Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't just a movie star -- he's a legend. No number of box office bombs and no number of digressions into politics will dull the impact he's had on action cinema. For as long as people talk about movies, they'll remember the Austrian bodybuilder whose iconic accent and almost supernatural physique made him an icon of the silver screen.
With Arnold returning to the screen with 'Sabotage,' it's time to revisit his career. It's time to reevaluate the bombs and celebrate the classics. It's time to rank all of the films to see exactly what the best Arnold Schwarzenegger movie is. In order to qualify for the list, the film had to be fictional (so no 'Pumping Iron') and Arnold had to play a leading character (so no 'Expendables').
The 25 qualifying films range from unwatchable garbage to undisputed masterpiece. As always, we look forward to seeing your personal rankings in the comments below!
The filmography of Arnold Schwarzenegger is full of guilty pleasures; films we watch not because they're good, but because they're quotable and silly. 'Jingle All the Way' may be the guiltiest of them all.
Crass and loud and nonsensical, it features Schwarzenegger at his comedic worst, putting him in the middle of a holiday adventure that literally doesn't make any sense. It doesn't help that the part was obviously written for an average joe and not a massive Austrian bodybuilder, which makes every "normal" domestic scene come off as just plain weird. By the time Arnold has crashed the Christmas parade while dressed as a superhero with a working jetpack, you'll start wondering if you're actually dead and that 'Jingle All the Way' is just your decaying brain firing off one final series of random images.
'Batman & Robin' is a bad movie and quite possibly the most reviled superhero film of all time, but it's got one thing going for it: Arnold is awesome in it. Seriously.
People may moan and groan about his cheesy puns and hammy delivery, but he performs the role with the kind of conviction you'd expect from a better production. He doesn't save the lousy script or the atrocious costumes or any of the thousand other things wrong with the movie, but let's give credit where credit is due.
'Conan the Barbarian' is one of the best fantasy movies ever made (we'll get there in a bit), so the cosmic laws that balance the universe must have dictated that its sequel be one of the worst. Gone is the blood and bravado that made Arnie's first Conan adventure so unique: 'Conan the Destroyer' is all about appealing to the kids and the lowest common denominator.
The result is an embarrassingly silly movie that's indistinguishable from the countless '80s fantasy rip-offs that 'Conan the Barbarian' inspired in the first place. If Schwarzenegger hadn't reprised his role, 'Conan the Destroyer' would have completely vanished by now.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has publicly said that 'Red Sonja' is the worst film he's ever made and while we obviously don't quite agree, it's a tough film to defend on any level. A cynical cash-grab that obviously wants a piece of the Conan pie, it's only slightly better than 'Conan the Destroyer' by a very, very thin margin. At its worst moments, 'Red Sonja' is enjoyably bad, which is more than you can say for some of Arnold's other stinkers.
'Collateral Damage' is a complete misfire, but at least it's a misfire that sees Schwarzenegger attempting something completely new. Released in the wake of the September 11th attacks, the film was buried by Warner Bros. due to its content, which saw Arnie playing a firefighter who pursues the terrorists responsible for killing his family.
Interestingly 'Collateral Damage' isn't a typical action shoot 'em up, but a relatively small-scale thriller with a low body count that sees our musclebound hero using his mind more than a gun. It's the type of role you'd expect Kevin Costner to play, not an Austrian bodybuilder. Ultimately, the film is a dull slog, but it's so different from the rest of the Schwarzenegger catalog (and the events surrounding its release so strange) that it's required viewing for any fan.
'Raw Deal' is preposterous, cheap and forgettable nonsense, but like the best '80s schlock, it's perfectly enjoyable nonsense if you're inebriated enough. Although light on memorable action or silly one-liners, the film is the rare case of Schwarzenegger playing against type, casting him a FBI agent turned Sheriff who battles the mafia while straddling various shades of moral grayness. This type of character has never been his forte (unless he's playing a Terminator, he generally takes on more noble or openly heroic characters), so 'Raw Deal' becomes required viewing once you realize that it's pretty much Arnold attempting to make a Sylvester Stallone movie. It's a failure and footnote, but it's an anomaly that must be seen if you want a complete picture of the typical Schwarzenegger protagonist.
If anyone other than Arnold Schwarzenegger had starred in 'The 6th Day,' it would be unwatchable. However, this sci-fi story about cloning run amuck is redeemed because it gives Arnold a chance to star alongside himself, even letting the two of them team up for the big action climax.
Watching Arnold have entire conversations with another version of himself is a true pleasure, more than making up for just about everything else. Also, no film can be all bad when it features the following line: "You should clone yourself while you're still alive. So you can go f**k yourself!" Poetry, delivered as only Arnold can.
The '90s saw Schwarzenegger rotating between blockbuster action movies and high-concept comedies where the big joke was usually that a world famous movie star with huge muscles and an outrageous accent was doing something silly (usually with Danny DeVito at his side). Nothing got more high concept than 'Junior,' which begins and ends with one joke: "What if Arnold Schwarzenegger got pregnant?!"
