Arnold Schwarzenegger on Portraying John Wharton in ‘Sabotage’

WRITER’S NOTE: The following article was written in 2014.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has had a hard time regaining his status as an action movie star as “The Last Stand” and “Escape Plan” both disappointed at the box office, but this looks to change with “Sabotage,” the latest film from writer/director David Ayer who is best known for his realistic action films “End of Watch” and “Harsh Times,” and for writing the screenplay to “Training Day.” While we have come to expect Schwarzenegger to play the hero, this film has him playing a different kind of role than any he has played previously.

In “Sabotage,” Schwarzenegger plays John “Breacher” Wharton, the commander of an elite squad of DEA operatives, and the movie starts with them infiltrating a drug cartel safe house to steal $10 million dollars for themselves. But when they try to recover this money, they discover someone has gotten to it before them and soon find themselves being killed off one by one. From there it’s a race to figure out who the assassin is before they all end up dead.

I was in attendance at the “Sabotage” press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills where Schwarzenegger was the biggest star of the day, and he talked at length about how different his role of John “Breacher” Wharton is from the ones he is famous for. Wharton is a morally grey character as he fights crime, but he could easily be a criminal as he has been investigated by his superiors for illegal activities.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: I think that from an acting point of view it was the most challenging because I’ve never played a character like this. The characters I usually play are black and white. I’m the good guy that wipes out the bad guys, and then there’s a little bit of humor throughout the movie and that’s it. But this script and the character were written quite differently, and I think that’s what was appealing to me. And of course, I knew of David Ayer’s writing and his directing, and I thought it would really be great for me to be challenged like that.

For those familiar with Ayer’s “End of Watch,” you know he put Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena through some seriously rigorous training so they could get fully into the mindset of being LAPD officers. With “Sabotage,” he put Schwarzenegger and his co-stars through SWAT training which was very intense and designed to have them get into the mindset of their characters in a similar way. Schwarzenegger described the kind of training he endured before the cameras started rolling.

AS: When we got together, David had a whole list of things that he wanted me to do. I loved that he pushed me because sometimes directors get intimidated when they meet someone like me and they say that I’m looking forward to working with you and let’s just figure out how we are going to get ready for the movie and those kinds of things. But David came in and was very clear with the set of things that needed to be done like the weapons training and I said, “Why do I need weapons training? I’ve shot more guns than anyone in movie history and I’ve killed more people than anyone, so I mean why do we have to go through weapons training?” And then he said we have to go down to the SWAT team and we have to figure this out. But the thing was that all of this built the character and made me perform the way I did. It was the rehearsals that we did and the talking about the character, learning how they think because that was one of things David wanted me to do; to hang out with those guys, learn how they think, why they are the kind of guys that they are that are willing to risk their own lives to save others. What kind of a mentality does this take and the conflicts in the training and the dedication and all of those things? It’s a very complex world.

Schwarzenegger also compared the SWAT training to his early days of bodybuilding, some of which were featured in the documentary “Pumping Iron.”

AS: I come from a world of reps. The more reps you do, the better you get so I believed in what he (Ayer) said. The more you go down there and do this training with the SWAT team, the better you will be on the set and that’s exactly what happened. What we have learned was that they don’t hold the gun the same way as many in the military or when you just play an action hero, and the authenticity of this was really important. How did you hold the gun? How do you shoot? How do you aim? Do you have your head down or do you bring the gun up to your eye? They are all the time making adjustments. This is what made the movie look good because of those kinds of suggestions.

Of course, we all know Schwarzenegger took a number of years off from acting when he was elected the Governor of California. When he returned to making movies, he was not blind to how things have changed. This had us wondering how he dealt with those changes and how he sees filmmaking today.

AS: Today it’s not like in the ’80s and ’90s when a studio throws $100 million dollars to get a great action movie. That was the old days, now we have half of the money and you have to be very frugal and you have to really rehearse and be prepared, so to have all this stuff be second nature I think is very important. I think that the style of shooting is different, the kind of directors that are out there is much more the younger crowd that is being hired, and there are new visions and new ideas and all that. Movies are made a lot of times by committee and go through the studio route. There’s a bunch of young guys now making decisions whereas in the old days there was one guy sitting there making the decisions, so there’s a lot of changes like that. Budgets are half of what they used to be, the rest of the money is being used for the franchise movies and the big sequels and stuff like that, so it’s a different world that you have to adjust that.

In the past few years, the action genre has taken a bit of a hit as the superhero and comic book movies have dominated Hollywood. But for Schwarzenegger, he doesn’t see the genre disappearing anytime soon. From his point of view, action movies have always done very well, especially those with great stories.

AS: There are action movies that are multilayered and have really interesting characters, and they always will be popular. The key thing is to entertain people, and I think that people are fascinated about this world that we are dealing with in this movie. So, we hope that this movie is going to be successful and is going to be seen by a lot of people. But I think that what this movie has to offer, unlike most action movies, is realism. It is so realistic in the way it was researched and that is why we had so many experts on the set. We had a director that was insisting on being as real as possible and he was basically a fanatic about that. It all paid off and I think people will really, really enjoy this film.

