Arnold vs. Sly: King of the Action Heroes (part 2 of 4)
4. Ability to Come Back from a Bomb:
Arnold has really had only one huge bomb, Last Action Hero, assuming you don’t count his tenure as Governor. I don’t count Batman & Robin here, because it made a lot of money, and it really represents the beginning of the tail end of his career more than anything else.
You also can’t really call True Lies a comeback, especially since the films that followed were middling at best. Eraser and True Lies are good, as I said earlier, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who came out of Terminator 3, End of Days, Collateral Damage, or The Sixth Day saying, “Gee, I’m really glad I saw that!” Of those last four, T3 is really the only one I sort of dug, and even that one was fairly underwhelming.
As for Junior and Jingle All the Way? Let’s just say that given a choice between watching a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the world’s first pregnant man, or a holiday comedy co-starring Sinbad, I would opt for losing my sight and hearing. Throw in one of Arnold’s political speeches, and you might actually get me to jump off a bridge!
Stallone, on the other hand, is like a goddamned boomerang. He can make a string of crappy movies, and all of a sudden, something decent comes out. Take his first comeback, for instance. From 1986 to 1992, he had a string of really terrible movies. Put it this way: Tango & Cash was the best of the bunch. And as much as I love that movie, I’m more than willing to admit that it being in the top slot of any list is not a good sign.
In 1993 though, Sly got hot again with Cliffhanger and Demolition Man. Cliffhanger is pretty much a Die Hard clone, but it’s a damn good one, with some amazing stunt work. As for Demolition Man, it’s one of the most genuinely entertaining films in Stallone’s filmography. Even more impressive is his most recent comeback, which brought him back from such lowlights as D-Tox, which went straight to DVD. Rocky Balboa is a great sendoff for the series, and Rambo is just jaw-dropping in its violent excess.
5. Signature Characters:
Arnold may have only one real signature character, but boy, is it a doozy! The Terminator is one of the best movie villains of all time. Cold, methodical, and relentless, the first Terminator made Arnold a star by using him to the best of his abilities. He probably has only fifteen lines of dialogue in the whole movie, but each line is pretty damned memorable.
Making things even better is the subtle alteration of his performance in the second movie. It’s certainly not a big change—he’s still a cyborg, after all—but the character has an interesting arc throughout the movie that works much better than it has any right to. For a guy who doesn’t write great dialogue most of the time, James Cameron definitely knows how to write for Arnold.
As for Stallone, he has not just one signature role, but two!
Rocky is probably his best pure acting role, as he runs the gamut of emotion and creates a likable, relatable character who’s become an iconic underdog. You genuinely care about the guy and what happens to him, at least in the first and sixth films. The second film drags, and the rest are either cheesy comic books (3 and 4), or better off not mentioned (5).
If Rocky is Stallone’s best pure acting role, then Rambo is probably his best physical performance. Equally iconic, Rambo also eventually became a larger than life, grunting cartoon, but in the first movie there’s some fairly solid, subtle acting going on. Stallone has a brooding quality throughout First Blood that creates some great tension. He’s also fantastic in the action scenes, as one would expect. Stallone has always been one of the better actors in action films in general, which can be seen most clearly in the action scenes themselves.
Oddly enough, I have to give the nod to Arnold, simply because the Terminator never really turned into an unbelievable cartoon like Rocky or Rambo did. While I like the Rocky sequels and the Rambo sequels, there’s a fairly steep drop in quality as you move through each series. First Blood is really good, the second one is cheesy fun, I already spoke about the third movie’s problems, and the fourth one is probably a little too serious for its own good, in spite of the great finale.
The Rocky films have a similar problem. The second film is a bit of a slog until the last act, the third and fourth films are endlessly entertaining but also sort of disposable, the fifth movie is just plain bad, and the sixth one, while good, could have been a lot better.
The Terminator films, on the other hand, start off with a great first movie, an even better second movie, and an acceptable third one. I won’t mention Terminator: Salvation for the simple reason that my mind is blocking it out. It never happened, people! You hear me? Never!
6. Legitimate Talent:
Don’t laugh, but there’s one movie where Arnold actually turns in a truly good performance, and he’s not directed by James Cameron. Total Recall is maybe his best movie in terms of overall quality. It’s fast-paced, exciting, gloriously violent, and features Arnold doing some genuinely good acting. While he’s never been good at portraying deep emotions (see any scene where he’s required to cry), he does a fairly good job at portraying the confusion his character is going through in the first half of the movie. Sure, after that, he basically goes into his default ass-kicking mode, but he’s actually surprisingly good in the film.
Having said that, this isn’t much of a contest. Arnold has generally been adequate as an actor, but Stallone is not only a damn good actor at times, he’s also a fairly decent screenwriter and director. Not counting Staying Alive and Rocky V, though. Sweet Jesus, did those two suck!
Making this even more of a victory for Sly is the underrated movie Cop Land. Stallone does pretty well for himself, playing a partially deaf small town sheriff, holding his own against Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro of all people. The fact that he matches two of the best actors working today punch for punch without getting blown off the screen is pretty remarkable. Damn shame the film failed.