It's a visual that's amusing at first, but 'Junior' isn't funny enough (and Arnold not normal enough) for the film to function dramatically. By making the world's first pregnant man Schwarzenegger, the film becomes about that one-note joke and not about, you know, the actual implications of a man carrying a child. It's a valiant attempt, but it fizzles out all-too-quickly.
'Escape Plan' marked the first time Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone truly co-starred in a film together and the results are fine. Just that. Fine. The two of them, both wearing their old age surprisingly well, make a great team and make you wish the film surrounding them was as airtight as the prison they spend the bulk of the movie trying to escape.
Interestingly, the best moments of the movie don't involve any action at all -- they involve Arnold actually getting a chance to try out some serious acting chops for the first time ... ever? We don't expect Schwarzenegger's post-governor career will produce too many classics, but if even the worst films challenge him to work outside of his comfort zone like this, they'll be worth watching.
'Red Heat' casts Arnold Schwarzenegger as a tough, no-nonsense Soviet cop attempting to crack a case in the United States and it's amazing. Seriously. He may barely attempt a Russian accent, but his humorless, hard-nosed jerk of a character often plays like a silly version of the Terminator and it couldn't be more entertaining.
Whether he's extracting cocaine from a prosthetic leg or angrily squinting at pornography, he's the perfect shade of silly. The same cannot be said for Jim Belushi as the irritating American cop who teams up with him or the run-of-the-mill plot. But make no mistake: 'Red Heat' is a treasure trove of Arnie goodness.
Despite its family-friendly rating and lowbrow crude humor, 'Kindergarten Cop' is quintessential Arnold Schwarzenegger ... even if it sometimes feels that way by accident. With any other actor, this would be a grating, overly sentimental experience, but Arnold, by his very nature, fills it with his unique brand of charisma. The comedy here is funny by both accident and design, but virtually every line of dialogue from Schwarzenegger's undercover-cop-turned-substitute teacher is worthy of repeating, especially loudly, drunkenly and in the presence of other fans.
'Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines'
'Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines' lacks the harsh edge of the first film and the rousing storytelling of the second, but it has its fair share of worthy moments (and plenty of awful ones). The biggest issue is the criminal underuse of its star, often putting him on the sidelines to let his human co-stars drive the main story. But, when Arnold does get to take center stage and gets to do what he does best (deliver deadpan puns and blow things up), the film gets a much needed spark. This is totally inessential and nowhere near the most memorable of Schwarzenegger's films, but it's consistent, handsomely made and at least attempting to deliver on the concepts originated by the first two entries.
A critical disaster and a financial disappointment, 'End of Days' was called one of Schwarzenegger's worst films at the time of release, but time has been kind to it. Taken on its own, it's not a great movie, but when you lay it next to the rest of Arnold's oeuvre, it's a totally unique and fascinating experiment. It's one of the few times a film has put him up against a supernatural horror threat and watching everyone's favorite human superhero machine gun his way through a plot reminiscent of 'The Exorcist' and 'The Omen' is just plain nuts. Any film that finds Arnie getting into gun battles with Satan to prevent the apocalypse should not be ignored -- 'End of Days' is so weird that it transcends its flaws. It's just plain refreshing.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger ended his political career and made his return to Hollywood, even his most passionate fans wondered if he'd be up to the task of leading a feature film. 'The Last Stand' was proof that yeah, the old man hasn't lost a step. Heavier on plot than most of his movies, the film takes its time getting to the point but delivers in the final half hour, which puts a series of increasingly dangerous guns in Arnold's hands and lets him turn drug-dealing baddies into red goo.
'The Last Stand' finds the right balance between cartoonish silliness and straight-faced seriousness, presenting absolutely ludicrous set pieces as if they are the most normal things in the world. It's classic Arnold, all the way down to the fact that he's playing a role clearly intended for a totally average guy with normal dimensions and an American accent.
'Eraser' is an anomaly among Schwarzengger films because it's just an action movie. There's no high-concept gimmick, no sci-fi plot twist and few truly memorable quotes. It's just Arnold, a bunch of interesting character actors, a dumb plot and several truly silly action scenes. It's the kind of film that you wish he had pursued more often in his prime: solid, simple, direct and massively entertaining nonsense that just lets Arnold do his action hero thing without calling attention to itself. For most other actors, this would be mediocrity. For Arnold, it's oddly refreshing.
Of all of Arnold Schwarzenegger's high concept, gimmick-based comedies, 'Twins' is the most successful ... probably because it's the first of them and the joke of an Austrian bodybuilder being funny hadn't gotten old yet. Casting the preposterously built Schwarzenegger and the pint-sized Danny DeVito as fraternal twins from different sides of the law is an inherently funny concept and the film gets a lot of mileage out of these two polar-opposite actors bouncing off of each other. It's no classic, but it's a masterpiece compared to most of Schwarzenegger's intentional comedies and a terrific example of how to best utilize his limited, but utterly unique comic skill set.
'The Running Man' is one of the stupidest films Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever made, but it's also one of the most effortlessly entertaining. Like so much of his output, it's a big and bombastic action movie dressed in sci-fi tropes, but the plot itself actually feels a little ahead of its time.
