Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
By taking a retrospective look at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s filmography, it’s no surprise that one of these unproduced sequels works and one sucks.
Considering his age and current occupation (Governator) it’s probably safe to say that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career as an actor is over and done with. If one were so inclined (which I am) one could break down his career in Hollywood into four periods (which I’m about to do, for a very good reason. Trust me.)
Starving Actor Period
This phase of Arnie’s career matches just about every Hollywood star’s early days, though considering he was a 7-time Mr. Olympian and 5-time Mr. Universe in the world of professional bodybuilding, he likely wasn’t starving. Regardless, like many before and after he took roles in films almost no one has seen, such as the starring role in the low-budget Hercules in New York (which saw his thick, Austrian accent dubbed over by other voice-talent), and a role alongside Loni Anderson in a made-for-TV movie about the life of Jayne Mansfield, among other easily forgettable projects.
Bad Ass Action Film Star Period
Roles in Conan the Barbarian and ironically, as the villain in James Cameron’s The Terminator launched Arnie’s meteoric rise to the upper echelon of the Hollywood elite. Following these films Schwarzenegger starred in a series of action movies during the genre’s heyday of the 1980’s. These films were loud, bloody, and starred one-man-armies such as Stallone, Willis, Seagal, and Van Damme. Arnie established himself as King of the Action Movie Hill with hits like Commando, Raw Deal, Predator, The Running Man, and Red Heat.
Beginning in the late 80’s/early 90’s someone in Hollywood had the rather ingenious idea of casting Schwarzenegger against type in fish-out-of-water films with varying amount of comedy added to the more typical Arnie-style action fans had come to expect. The result was quite successful in films such as Twins, Kindergarten Cop, and True Lies. While he continued to make successful action films such as Total Recall and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the success of his early “comedies” virtually demanded more of the same, but the films that followed, Last Action Hero, Junior, Jingle All the Way, and Batman & Robin were all bad to varying degrees, relying too heavily on tired, old gimmicks as well as making an error in judgment I’ll discuss more later.
Attempted Return to Form Period
This phase of Schwarzenegger’s career, perhaps realizing that he and comedy weren’t a good fit, saw him attempt a return to the more straight-forward action films of his past. Around the turn of the millennium Arnie starred in films such as End of Days, The 6th Day, Collateral Damage, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. But here again the results were disappointing. Whether due to his advancing age or diminished quality of the films themselves, Arnie’s attempts at re-establishing himself as the king of action films kept coming up short. Then when he ran for governor of California in the recall election of 2003, the rest (as they do tend to say) is history. So was Arnie’s film career.
What does all of that have to do with reviewing two unproduced scripts for sequels to two different Schwarzenegger movies? Quite a bit, actually (all of that did have a point and here’s where I get around to making it). Commando and True Lies are very different films from different periods of Arnie’s career. Commando sits early in his Bad Ass Period, while True Lies sits early in Arnie’s Action/Comedy Period. Both movies work very well for what they are, yet comparing the scripts for the proposed sequels to these two movies – Commando II was written by Stephen E. de Souza (writer of 48 hrs., Commando, The Running Man, Die Hard, Die Hard 2, and more) and revised by Frank Darabont; True Lies 2 was written by Jeff Eastin (whose major credits seem to be episodes of the TV series Shotgun Love Dolls and Hawaii (?)) – one of them works quite well and one fails miserably. Here’s the kicker, if you’ve paying attention to this essay so far, you should already know which is which.
Both sequels pick up several years after the conclusion of their predecessor, but find their protagonists in very different places. John Matrix is essentially unchanged from the uber-bad ass we met in Commando, still caring for his daughter Jenny, who is now in highschool and blossoming into a lovely young woman (incidentally had this movie actually been made it could have seen a very lovely indeed Alyssa Milano reprise the role). On the other hand, Harry Tasker is in a very differnent place than we last saw him in True Lies. Not only is his wife Helen also now in the spy business, but somehow she has managed to surpass him in the bureaucratic hierarchy and is now Harry’s boss. Also they decided to adopt a new baby boy, and while Helen is enjoying the rejuvenation of a new career, Harry is expected to spend most of his time as a stay-at-home dad instead of international spy.
