The 10 Best Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies, Including Terminator, Total Recall And More
Ever since he starred in the title role in 1970's little-seen Hercules in New York, where he was billed as "Arnold Strong," Arnold Schwarzenegger has been making a big impact in cinema, and his role in cinema history was firmly cemented with the lead villainous role in The Terminator. Indeed, through nearly 50 years of moviemaking, Arnold Schwarzenegger has become an absolute mega-star, the likes of which are few and far between these days. That is a legacy that continues to shine even to this day, with new and hopefully promising roles in Terminator: Dark Fate and more to look forward to.
There are several classic Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and everyone has their personal favorites. That's why I'm taking a bit to break down ten of his strongest films, to celebrate a career that has seen several triumphs throughout many decades of cinema. Few actors can transcend through generations to become a larger-than-life megastar in Hollywood, but Arnold Schwarzenegger has defied the odds time and time again and become a superstar like no other in the moviemaking business. He has always said he would be back, after all, and he hasn't failed to keep up that promise yet.
Let's break down ten of the most exciting Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and you can be sure to let us know what you think (including your personal picks) in the comment section found below.
10. John Matrix In Commando
It was tough for me to pick between Commando and The Running Man. Both movies are endearingly fun in very cheesy, campy ways, but it's hard to deny how much Commando is an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, down to the teeth. From the quips to the explosive violence to the strongman pathos that drives the film's bleeding anguish, Commando is a theatrical slice of cinematic splendor made even more gleefully over-the-top by Mr. Schwarzenegger.
At its heart, Commando is a tale of grief and anger driving revenge, and it's a reflection of the macho-ness of its time that our lead character resorts to knifing and killing and splattering the blood of his enemies as a part of our lead character's desire for redemption. It's also just a whole lot of fun. Whether it's the one-liners ("stick around") or the fantastically maniac glee it has for ridiculous violence, Commando is a whole lot of B-movie goofiness and it is made ever more enjoyable by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays up the hamminess of the film with aplomb at the right times.
9. Harry Tasker In True Lies
When you have James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger working together, you should expect some quality filmmaking. While their third collaboration together True Lies wasn't quite on par with their first two movies, there is a good bit of fun to be had in this silly, excessive martial action spy film. In many ways, it does feel like the predecessor to a film like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. And I'd argue that it's also a better film than that movie too.
Paired alongside Jamie Lee Curtis, True Lies is quite easily among the most laboriously sensational movies from Arnold Schwarzenegger's filmography. That's saying something, especially if you've seen, say, The Last Action Hero or even Commando. What makes it work is both the sizzling sensuality of the famous leads and James Cameron's firmly tongue-in-cheek style, which is both playful and also sincere in its ridiculous attitude toward its material. The result is an enjoyable romp that doesn't quite stand as tall as some of their other work, but one that shouldn't be dismissed quite so readily either.
8. Sheriff Ray Owens In The Last Stand
After a 10-year absence from the silver screen, due to the actor stepping away from acting in order to become the governor of California (in a strange turn of events for the cinematic oddity), Arnold Schwarzenegger was overdue for a new movie. He needed to make a comeback in a major way and it would have to harken back to the movies of yesteryear, which played up the silliness and rambunctiousness, while still addressing Arnold's age.
The resulting film, The Last Stand, is not necessarily the best film from Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it's still a great deal of fun. Playing the role of Sheriff Ray Owens, an over-the-hill small town law enforcement officer who finds his small town under threat from outside forces, both the character and the actor playing the role are forced to dust off their action skills and give liberal doses of ass-whooping to anyone and everyone threatening this fair city. It is a direct-to-DVD plot at best, but Arnold's dedication and strong direction from Kim Jee-woon make it a full blast.
7. Conan The Barbarian In Conan The Barbarian
While Arnold Schwarzenegger's film career had a few bumps during the early days, it was thanks to movies like Conan the Barbarian that producers and moviegoers alike were able to see the cinematic potential in this hulking figure. When you are playing a mythic figure, you need someone who can fill the screen and present his or herself in an extraordinary way. Bascially, you need an actor who is built to last and exceptionally charismatic. They definitely found the right guy with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. And it was one of the first times when Arnold was really able to shine in a leading role.
