Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
“I’ll be back! Ha! You didn’t know I was gonna say that, did you?”
“That’s what you always say!”
Is there a more memetic Hollywood actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger? Think about it: His characters and his persona have endured the test of time as quotable punchlines, for certain. Arnold will always be back. He’ll always want to know who your daddy is. He’ll always be the king of cool puns. And he’ll always have the best one-liners after decimating baddies.
With the release of Terminator: Mis-spelled Second Word, or just Terminator 5 for ease, Consequence of Sound decided, like the T-800 himself, that it was prime time to revisit the past. We’re looking at and listing off all the roles that Arnie conquered. Our mission: to rank the 10 most memorable Arnold Schwarzenegger performances and protect Arnold’s legacy (from what it sounds like, the new movie isn’t doing the Austrian muscle star any favors).
Whether or not Arnold’s been a quality actor in his movies is entirely up for debate; however, there’s no denying that he’s developed a ridiculously memorable body of work. His size, his pronunciation, his humor, and his distinct penchant for high-concept action have made Arnold Schwarzenegger a staple that we’re still not tired of talking about. Everybody has a favorite Arnold flick. What’s yours? So let’s do it! Let’s kill this list! Now!
And like Arnold always says, I’ll be back. Later. In this list. To talk about his more memorable roles, remember?
I’m about to get terminated, aren’t I?
Senior Staff Writer
10. Howard Langston
Jingle All the Way (1996)
Choice Line: “Put that cookie down. NOW!”
Let’s specify again, in case you skipped ahead of the intro: this list is for the most memorable performances, not necessarily the best. Jingle All the Way is a film from a very different time, a time when Sinbad’s face was on movie posters that weren’t in one of 30 Rock’s hallways or something and nobody in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s life was bothering to tell him that his performances in the Kindergarten Cop mode were unwise to continue. Here you get the Arnold that late-night comedians have been impersonating since time immemorial, the bug-eyed one hollering what’s ostensibly English in a series of strange inflections that suggest something otherworldly.
As Schwarzenegger and Sinbad (god, what a Demolition Man matchup this could’ve made) repeatedly attempt to murder one another over a Turbo Man doll that Howard’s son wants more than anything, all while Phil Hartman is playing Mr. Steal Yo Girl with Howard’s wife, Jingle All the Way allows for an actor nearing the declining days of his powers to go absolutely apeshit for 90 minutes. But seriously, this is may be the darkest Christmas movie ever made, if you really stop to think about it. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
09. Harry Tasker
True Lies (1994)
Choice Line: “You’re fired.”
James Cameron doesn’t know how to make a film without it becoming a worldwide event. Yet True Lies, for all its nuclear explosions and galloping horses and Harrier Jump Jet sequences and Bill Paxton-stealing moments, still feels like something of an afterthought compared to what came before (Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and what came after (Titanic, Avatar). Granted, that’s not exactly a fair summation — after all, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time (and the first to have a budget over $100 million dollars) — but the smart and genre-defying 1994 blockbuster does play out like an extended vacation for all parties considered.
Everyone’s having a blast, no pun intended, as evidenced by Jamie Lee Curtis and her hilariously sexy performance or Tom Arnold and what’s inarguably his greatest role to date. Still, it’s Cameron and Schwarzenegger’s 140 minutes to shine, and they do by delivering what’s essentially a multi-million dollar comedy special by a Hollywood director and an action star. The stakes are always questionable, and the two are so hyperaware of their ludicrous proceedings, but the winking actually serves the story, and the set pieces are both sublime and original. It’s a style that would effectively alter Arnold’s brand of action and be crudely imitated for years to come. –Michael Roffman
08. Douglas Quaid/Hauser
Total Recall (1990)
Choice Line: “See you at the party, Richter!”
It’s hard to empathize too much with Douglas Quaid. He’s a muscular construction worker in a sterile future world, who can call Robert Costanzo his friend and Sharon Stone his wife. Not too shabby, right? Yet he’s plagued with these strange dreams of a life on Mars, where he has a true purpose, another woman, and a set of skills. Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy? You never know for sure in Paul Verhoeven‘s Total Recall, an ultraviolent sci-fi action-adventure that’s best remembered for its triple-breasted women, stuttering robots, and Ronny Cox’s bloated head.
But that’s what makes the film so surreal and unique. Verhoeven’s over-the-top trademarks are louder than ever in this lewd Philip K. Dick adaptation, and Schwarzenegger is all in for the ride. In hindsight, he’s probably the worst candidate to play a would-be hero like Quaid — who would ever question those biceps? — but the big lug really sells the notion that he’s in utter disbelief at what’s happening. His larger-than-life features also assist with the film’s iconic blend of body horror that left its audiences either running for the parking lot or applauding over popcorn. –Michael Roffman
07. Detective John Kimble
Kindergarten Cop (1990)
Choice Line: “It’s not a too-mah!”
