Why All New Schwarzenegger Movies Feel Like Pseudo Sequels of Old Schwarzenegger Movies

By  · Published on March 27th, 2014

Open Road Films

Most aging movie stars today seem content on doing sequels to their long ago hits. Sylvester Stallone with further installments of Rocky and Rambo, Bruce Willis with Die Hard, Harrison Ford with Indiana Jones (especially now that certain rumors have been denied), everyone who’ll be returning for the next Star Wars installment. And Arnold Schwarzenegger might be joining them, given that there’s talk of him returning to the Terminator, Conan and Twins properties. But aside from the Terminator franchise, he has never been one for sequels (I don’t count his Expendables work yet, as they’re not really his movies), and even with that series he basically opted out of the last one, although part of the reason was because he was busy with his new career as Governor of California.

Now that he’s back in the action, there’s been an easy inclination to compare his new movies to his old. It’s understandable, as we’re curious if he’s still got what he had in those ’80s blockbusters we love. It’s not that different than what we do with his peers, comparing those guys’ new sequels to the start of the franchise and other prior installments. Our associative minds may want to to align the tendencies and look for heyday Schwarzenegger movies that most relate to the current releases, as if these new movies are sequels, too.

I did it with his first real starring vehicle since leaving office, noting in my review a link between his characters in The Last Stand and Raw Deal. I pulled more of a stretch when my mind went to The Running Man as the closest precursor to Escape Plan (another movie I consider primarily Stallone’s, not Schwarzenegger’s). And now with Sabotage I immediately thought of Commando as well as Collateral Damage, even if the parallels are pretty slight. I might as well also mention The Villain/Cactus Jack because one sequence has him wearing a cowboy hat. I think the best way to put it is, rather than going for specifics, that the new movies feel like pseudo sequels to Schwarzenegger’s old movies in general.

Given the nature of actors’ “star texts” (i.e. the baggage they come with in the form of their celebrity, past iconic performances and roles and anything else the viewer has trouble ignoring about the movie star that should be irrelevant to the film at hand), the older that some performers get and the more movies they’ve added to their resume inevitably causes their later work to be incapable of being distinctly independent works. Particularly a star of Schwarzenegger’s high popularity stature and low acting talent stature, he’s pretty much always just “Arnold Schwarzenegger” on screen. His part in Sabotage could be the older version of a number of his past roles, minus the ones in sci-fi, fantasy and period-set movies, of course.

At one point in Sabotage, the camera pans along a wall in his character’s home and we see a black and white photograph of a younger Schwarzenegger. I assumed it to be a promotional shot from one of his early movies, but I couldn’t place it. Regardless, it’s photos like this that contribute to that feeling and reminder of the actor’s past movies. When it’s clearly a still from a specific movie, the idea of pseudo sequels comes more into play, especially if it’s obvious that the production designer went with something relevant to the newer production. Gene Hackman’s part in Enemy of a State is linked to his part in The Conversation through such an image, making us think maybe it’s the same guy. The Limey goes so far as to use Poor Cow footage as a flashback, sort of tying together those movies’ characters.

Pictures don’t need to be there to remind us, though, as many pseudo sequels are just a matter of a little link in story or characterization. Grosse Pointe Blank is like an unofficial (or “spiritual”) sequel to a few John Cusack ’80s movies, particularly Say Anything, while War, Inc. is then in turn seen as an unofficial sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank. There’s Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Rock and Connery’s 007 movies, Hard Eight and Midnight Run, Election and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and apparently now there’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Three Days of the Condor (hopefully there’s a shot of an old CIA ID card for Robert Redford’s S.H.I.E.L.D. character).

For Sabotage there are more than a few allusions to Commando, intentionally or not. The whole movie is about Schwarzenegger’s DEA special forces team being killed off one by one by mercenaries, just like the members of John Matrix’s old unit during the opening of the 1985 movie. The two characters also have similar homes in the woods and both have family members kidnapped by a powerful Latin American leader of some kind (a drug lord in Sabotage; wannabe dictator in Commando). But even ignoring the fact that one has a daughter and the other a son, it’s maybe not enough to really imagine John Matrix and Sabotage’s John Wharton (aka “Breacher”) are spiritually the same man. He’s just as easily an older version of Predator’s Dutch or maybe Collateral Damage’s Gordy Brewer, though it’s not as much fun to link to a movie from only 12 years ago.

Schwarzenegger’s next non-sequel movie might turn out to be an exception without this sort of easy association with the past. It’s called Maggie and he plays the father of a teen girl who is slowly turning into a zombie. I can’t think of any old Schwarzenegger movie that’s even remotely close, with End of Days being the only other really supernatural qualifier. But who knows what subtle allusions could be on the side of the actual plot. Maybe there’ll be a hint that he isn’t just her father but he carried her to term in his own womb. Maybe he talks of having a short, fat twin brother. Or maybe his job will be kindergarten teacher. We’ll find out either later this year or early in 2015, but I’m sure there’ll be something there to make me recall his earlier movies.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.