Never underestimate Arnold Strong. When bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger plotted his move to Hollywood to become an actor, he was pressured into changing his last name for his first film, 1970’s Hercules in New York. “[N]obody could pronounce Schwarzenegger … it was a ludicrous name,” he observed in his memoir Total Recall. Plus, his thick Austrian accent forced the filmmakers to dub all his dialogue, and the production company went broke, guaranteeing that just about nobody could see the dopey fantasy comedy in which he played the Roman demigod come down to Earth. None of that discouraged the young man. “[S]tarring as Hercules was way beyond any dream for me,” he wrote. “And they paid me $1,000 a week. Best of all, I got to send photographs home to my parents and write, ‘You see? I told you the whole thing was going to work. I came to America, won Mr. Universe, and now I’m in the movies.’”
It turned out Schwarzenegger was Hollywood’s biggest dreamer. Born in 1947, he saw America as the land of opportunity, and he diligently pursued his superstar aspirations, first landing a bit part in Robert Altman’s 1973 revisionist noir The Long Goodbye and then slowly working his way up to larger parts by the end of the decade. When the ’80s swept in, he found his niche, playing muscular, unreal cinematic titans in the Conan movies and The Terminator before transitioning to comedies with 1988’s Twins, which cheekily mocked his brawny physique. America loves an underdog story, and Schwarzenegger’s was one of the entertainment industry’s most likable: Nobody believed he could be a star, so he kept applying himself until he could no longer be denied.
Then once he reached the top of the mountain, he kept dreaming. As his stardom was starting to stall in the early 21st century, he not only got into politics, he became the governor of California, winning the 2003 recall election — a feat that seemed just as unlikely as his previous cinematic ambitions. Audiences moved on to other action heroes, but in 2011, he came back to Hollywood determined to reassert his dominance. It’s the only time his seemingly unflappable ambition has ever collided with reality: 2015’s Terminator Genisys failed to reignite the franchise, and his other post-governor work has mostly seen him subsisting on fans’ faded admiration for his ’80s and ’90s commercial peak. And that’s not to mention a handful of off-screen scandals that, in many ways, were warning signs for the Way We Live Now.
Now 72, Schwarzenegger will never be the box-office champ he once was, but his career stands as a reminder of a time, not that long ago, when audiences would go to a movie simply because he was in it. In our modern, IP-driven age, we’ve forgotten what it was like when the industry was truly ruled by stars. That was Arnold’s time. (And it might still be: His latest, Terminator: Dark Fate, proves he’s refusing to hasta la vista, baby into that good night.)
So let’s rank his best (and worst) performances. A couple of ground rules first, though. We decided not to include the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, and we’re bypassing The Long Goodbye, The Villain, and Scavenger Hunt because they’re just so minor. (That’s also the case for cameos, as when he played himself in Dave.) As an actor, Schwarzenegger is far from nuanced, but the towering, monolithic bluntness of his best performances has its own kind of power. Lots of people want to be movie stars, but he figured out a way to make it happen. Part of the reason audiences love him so much is because, deep down, we enjoyed watching him live out that dream.
29. Killing Gunther (2017)
The saddest thing about Taran Killam’s dreadful comedy — in which the director’s attempts to write himself as a romantic leading man are … well, let’s go with “ill-conceived” — is that Arnold’s pretty terrible in this movie, yet he’s still probably the best thing in it. He’s the titular Gunther, a brilliant contract killer whom Killam’s rival hit man is trying to track down and murder. But Schwarzenegger doesn’t really show up until the last quarter of the film, and by then, we’re so tired of the rest of the cast that it’s just a relief to see Arnold willing to act goofy. Unfortunately, Killam doesn’t give him any more to do than anyone else, and the movie’s only good joke, that Gunther secretly wants to be a country-music singer, is predictably bungled. We like that Arnold is game to do stuff like this, but yikes, there had to be better opportunities to do comedy than Killing Gunther.
