The Schwarzenegger Action Icons Collection Review
Or Arnold Swipe-me-knickers as well called him in our youth. Admittedly, we did so in the knowledge that, in a small village in the Northern Irish countryside, we were probably safe from him. Then again, distance seemed to be no obstacle to a man who had crossed through time in The Terminator, fought Thulsa Doom and, when but a bodybuilder, had made it to Belfast to lift two young ladies from the typing pool at the Belfast Telegraph onto his broad shoulders so we probably looked over our shoulders more than was entirely necessary. And that was in a time when there were daily killings by terrorists on both sides of the political divide. Those groups didn't bother us greatly but a man who had once punched a camel out cold was something altogether more worrying.
No matter that this viewer liked Sylvester Stallone a good deal more than Schwarzenegger, there was still much to like about the Austrian Oak. That's got a lot to do with the fact that when everyone else was deserting fantasy films as though the genre was found rubbing itself in an intimate place when in the company of children, Schwarzenegger kept himself in there with Conan The Barbarian, Conan The Destroyer and Red Sonja. Were there ever a boxset of those three films, I'd be there with such speed as to suggest that fifty-pound-notes and nude pictures of Heather Thomas were tucked up inside them. Frankly, I'd only be more excited if there was a Complete Beastmaster Boxset, for which I would happily stand outside the play.com distribution centre wearing nothing but a loin cloth and with no one but two ferrets for company.
Conan The Barbarian remains Schwarzenegger's best film, with John Milius being the only director that the actor's had who understand that there is more to the man than simply muscles and a silly accent. The scene in the orgy as well as showing Arnold's handiness with a sword, also reveals how delicately he could move. Far too often, though, he's been cast as simply muscle-power in films thereafter with his accent deliberately mangling one-liners that wouldn't have been out of place in a Moore-era Bond film. Unfortunately, the Conan films aren't included in this boxset but Red Sonja is, the only nod to fantasy in a set devoted to a man who once did much for the genre. However, Red Sonja is still a good deal of fun, far more than is suggested by it bobbing about with the rest of the flotsam of the movie business, along with which it's largely forgotten about. However, if, like me, you have one (or all) of Krull, Hawk The Slayer or Eragon in your collection, chances are that Red Sonja will also find a place.
Still, though, it's a very minor entry in the Schwarzenegger canon, mostly due to the actor being cast only in a supporting role to Brigitte Nielsen. Actually, in terms of what Schwarzenegger contributes to the film, he's playing fourth or fifth fiddle behind not only Nielsen but also his old Conan The Barbarian sparring partner Sandahl Bergman while both Paul L Smith and Ernie Reyes are more memorable. Arnold doesn't try very hard in a film that has him cast as Lord Kalidor, who rides through a desolate land only to find Brigitte Nielsen as Sonja, a woman whose family were murdered by the evil Queen Gedren (Bergman), whose body was violated by the soldiers of Queen Gedren and whose desire for bloody vengeance is fired by...well, you get the picture. Kalidor arrives as Gedren's troops attack and overrun a cult of women priestesses guarding a mysterious artifact known only as the Talisman. The last survivor of this cult is Varna who escapes but is fatally wounded by Gedren's soldiers. With her dying breath, though, she falls into the arms of Lord Kalidor and asks that he seek the help of her sister Red Sonja.
Sonja, meanwhile, is training in the arts of war but on hearing that the Talisman has been taken by Gedren, who is responsible for the death of yet another member of her family, Sonja completes her training and leaves to take her revenge. Aided by Kalidor and Falkon (Paul L Smith) but often hindered by the antics of the brattish Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes jr), Sonja travels to Berkubane, Gedren's Kingdom of Eternal Night before the evil queen can use the Talisman. Although, frankly, one wonders if it is the Talisman that has caught Gedren's heart or Sonja. Clearly demonstrating that the gobbledygook kingdoms of fantasy-land have little time for sapphism, no one ever seems to be done telling Sonja that she would do better if she liked men a little more. Kalidor, knowing well the way to Sonja's heart, eventually challenges her to a swordfight. Neither one is able to defeat the other and so put away their swords. Schwarzenegger, though, merely swaps his steel one in favour of, it is implied, his pork one. But the sight of Schwarzenegger and Nielsen together is an uneasy one, as though wondering if two people of such bulk might actually injure one another when locked in an embrace.