Other action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis have seen their careers go up and down on a regular basis while Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal seem to be forever trapped in straight to video hell. Schwarzenegger, however, still has a strong presence in movies even if his most recent efforts were not well received. Now that he has been in show business for a few decades, we wonder what direction he would like to see his acting career go from here.

AS: Well, I think I’d like to challenge myself. You think about would this movie be appealing in the United States and also all over the world because sometimes you read a script and you say, well, I think this will play really well in America, but it’s not going to play well overseas. I don’t think I have much interest in that. I like to entertain the world and that was my mission. That was what bodybuilding was all about for me and what acting was all about. So, it’s always about what is the most entertaining project and what is the most challenging project for me, or it could be doing a sequel to” Twins” called “Triplets” with Eddie Murphy. That’s the same type of story, but to me, it’s just a fun project. There is a comedic side just to me that I can play in that role really well. Or we could do a sequel to “Conan (The Barbarian),” “King Conan” or something like that. “Maggie” was the last movie I did which is a very little movie where I just play a farmer whose daughter has this zombie virus. It’s all about having a good time but challenging yourself and always stretching and entertaining the world.

Now it’s no secret Schwarzenegger is not the young action star he used to be. When movie stars reach the age of 40, everyone expects they will not have many of the same opportunities they once had. At one point, the emcee asked Schwarzenegger if it is great to be over 40. He responded he thinks it’s great to be over 60, and his outlook on aging proved to be quite healthy.

AS: I don’t think about when I go to the gym, oh I’m now older or something like that. I just think about how I want to get in shape, and it’s the same when I do a movie. I don’t think about what age I’m in. I just do the movie and I do it as well as I can and go all out. I’m very fortunate that I exercise every day so that I start out already in good shape so that when someone like David Ayer comes along and says, “I want you now to do the martial arts training and I’m going to send over some guys that are cage fighters and then this and then that,” I can also deal with that. To me, I never even think about what is my age.

Schwarzenegger’s performance in “Sabotage” is one of the best he has given so far. Many still see him as not much of an actor even after such memorable turns in “The Terminator” movies and “Total Recall” (the original, not the remake), but he’s always been a better film actor than we give him credit for. Here we get to see him play one of his most complex roles to date, showing just how much range he has. Now he looks more than ready to graduate to the next level of being a grizzled action hero.

PLEASE CHECK OUT THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I DID FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED WITH ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER AND OTHERS ON “SABOTAGE” DOWN BELOW.

An Ultimate Rabbit Guilty Pleasure: ‘The Cannonball Run’

The Cannonball Run poster

So sue me, I still enjoy watching “The Cannonball Run” after all these years. The critics eviscerated it upon its release, especially Roger Ebert who awarded this movie half a star out of four, but my enjoyment for it has only dampened so much. I was just a kid when I saw first watched it with my brother, and I had yet see “Smokey and the Bandit” which we can all agree is a better movie. Looking back, I dug Burt Reynolds’ ever so cool demeanor, Dom DeLuise’s over the top performance, the ever so beautiful Farrah Fawcett who makes you want to love trees as much as she does, Roger Moore gleefully spoofing his role as James Bond, and Jackie Chan kicking Peter Fonda’s butt among others. Hal Needham may have never directed a motion picture worthy of being compared to “Vertigo” or “Citizen Kane,” but he sure did know how to give audiences a fun time (this time around anyway).

recently got to revisit “The Cannonball Run” when New Beverly Cinema screened it as part of a tribute to the late Roger Moore. This offered me my first chance to see it on the big screen after seeing it on television time and time again, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity. After all this time, I still have a blast seeing the filmmakers have fun with the 20th Century Fox logo as a couple of cars keep crashing into those famous spotlights.

For those who have avoided “The Cannonball Run” because of the dreadful reviews, it is about a variety of different personalities who participate in a highly illegal cross-country race which takes them from Connecticut all the way to California. For these drivers, the speed limit of 55 miles per hour means nothing, and they have their own individual plans for reaching the finish line before everyone else. The most prominent of these drivers is J.J. McClure (Burt Reynolds) who is joined by his best friend Victor Prinzi (DeLuise) who at times breaks out into his alter ego of Captain Chaos when times get rough.

Watching “The Cannonball Run” today, I am reminded of what filmmakers used to get away with in a PG-rated movie. You have Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis driving their Chevrolet Malibu NASCAR Grand National race car with a pathetic paint job while having dozens of Budweiser Beer cans clearly visible in the back seat. When they are intercepted by the uptight antagonist Arthur J. Foyt (George Furth) at a road block, it’s astonishing they get busted for participating in the Cannonball instead of having an infinite supply of Budweiser on display, let alone open cans in their hands. Foyt is determined to stop the race, but drunk driving doesn’t appear to be as big a concern to him. Go figure.