28. Batman & Robin (1999)
Before the Expendables movies, Schwarzenegger had never really been part of an ensemble during his superstar period — except for this one time, and what a disaster that turned out to be. On paper, it was a coup for Warner Bros. to land Arnold for the role of Mr. Freeze, bringing added commercial muscle to Joel Schumacher’s follow-up to the megasuccessful Batman Forever. Plus, it would offer Schwarzenegger three rarities: He got to play the villain, he didn’t have to worry about carrying the movie, and he could flex his underrated comedic muscles. But now that we’ve laid out the backstory of Batman & Robin, let’s cut to the chase — Good God, is this movie terrible. It’s not just an embarrassment of a Batman film; it’s a straight-up cinematic travesty. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but as funny as Schwarzenegger can be in his movies, delivering knowingly bad ice-related puns is, we learned to our horror, not his specialty.
27. Red Sonja (1985)
Arnold’s only barely in this spinoff of his Conan franchise — which commemorated that brief moment when Brigitte Nielsen was apparently going to be America’s next action star — and the strangest thing about it is that he’s not playing Conan here. He’s Kalidor, who is basically Conan without having to pay the rights for Conan; he leaves the movie early and, frankly, has the right idea.
26. Collateral Damage (2002)
The last of his headlining non-franchise movies before heading to Sacramento, Collateral Damage is a by-the-numbers revenge thriller that gained entirely unearned accidental resonance after 9/11, when its guy-loses-family-to-terrorists-so-goes-on-a-rampage plot rang a little too hollow. (That Arnold played a firefighter didn’t help.) The movie isn’t nearly compelling enough to hold up to any sort of real-world analysis, and it’s so boring it’s no wonder Arnold decided that politics was more interesting than making two or three of these junky films for the rest of his life.
25. Raw Deal (1986)
Even among the Arnold’s ’80s movie junk, this is the junkiest, cheesiest ’80s movie Arnold ever made and, not coincidentally, the one we talk the least about today. This is Arnold’s Cobra, but he’s not even wearing a ridiculous Stallone beard. The only fun part is that the guy who hires Schwarzenegger’s character to go kill a bunch of bad guys is Darren McGavin, the dad from A Christmas Story. Mr. Parker!
24. The Sixth Day (2000)
This was probably the last time Schwarzenegger would ever be able to demand $25 million for a movie, and it’s a good thing, too: This is warmed-over sci-fi schlock that barely works up enough energy to finish. It’s typical “The Future!” silliness, with Arnold as a pilot who works for a mad billionaire but turns out to have a clone and … look, it’s a ton of trouble to explain. Bottom line, this is Arnold trying to recapture the Total Recall magic (the poster even looks like a scene from the Paul Verhoeven movie) to little avail.
23. Eraser (1996)
After the disappointment of Last Action Hero, Arnold tried to get back to basics, first with True Lies and, much less successfully, with Eraser, a supposedly high-tech thriller that looks a little more ridiculous every year. Schwarzenegger plays a U.S. Marshal who helps hide people in the Witness Protection Program, but it all goes a little wrong and he has to use his brawn, as well as “computers,” to save the day. Arnold was trying to regain his Biggest Movie Star in the World standing here. It didn’t work.
22. Around the World in 80 Days (2004)
The official last movie role Arnold had before taking the governorship is an extended comic cameo in this remake, which features the truly bizarre buddy pairing of Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan. Schwarzenegger plays Prince Hapi, a creepy, handsy, spoiled prince whom our heroes come across and quickly scamper away from. Arnold is clearly having a fun time playing this guy, but that doesn’t mean you will watching him.