Vin Diesel tried it. Hulk Hogan tried it. The Rock did, too. But no one except Arnold could pull it off. That’s right, I’m talking about the Big Guy Bonds with Kids comedy. And that particular sub-genre peaked with 1990’s Kindergarten Cop, which saw Schwarzenegger playing the role of John Kimble, an inner-city detective who has to go undercover as a kindergarten teacher in an idyllic Oregon hamlet. Everything from its title to its concept to its villain’s hair is ridiculous, but the movie is much better than any of that would suggest, namely due to Ivan Reitman’s direction and Randy Edeman’s surprisingly effective score.
Well, and Schwarzenegger, of course. Kindergarten Cop was Arnold’s first comedy since Twins two years before. But here, divorced from Danny Devito, Arnold was left do all the comedic heavy lifting on his own. He succeeds admirably on that front – several of the film’s quotes have permeated the zeitgeist, whether you realize it or not – and, by the third act, even brings a genuine warmth to Kimble. But what a lot of people forget about Kindergarten Cop is that it’s still an action film, the kind where innocent old men get slammed in car doors, drug addicts overdose, and homeboy gets gunned down in a locker room shower. It’s Kimble’s humanity and his connection to the kids that people remember, however, because, for the first time in an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie, the bullets took a backseat to the humanity.
As in Commando and The Running Man, Kindergarten Cop required Arnold to be both vulnerably human and inhumanely unstoppable. Here, though, he allowed himself to be more man than machine. –Randall Colburn
06. Mr. Freeze/Dr. Victor Fries
Batman & Robin (1997)
Choice Line: “Allow me to break the … ice.”
People remember a lot of things they were never supposed to about Batman & Robin: the garish colors, the prolonged pause-heavy editing, the adrift performances, the nipples. But perhaps the most memorable of all the inexplicable star turns assembled in Joel Schumacher’s late-‘90s NOW That’s What I Call Music montage of a bunch of actors who’d peaked or were peaking around the time (and one who made it out and is still embarrassed about it to this day) is Schwarzenegger’s.
Say what you will about Mr. Freeze’s ice-cold puns and one-liners, but there’s an argument to be made that Schwarzenegger’s aggressively exaggerated turn as the onetime tragic hero and present walking action figure is at least aware of the film around it. There’s also another to be made that Schwarzenegger was paid a reported $25 million for his services and dived far too enthusiastically into one of the all-time worst superhero movie villains. We’ll never know. But Mr. Freeze is one of the most uproarious parts of a film that stands as a tarnished golden monument to the Hollywood studio system in one of its most hubristic eras. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
05. The Terminator
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Choice Line: ” Hasta la vista, baby.”
The Terminator is the ultimate, most literal killing machine. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. Because you know, it’s a Terminator? They terminate … life, and stuff. And he had action figures.
That would explain the PG-13 rating on the new movie, perhaps.
Still, how in the hell did Arnie’s infamous robot homicide enthusiast make us quietly, embarrassingly full-body weep when he sacrificed himself to save a young, bratty kid? Shut up, you’re the one that’s crying! It’s amazing to think one of the most evil movie villains of all time turned in to Old Yeller in his sequel. Oh, and there’s all the wonderful effects and catchphrases and proper action and stuff. Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be considered an effects masterpiece, but its secret weapon is a minimalist, sympathetic Arnold performance. James Cameron, that sneaky son of a gun. He made a robot learn to love!
Say what you will about Arnold being cast as the T-800 because he wasn’t suppose to emote. Schwarzenegger’s size and stature made him the ideal war machine, a robot with limited emotional capability. The fact is, the deep stoicism actually strengthened Terminator 2 as a father-son story, and this Arnold performance gets the thumbs up. A thumb, moments being melted in hot molten lava, for maximum visual impact. No, seriously, we know why this movie makes us cry. –Blake Goble
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Choice Line: “Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women.”
You ever listen to the audio commentary for Conan the Barbarian?
It’s wild. It’s almost more famous and more beloved than the 1982 John Milius film at this point. For context, Milius, the famed right-wing filmmaker, known for Red Dawn, and co-writing Apocalypse Now, adapted Robert E. Howard’s pulp comic of swords and sorcery and Boris Vallejo-esque muscles, thighs, and other adult imagery. It was tawdry, classless, and the perfect breakout vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He just had to show up, be buff, and enable his base impulses for the sake of art. Conan was an id-like brute, and Schwarzenegger announced himself to international audiences as an action superstar, which translated well because he was such a total physical package. Who cared if his accent muddled his English pronunciation? Arnold took pleasure slaying his enemies and interrupting orgies, and that’s apparently how you make a star and mega-hit.