Heck, most of the drivers we see here are as interested in getting hopelessly inebriated as they are in winning this illegal race. Jamie Blake (Dean Martin) and his partner Morris Fenderbaum (Sammy Davis Jr.) are unsure of who should be at the wheel as they are both sloshed to the point where they should get a designated driver like Richard Petty. J.J. McClure is flying a plane and becomes pissed upon realizing he and Victor are out of beer and ends up landing in the middle of a street near a convenience store where Victor can rush in to get a 6-pack. Seriously, the last 80’s movie I can remember its characters having too much alcohol was “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” and that also had a PG-rating.

The first time I saw Jackie Chan in anything was in “The Cannonball Run” where he played a version of himself as a talented race car driver who, along with Michael Hui, navigates a super high-tech Subaru across America. Seeing Chan beating up members of a motorcycle gang was awesome to a 10-year-old like myself, and it was hysterical watching him cover up the rips in his jeans after knocking two guys out. Chan also showed us the future of texting while driving as he watched the Marilyn Chambers porn classic “Behind the Green Door” while behind the wheel. I would like to think this movie predicted the future where drivers stopped paying much attention to what was on the road ahead of them, but I’m pretty sure few would be willing to give Needham and company the credit.

“The Cannonball Run” was also my introduction to Rick Aviles, an actor and comedian who would later become famous for doing the unthinkable in a 1990’s movie, killing Patrick Swayze in “Ghost.” We get a taste of his comedic acting here which wasn’t as present in other movies he appeared in, and he does a Richard Nixon impersonation which still has me in hysterics. What a shame Aviles’ life was cut short at the age of 42.

Burt Reynolds has gone on the record to say “The Cannonball Run” is not one of his favorite movies, and to be honest, he does look to be coasting on his natural charisma as J.J. McClure. Regardless, I still loved how he coasted on it here as it makes his job seem ever so easy. All he needs to do is give you a certain look, make a certain sound, or just twist his mustache in a certain direction to get your full attention. Now how cool would it be to go through life being so cool without putting too much effort into it? Like Rod Stewart said, some guys have all the luck.

It’s a shame Dom DeLuise is no longer with us. Whether he was in the best of movies or the worst of movies, he was such a delightful presence in them all. His character of Victor Prinzim has an upbeat attitude about himself even as J.J. tries to keep it under control, especially when Victor talks about “him.” The him is Captain Chaos, Victor’s alter ego who jumps into action when things get threatening or when he finds himself falling behind in the race. Watching DeLuise become Captain Chaos is a blast, and this is even though he saves the day one time too many near the finish line.

For me, Roger Moore was the James Bond I grew up on, and seeing him here shows what a great sense of humor he had about his tenure as 007. Moore never ever plays his role of Seymour Goldfarb, a Jewish heir to a family fortune pretending to be a movie star named Roger Moore, as if he is in on the joke. Seeing him keep his cool even as the police pursue his speeding silver Aston Martin is great fun, and you know Sean Connery and Daniel Craig would never be quick to do the same thing. George Lazenby maybe, but never Connery.

Watching Jamie Farr as the oil-rich Middle-Eastern sheikh Abdul ben Falafel serves as a reminder of how there is more to this actor than him playing Maxwell Klinger on “M*A*S*H.” Some may consider his performance to be an offensive caricature, but he is so wonderfully over the top here as he proclaims his driving is only rivaled by the lightning bolts from the heavens to where it is a waste of time to take what he does here seriously. Farr makes his character’s unchecked ego all the more palpable, and the scene where he essentially flips the bird to the cops is one to cheer for if you have ever been given a speeding ticket. And yes, Farr makes you believe this is a character who knows when you have had too much couscous.

Was there anything I saw in “The Cannonball Run” that I had not seen before when watching it at New Beverly Cinema? Yes, a few actually. The grotesque Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing (Jack Elam) announces himself to be a proctologist to where a certain finger on his hand becomes far more frightening to me now than ever before. Then again, I had no business knowing what a proctologist does when I was a pre-teen.

Also, Farrah Fawcett’s nipples are much more present as they poke prominently through her dress during the scene where she first catches the attention of Reynolds. Then again, there is an enormous amount of cleavage on display from start to finish, much of it courtesy of Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman who use their sex appeal to avoid the much-deserved speeding tickets which should automatically come with the purchase of a Lamborghini, any Lamborghini.

But after all these years, I still get won over with moments like when Fawcett bonds with DeLuise as he talks about the first appearance of Captain Chaos in his life, or when Reynolds tells Fawcett why he races cars. This might seem like a movie too shallow to contain moments like these, but they were pretty deep to me when I watched “The Cannonball Run” back in the 1980’s, and today they still are.

I don’t know, maybe my opinion of this movie would be different had I seen “Cannonball” or “The Gumball Rally” beforehand, both of which are said to be much better than “The Cannonball Run.” Well, fate had it that I would watch Needham’s 1981 comedy ahead of them, and I still enjoy watching it despite the numerous detractors it has. For those who think this is a prime example of lazy filmmaking, check out “Cannonball Run II” which is exactly that (or better yet, don’t bother).

I feel like I should apologize liking “The Cannonball Run” as much as I do, but I am sick and tired of apologizing for who I am. Besides, this movie remains a prime example of the things filmmakers could get away with in a PG-rated movie back in the 80’s. They wouldn’t get away with any of this today.

* * ½ out of * * * *