Still, it's a reasonably well-made film with the producers making good use of the Italian locations to give the film much more of a sense of grandeur than Conan The Destroyer had. A bridge made from the skeleton of a dinosaur and a giant statue that overlooks Sonja's training ground both add to the mystery of the place. Gedren's castle sits atop a mountain while, within its walls, there is a beautiful room lit by hundreds of candles. Doubtless some poor Italian students on work experience were made to light each of those candles but their efforts weren't in vain. It looks great. However, the rubbery spider that sits at Gedren's feet in her throne room, the clockwork monster that attacks Sonja in the water and the vials of potions that Gedren's magician potters with all give one that feeling that someone had their tongue (and another's) firmly in their cheek when designing the film. One might even say it was for children but the blood, guts, beheading and naked dancing woman all suggest otherwise. A pity, really, as though Conan The Barbarian is one of the very best fantasy movies due to its very adult nature, Red Sonja would have worked better had it, like Krull, been made for a family audience. Perhaps a family that befits its relationship between Sonja and Gedren, with two women and only a man like Lord Kalidor ambling along in the background, but a family nonetheless.
Equally unsuitable for children is Total Recall, a sci-fi movie from 1990 that, though frequently cartoonish, is also funny, fast-paced and ferociously violent but like other films based on the stories of Philip K Dick, is open to more than one interpretation. In the case of Total Recall, it is the series of events that occur around Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger). Quaid is a blue-collar worker on a building site in a city of the future but dreams of a life on Mars. His wife, Lori (Sharon Stone), and friend Harry (Robert Costanzo) eye him suspiciously every time that he mentions the red planet, the former when he talks about moving there and the latter when he wonders if he should visit Rekall, a company that implants memories.
That afternoon, Quaid does indeed visit Rekall and pays his money to enjoy a two-week vacation on Mars. The salesman, though, adds to Quaid's pleasure by promising to add in a new feature from Rekall's brochures...a holiday where Quaid leaves himself at home! Before he takes his place in the Rekall machine, he opts to play the part of a secret agent investigating a conspiracy surrounding Martian relics. But something goes wrong in the procedure. It seems that Rekall have unlocked memories that someone had sought to keep buried. And Quaid wakes up claiming not to be Quaid at all but an agent called Hauser. Soon, Harry, his wife and dozens of others are all trying to kill Quaid, who later finds himself in an abandoned cement factory with a wet towel on his head picking a bug out of his nose. And Quaid/Hauser is on his way to Mars to meet with the revolutionaries there. But nothing is as it first seems.
On the commentary that accompanies the film, Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger disagree on whether the entire film takes place entirely in Quaid's mind, occurring wholly in Quaid's mind as he lies on a bed in Rekall, or is really a thriller in which Quaid does indeed travel to Mars to solve a conspiracy over Martian artifacts. On the commentary, Verhoeven takes the view that Total Recall portrays the former and points out how the film supports his argument while Schwarzenegger does the same but from the opposing point of view. However, at no point is it suggested that there is one definitive answer. Unlike another adaptation of a Philip K Dick story, there is no Director's Cut to explain things fully. Instead, Verhoeven keeps things open-ended. Twists fold in on twists, red herrings are followed by yet more red herrings and should you ever suspect that you have the film sussed, it's likely that Verhoeven will quickly pull the film away from you again. Even as it ends, there's still no way of knowing if an unseen coda cuts back, Brazil-like, to a Schwarzenegger lying in Rekall staring off into the distance, his mind still on Mars and in an embrace with Melina.
Inasmuch, though, as there are two ways to look at the film, what's much more important is how fantastically violent a movie it is. I'm not sure if it's quite so easy to break someone's neck as it is implied here, done by simply stamping down on their neck at the same time as you pull their right arm upwards, but the crunch is fairly convincing. However, that early bit of body horror pales when viewed alongside the literally eye-popping action when Cohaagen, Hauser and Melina all find themselves outside of the domes in an atmosphere without oxygen. Bloody squibs explode everywhere while Schwarzenegger's slight strike at one of Cohaagen's goons leaves him with almost his entire face caving in. Blood splatters the scenery. Even the sight of Schwarzenegger pulling a bug out through his nose makes one wince while he uses almost everything that comes to hand as a weapon including a couple of six-inch screws in his second time in a Rekall machine. And there's comedy in this, particularly his, "Scroooooo youuuuuuuuu!" as he wields an enormous drill to put an end to Benny's ride in the tunnels.