21. The Expendables movies (2010, 2012, 2014)
Be honest: Doesn’t Schwarzenegger look like a guy named Trench Mauser? That’s the character he plays in the Expendables franchise, who’s a longtime frenemy of Sylvester Stallone’s stoic, heroic leader of a ragtag band of mercenaries. These movies have one selling point — old guys can kick ass too! — and it’s hard to resist the thrill of watching weathered movie stars blow bad guys away one more time. But these flicks tend to inspire Schwarzenegger’s laziest, smuggest tendencies. Just about every scene he’s in, he’s awfully pleased with himself, content to savor his own stardom and not try very hard. After being governor, he just hasn’t seemed as hungry to reclaim his crown as box-office champ. He thinks we owe it to him. He is mistaken.
20. Junior (1994)
Twins had a pretty great hook, this Schwarzenegger-DeVito team-up less so. Arnold plays a scientist who decides to impregnate himself to test a new fertility drug he and his partner (Danny DeVito) have been developing. Junior tries to squeeze humor out of the feminization of one of Hollywood’s most macho stars, but the jokes are, well, labored. Roger Ebert famously raved about Arnold in the film, saying, “[Y]ou’ll see skills that many ‘serious’ actors could only envy. He never reaches for an effect. He never grabs for a joke. He never wrings an emotion out of reluctant material. He plays the role absolutely straight, trusting the material to make the points and get the laughs.” That’s a very generous reading of Junior, which is annoyingly zany and irritatingly cutesy — although it did earn Arnold a Golden Globe nomination. But we will never, ever forgive the film for providing us with the nightmare fuel seen above.
19. End of Days (1999)
You can see what they were trying for here. Schwarzenegger plays alcoholic ex-NYPD cop Jericho Cane — what a name! — who has lost his faith in God until he comes across a case that, perhaps inevitably, leads him to do battle with Satan himself. This was marketed as a Y2K end-of-the-world thriller, with the millennium itself even serving as a backdrop to the film, but all the apocalyptic imagery falls mostly flat, even edging a little too much into camp. In surer hands, this could have been a grimy little ’80s thriller with Mickey Rourke; pumped up to Arnold dimensions, it’s merely ridiculous. Though if you’ve ever wanted to see Schwarzenegger briefly possessed by the Devil, here’s your chance.
18. Aftermath (2017)
As he grows older, Schwarzenegger has tried to transition into Eastwoodesque Tortured Old Warrior mode, with mixed results. Here, he plays Roman, a man whose wife and daughter are killed in a plane crash that he blames on an air-traffic controller (Scoot McNairy). Arnold spends most of the movie brooding and trying to get his revenge on the poor guy, whose life has been ruined by the guilt. If this sounds awfully moody and sad for an Arnold movie, you’re right. It’s impressive that Schwarzenegger even wanted to make this, but he’s asked to do a lot in this film and can’t quite carry the entire dramatic weight alone. You appreciate his giving it a try, but he should just let Eastwood have these roles.
17. Escape Plan (2013)
Wouldn’t it be cool if Sly and Arnold made a movie together? In 1989, totally. But Escape Plan, which hit theaters in 2013 as part of the post-Expendables geriatric gold rush, just feels like a B-movie coasting on badass nostalgia. Schwarzenegger plays Emil, an inmate in a high-tech prison that houses the worst of the worst. Stallone plays Ray, who owns a firm that tests maximum-security prisons to see how easy they are to escape from. Ray goes into Emil’s jail, only to discover that mysterious individuals want him locked up there permanently. Watching Schwarzenegger and Stallone team up has its superficial pleasures, but Escape Plan suffers from the same problem that afflicts a lot of Arnold’s post-governor roles: He no longer has that magnetic, confident presence. He doesn’t elevate the material; the dreck drags him down.
16. Jingle All the Way (1996)
All right, so Jingle All the Way is about a bunch of insane people serving as a rather tidy illustration of how American capitalism is running amok and turning us all into materialistic monsters. But hey, you gotta respect Arnold for trying to put his entire career aside for a second and pretending to be a regular dad who just wants to get an elusive toy for his kid. This feels like it was written for Jim Carrey, or even Richard Dreyfuss, so it’s all the more ludicrous that Schwarzenegger took it on, even with Sinbad (Sinbad!) as his comedic sidekick. As his popularity grew, Arnold tried more and more to play “normal” people. We wouldn’t call anything about this movie “normal.” More than 20 years after its release — wow, what a wild cultural artifact.