But back to that commentary. It’s a good ‘un. It’s almost as memorable as the film at this point, because while the movie may be a cult fantasy classic, the commentary is a cult comedy classic. Between Arnold the literate commentor and Milus the dirty old man, it’s all too weird not to listen to. Arnold asks where wheat comes from and lets viewers know that they’re looking at things like swords. Milius compliments Sandahl Bergman by calling her a Valkyrie many times like the weird old man he is. And of course, Arnie brags about “getting laid a lot” during production. Lamentation of the women, indeed. –Blake Goble
03. John Matrix
Choice Line: “Let off some steam, Bennett.”
Commando is extreme. In every way. Not only is John Matrix a ridiculously efficient killing machine – 81 different souls will curse his name in hell – he’s also a comically loving father. One of Commando’s biggest laughs – and there are many – comes during the film’s opening credits, when Matrix and his daughter (Alyssa Milano) are shown feeding a deer against an idyllic mountain backdrop. Milano wears pink and white, Arnold’s in khakis, and the deer somehow doesn’t eat his face when he tries to kiss it. The moment is as idyllic as the rest of the film is violent, and it’s absolutely crucial in establishing the lunacy of everything that comes after it. Even more importantly, however, it’s instrumental in highlighting Arnold’s greatest strength: his ability to convey vulnerability and a comic touch when his voice and body are so uniquely suited to badassery.
And then there are the one-liners. If The Terminator was where Arnold introduced his love of catchphrases, Commando was where he perfected it. It’s easy to forget, but before Batman & Robin ruined it for everyone, one-liners were an integral part of what made Arnold Arnold. Nobody could and nobody will ever again be able to deliver one-liners like him. And Commando’s got some of the best:
“Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired.”
“I let him go.”
“Fuck you, asshole.”
They would’ve dropped like rocks from anyone else’s mouth, but from Arnold’s they flowed like boxed wine. For someone whose body, voice, and countenance all but guaranteed a limited range, Arnold was always able to somehow turn the ridiculous into the sublime. It shouldn’t work, but it does. That sums up Commando. That sums up Arnold. –Randall Colburn
Pumping Iron (1977)
Choice Line: ” It’s as satisfying to me as, uh, coming is, you know? As, ah, having sex with a woman and coming. And so can you believe how much I am in heaven? I am like, uh, getting the feeling of coming in a gym, I’m getting the feeling of coming at home, I’m getting the feeling of coming backstage when I pump up, when I pose in front of 5,000 people, I get the same feeling, so I am coming day and night. I mean, it’s terrific. Right? So you know, I am in heaven.”
Pumping Iron is more or less the first proper introduction to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not the person, though. No, the persona.
Arnold’s always had that larger-than-life pop presence. The accent. The gap teeth. The size. The cigars. The Humvees. The Planet Hollywoods. The pay days. The political scandals. The sex scandals. The extreme physical presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
All that ego, that attitude, and excess could be pinpointed to his first appearance onscreen in Pumping Iron. George Butler and Robert Fiore’s 1977 documentary about the Mr. Olympia competition made a celebrity of Schwarzenegger. He was crass, charming, gigantic, a wholly memorable figure for more than just his mass.
In recent years, Arnold admitted to making up some stories in the movie because he personally felt that it would make Pumping Iron more interesting. Whether it was his biceps or his on-screen presence, Arnold was all about inflating things. And he’s been doing it well for over 40 years. –Blake Goble
The Terminator (1984)
Choice Line: “I’ll be back.”
Here’s a funny joke: When James Cameron originally suggested O.J. Simpson for the titular role, producers felt he was too nice to play the killer robot. Good one, right? All kidding aside, it’s nearly impossible today to think of anyone else’s skin wrapped around Skynet’s most prolific export. Simply put, Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Terminator franchise are synonymous, which is why he’s been such an understandable constant in the series’ glut of sequels. The look, the catchphrases, the action, and even the character’s style are all attributed to the former Governator.
Much of that iconography can be attributed to the high-fiving, Spanish-speaking, and thumbs-up-giving T-800 of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which has since carried over into Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and this week’s Terminator Genisys. However, that role pales in comparison to the horrific villain of the 1984 original, back when he was simply a hulking block of evil disguised as an angry punk that patrolled the streets of Los Angeles like a red-eyed Michael Myers. There’s a reason Sarah Connor loses her shit in the psychiatric ward upon first sight of him in T2 — he was Death before he was Love.
Yet the most important thing to remember is that he will always be Death. –Michael Roffman