Credit: Columbia/TriStar Pictures
by Greg Cwik Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Total Recall — Paul Verhoeven

April 21, 2023

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K. Dick

With his bionic biceps threatening to split his skin wide open in a fashion not dissimilar to the Hulk with his shirts and that endearing accent, sort of Russian but not quite, that he never shook, Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant, was the paradigm of big dumb ’80s American action movies, a hulky hero who could mow down droves of nondescript bad guys with a machine gun so big it’s comical while tossing out lovably lame one-liners with a wry smile that lets you know he loves this. And the joy, the unfettered joy with which he serves those quips, often bad puns that don’t sound so different from a Dad Joke, is the kind of acting you don’t learn from the Actors Studio.

In the ’80s, after Sylvester Stallone — who, remember, got famous with an intimate, modest film playing a bum who refuses to give up on his dreams with aching vulnerability — made the move to machismo and bombast, moviegoers were given a choice: Team Arnold or Team Sly. It’s not really a fair comparison, as Stallone is also a writer and director (and a good one, too, adroit at montage in ways that hark back to the great Russian filmmakers of the silent era) and was a respected actor before he transmogrified into the corporeal personification of testosterone; Arnold was a bodybuilder, the best ever, who became an actor to further engorge his ego (watch Pumping Iron and witness his narcissism and bloated sense of self-importance) and who found early success in the movies playing big meaty men. He soon developed an inimitable charm that made him one of American cinema’s most enthralling presences, a Reagan-era John Wayne, but he was never considered a good actor.

Well, Arnold’s pretty good in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, a loose adaptation of a story by perpetually poor pill-popper Philip K. Dick. As Doug Quaid, a hulky nobody who becomes an interplanetary hero, or maybe has a schizoid embolism after a memory implantation operation gone awry, Arnold exudes that inimitable charm that made him a megastar. But it’s here tinctured with a self-awareness (the embryonic stage of the kind of honest self-exploration that imbues his performance in the great Last Action Hero, still his best role) that, if you interpret the film — as Verhoeven does — as the fantasy of a Joe Schmo who dreams of being somebody important, is actually pretty sad. Go back to Pumping Iron — the seminal documentary purveying the world of bodybuilding — when Arnold, then 27 years old and already a legend and almost heavenly idol to his acolytes (see: the scene at the prison), openly indulged his egotism, literally saying he admires “powerful men,” like dictators, and aspires for greatness — and not just greatness, but being the best at everything he does. In Total Recall, he plays an unexceptional guy who wants to be great, who finds his dreams literally in his dreams while he sits still, comatose, forever in his own mind. And the face he makes when he is hit in the balls — more than once! — is unmatched, all his facial muscles clenching like digits in a fist.

Verhoeven is a consummate craftsman whose films couldn’t have been made by anyone else, but he doesn’t really have a distinct visual style, at least regarding compositions and movement and so on. His approach isn’t showy, but the images are always coherent, as is the action, even when things get surreal or grotesque; the loving detail of the mutants evinces a bold humanism you don’t find in many $100 million blockbusters. And, of course, Paul was the satirist par excellence of ’90s Hollywood. Here, he eviscerates, with brutal care, capitalism (the craven villain, played slimily by Ronny Cox, who was similarly slimy in Robocop, charges exorbitant prices for air on Mars, the way America charges disturbingly high fees for basic necessities), imperialism, the police force, etc. He also butchers bodies. The somatic savagery — Arnold uses a man as a meat shield, as bullets batter the body and blood sprays from holes spurting all over his torso, for instance — is excellently excessive; it’s Verhoeven’s willingness to be so mean, his conviction obvious each time a bullet collides with flesh, that makes the whole thing so fun. He takes glee in it, thus, so do we.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.