15. Last Action Hero (1993)
We still contend that a great movie could be made out of the ideas in Last Action Hero. A riff on The Purple Rose of Cairo, the film stars Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater, the hero of a popular action franchise. Danny (Austin O’Brien) is a young fan who inexplicably gets sucked into the world of the Slater flicks, setting the stage for a cheeky satire of action-movie tropes while, at the same time, being an action movie. Unfortunately, this potentially clever comedy ended up being the big commercial misfire of Schwarzenegger’s megastardom period. The film isn’t fun; it’s smug — and Arnold lacks the light touch he wields in Twins and elsewhere. The problem with Last Action Hero is that, deep down, all Arnold Schwarzenegger action movies are comedies — he always brings a bit of a wink to even the most high-octane affair. A whole movie that trumpets this fact in a showy way gets tiresome quickly. Recently, Arnold blamed the film’s failure on, of all things, Bill Clinton’s election: “The action-hero era is over, Bill Clinton is in, the highbrow movies are the ‘in’ thing now,” he rationalized. That’s funnier than anything in Last Action Hero.
14. Red Heat (1988)
A buddy-cop movie straight out of the prime era for buddy-cop movies, Red Heat finds Arnold playing a Russian policeman who comes to Chicago to investigate a murder with, get this, a totally mismatched partner (Jim Belushi). Lots of different metatextual subplots going on here, from Arnold trying to “stretch” — though his accent is still not even slightly Russian — to Belushi trying to take his brother’s mantle to Walter Hill trying to scrub his ’70s grime into ’80s gold. It doesn’t really work, but it definitely laid the groundwork for Schwarzenegger’s strength as a comic actor: his ability to be totally deadpan. Even if accidental, it was a solid strategy.
13. Sabotage (2014)
It wasn’t long ago, before Suicide Squad and Bright, that David Ayer seemed like America’s foremost soulful chronicler of manly men doing manly-men things, which is why it made sense for Schwarzenegger to sign up for this thriller about a corrupt DEA squad (led by Arnold) that steals a ton of money after a drug bust and spends the rest of the film trying to cover it up. Ayer’s skill at capturing how tough guys (and women — the film’s best performance comes from Mireille Enos) talk and act with one another serves Schwarzenegger well; he’s at his best being a cigar-chomping alpha male. But no one in this movie, including Arnold, is even slightly likable, and it leaves a bit of an empty feeling at the end. Yet Ayer and his star work well together; a reteaming might be good for them both.
12. The Conan movies (1982, 1984)
If Arnold weren’t Ah-nold, this would be his ceiling: sword-and-sandal schlock in which he and his Fabio hair decapitate monsters and enemies, occasionally alongside Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain. Schwarzenegger doesn’t flash much of the Arnold charm in these movies, and he doesn’t need to. (They are far too plodding and irony free for any of that.) But they still pack a punch: Other than in Stay Hungry, the pure work of cartoon art that is Arnold’s body was never on better display than in these movies. He looks like both a barbarian and a destroyer.
11. Maggie (2015)
After Schwarzenegger ended his term as governor of California, he returned to Hollywood and tried to reaffirm his role as a top-flight action star, but perhaps it’s telling that one of the best movies he made in this period doesn’t fit that template at all. The underrated Maggie is set in a postapocalyptic Midwest where ordinary guy Wade (Schwarzenegger) must care for his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin), who has been infected by the zombie virus that wiped out civilization. In the typical Schwarzenegger movie, he’d be out kicking zombie ass, but this quiet family drama flips that script. Here, Wade is powerless to save the day — it’s inevitable that his sickly girl will turn into a member of the undead, and the only question is whether he has the fortitude to kill her himself before the virus overwhelms her. Schwarzenegger doesn’t do a lot of Serious Roles, but Maggie is a happy exception. As a father burdened by regrets and facing an impossible situation, the former superstar seems suitably humbled, shaken, haunted.
