With his juggernaut physique, six-syllable name and an accent in need of subtitles, Arnold Schwarzenegger was perhaps the most unlikely movie star to emerge from Hollywood in the ‘80s. And yet that’s just what happened when “The Terminator” premiered on October 26, 1984. Although he appeared as the title character in “Conan the Barbarian” two years earlier, his frightening turn as an unstoppable cyborg assassin was the breakout role he’d been waiting for. In honor of the release of “Terminator Genisys,” the fifth film in the resilient franchise, here’s a look at Schwarzenegger’s ten best performances, as well as five that should have been terminated.
BEST: #1 “True Lies” (1994)
Playing a secret agent masquerading as a computer salesman, Schwarzenegger’s third collaboration with Cameron allowed the actor to stretch his muscles as a genuine romantic leading man for the first time. Like Cary Grant in a Harrier jet, he rose to the challenge. Filled with thrills and humor, it’s the sexy chemistry between Arnold and Jamie Lee Curtis that remains the film’s most dazzling special effect. Their end-credit tango dance is a delight.
BEST: #2 “Predator” (1987)
As the cigar-chomping leader of a special-forces team who stumble across an extraterrestrial adversary in a South American jungle, Schwarzenegger gave one of his leanest, toughest performances. The film’s nearly wordless third act is a bravura example of pure action cinema, as a mud-caked Arnold matches wits and brawn against the deadly creature. In addition to spawning a franchise, “Predator” gave the star a brand new catchphrase: “Get to the choppa!”
BEST: #3 “Red Heat” (1988)
Portraying a Russian policeman forced to partner with a wiseass Chicago cop, Schwarzenegger honed his already-skillful comic timing to razor-sharpness in Walter Hill’s underrated action comedy. While the Greyhound bus sequence is a kinetic showstopper, “Red Heat” is best remembered for the snappy interplay between Arnold and James Belushi. Despite being the straight man for many of the gags, Schwarzenegger’s deadpan expression steals the show.
BEST: #4 “Pumping Iron” (1977)
For many, this entertaining docudrama about the world of competitive bodybuilding was an early introduction to Schwarzenegger. The film chronicles Arnold’s singular drive to become the 1975 Mr. Olympia by contrasting his larger-than-life personality against the more naïve Lou Ferrigno. Displaying an unmatched stage presence that would eventually catapult him into Hollywood stardom and political office, “Pumping Iron” finds Schwarzenegger already crafting his legend.
BEST: #5 “Total Recall” (1990)
In one of his biggest commercial hits, Schwarzenegger played a futuristic construction worker whose visit to a virtual vacation company reveals that he may not be who he thinks he is. An energetic blend of Philip K. Dick’s deep-think science fiction and Paul Verhoeven’s hardcore ultra-violence, Arnold excelled in the dual role of an innocent man who discovers that his entire life is a lie. But 22 years later, a remake starring Colin Farrell bombed at the domestic box office.
BEST: #6 “The Terminator” (1984)
Originally approached to play the male hero, Schwarzenegger’s intimidating appearance made him an ideal choice for the film’s fearsome killing machine. Even his thick Austrian accent added to the unearthliness of the character. Though he spoke less than 100 words in the movie, his impressive physical performance hinted at the metallic menace lurking within. Variations on his iconic catchphrase “I’ll be back” have appeared in over a dozen of the actor’s other films.
BEST: #7 “Conan the Barbarian” (1982)
As though drawn straight from the pulp pages of Robert E. Howard’s fantasy tales, Schwarzenegger’s vengeance-seeking barbarian remains one of his most enduring and beloved characters. Still learning his way around a camera, the actor’s near-prehistoric body and savage swordplay captured audiences’ imaginations worldwide. Although he played the Cimmerian warrior in a sequel, it’s the original John Milius classic for which he’s most remembered.
BEST: #8 “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)
Reprising his signature role as an indestructible robot from the future, Schwarzenegger’s skill and confidence as a performer allowed him to add an unexpected degree of heart to the sequel. Unlike the monosyllabic cyborg he played seven years prior, this version of the T-800 displays a touching humanity once his learning functions are activated. Watched together, the two Terminator films do more than just tell a cohesive story: they illustrate the evolution of an actor.
BEST: #9 “Twins” (1988)
Proving that he didn’t need a rocket launcher or a battle axe to conquer the box office, Schwarzenegger’s first straightforward comedy cast the star as a kindhearted innocent whose quest to find his long-lost brother leads him to the doorstep of Danny DeVito. Their odd-couple pairing was so popular that the duo reteamed with director Ivan Reitman six years later for the similarly themed “Junior.” Warmly sentimental, “Twins” showed Arnold at his most endearing.
BEST: #10 “Kindergarten Cop” (1990)
Admittedly not the most sophisticated comedy ever made, “Kindergarten Cop” succeeds thanks to Schwarzenegger’s innate charisma and his ease with the six-year olds who share the screen with him. Playing a cop forced to go undercover in a kindergarten, it’s difficult to imagine the thin premise working as well with any other action star of the time. Beyond the visual humor of the 6’2” actor surrounded by pint sized co-stars, there’s an undeniable sweetness to the material.
… AND THE WORST: #1 “Jingle All the Way” (1996)
This tone-deaf holiday comedy found Schwarzenegger trying too hard to break free from his action persona. There’s little mirth in the non-stop pratfalls and forced zaniness as Arnold’s workaholic dad races around the city to buy his son a prized action figure. Although he’d shown an ability to work well with children in the past, it’s hard to detect much chemistry between the star and the seven-year old actor playing his son, future Anakin Skywalker, Jake Lloyd.
THE WORST: #2 “Batman & Robin” (1997)
Slathered beneath layers of blue makeup and trapped inside a bulky silver costume, Schwarzenegger did what little he could to mimic the appearance of joviality in this sloppy sequel that almost tanked the Bat franchise. As the villainous Mr. Freeze, Arnold delivers an endless litany of ice puns, each less funny than the one before it. It’s a classic case of an actor cast not for what he could bring to the role, but for what he could bring to the foreign box office.
THE WORST: #3 “The 6th Day” (2000)
Schwarzenegger played a generic everyman who stumbles onto a convoluted conspiracy plot involving human cloning in this routine sci-fi thriller. Seemingly cobbled together from ideas left over from “Total Recall,” an unusually sedate Arnold wanders from one drab action sequence to another, ultimately coming face-to-face with a clone of himself. If the prospect of seeing Schwarzenegger co-starring with Schwarzenegger held any promise, it’s not evident here.
THE WORST: #4 “Red Sonja” (1985)
Returning to the sword and sorcery genre that made him famous, Schwarzenegger struggled to keep a straight face in this embarrassingly threadbare Dutch-American co-production, shot in Italy. Playing a thinly disguised Conan knockoff named Lord Kalidor, Arnold’s role is little more than an extended cameo. But that didn’t stop producer Dino De Laurentiis from giving him top billing, which reportedly upset Schwarzenegger, who took the part out of a sense of obligation.
THE WORST: #5 “Sabotage” (2014)
Pairing the writer/director of “End of Watch” with the star of “Commando” must have sounded like a can’t-miss idea on paper. Unfortunately they filmed the results. Unlike his wittily engaging performance in the 2013 high-tech prison thriller “Escape Plan,” Schwarzenegger appears somewhat adrift in this murky tale of a DEA task force that finds its members being hunted down. A bomb at the box office, it remains to be seen if Arnold will ever “be back.”