While Conan the Barbarian can be slow and drawn out -- sometimes to a fault -- it is thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger's staggering commitment and his nordic swagger that this role is able to work so well. He really leans into the bravado, playing up the primitive man with a clear moral compass. The result is one of the earliest films to really understand Arnold Schwarzenegger's star potential, and it's a shame that the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, never quite got the same balance right, leaning a little too much into the silliness and the sensationalism. Nevertheless, it's a good start for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
6. Dutch In Predator
In theory, Predator should've been a disposable Alien knock-off, the likes of which populated the theater trying to capitalize upon its enormous success. While it's hard to argue that Predator is on the same level as a masterpiece like Alien, to call Predator a mere knock-off would be seriously selling it short.
Another example of hyper-masculinity fueling every pore of this film, Predator is an army movie that takes man vs. nature to the extreme when an elite soldier must battle an unseen foe in the jungle who is slicing, killing and skinning all of his men. It is going to take a lot of guns and ammo to take down the space-based opposition, and thankfully, Arnold plays it up goofily enough, while still taking it seriously enough, that he sells the premise in a major way. The result is commendably well-made and consistently thrilling in its kill-or-be-killed style.
5. Julius Benedict In Twins
Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been a funny guy. Even in his earlier movies, the bodybuilder-turned-actor displayed a likable sense of humor that made movies like Commando, Conan the Barbarian and Predator, to name a few, all the more enjoyable. But it wasn't until Ivan Reitman directed Arnold in 1988's Twins that the muscle-bound action actor could finally flex his funny bone, and he proved to everyone just how funny he could be.
In the late '80s comedy, Arnold Schwarzenegger is paired up with Danny DeVito as a pair of science experiment twins in a mismatched attempt to make the perfect child. The experiment results in two completely different siblings with completely different heights, demeanors and appearances. When they come together, they find themselves working shockingly well as a comedy duo, with Schwarzenegger in particularly loosening up and really playing up the absurdity of his looks and eccentricities. The result is a surprisingly warm and winning comedy that helped pave the way for a comedy career for the action star, and a film that allowed Arnold to be more directly funny in the future, which added a heightened surrealism to the star's films.
4. Arnold Schwarzenegger As Himself On Pumping Iron
While Arnold Schwarzenegger has build an impressive cinematic resume in his fictional efforts, it should come to no surprise to know that, in real life, he could also be a larger-than-life figure with a lot of personality and charm to spare. That was made evident to film fans in the engaging documentary, Pumping Iron, which chronicled Schwarzenegger's days as a bodybuilder, particularly as the young man made a name for himself as "Mister Universe."
Whether it's Arnold Schwarzenegger strutting his stuff on-stage or his colorful way of describe the elation of pumping weights, it's clear that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a hell of a character, and you don't need to give him a fake name and put him in a fantastical environment to make him a large-and-in-charge figure of the silver screen. Indeed, this documentary works exceptionally thanks to Schwarzenegger's involvement, and it's clear the director wanted to focus on him because he had clear star power worth exploring. That definitely proved to be true in the years to come as his star power rose.
3. Quaid In Total Recall
While Arnold Schwarzenegger built his career through the action genre, and he found enormous success in the comedy department, it is ultimately sci-fi that has treated Schwarzenegger the best throughout the years. Undeniably, The Terminator movies have been the actor's most lasting legacy in the history of cinema, but it is through Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall that Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to package his talents in action, comedy and the sci-fi genres in a major way, resulting in a wildly satisfying thrill ride that you would expect to see between Arnold and the director of Robocop.
In the role of Quaid, a man of the future who finds himself caught between two planets and an out-of-this-world adventure that escape the possibilities of the mind, Total Recall is an absolute trip, and it's a film that allows Arnold Schwarzenegger to lean heavily into his heightened, bombastic screen presence in a way that allows him to feel nature in such an extreme environment. The result is a very enjoyable and thoughtful space adventure romp.
