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Film | Opinion

Is Arnold Schwarzenegger the best action star of all time?

The tussle for the best action movie star of all time is a tasty one. One way to solve the conflict would be to stick each contender for the title in a warehouse, crank the lights and in the eternal words of Alan Partridge, “let battle commence.”

The lineup for the encounter is star-studded. Just imagine all those action heavyweights encircling the warehouse, eyeing one another up, and getting in a few last-minute push-ups before all hell breaks loose. Of course, a more humane way to decide the champion is through the old-fashioned art of discourse.

But where to start? Jet Li, Clint Eastwood, Milla Jovovich, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes, Sylvester Stallone, Sigourney Weaver, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Dwayne Johnson, Keanu Reeves? I could go on…but for the sake of conciseness, today, we’re going to assess the claim for the title of the best action star of all time with everyone’s favourite Austrian bodybuilder and the former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The immediate advantage that Arnie has over the other claimants to the action throne is the sheer size of the man. By contrast, he makes Bruce Willis looks like a half-soaked bloke waiting around in his local takeaway on a Saturday night before trundling his way back to his bungalow and the comfort of the 10 o’clock news.

Arnie is ideally suited for the physical demands of action films with his former profession as a bodybuilder. He first started lifting weights at age 15 and had won Mr. Universe by the time he was 21, subsequently taking the most coveted prize in bodybuilding, Mr. Olympia, a total of seven times.

After appearing in the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron back in 1977, Arnie retired from bodybuilding just three years later and went on to become one of Hollywood’s best-loved action stars of the 1980s and ’90s for his performances in movies such Conan the BarbarianThe Terminator – and its sequels – CommandoThe Running ManPredator and Total Recall, to name but a few in what was a prolific eight-year run.

Action films are often judged and remembered by their ‘moments’, which are quite often substantiated by their quotes. For instance, take Bruce Willis’ “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” or “Welcome to the party, pal” in the 1988 picture Die Hard

Arnie possesses in his arsenal some of the most memorable action movie quotes of all time, for instance, the eternal “I’ll be back” in The Terminator and “Hasta la vista, baby” in the film’s sequel. Or take Predator’s “You son of a bitch!” and “Get to the chopper!” 

Arguably the best and most ridiculous – which is the whole point of action films, right? – Arnie quote, however, comes in Total Recall. After shooting his fake wife, played by Sharon Stone, in the head, Arnie looks at her dead body and coolly announces, “Consider that a divorce.” All this is delivered in that peculiar Austrian accent that just elevates Arnie above his competitors.

What’s more is that following his dominance of action films, Arnie was unafraid to feature in more light-hearted comedy films, such as TwinsKindergarten Cop and Junior, in the same way that Robert De Niro did in his later career with Meet the Parents. Arnie also turned the mirror on himself in the action spoof comedy Last Action Hero during the early 1990s, a satire of the conventions of the action movie genre.

Arnie is ultimately one of the best – if not the best – action stars of all time because he was the prominent name, perhaps alongside Sly Stallone, of the age when action films were at their peak within the world of pop culture. The 1980s were a time when action films were meant to be ridiculous, with heroes that were seemingly invincible. 

Arguably, Die Hard changed that with John McClane, very much a regular guy – at least compared to what came before him – who got hurt, felt pain and ran out of bullets.

It would be hard not to argue that Arnie is not the best action star of all time, and I certainly wouldn’t want to tell that to his face. He had it all, the looks, the physicality, the ability to deliver lines so deadpan that they almost bordered on the comical.

Bet Victor once ran an algorithm based on punches thrown, bad guys killed, fast cars driven, hits received and instances of cheating death to decide who the ultimate action hero is. Who came out on top? You guessed it, The Governator, The Austrian Oak, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Beyond those facts and figures – and bless the soul who went to the lengths of crunching them – Arnie is absolutely the first name you think of when you think of action films. He took the genre to new heights in the 1980s and will always be loved for his physicality, one-liners and his love of America – the birthplace of the action film.