Arnold’s problem: The soft heart of the Terminator

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Most of the reviews for “Terminator: Genisys,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest turn as the shotgun wielding robot from the future have been negative. Critics have complained about the confused plot, the milking of over-used one-liners from the previous films, and the surprising weakness of the cast supporting Schwarzenegger in his fourth Terminator film.

All true. But few have hit on the central problem with this film, and, indeed, most of the films that make up Schwarzenegger’s attempt to revive the film career he put on hold in 2003 to be governor of California.

As an action movie, “Terminator: Genisys” is great entertainment. With all due respect to former Terminator director James Cameron (especially the Cameron of the first sequel, “Judgment Day,” and films such as “The Abyss”), new franchise director Alan Taylor has a better sense of when to finish an action sequence before it becomes mind-numbing. The entire film clocks in at a manageable two hours, rather than …two and a half. This compensates for many of the film’s other weaknesses.

But the central problem with the film is that Schwarzenegger should have returned as the evil robot—not the good one. Indeed, he needs to stop being the good guy in general.

There’s a grand tradition of Hollywood actors who, once they reach a certain age, let go of the heroic lead—and carve a niche for themselves as memorable bad guys. Robert Redford (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) and Donald Sutherland (“Hunger Games)” come immediately to mind.

But look back also at classic Hollywood character actors such as Victor Jory. You would never know Jory started as a romantic lead in the early 1930s—everyone remembers him as the wicked Injun Joe in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and the unscrupulous Yankee Jonas Wilkerson from “Gone With the Wind.”

Richard Widmark is another fascinating example from the classic Hollywood era, although he flipped back and forth between playing dependable good guys and psychotic villains. (He’s the only character you really remember from Coma, the late Michael Crichton’s 1978 adaptation of the thriller by Robin Cook.) Widmark was acting well into his late 70s.

My recommendation to Schwarzenegger? Follow the example of these Hollywood legends, and rediscover your inner villain.

John Farrell is the author of The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology from Basic Books. He writes about science, technology and media for Forbes.

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