Sep 21, 2020
Maggie (2015): Arnold does indie zombie drama
When the Tribeca Film Festival announced the surprise addition to its lineup of an indie drama that happened to star Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was impossible not to be interested. And not just because the announcement mentioned Jingle All the Way: Arnold himself would be at the screening. His appearance turned out to be relatively brief, and he didn’t really say enough for it to be worth commenting on, but it was pretty cool.
With a limited/VOD release starting today, and with it being less than two months before he goes back to the Terminator well, I wanted to know: how would Arnold fare in a low-key project outside the action genre? For the most part, both Maggie and Schwarzenegger’s performance show potential, even as their novice missteps prevent them from fulfilling it.
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Maggie takes place in a zombie-plagued near future, a setting that in earlier Schwarzenegger films would be little more than a source of cannon fodder. After all, he was set to out-testosterone Charlton Heston’s Omega Man in I Am Legend before Will Smith got the role. Instead, Maggie makes the guy who outmuscled Satan finally face a problem he can’t shoot, punch, or quip his way out of: the spread of a zombifying disease that afflicts his teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin as the titular Maggie).
The infection is gradual, unlike the insta-enemies of so many zombie movies (or of Star Trek: First Contact, for that matter). Much of the limited effects budget is devoted to showing the infection’s slow progress in all its literally gory detail. Schwarzenegger’s ensuing efforts to protect his daughter, both from the disease itself and from the authorities’ attempts to take her away before she becomes a full-fledged danger to others, become increasingly desperate.
By now, zombies and zombies-in-all-but-name are commonplace to the point where it’s hard to do a fresh take on them. And we’ve even already gotten a zombie story (The Last of Us) specifically about a parental relationship. But the familiarity also gets the audience up to speed quickly, without requiring too much exposition or the showing of more of the world than the budget allows. We don’t need to see the “quarantine” to get why Schwarzenegger is so insistent about not sending Maggie there.
Maggie has pacing issues that hold it back from being fully engaging. The filmmaking could have been defter, it being director Henry Hobson’s debut, but the premise itself also forces the movie to spend time spinning its wheels. (Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”, a story which confronted science fiction’s can-do fandom with the powerlessness to save a single life in a dilemma which can’t be engineered away, is ten times shorter than Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend for a reason.)
Befitting the title, Breslin’s Maggie gets most of the screen time, but it’s Schwarzenegger’s presence that looms largest in the movie. (The role of Maggie did almost go to the one young rising star who might have upstaged Schwarzenegger: Chloë Grace Moretz.) Even with a ragged beard and clothes, Schwarzenegger is too imposing to ever be convincing as an ordinary guy. (He is big, it’s his comeback-attempt pictures that have gotten small.) But Maggie turns this to its favor, by putting him in a situation where his stature is of no use.
The Schwarzenegger of End of Days or Collateral Damage tried to convey glumness while going about his usual action business, and it just didn’t work. But Hobson knows exactly how much to stretch Schwarzenegger out of his comfort zone. In his review of 2014’s Sabotage, Geoffrey Macnab lamented that “post-gubernator Arnie hasn’t yet found his equivalents to True Grit or El Dorado,” referencing John Wayne’s successes at finding appropriate late-career roles within his range; Maggie is a step in that direction.
And yes, the accent is there. But the line readings are low-key enough to keep it relatively subdued. It doesn’t ruin the mood.
Schwarzenegger’s projects that didn’t get made before his political detour hinted at directions more intriguing than the uninspired choices that made it to the screen at the time. Plans for Schwarzenegger to star in a Doc Savage movie were received much like Leonardo DiCaprio’s possibly being Anakin Skywalker in Episodes II and III. Time has vindicated those who guessed that teen-idol Leo could have grown into the role. Maggie vindicates the fans who suggested that a more mature Schwarzenegger could be suitable for Doc. And if Schwarzenegger does make that long-promised third Conan movie, he just might convey the elder King Conan’s “troubled brow” mentioned in Conan the Barbarian’s opening narration.
Or Schwarzenegger could star in a remake of Jingle All the Way as the utterly bleak and unsparing satire it should have been.
Ultimately, Schwarzenegger’s willingness to branch out holds promise far beyond what he shows on screen in Maggie. In any case, I hope that the rebooted Arnold Schwarzenegger glimpsed here will be back.