With shades of 'Battle Royale' and 'The Hunger Games,' the film finds a wrongfully accused Arnie fighting to the death on live TV, a victim of a dystopia that uses trashy television to appease the masses. The satire isn't too sharp or biting, but it does allow for Arnold to shoot and smash his way through a world that feels like the '80s gone mad. There is only one other Schwarzenegger movie that revels in its silliness like 'The Running Man' does and we'll get to that in a moment.
When movie fans talk about 'Last Action Hero,' they usually talk about how it's one of the biggest bombs of the '90s. That's extremely unfair for a movie that somehow mixes Shakespeare and Shane Black and Bergman and 'Amadeus' jokes and magic and fantasy and action movie excess into a truly absurd and bitingly satiric experience.
It's uneven and overlong, but it's also just plain inspired, mercilessly mocking the kind of films Arnold Schwarzenegger and his contemporaries were making at the time while delivering as an action movie spectacle. The legacy of 'Last Action Hero' is forever tainted by its toxic reviews, disappointing box office and director John McTiernan's descent into awful filmmaking (and a stint in prison), but 20 years later, it's an unsung classic.
'Commando' has a reputation for being one of the stupidest action movies ever made, but its critics fail to note what finely tuned and intentionally hilarious nonsense it really is. There's a wink behind every one of Arnold's truly awful one-liners and a sh*t-eating grin just off screen during every over-the-top action scene. Anyone who thinks 'Commando' isn't in on the joke and isn't aware of its truly absurd excess obviously doesn't know how to watch movies. More importantly, anyone who doesn't find 'Commando' to be one of the most flat-out entertaining movies of all time doesn't deserve to be watching action movies in the first place.
Like so many of the best Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, 'Total Recall' blends bloody action, science fiction and goofy comedy into one crazy cocktail. Director Paul Verehoven's brutal and satiric cynicism melds perfectly with his star's penchant for audience-rousing action and dumb jokes, making a movie that's as smart as it is stupid, a wicked combination of elements that have no right to work together. Some would argue that 'Total Recall' is never as good as the sum of its parts, but each of those individual parts is just plain inspired. Most importantly, it introduced "Get your ass to Mars" into the common movie fan vernacular, which automatically makes it top 10 material.
'Conan the Barbarian' feels like the work of a madman.
Director John Milius' take on Robert E. Howard's legendary warrior is tough, dark and weird stuff, a movie that feels like it's constructed entirely of blood, sweat and black magic. You can practically smell this film. At the center of this madness is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has rarely looked more imposing or felt more dangerous. He hadn't quite developed his unique flavor of charisma yet, but Milius uses him just right, treating him like a living weapon instead of a three-dimensional character. This wouldn't work in most films, but in the terrifying and violent fantasy world of the Hyborian Age, it's spellbinding and badass.
When you look over the filmography of director James Cameron, 'True Lies' sticks out like a sore thumb. It's one of his only films that doesn't feel like a massive event. It doesn't try to break the genre movie mold in any way or change the game -- it's only interested in being a crowd-pleasing action movie/romantic comedy hybrid. And oh boy, does it work.
Cameron, who is more responsible for Arnold Schwarzenegger's career than anyone else, knows the strengths and weaknesses of his leading man, building a film that plays to all of the former and none of the latter. It's wonderful to watch a Cameron movie that doesn't feel the need to be so self-important. His rarely seen softer touch is perfect for Arnold and it's a true shame that this was their final collaboration.
The greatest thing about 'Predator' is how it spends the first act building up Arnold Schwarzenegger and his team of commandos as unstoppably tough badasses before spending the rest of the movie mercilessly picking them apart. This is one of Schwarzenegger's best and most confident performances, asking him to play an action hero who has to fling machetes through terrorists and be genuinely afraid of an alien that's hunting him through the jungle. The final half hour, where he covers himself in mud and goes mano-a-mano with the titular beastie, is just pure, unfiltered macho greatness. The Predator may be a cool villain, but Arnold is an even cooler hero.
'Terminator 2: Judgment Day'
Mainstream entertainment doesn't get much better than 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day,' which still feels like a high watermark for action cinema. Director James Cameron merges the nasty science fiction world of the first 'Terminator' with Arnold Schwarzenegger's gentler early-90s persona and makes it look easy. Cameron has his cake and eats it too, delivering a smart science fiction tale that is also a bombastic blockbuster that's also a moving treatise on what it means to be human. It's as longwinded and bloated as its predecessor is direct and simple, but there's no denying its power. Movies just don't get much more entertaining than this.
'The Terminator' made Arnold Schwarzenegger's career for a reason. Decades after its debut, it's still one of the most chilling movies ever made, a blend of science fiction, horror and action that simply hasn't been topped. Plenty of words have been written about 'The Terminator,' but precious few have focused on just how scary Schwarzenegger is in the title role, embodying a killer cyborg with such conviction that it's easy to forget that he's only a decade away from starring in family comedies. It takes a special set of skills to play a mass murdering non-human this well. We're not sure what this says about Schwarzenegger, but man, we're eternally thankful he found this part.