Both sequels have plots more complicated than the original films. Commando was a rather simple rescue mission. When bad guys kidnap Matrix’s daughter in an attempt to coerce him into assassinating a political rival, Matrix rebuffs them by not only killing them, but by destroying their stronghold, decimating their small army, and generally obliterating anything that gets in the way of him rescuing Jenny. In Commando II Matrix is approached by his old friend and comrade General Kirby (much like in the first film), and again asked to return to service. Instead of re-enlisting with the military, this time Kirby wants Matrix to join him in working with McCarren Industries, a private securities firm that (among other things) carries out “delicate” operations in places the U.S. Military can’t justifiably go. Although initially rejecting Kirby’s offer, Matrix again comes out of retirement when Kirby and a small force of commandos are apparently killed by the militia of a Nicaraguan drug lord. Filled with regret, Matrix goes to work for McCarren Industries (after a rather unusual “interview”) believing he is honoring his fallen friend and protecting America. The tables are turned and Matrix betrayed when he is made the scapegoat for a botched drug shipment into the country, and he learns that the head of McCarren Industries and General Kirby (who in fact faked his own death) are in cohoots with the Nicaraguan drug lord. In exchange for bringing cocaine into the U.S. they are able to fund and arm resistance fighters holding back the advance of a communist regime, both men firmly convinced that if even a single country in Central America falls to Communism, it will spread throughout the region like a plague until Soviet tanks are rumbling across the U.S.-Mexico border and into America’s heartland, which recalls images of Red Dawn, a movie with just such a premise. Matrix will (of course) not allow himself to take the fall for them and refuses to let their machinations transpire unopposed. Once again he goes to war to safeguard what he loves.
The plot of True Lies is equally simple when compared to its sequel. The more straight-forward action movie plot of terrorists smuggling nuclear weapons into America is interweaved successfully and – dare I say – deftly by director James Cameron. Whereas True Lies opens with an exciting introduction to Harry Tasker by following him on his latest mission for Omega Sector, the sequel begins very differently with a scene in the Tasker family kitchen featuring Harry, Helen, and the new baby (Dana (played by Eliza Dushku in True Lies) is away at college and does not appear in the script). Not much happens in this scene. There’s a lot of “Harry’s clueless about infant childcare” gags, and Helen does a lot of lecturing that firmly establishes her dominance in the relationship. Gone is the meek housewife of True Lies, and while that is to be expected given the ending of the first film, the language and tone here is so harsh she might as well pull a glass jar from the cupboard labeled “Property of Helen” filled with formaldehyde and Harry’s excised testicles and wave it in front of him. Indeed there is a hostile and just plain mean sense of feminism pervading this script. And the plot, the plot is ridiculous in so much that a great deal happens that is ultimately pointless, senseless, and perhaps worst of all, boring. Harry feels that he is losing the woman he married to “the job” and decides that the only (and best) way to win her back is to facilitate a failure so catastrophic that her new career at Omega Sector is destroyed. The inspiration for Harry’s plan to accomplish this apparently stems from a test given out to a select few at Omega Sector. This test is only thinly described but seems to carry a “sword in the stone”/A Clockwork Orange distinction – in other words if you come out of it with your sanity intact you could put James Bond to shame.
-Sidenote #1: This sequel sees Harry reduced to the level of peon/lackey, which makes no sense if he has passed such a test.
-Sidenote #2: Jamie Lee Curtis was great in True Lies as the meek housewife discovering a self-confident inner heroine. But I just can’t see her as the ball-busting, tough-as-nails ultra-feminist boss that her character becomes in the script.
