Arnold Schwarzenegger's first meaty movie role - 1970's "Hercules in New York," later released as "Hercules Goes Bananas" - graced us with the only truly comprehensible Arnold in cinematic history: He was, mercifully, dubbed, and it never happened again. I only mention it to illustrate that the history of Der Arnold - his money-in-the-bank stardom notwithstanding - is a history of early achievement and eventual decline.
Arnold's latest epic, "Collateral Damage," now out in video, has actually received kudos from Ebert and company. (That thumbs-up business is odd, though, when you consider that it means "Let him live." But never mind.)
One wonders about the praise, since the movie really is only the latest in a long line of sequels to 1982's "Conan the Barbarian." True, in "Collateral" Arnold seems to have achieved a certain measured - not to say tired - pace, even a tendency to formulate an idea before doing something.
He still is not graceful, though, and lunges about like a water buffalo charging through wet cement. But he is almost - dare I say it? - scaled back. Arnold kills only half a dozen or so people in "Collateral," and though he chews off one fellow's ear, you know his heart is not in it.
In "Conan," Arnold punches out a camel. That same punch merely dazes a "Collateral" villain.
Have Arnold's oats diminished? Is he, well, getting on? Over the years he has had multiple shavings and reshaping of his skull, nips and tucks here and there, and a pig valve installed in his heart. Are we seeing the evolution of Conan the Geriatric?
Arnold looks beat, and that's before he goes on the long trip and eats the ear and blows up people.
I wonder if the thumbs-up isn't like the "special award" those Academy folks give to old actors who are real close to that final application of greasepaint.
We all know the plot, but I am required by the Video Critics Association to write it down: Terrorist blows up Arnold's wife and kid. (The movie character's name is Gordie Brewer but, hey, nobody with an accent like that was ever named Gordie Brewer. Forget Gordie.). Arnold is irked. Arnold goes on vengeful rampage. Then he travels a far distance peopled with villains and sopping with danger to nail the perp (See "Conan").
A word of explanation: If that seems like the only motivation that will move men in America today - the kidnapping, assassination, torturing and general debilitation of one's family - it's because "action" movies are aimed at 14-year-old-boys. Members of that last group are impotent - figuratively speaking, of course - and fantasize that they could generate some courage, worth and self-esteem if only someone would kidnap and do away with their families. (Do not ask an adolescent boy about his, as you will receive only vague and surly replies.)
Meanwhile, back in "Collateral," Arnold adds the only unusual fillip to "Collateral" with "philosophical" discussions about how the government of Colombia is good and Colombian rebels are bad.
It will be remembered that Arnold is a Republican.
I view "Collateral" as the bottom of an enormous slide from the power and glory, yea, the defining moment for Arnold, of "Conan the Barbarian."
In "Conan," there is no dumb-guy philosophizing, no acting, and only the bare outline of a plot. A Viking warlord - played by James Earl Jones (I swear it) - kills boy-Arnold's parents. Arnold is irked. Arnold goes on vengeful rampage (after he physically grows up).
All of that you know. But the riveting force is Arnold himself. His face, not yet sculpted by the surgeon's chisel, runs the gamut of all possible emotions with a single, open-mouthed expression - a kind of primal ad for Botox. The enormous jaw has not yet been chipped at and reduced. Its mighty weight swings from its hinge like a loose tailgate at the back of an old Chevy pickup.
There is a raw, compelling innocence in Arnold's face that brings to mind that other, central icon in American myth: Alfred E. Newman. In fact, at several points in "Conan" one half expects Arnold to ask: "Vut, me vorry?"
But Arnold, a man of action, says little. He lunges about the desert on his horse - rather as you would expect a water buffalo to lunge if it were riding a horse; he listens to the loopy cries of loons, there in the desert; he makes love to a large blonde warrior-ess; he kills 31 people.
All Arnold films have a central point and the real apotheosis in "Conan" comes when, paradoxically, Arnold is inactive - tied to a tree, in fact - and slowly, deliberately, almost tenderly, he chews a vulture to death.
I wish I could say that Arnold uttered the best line in the picture, but I can't. That honor is reserved to the Viking Jones. (Point of interest: It is evident that "Star Wars" inventor Lucas saw "Conan," since in the last scene, as Arnold is about to chop off Jones' head, the embryonic Darth Vader claims desperately that he is actually Arnold's father.)
Anyway, James Earl Jones' line: "You killed my snake!"
Not even Frank Capra could top that.
See "Conan"; forget "Collateral."