But perhaps the most inspired part of the film is the casting of Michael Ironside as Richter, thus taking an already violent film to somewhere between a sci-fi thriller and out-and-out horror. Not only is Ironside as thoroughly nasty as he's ever been but he's clearly having a great time, whether it's just shooting people or showing off a fantastic grin every time he sees Schwarzenegger in his sights. I don't know, however, if Total Recall is that great a film. It's certainly capable of presenting a very complete world but, at the same time, some of its special effects are on a par with Nookie Bear for realism. Indeed, a talking bear that can roll its eyes would be very much better than some of the mutants in Total Recall. It is a film, though, that would feel just as much at home in the pages of Fangoria as it would in the pages of Empire and yet it gets very much closer to horror than do many horror films these days. It makes this viewer miss the days before studios realised that you could make much more money by ensuring a film is rated, at the most, a 15. With his latest Rambo film, Sylvester Stallone seems to have realised that perhaps not the tide but at least a wave or two is turning back in favour of those who want shocking and bloody thrills in their films. Back in the days of Total Recall, Schwarzenegger was of a similar mind. Things have changed. Schwarzenegger has changed. But Total Recall remains the same. Not the best of Schwarzenegger's films but bloody and bloody good fun.
The next film in the set is Walter Hill's Red Heat and you can quickly tell that it's been authentically filmed in a pre-Glasnost Moscow both by the statues of Lenin and Marx but by almost a complete absence of motor cars. And those that there are seem to be that particularly boxy and technologically backwards kind of car that everyone east of the Berlin wall drove before David Hasselhoff brought it down. You know the kind...rather than petrol, it looks for all the world as though it is coal-powered, that it's upholstered with Hessian sacks and that instead of a handbrake, it comes with four small stones to place in front of or behind each wheel to keep the car stationery whilst parked.
The action quickly moves out of Moscow in the direction of Chicago but not before Schwarzenegger spends a few minutes in a bathhouse in which men, including Schwarzenegger, lift weights while wearing nothing other than thongs. Quite how the tiny little towels that protect their modesty remain in place with the dozen or so naked women who are bathing themselves in a hot pool isn't explained in Red Heat but the film doesn't hang around to find out. Very quickly, Schwarzenegger crashes through a window into the snow and, with a series of punches that sound like cows being blown up, interrogates a suspect as to the whereabouts of Viktor Rosta (Ed O'Ross), a Georgian drug dealer and crime lord. The information gained leads Schwarzenegger and his partner to ambush Rosta but it backfires. Rosta escapes both from the raid and from Russia while his partner is fatally injured from a volley of shots fired by Rosta.
Unexpectedly, Rosta shows up in Chicago and is arrested after running a red light. Holed up in prison, the Chicago PD alert their Moscow equivalent via teleprinter. To bring Rosta home, the Moscow Militia send Danko (Schwarzenegger) to Chicago to personally bring Rosta home. His only contact in the city is cop Arthur Ridzic (James Belushi), who is relieved to only be spending minutes in the company of the Russian. However, if the handover went well, this would be a very short film. Instead, things go very badly indeed with Ridzic's partner shot, Rosta escaping once again and Danko concussed and in hospital with only Rosta's key as a means of finding his man. Only thing is that everybody else, including the Chicago PD, drug dealers and gang leaders, want to find Danko and, more importantly, his money. Danko, though, is prepared to stop at nothing to bring his man home.