I’m not sure I can coherently explain Harry’s “plan” to “win back” Helen. Phase I appears to involve Harry and Gib (his sidekick from True Lies portrayed by Tom Arnold) breaking into the IRS and stealing Social Security records. They don’t actually steal anything, and narrowly elude Helen’s Omega Sector tactical unit after a brief stand-off. Phase II involves, and I’m not joking here, Harry dressing up in a giant chicken costume and breaking into Kentucky Fried Chicken’s corporate headquarters to steal “the Colonel’s original recipe”. Go ahead, mull that over for a moment or two. . . . . . . . . .Right, so it is obvious to me that this scene is intended to garner laughs. It is equally obvious that no one should reward the efforts of Jeff Eastin with so much as a chuckle or grin. That doesn’t mean people wouldn’t laugh at Harry & Gib’s antics – there had to be people that laughed at Jingle All the Way, after all. The rest of the storyline of True Lies 2 does not warrant an attempt at intelligent discussion. It is nothing more than more of the same: asinine action sequences interspersed between scenes of verbal castration.
In thinking about these two proposed sequels, I said earlier that one works and the other doesn’t. If you couldn’t guess at the time which was which I feel confident that you can now. The answer to why has a lot to do with where the original films sit in Schwarzenegger’s filmography and in what periods of his career the scripts were written. Commando II would have sat nicely among Arnie’s other “Bad Ass” films, essentially giving fans another helping of Commando. It wouldn’t have been an Aliens, Wrath of Khan, or Terminator 2, but there’s real potential here. Perhaps my favorite scene in the script is the quietest. After Jenny is accidentally wounded in a shoot-out, Matrix sneaks into the hospital to visit her. Here’s the scene:
stands over her, his fatherly heart breaking. He sits down, and is silent for a time. PUSH IN SLOWLY as he speaks:
We thought this would be a good place to raise a child. . .your mother and I. So we came to this country.(beat)
Jenny. . .you find it so easy to forgive. I find it so difficult. You are the best and gentlest part of me. If you die, I will have no gentleness left. . .(intense)
. . .and then God help them. God help them all.
We realize that Matrix — so immovable, so fierce — is holding back tears. He takes her small hand tenderly in his.
I promised you I’d never go back to war. But a war has come to me.(beat)
I have to break my promise. Please forgive me.
Matrix leans over, gives her a gentle kiss, and whispers fiercely in her ear:
Matrix tears himself away from her and moves to the door. He gives her one last look, then he’s out the door and gone. CAMERA PUSHES IN on Jenny, MOVING IN TIGHT. . .her eyes flutter open. . .a faint whisper:
Probably the biggest reason I like this scene is the play made on that famous one-liner. Ever since The Terminator screenwriters have thought it necessary to include it somewhere in Arnie’s films. Usually it is uttered with machismo and bravado, but I like that here that wink of the eye and nudge of the elbow is abandoned. I don’t know who to credit, de Souza or Darabont, but it’s a great scene.
When I say that Twins and Kindergarten Cop were ingenious, I mean it because they represent an insightfulness on the part of filmmakers to recognize Schwarzenegger’s biggest weakness and go beyond minimizing it to actually capitalize on it. See, Arnie can’t act. He’s really only capable of portraying two types of characters: stoic, no-nonsense heroes and emotionless robots. That’s it. He’s a one-trick pony that received a bit more longevity by giving that single trick a slight permutation (really, how different are those two character types?). These “fish out of water” stories work because they don’t demand anything from Arnie that he can’t deliver. The characters remain the same; it’s just the environment and scenario around that character that changes. This is unexpected, incongruous, and (therefore) humorous. Of course, this is effective only so many times in so many ways. Sooner or later the novelty wears off and these films aren’t funny. One could even argue that the novelty wore off after Kindergarten Cop, though that didn’t stop more Schwarzenegger comedies from being made. But worse still, filmmakers seemed to get the mistaken impression that Arnie could actually act and be funny, something he is completely incapable of doing (at least intentionally). The results were horrible wastes of time and money. True Lies 2 follows shamefully in this tradition.
Given the Rambo, Rocky, Die Hard, and Beverly Hills Cop franchises, it is interesting that with the exception of Conan the Destroyer and the Terminator films Arnie never appeared in sequels to any of his numerous, successful films. As much as I might have enjoyed Commando II, if it had resulted in The Running Man 2, Total Recall 2, and production of this script for True Lies 2, the potential awesomeness of any of the former could not make up for the awfulness of the latter. I guess we all have another reason to be grateful to James Cameron, this time for choosing not to make a film.