Arnold Schwarzenegger was an unlikely candidate to become one of the world’s most successful actors and the king of action cinema. Speaking with an impenetrable Austrian drawl and possessing an almost inhuman muscular physique, no one could have predicted that this bodybuilder would become a charismatic leading man who would turn in iconic performances in some of the biggest blockbusters of all time.
10. Commando (1985)
Commando is a shining example of the excesses and cheesiness of 80s action cinema. With its cheesy synth music, overuse of montages, clichéd ‘black ops soldier comes out of retirement’ story and huge over-the-top action scenes, it’s hard to find a more 80s action movie than Commando. The movie was also the ‘birth’ of Schwarzenegger’s enduring on-screen persona. Previous roles in movies like Conan and The Terminator relied on his brawn and physique rather than his acting ability, and Commando gave the star to break out and begin injecting a bit more personality into his characters. Of course, this came in the guise of one-liners and cheesy quips instead of raw acting talent, but it was a trademark persona which would serve Schwarzenegger very well in the years to come.
9. Twins (1988)
Schwarzenegger was settling quite nicely into his action groove when he decided to try out his comedic side in Twins. Although he’s playing the straight man opposite an energetic, brash performance by Danny DeVito, it’s a fun and goofy comedy which showed off a different side to Schwarzenegger. Twins is an offbeat buddy movie with a surprisingly sentimental premise and it’s by far the best of all his family-friendly movies.
8. The Terminator (1984)
The first of several collaborations with director James Cameron, The Terminator makes full use of Schwarzenegger’s physique. Although he has spent most of his career flexing his muscles on screen, Schwarzenegger has never been as imposing and threatening as he is in The Terminator. One of the few roles where he plays the bad guy, it’s hard to imagine any other actor playing the unstoppable killing machine. Schwarzenegger is given more of an opportunity to play around in the Terminator sequels when he becomes the good guy, but Cameron used the rising star’s limited acting ability (he became much more confident on screen in the following years) to his full advantage and his wooden, stoic performance is what gives the Terminator so much menace and presence.
7. The Expendables & The Expendables 2 (2010/2012)
Schwarzenegger’s foray into politics seemed to mark the end of his acting career, and many fans and critics assumed that he would be too old to carry on with action roles when his term as the ‘Governator’ was over. Proving that he wasn’t going to let a little thing like age ever stop him from picking up a machine gun and causing havoc on screen, Arnie made a very brief cameo appearance in Sylvester Stallone’s all-star action blockbuster The Expendables in 2010 and returned for the movie’s sequel in the 2012 when he had finished his term as the Governor of California. Although he still hasn’t quite found the right movie for his big comeback, Schwarzenegger’s appearances in The Expendables have shown that the megastar is as eager as ever to return to his action roots.
6. True Lies (1994)
Schwarzenegger would never have been considered for the suave role of James Bond in a million years, but he proved that he had what it takes to play a secret agent in True Lies. Although his performance is only a slight variation on his tried and tested action persona, his role is still something quite different from the usual action fare which Schwarzenegger had become known for. James Cameron again brings out a memorable performance from the megastar as he plays a family man who is desperate to hide his professional life as a superspy from his wife and teenage daughter. The movie’s huge budget and unapologetically over-the-top action sequences seemed to mark the end of an era for original popcorn blockbusters which didn’t rely on CGI, rushed sequels or the likes of comic book superheroes to find an audience. Nevertheless, True Lies was definitive proof that Schwarzenegger still had it what it takes to top the box office after more than a decade in leading roles.
5. Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Conan is the warrior hero of Robert E. Howard’s cult novels from the 1930s. The Barbarian king is the perfect macho male specimen and his pulpy adventures saw him taking on sorcerers, strange creatures and rival warriors in the fictional ancient civilisation which he conquered. Hollywood eyed the source material (which included the Conan comic book series from the 70s) for a big budget fantasy movie and director John Milius thought that only Schwarzenegger could do the character justice. Although he only had a few supporting roles in TV shows and movies to his name when he took the role, Schwarzenegger’s days as a professional bodybuilder had found him worldwide fame and it seemed as if the charismatic Austrian only needed one big successful part to really kick-start his acting career. This action-packed, gritty take on the source material was the perfect vehicle for Schwarzenegger’s growing career and it put his name on the map. Conan the Barbarian is still one of the most successful and iconic ‘adult’ entries in the fantasy genre.
4. Total Recall (1990)
It’s no easy task having Schwarzenegger take on the role of an ‘everyman’ character, but the surrounding weirdness of Total Recall never threatens to make an issue of his casting. Paul Verhoven’s adaptation of Philip K Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ treads the precarious line between violent dark sci-fi parable and cheesy, off-the-wall action movie. However, it’s the exact same genre Verhoven brought to life with Robocop some years earlier, and Schwarzenegger proves to be the perfect leading actor for the source material. Taking place on Earth and Mars and featuring scenes with talking robotic cab drivers, three-breasted prostitutes and irradiated mutants, Schwarzenegger is completely at ease in this violent offbeat sci-fi classic.
3. Last Action Hero (1993)
Last Action Hero was a financial disappointment when it was released, but it has slowly built up an appreciative fan base over the years. Taking place inside the movie universe (it’s a ‘movie in a movie’), Last Action Hero is a parody of the action genre and it primarily takes aim at the types of roles which Schwarzenegger is most famous for. However, the action star has a blast embracing this satire of his career, and he clearly relishes the opportunity to joke about all the clichés, one-liners and over-the-top action sequences he has taken part in over the years. Although it is at times a little bit too much, Last Action Hero is an enjoyable and completely different take on the genre. It’s very rare for any actor to poke fun at their own career the way Schwarzenegger does in Last Action Hero (the entire movie is basically one long running joke about his career), and he’s clearly having fun doing so.
2. Predator (1987)
Combining a high-concept horror premise with familiar action beats, Predator is a one of a kind movie and an undeniable classic of the genre. The Predator is from an alien species of supreme hunters who always catch their prey, but the creature runs into a formidable match when it begins to stalk a special ops team in the jungle. The sharp, punchy script by Shane Black (of Lethal Weapon fame) fuses horror, sci-fi and action elements and is brought to life by the confident hands of action-directing legend John McTiernan (Die Hard). However, the standout appeal of the movie is Schwarzenegger’s central performance. When all his fellow soldiers have been killed by the relentless hunter, it falls down to Schwarzenegger to take on the stronger and better-equipped Predator. The final act of the movie is a brilliant cat and mouse pursuit between the two and it’s an unforgettably tense and memorable action sequence. With a supporting cast which includes fellow beefcakes Carl Weathers and Jesse ‘the Body’ Ventura, Predator is a testosterone-fuelled and violent action classic.
1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Taking the premise of the first movie and ratcheting up the stakes all the way to 11, Terminator 2 is quite simply one of the best sequels ever made. Reprising his role as a reprogrammed version of the T-800 from the first movie, this time round Schwarzenegger gets to play the good guy who protects John Connor. Schwarzenegger is comfortable slipping back into the leather jacket and boots which effectively launched his career, and the movie is a non-stop action thrill ride with some of the biggest stunts and sequences ever committed to film.