And, of course, he will bring his man in by the end of the film, no matter that it may, outlaw-style, be either dead or alive so it's easy to overlook any lack of suspense as regards Danko's crime-busting sojourn in the US. On the other hand, there's some comedy to be had in the prickly relationship between Schwarzenegger and Belushi and while the film often falls into revealing the particular eccentricities of both the US and Russia, such as the comparison between the Chicago police captain's stress-busting use to music, fish and plants to Danko's preferred vodka, there's still the occasional laugh to be had. However, in as much as it's often just fairly funny, it's only ever a fairly exciting thriller
The final film in the set is Raw Deal, a, to this viewer's eyes, minor film in the Schwarzenegger canon. To be fair to the movie, that's really only because I'd never actually seen nor heard of it but given that my film knowledge is very much less than encyclopedic, that's no guarantee of quality or lack thereof. In this film, Schwarzenegger plays a small-town cop working in exile from the FBI but clearly not enjoying it. Neither is his wife, who drinks whiskey cocktails during the day and bakes a chocolate cake with the word SHIT written in icing on it. It doesn't look particularly appetising but that's something that the fog of mid-afternoon alcohol doesn't disguise as she picks it up and flings it in Schwarzenegger's direction.
Seeing this as something that might threaten their relationship, Schwarzenegger visits a marriage counsellor, who not only seems to work for the FBI but, perhaps as a means to save his marriage, advises Schwarzenegger to fake his own death, go deep cover with a new identity and take down several members of the biggest mafia family in the country. Anyone else might a holiday or perhaps a pair of pink fur handcuffs and a jar of chocolate body paint but not so here. Soon, Schwarzenegger is hanging around in casinos, picking fights with low-ranking mafia goons and working his way into the Patrovita family. But some are suspicious of him, not least Max Keller (Robert Davi), who turns up a photograph of Schwarzenegger as a cop. His deep cover has suddenly become a good deal more shallow.
The best that it can be said about Raw Deal is that it's not very unlike a Steven Seagal movie. Now, to be more than fair to Seagal, he's actually made some fairly entertaining films but far too many in which he's played a cop going deep cover to bring down a crime gang. And, of them, there's more than one could ever want in which he, a fat man in a black leather jacket, hangs out with minor league rap stars taking a turn at the acting business. The worst that can be said about Raw Deal is that it's not even like a particularly good Seagal film, more one of those direct-to-video movies that feels like an extended episode of Miami Vice. And 'extended' is the right word as one actually hopes that the various lieutenants and generals in the mafia family see through Schwarzenegger's deep cover and send him to the bottom of the dockside waters in a pair of concrete boots. What's surprising is that it takes Keller as long as he does to figure things out as Schwarzenegger's first mistake is to tell the mafia figures, "Look...I'm not a cop!" Nothing gives away an undercover cop like them telling everyone they're not a cop but it still takes Keller, his photograph and his driving everybody to watch as Schwarzenegger walks the beat swinging a nightstick for them to realise this. With that cake being the only moment in the film that one could really describe as being surprising, everything comes to a very predictable end. With a lot of shooting, obviously.
The problem with Raw Deal isn't that it's a particularly bad film. It's not great by any means and is, to be honest, a bit dull compared to the three films that accompany it in this boxset but the bigger problem is that it's such a mixed bag of movies that neither it, nor Red Sonja, Total Recall and Red Heat, really feel at home. Had Red Sonja accompanied the two Conan films in a three-movie set, there wouldn't have been a problem with it. Total Recall would have bedded in nicely in a two-for-one box with Starship Troopers while Red Heat is much closer to any of Walter Hill's other films than any of Schwarzenegger's. Raw Deal, on the other hand, belongs in a midweek slot on Five. Wrapping up this very long review, there's something in here for everyone. Unfortunately, it's not a set that anyone could be completely happy with. Me, I'm here for Red Sonja and, to a lesser degree, Total Recall but others may be more fond of Red Heat or Raw Deal. There's less sense in putting these four films together but let's not confuse Optimum's release of this set for art, more that commerce has judged that there may be some value in the Schwarzenegger Collection. And fair play to them but, next time, something at least resembling a theme would be better.
One suspects that Optimum haven't done very much in preparing these films for release on DVD. On the contrary, it's likely that they were picked up in a job lot of movies and, by them looking reasonable enough to release without any tinkering, were quickly transferred onto disc and, from there, to the stores. Of the four, Red Sonja looks the best, largely from it actually looking quite epic in scale and arriving on a DVD that is sharp, clean and with what one imagines is just the right colour palette. The anamorphically-presented 2.35:1 image certainly helps, particularly so after fullscreen showings for as long as this viewer can remember, but there's an obvious clarity to the picture that makes it stand out from the others in this set. I'd even be tempted to say that it looks a good deal better than the film deserves.