2. The Terminator In Terminator 2: Judgment Day
There are only a few sequels that are arguably as good — if not better — than their predecessors. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, however, is one of those movies. An action-packed science-fiction adventure that contains James Cameron's trademark talents for spectacle and intelligence in equal measures, this sequel raises the stakes a gigantic way and changes enough elements while still staying true to the foundations of this sci-fi franchise.
By changing Arnold Schwarzenegger from the menace to the father figure, it was a risk that paid off handsomely, giving Arnold a chance to prove his charisma even more than before while also benefitting the expanding story in a major way. The result is a brilliant switch-up with a big payoff to boot. Indeed, it's rare to find a sequel that lives up to the original, and this is one of the very few exceptions. Not even the other Terminator sequels can say they do the same. In most people's views, there is only one good Terminator sequel, and this is it. Hopefully, maybe Terminator: Dark Fate can finally provide moviegoers with the respectful follow-up they've been craving after all this time. Whether or not that's true, at least we have this sequel.
1. Terminator In The Terminator
It's hard to pick between Terminator 1 and Terminator 2, but since the first Terminator movie is the one that truly turned Arnold Schwarzenegger into a major movie star, I think it gets the slight edge this time around. Though, this matter is certainly up for debate, since they're both really strong action films that excel in their own ways. Yet, when it comes to Arnold Schwarzenegger's incredible run as an action hero, this is where his big legacy truly started.
After several years of trying to establish himself as a movie star after his years as a bodybuilder, it took young filmmaker James Cameron and his low-budget sci-fi horror movie to truly capitalize on Arnold Schwarzenegger's charisma and on-screen presence and turn it into an incredible asset, one that is both highly memorable and, in the right scenes here, completely menacing. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a silent-but-lethal opposition, one with a critical desire to kill or be killed when it comes to murdering Sarah Conner. It is a premise that could've been hokey and corny, but Arnold's looming presence sells the magnitude of the situation, giving this larger-than-life figure a real flesh-and-blood demeanor that hides the character's mechanical emptiness. It is with this movie that we first heard the quote "I'll be back." And in the years since, we have continued to follow Arnold with interest thanks to this role.
Now, we would be remiss if we didn't bring up a few titles that didn't make the cut. For instance, The Expendables movies are notable, but none were included here because they really are more ensemble pieces than Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. At least, in my opinion. Arnold only has a single scene in the first movie, and he mostly works as glorified cameos in the sequels as well. Similar logic goes for another cameo appearances in The Long Goodbye (which is easily one of his best movies, but not really his movie), Dave, The Rundown, and several other titles. They might feature Arnold Schwarzenegger, but they are not his movies, per se.
Additionally, there are loyal fans of Kindergarten Cop, Last Action Hero, Junior and Jingle All The Way, and we hear you. Kindergarten Cop is easily one of the actor's most quotable movies, and you can also say the same for Batman & Robin. I don't consider either of them to be the actor's finest hour, but there is enjoyable value to be found in their oversized performances. It should also be noted that Arnold Schwarzenegger has given two strong dramatic performances in two recent indie films: Maggie and Aftermath. Unfortunately, I consider the actor miscast in both roles, though I do applaud Arnold for trying to work outside his usual comfort zone, hoping to challenge himself with new, stirring performances — even if they do not quite work.
Also, Killing Gunther, Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest film, isn't necessarily a winner, but it does feature one of Arnold Schwarzengger's most enjoyable performances in years. He only appears in the movie's final few moments, even though he plays the title character, but he's an absolute hoot in the film. While I'd be hard-pressed to recommend the film in full, his hilariously ridiculous performance confirms that Arnold still has great comedy chops.
These are just one person's picks, and we would love to hear what you have to say about Arnold Schwarzenegger's work. Let us know in the comment section below what you consider Arnold Schwarzenegger's best movie moments to be. We'll be back with more content right here at CinemaBlend.
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.
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