10. The Last Stand (2013)
This is the best of Arnold’s post-governorship movies. Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil) helms this cheeky, muscular, we’re-all-just-putting-on-a-show pseudo-Western about the sheriff of a sleepy town (Schwarzenegger) who teams with a group of misfits to stop a drug lord. The movie has a big, warm sense of humor, and Arnold, in his first major role in a decade, slips it on like a comfy pair of old jeans. It’s the Arnold aesthetic in full bloom: He’s funny and winking and also ass kicking. This movie deserved better than the yawn audiences gave it.
9. Kindergarten Cop (1990)
Hot off the success of Twins, Schwarzenegger struck gold by reuniting with that film’s director, Ivan Reitman, for another supremely silly comedy, this time playing a grizzled cop who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher. Yeah, Kindergarten Cop is basically Arnold Is Driven Crazy by a Bunch of Adorable Kids, but that doesn’t diminish the actor’s expert deadpan comic timing or how comfortable he is sharing the screen with his moppet costars. Like many of his high-concept comedies, this film is little more than a funny setup, but Schwarzenegger’s appeal in his early years was his big-kid persona, so pairing him with a roomful of crying, raucous tots was ingenious. The big guy fumes marvelously in Kindergarten Cop, very happy to be the straight man amid all the juvenile antics around him. Plus, he manages to handle a romantic subplot with Penelope Ann Miller pretty effortlessly.
8. True Lies (1994)
Whereas Last Action Hero crashed and burned when it tried to pair comedy and action, True Lies succeeded, reteaming Schwarzenegger with Terminator auteur James Cameron to tell the story of a spy and his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), who knows nothing about what her husband does for a living. True Lies is neither man’s best work, and the film’s misogynistic, xenophobic tendencies were apparent even back then in the mid-’90s, long before the culture took active notice of such attitudes. Still, the film delivers plenty of the required yuks and pyrotechnics for a solid summer flick, and by this point in his stardom, Schwarzenegger was such a confident, comfortable onscreen presence that he could just plug himself into any clever idea and make it work.
7. Commando (1985)
This is a full-on, stripped-down, and dirty ’80s action movie, one in which Schwarzenegger takes a machine gun and wipes out everybody who isn’t Rae Dawn Chong. Commando has always felt more like a dare than anything else: What would happen if you pitted Arnold Schwarzenegger and every weapon known to man against an entire army? You’d get shit blowing up in every direction. It’s not subtle, and it’s usually pretty stupid … but you didn’t see anybody complaining then and you probably won’t now.
6. The Running Man (1987)
It bears zero resemblance to the Stephen King–Richard Bachman novella it’s based on, and thank the heavens for that: This Running Man is a big, silly piece of postapocalyptic Pop Art that has kept perfect pace with the insanity of the world it predicted. Richard Dawson was a surprisingly deft foil for Arnold: He seems consistently amused by Schwarzenegger — his accent, his physicality, his plodding — and this keeps the movie compulsively watchable today. Arnold is surrounded by goofiness, but he’s the one holding it all together. If this came on cable right now, you would watch every single second of it.
5. Twins (1988)
One of Schwarzenegger’s saving graces has always been that he understood how some American audiences saw him: as just a muscle-bound foreigner who talked weird and didn’t seem to be from this planet. He turned that xenophobia into comedy with Twins, in which he plays the sweet outsider Julius, who is finally reunited with his twin brother, the smart-ass lowlife Vincent (Danny DeVito). One of 1988’s biggest hits, the film has a can’t-miss premise — one guy’s short, angry, and street-smart; the other guy’s tall, enthusiastic, and naïve; and together, the two stars have an oil-and-vinegar rapport that’s consistently delightful. Sure, Twins really isn’t much more than its premise, and you have to endure a lot of broad gags about Julius’s confused foreigner. But after a string of action-movie hits, Schwarzenegger was clearly secure in his ability to win over audiences, and he hardly breaks a sweat in this likable, totally disposable vehicle.
