By Glenn Kenny and Glenn Whipp
Special to MSN Movies
A new "Conan the Barbarian" will be making noise in theaters Friday. Can the original outlander be far behind? Now that Arnold Schwarzenegger has put politics (and his marriage) behind him, MSN critics Glenn Kenny and Glenn Whipp consider his career and future prospects, and whether this self-made man has one last act up his bulging sleeve.
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Glenn Whipp: So the guy who remade "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th" is going to bludgeon us with his dreary, disjointed, slashin'-and-thrashin' style with a new "Conan the Barbarian" movie. Pass. But if this dutifully grim "Conan" encourages people to go back and revisit the 1982 edition, conveniently just out on Blu-ray, then perhaps its existence can transcend the soul-sucking vision of Herr Marcus Nispel.
John Milius' "Conan" had everything a teenage boy could want, back when
movies weren't entirely fashioned with adolescent males in mind. But look beyond
the broadswords and babes and beheadings and you'll see shout-outs to Eisenstein
and Kurosawa and Mel Brooks and (what's that? ... really?) Leni Riefenstahl.
There's a Wheel of Pain, a Stonehenge, a cannibalistic snake cult and an orgy
chamber. There's a bat-crazy Oliver Stone screenplay that, in retrospect, makes
"The Doors" and "Alexander" look like Merchant Ivory. And there are fantastic
sets by Ron Cobb, the concept artist on "Star Wars" and "Alien," not to mention Basil
Poledouris' big, booming score.
Bing: Find out more about the new "Conan the Barbarian"
And, of course, there's Schwarzenegger, making the transition from Arnold to Ah-nuld right before our eyes. He barely speaks, and his mush-mouthed delivery on the line that everyone remembers — Conan answering the question "What is best in life?" ("To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women") — didn't quite suggest that this was a future coiner of catchphrases. (James Cameron, to his credit, figured it out two years later with "The Terminator." Words with three syllables? Bad. Two syllables: Good. One syllable: Winner!)
But Schwarzenegger was plenty convincing as a meat-off-the-bone-eating, sword-wielding, camel-punching barbarian, making it look so effortless that, by the time he grew too old to return to battle, studios figured they could easily replace him by plugging in Jean-Claude Van Damme ... Steven Seagal ... Howie Long? Eventually, they gave up. Arnold did, too, moving over to another form of entertainment for a couple of terms.
Now, in theory, he's back in play. And, you know what? I'm OK rolling out the welcome mat. Hollywood has never exactly been shy about reveling in tastelessness, so why should embracing Ah-nuld the Vulgarian in our current age of unenlightenment be any different? Bid greetings to the weary traveler from Sacramento, I say. Offer him sustenance. (Or a cigar. Whatever.) Offer him forgiveness. Because with twerps like Shia LaBeouf parading around, passing themselves off as Men, the movies still need Arnold. Don't you think, Glenn?
Glenn Kenny: I'm afraid I can't say that I think that at all, Glenn. To be honest, the only curiosity I have about Arnold in another movie is a morbid one. That is to say, I simply can't imagine a vehicle to which his talent, as I imagine it is currently constituted, would be genuinely suited. I give credit where credit is due: As very nearly entirely self-created stars are concerned, Arnold represented an amazing commodity. Musclemen, even musclemen as highly awarded and rewarded as Schwarzenegger was during his career as a professional bodybuilder, almost never get beyond freak status in Hollywood films. Schwarzenegger's tenacity and willingness to take chances led to his not only becoming a credible sort of leading man — his credibility in fact paradoxically based on his utter lack of it — but a genuine cinema superstar. Body aside, he really had no business playing Conan, because he couldn't even conceive of how Conan talked (in an entirely different way than Howard Hawks and William Faulkner couldn't fathom how a pharaoh talked) and yet defined the role anyway. He must have known that he had at least slightly lucked out, because he followed his Conan efforts by taking a chance with the filmmaker who was to prove to be his most reliable and audacious collaborator, playing the dread-inducing title role of "The Terminator," an emotionless assassin cyborg. It was this role that would provide the template for everything he'd do after that.
No actor ever did more, or made more money, doing less on-screen than Arnold. Those other guys you mention -- Van Damme, Long, even Seagal -- all made an effort to move well within a frame. Arnold isn't a kinetic action star; he smacks foes down with one blow. Rather like Charlton Heston in his '50s prime, all Arnold had to do to create an effective screen presence was show up. In his comedies, it was his inability with timing and inflection that made him funny. An amazing stunt, when you think about it. And his tenure as governor of California was merely an extension of that stunt. You couldn't not admire it. It's funny; when I was at Premiere magazine, the publication ran an exposé on some of Schwarzenegger's more distasteful personal exploits. We were ahead of the Los Angeles Times by three years (the piece ran in 2000), and the reaction to the piece was interesting. There were a lot of defenses from Hollywood colleagues of Arnold, who of course regarded him as a golden-egg layer. Still, there was another dimension to their complaints, one in common with the complaints the magazine's readers made. It wasn't just that people thought highly of Schwarzenegger; it's that they had something of a real personal investment in thinking highly of him, because they liked what they thought he stood for.