Total Recall doesn't look quite as good. To be honest, I can't remember any DVD or television broadcast ever looking any different. It's always had a bit of a Fisher Price chunkiness to it but the colours look to be too strong on this release and while there's grain in the picture, there's also a noticeable amount of noise. Also, if you slow the picture down and step through a scene frame by frame, there is some print damage. Raw Deal, while not looking at all bad, has more of a problem in that it's just fairly uninteresting to look at. Arnold doesn't quite cut it as a mobster nor as a cop and the film has very little ambition. Albeit that it's anamorphically presented in 1.85:1, the picture is simply no great shakes, with neither the film nor the DVD presentation looking any better than a television show of the time handled merely competently on the way to DVD.
Red Heat is probably the biggest disappointment in the set. Walter Hill can certainly shoot a film and The Warriors is a very fine looking DVD. Streets Of Fire is hampered by being fullscreen and really ought to look a lot better but Red Heat is so soft as to be often blurred while there's also copious amounts of noise in the image. Far too often, it looks washed out, there's next to no detail in some of the more frantic scenes, particularly in the film's ending, and while it's not stock footage, the quality of the scenes shot in Russia suggests that it might be.
On to the audio tracks and while none of them stand out, they all do at least a competent job of carrying the action. Red Sonja arrives with a DD2.0, as does Raw Deal and Red Heat while Total Recall comes with both DD2.0 and DD5.1 tracks. There's not a great deal to write about any of them. Of the first three, the dialogue is at least always clear, the action has a fair thump to it - particularly the fisticuffs in Red Heat, which has the kind of crunch and wallop one would associate more with motorway carnage - and while there's some background noise, there's not quite enough to annoy. The DD5.1 audio track on Total Recall is one that I could live without. It does bring the action out from the screen but many of its effects sound cheap and there's an insufficient amount of use of the subwoofer to really impress. Finally, none of these films are subtitled.
Extras-wise, this set offers only slim pickings. Red Sonja has nothing but a couple of Theatrical Trailers (4m14s), one for Red Sonja and another for a film titled Kalidor, which seems to be a rebranding of Red Sonja for parts of the world that have no truck with the idea of a woman as the leading actor in a movie. The west of Ireland, perhaps. Raw Deal is no better with it only including a Trailer (1m45s).
Total Recall comes off that little bit better. The commentary with Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger that was recorded for the old Special Edition also making it onto this DVD, which is probably the best bonus feature on the disc. What's particularly good is how well Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger get on. The two are clearly good friends and while they disagree completely on the subtext of the film, they do so amiably and with good humour. While I find myself saying this less and less frequently, this track is definitely worth listening to, preferably with a sufficient knowledge of the film to appreciate the particular twists and turns in the plot and how they disagree on their meaning. Elsewhere, there are a number of features, including a Making of Total Recall (8m06s) and the factual Vision of Mars (5m29s). Both of these are very short but Imagining Total Recall (30m15s) is a much more substantial feature, going into the original Dick story and on to the production. In this, Paul Verhoeven is the choice of the contributors but Ron Shusett, a screenwriter on this as well as on Alien, does a fine job of explaining the background to the film and, of course, Schwarzenegger cuts straight to the heart of the matter. Elsewhere on the disc, there are Storyboard Comparisons (7m08s), a Trailer (2m12s) and TV Spots (3m10s).
Red Heat has a fair selection of extras as well, offering the viewer I’m Not Russian (5m05s), Stuntman For All Seasons (12m18s) and East Meets West (9m31s) as well as a Trailer (2m08s). Stuntman For All Seasons actually serves as a tribute to Bennie Dobbins, a stuntman who served on Commando and who was Second Unit Director on Red Heat while East Meets West is a short history of the Carolco film company and while it's not particularly informative, as one who has fond memories of the likes of First Blood, John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, The Doors and Cliffhanger, this viewer didn't mind it at all. I'm Not Russian features an interview with the actor Ed O'Ross who played Viktor in the film.