4. Stay Hungry (1976)
Yes, it really happened: In the mid-1970s, there was a movie starring Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, and Arnold Schwarzenegger directed by the man responsible for Five Easy Pieces. Stay Hungry isn’t well remembered, but it’s typical of filmmaker Bob Rafelson’s interest in restless outsiders and unusual pockets of society — and it’s responsible for helping to launch Schwarzenegger’s film career. The movie stars Bridges as Craig, a well-to-do but discontent young Alabaman who needs to purchase a local gym in order to facilitate a major land deal. But the more time Craig hangs out with the gym’s patrons, including Schwarzenegger’s sweet bodybuilder, Joe, the more he thinks he has finally found a community to call his own.
No doubt Rafelson cast Schwarzenegger because of his physique, but the director elicits a remarkably vulnerable, touching performance out of a guy who had previously just done cameos in feature films. Schwarzenegger has never been so unguarded since; kindly Joe befriends surly Craig, becoming the movie’s gentle giant and emotional core. “I really think he can play a whole range of parts,” Rafelson said at the time, and Schwarzenegger won a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut. Arnold would become a global superstar, but we sorta miss the bighearted, self-effacing Schwarzenegger who’s so winning in Stay Hungry.
3. Predator (1987)
Pity the poor alien who just wants to head to Earth to take out some dumb humans for sport and has the misfortune of stumbling across a group of commandos led by the head commando himself. The Predator character has become a franchise, but it’s key to note that what made him work was that he was a formidable foil for Schwarzenegger. (It was even sort of thrilling to see Arnold get tossed around.) This movie has the muscularity of John McTiernan’s best work and was the beginning of quite a roll for the director: After this came Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October. This is grimier and scarier than any of them and holds up magnificently. If it bleeds, you can kill it.
2. Total Recall (1990)
In the DVD era, it was fashionable for the director and the star of a movie to do a commentary track that walked you through the film they made. Schwarzenegger’s performance in Total Recall is first-class — he plays a seemingly ordinary guy who discovers his memories aren’t real — but the film’s legacy has shifted over the years with fans coming to love Arnold’s bonkers commentary conversation with director Paul Verhoeven. In fact, there are even YouTube tributes to its most insane moments:
But that shouldn’t detract from how Total Recall itself allowed Schwarzenegger to go nutso in a way he hadn’t in his previous action flicks. Based on the Philip K. Dick short story, this movie starts off ludicrous and gleefully becomes more unhinged as it rolls along. By the time his character’s eyes are literally bulging out of his head at the movie’s wacked-out finale, it feels only appropriate for one of his most deliciously emphatic turns.
1. The Terminator movies (1984–2019)
Right, yes, we’re really referring to only the first two films, although we do think that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is perfectly okay and that Terminator Genisys is kind of fascinating in how it sets fire to the original films’ legacy. But let’s be honest: When you’re talking Terminator, you’re focused on The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
This isn’t just one of the most iconic sci-fi franchises; it’s one of the most intriguing, as creator James Cameron picked Arnold to play his menacing robot assassin in the first film, then threw a curveball by having him portray humanity’s protector in the sequel. As a result, Schwarzenegger got to play both his best villain and hero roles in the same series. In the 1984 original, his stoic stillness suggested such lethal force that we never needed to know what was behind those sunglasses. (No film better captured Arnold’s eternal otherness.) In the 1991 follow-up, Schwarzenegger found the flickers of a soul within this unfeeling android and brought unexpected poignancy to the high-sheen action sequences.
There will be those who will forever dismiss Schwarzenegger as a monosyllabic meathead, but his sinister turn in The Terminator and the poignancy of Terminator 2 are entirely thanks to him. He’s not the last action hero, but with these two amazing films, you’d be forgiven for wondering if he was the best.