The thing is, since that time, a lot worse than what was revealed in the Premiere story has panned out. Arnold's infrequent film cameos have proved both dinky and opportunistic. His standing has gotten even saggier than his physique. The goodwill isn't there. The persona's gone from awesome to tacky. And it's not as if he's gonna go out and acquire acting chops now in order to compensate. What's he got to offer, really? The manliness of which you speak is now very much damaged goods, too damaged to make much of the impact for which you yearn.
Glenn Whipp: I don't know. The tackiness and the awesomeness have always been part of the package deal with Arnold. The Hummer. The missile-sized stogies. Planet Hollywood. His appetites run neck and neck with his ambitions, but he also possesses a sense of self-mockery that makes people love him -- and forgive him his transgressions. All that remains, post-Maria.
I profiled him years ago, shortly before he announced he was running for governor. He stonewalled me every time I brought up politics, so I eventually gave up and we both relaxed and talked about movies, a subject he clearly loved. This was post-9/11, when there was a lot of talk about violence in film -- again, a topic close to Arnold's heart. He dismissed the "namby-pamby" criticism with a wave of his hand. "People say my movies are too violent. My wife played 'The Lion King' for my daughter once, and in the middle of the night, she came running into my bedroom, screaming, 'Daddy, Daddy, are you going to die?' And I said, 'Maria, why do you play this movie for the children? Now I cannot get any sleep.'"
Now, one could be troubled that A) Schwarzenegger seemed more concerned with getting his eight hours than with his young daughter's emotional well-being, and that B) he probably cued up "Bambi" the next day out of revenge. But neither thought occurred to me because the anecdote so perfectly defined AH-NULD, a man who, as you noted, made the impossible leap from muscle head to movie star and has, for his fans, transcended the constructs of this puny world.
Yes, gravity and age have taken their toll. But that presence, that persona, remains huge. If -- and, given his appetites and the size of his divorce settlement, it's an "if" the size of Mount Olympus -- Schwarzenegger can resist the temptation to take movies based on the size of the salary, he remains capable of one last reinvention. That he's signed up for Kim Ji-woon's English-language directorial debut rates as a great first step. It certainly promises more enjoyable action than anything "Collateral Damage" had to offer.
But it's his old friend James Cameron who really holds the key here. Schwarzenegger should be running sushi or stogies or freshly baked chocolate chip cookies up to Cameron's Malibu compound on a daily basis, reminding him of their days of high adventure and pleading for a juicy part in the next "Avatar" movie. Forget trying to revive "The Terminator." "Avatar" is fresh out of human antagonists. Make Arnold the villain in the sequel and he'd be back and then some.
Glenn Kenny: You know what, Glenn? I just saw the trailer for the "Conan the Barbarian" reboot, and the line readings from new galoot Jason Momoa make our man Arnold's sound practically Shakespearean. And it had me thinking, "If this guy's the new Schwarzenegger, then, yes, by all means ... bring back Schwarzenegger." But there's an unavoidable factor at work here, one that affects him, and us, and our readers. The man is 64 years old. I think it's also reasonably safe to say he's a bit out of training. The possibility that he can still bring it -- the possibility that there's still an "it" to bring -- is highly open to question. I think your hunches and instincts serve you well in your speculations. Whoever had the idea to sign him up for Kim Ji-woon's picture (do you think it was Arnold's agent, or Arnold himself? If the latter, way to keep up with dynamic filmmakers, Arnold — and way to keep your damn eye on the ball when you're supposed to be running California) is definitely thinking in the right way. Even before I knew that and was concocting whatever positive scenarios for the star I could, I thought about what Hong Kong director Johnnie To did with even older (67 years to Arnold's 64) French pop icon Johnny Hallyday in the recent and first-rate "Vengeance." And, on a note not entirely unrelated to your reaction to the anecdote you related above, I don't know whether one would be thrilled to see that he gets back the old moviemaking fire-in-the-belly, or appalled — the term "malignant narcissist" springs to mind at this point.
You invoke Cameron, and you're right to, and I can see it, but still ... in
rooting for a Schwarzenegger comeback and putting out ideas on how a desirable
one might take place, you've got a lot of VERY big ifs at work here. So big that
the argument to leave well enough alone almost gains as a result. And now I will
sign off while resisting the temptation to make an "I'll be back" joke.
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Glenn Kenny is a writer living in Brooklyn. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com.
Glenn Whipp writes about film for the Los Angeles Times, Variety, the Associated Press and, of course, MSN Movies.