Arnold Schwarzenegger tells Tony Earnshaw why a late career change sees him bathed in a ballet of blood in his latest film as the grizzled antihero of Sabotage.
Back in the mid-90s critics around the world queued up to rhapsodise over the performance of Sylvester Stallone, playing a tubby, over-the-hill sheriff protecting a town full of lawmen, in Cop Land.
It was, they said, a brave – nay, foolhardy – move on Stallone’s part to step away from the kinetic OTT gunplay of the Rambo movies to seek respect and a new audience.
What most tended to forget is that Stallone had previously delivered impressive character work in films such as Paradise Alley and Nighthawks.
Then along came Vietnam vet John J Rambo in First Blood and his screen persona was cemented in the global consciousness.
Flash forward 20 years and the same reaction surrounds Arnold Schwarzenegger in David Ayer’s Sabotage. But if film commentators are rubbing their chins in thought and surprise the comparisons between Stallone’s move into small-scale, intimate drama (albeit with a gunfight as the finale) and Schwarzenegger’s late entry into genuine acting end there.
Stallone was an actor and writer who, eventually, flexed his muscles as a director. And after a period in the freezing cold – he couldn’t get arrested in his 50s – he embraced his past and returned in The Expendables and its sequels.
Schwarzenegger was an ambitious bodybuilder who segued into movies and, later, politics. Returning to films after eight years as governor of California he knew audiences would expect more of what he had previously offered. That meant guns, violence, explosions and mayhem.
Sabotage offers all of that. But in the hands of David Ayer, writer of Training Day and director of End of Watch, it presents a no-frills Schwarzenegger who, perhaps for the first time, swaps quips, posturing and mugging for the camera for emotion, frailty and fear.
As John “Breacher” Wharton Schwarzenegger is the ageing, tattooed leader of a DEA team that steals money from a drugs cartel. Then members find themselves being hunted down and killed.
Ayer conceived the project as über-violent, ultra realistic and unrelentingly bleak. He has hinted that his original concept – a three-hour epic – was watered down by the studio to make it resemble the Arnie films of yore.
Like all big stars – and he is bigger than most – Schwarzenegger knows that some directors are overly deferential. Ayer behaved differently.
“David pushed me,” says the 66-year-old veteran. “He was very clear with a set of things that needed to be done.”
Such as weapons training. Schwarzenegger wasn’t having any of that.
“I said, ‘Why do I need weapons training? I’ve killed more people [and] shot more guns than anyone in movie history!’ He said, ‘Go down to the L.A. SWAT team and figure this out. I want you to learn the ballet of his team.’ And I said, ‘Ballet. Oh, here we go again…’ All of this built the character and made me perform. It’s a very complex world [and] I wanted to get into that. Today it’s not like the ‘80s or ‘90s anymore where a studio throws $100 million at you [to make] a great action movie. Now you have half of the money and you have to be very frugal.”
Wait a moment: is this really the same man whose pictures redefined the nature of the blockbuster? You better believe it. Maybe some of his political budget making has rubbed off.
“Things have changed,” says Schwarzenegger flatly. “The style of shooting is different. The directors out there are a younger crowd, hired because they have new ideas, new visions and all that.
“Movies are made by committee today. The budgets are half of what they used to be because the money’s being used for the franchise movies, big sequels and stuff like that. So it’s a different world and you have to adjust.”
He makes a salient point. If you can’t beat ’em, flank ’em. Gone are the days when Schwarzenegger’s Terminator series was the biggest thing on this or any other planet in the solar system.
Nowadays it’s the Avengers, Spider-Man and other denizens of the Marvel universe with its cartoon violence.
Of course in a different life Schwarzenegger was part of that universe. He was famously part of Batman & Robin – “the one that I did, the one that tanked” as George Clooney is wont to describe it – as the icy villain Mr Freeze.
It was a lesson that sometimes even the most cast-iron of projects can rust and rot. Clooney was lucky to bounce back; Schwarzenegger never quite recovered.
He was saved by politics. And by the time he left office in 2011 Sylvester Stallone and The Expendables had given once furred-up and redundant action stars a new lease of life. Perhaps even a last hurrah.
Has Stallone created an alternative to the superhero invasion? Will The Expendables and Homefront (which was written by Sly but starred protégé Jason Statham) herald a full-scale revival of the traditional action flick?
Schwarzenegger smiles. Suddenly the Terminator is back.
“I know you guys like to write stories to fill the page but I don’t think of it that way – that the action genre is coming back.
“Action movies that are multi-layered and have really interesting characters will always be popular. The key thing is to entertain. People are fascinated about this world that we’re dealing with in this movie.
“What Sabotage has to offer is realism. We had a director who was basically a fanatic about that. I think it all paid off.”
Sabotage (18) is on nationwide release.