the kind of action movie we all pray for.
Total Recall (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1990)
In some respects, Total Recall may actually be Schwarzenegger’s best film: a high-minded, action-packed deconstruction of the masculine psyche, pumped full of blood and ingenious ideas. Arnold stars as Douglas Quaid, a working stiff who dreams of a vacation to Mars, and pays a company called “Rekall” to implant memories of being a secret agent on a mission. Sure enough, those memories start coming true, leading to endless debates about whether most of the film is actually just a dream (if you pay attention to the dialogue at Rekall, the answer is actually pretty obvious), but either way, it’s a powerful wish-fulfillment fantasy with unforgettable imagery and one of the best roles of Arnold Schwarzenegger's career.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (dir. James Cameron, 1991)
There’s an argument to be made that Arnold Schwarzenegger has starred in better films, but Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the ultimate “Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie.” For a generation of young boys, Schwarzenegger represented a masculine ideal and also a commodity to be purchased with obsessive zeal. Terminator 2 captures both aspects of the actor’s iconic status, turning the unstoppable Terminator into an unlikely father figure and also the ultimate toy for the hero, a young John Connor, played by Eddie Furlong. The movie is exceptional too, extrapolating on the original sci-fi classic, turning the lean-and-mean sci-fi horror story into an epic action extravaganza featuring some of the greatest action sequences ever filmed, and featuring one of cinema’s most distinctive villains, the liquid metal T-1000. Incredibly heartfelt without ever losing the edge of the original, Terminator 2: Judgment will never be found wanting.
The Five Worst Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies:
Arnold Schwarzenegger made an impressive number of great movies, but when he was bad, he was just plain awful. Forget about the famous bombs Last Action Hero and Jingle All the Way… compared to these stinkers they’re practically classics.
Christmas in Connecticut (dir. Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1992)
We weren’t sure whether Christmas in Connecticut counted as a proper “Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie,” since the action legend directed but did not star in this TV movie remake of the classic Barbara Stanwyck comedy. It’s the only feature-length film Schwarzenegger ever made behind the camera (he also did a “Tales from the Crypt” episode that wasn’t bad), and while it’s not completely incompetent, it does sap all the humor and romance from the original film, creating an utterly forgettable experience that, come to think of it, totally deserves to be forgotten anyway. Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson and Tony Curtis co-star, and each of them looks like they'd rather be somewhere, anywhere, else. Bah humbug.
Raw Deal (dir. John Irvin, 1986)
Arnold Schwarzenegger feels totally miscast in Raw Deal, a lowbrow crime thriller about a cop going undercover in the mob, and a film that plays like a Charles Bronson movie with Schwarzenegger shoved in at the last minute. The plot is hard to follow, his alcoholic wife disappears for most of the movie, and the handful of ridiculous action sequences feel completely out of place in a movie that plays more like a realistic 1970’s thriller than a true example of badass cinema, a genre it sometimes segues into for no reason. Confused, confusing and barely competent, Raw Deal rubs us the wrong way.
End of Days (dir. Peter Hyams, 1999)
Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. Satan sure seems like a neat idea, but director Peter Hyams apparently took no pleasure in bringing End of Days to the screen. The hackneyed script and ugly look to this film rob even Gabriel Byrne’s scene-stealing bravado of any real entertainment value, and the limp millennial apocalypse storyline feels like a relic of a very naïve cinematic age. Boring, stupid and ugly, we wouldn’t recommend End of Days if it were the last movie on Earth.
Batman & Robin (dir. Joel Schumacher, 1997)
One of the most notoriously bad motion pictures of all time, Batman & Robin actually warrants its reputation thanks to a ridiculously bloated cast, campy but joyless plotting, and a strange turn from Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, a villain who supposedly has no emotions but spends the entire film cracking bad jokes with a recurring “ice” theme. “Cool party!” “Let’s kick some ice!” “The Iceman cometh!” “You’re not sending me to the cooler!” Give it a rest, Arnold. Or rather… just chill out.
Hercules in New York (dir. Arthur Allan Seidelman, 1969)
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first movie is also damn near his worst, not to mention one of the worst movies ever made. Schwarzenegger (credited as “Arnold Strong”), plays Hercules, the Greek demigod who defies his father to return to Earth in 1960s New York City, where everyone is either an idiot or an offensive Jewish stereotype. The plot is almost nonexistent, every single joke falls flat and Arnold is just plain awful, particularly in the version of the film where they allow him to use his real voice (he was originally dubbed by an generic-sounding actor with only marginally more personality than Arnold could muster in 1969). Hercules in New York is borderline unwatchable.
Junior (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1994)
As bad as all these other movies are, none of them are as inconceivably awful as Junior, a “comedy” with barely a single joke to its credit, good, bad or otherwise. The basic idea is almost funny – Arnold Schwarzenegger gets pregnant – but the horrifying sequence of events that follows is straight out of an early David Cronenberg movie, with a terrifying scene of a baby with Arnold’s face badly CGI-ed on top of it ranking amongst the most unexpected and unsettling scenes in movie history. Junior reunited Schwarzenegger with his Twins director Ivan Reitman, and his old co-star Danny DeVito, and it captured absolutely none of the magic of their previous collaboration. Unfunny, unsettling and unintentionally creepy, Junior is the absolute nadir of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career.