Total Recall

Monday, September 03, 2007

To call Total Recall an intellectual action film would be going too far. After all, this is a film with a three-titted whore, a midget hooker and a body count only Harold Shipman could dream of. Plus it has Arnie one-liners and tons and tons of blood. But despite all this, buried underneath the sleazy, bloodstained exterior there's a smart film trying to get out. Issues of reality and identity are all dealt with. But they're never dealt with at the expense of someone getting their head blown off.

Watching it back, it's quite pleasing to remember just how violent action films used to be. Here you have men getting spiked in the neck, people getting axed and a man getting a pole of some sort shoved through his face. And that's just in one scene. The violence here is bloody and over the top, and in my opinion, much better for it. I mean, action films these days have become rather sanitised. There's just a feeling that you've seen it all before. But how many times do you get to see a man have his arms ripped off as he dangles from a lift? And how many times do you get to see that and have Arnie toss the arms away while delivering a quip? Only once.

And then there's the bit where Michael Ironside shoots the three-titted whore in the back. Beautiful. I mean, this is meant to be a bad, bad man. And what better way to generate loathing (and secret admiration) than have him shoot a mutant hooker while her back is turned.

But one of the most delightful bits of insane violence is when the midget whore stabs Ironside's lackey. You have to ask yourself whether you're shrooming your tits off. But no, it happens and then the midget stands on top of the bar and opens fire with a machine gun. Verhoeven is clearly a twisted man-mental, but I can't help but admire him.

Also worthy of praise is the shootout on the subway. Arnie is fleeing from the bad guys and tries to haul ass up the escalators. But more bad guys appear at the top. As everyone starts shooting, an innocent person gets killed in the crossfire. Arnie then uses the bloke as a human shield – he gets penetrated more times than a pretty boy in a prison shower – and tosses the piece of meat into the path of the bad guys below. I can't help but salute the complete utter lack of sentiment.

I also salute the fight between Arnie and Sharon Stone. I mean, usually fights between women and men in action films are death – yeah, I can believe than an anorexic model can hurt a man double her size – but it at least keeps things relatively believable by having Stone hit Arnie a couple of times in his brain (his testicles). But what makes it a joy is that after the fight, Stone tries to buy some time by offering to tie herself up and let Arnie have his way with her. You know, for old times sake. It's something of a surprise that Der Gropenfuhrer doesn't take her up on her generous offer, but Arnie does knock her out…which is even better.

And there's another bit of violence that cracks me up. The evil mutant Benny, in some sort of digging machine, is attacking Arnie. Arnie then grabs a huge drill and rams it through the side of the vehicle while screaming "Screw you!" at the top of his lungs. It's one of the few bits of possible homoeroticism in a film that is remarkably ungay for an Arnie flick.

But there is another little bit of possible gayness in the film. Just take the relationship between Hauser (Arnie's evil alter-ego) and Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). They hug enthusiastically in a video message and then Cohaagen has a big strop when he finally realises that Hauser isn't coming back – he kicks a tank of goldfish over. It seems like he's lost more than a friend.

But Ronny Cox is excellent in the film. Sure he's basically playing the same character he played in RoboCop, but he always makes an excellent villain. And I love the scene where he's going to have Quaid turned back into Hauser and have Melina 'fixed'. His dialogue with Arnie is wonderful. "You get to fuck her every night, that's right. She's going to be Hauser's babe." And then when asked what to do with all the people that are suffocating because he's cut off the air, he replies, "Fuck 'em." That's a proper movie villain.

However, I don't think the film is in the same class as RoboCop. For one, Total Recall now looks rather dated (look at the 'futuristic' cars) while RoboCop seems pretty timeless, and plus the balance between smarts and action is a bit more even in RoboCop.

But that's not to say that Total Recall is a dumb film. One of the obvious pleasures is trying to work out whether the whole thing is a dream or not. After all, when Quaid goes to Rekall to have his 'ego trip' everything the salesman says in his pitch actually happens – the whole plot is given away in one scene. And then at the end you have a white out rather than a fade to black. This could suggest that Quaid is waking up or even being lobotomised. But although it's something that's pleasing to think about, the film is more concerned about action than ideas. And so that makes the film a minor success rather than an overwhelming success like RoboCop.

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  1. Great review. You hit many nails on many heads. I also felt that Total Recall was not nearly in the same class as RoboCop, although my reasons are somewhat different. For me, Total Recall really petered out the second Michael Ironside's character was killed. Not only in terms of action, but definitely in terms of pace. Did we really need to spend multiple minutes on the highly-unrealistic asphyxiation effects? And the closing lines... a more imaginative writer would have taken the "walls of reality crashing down" idea to a logical extreme, at least.

    Yet I cannot help praise the film overall as a minor masterpiece. It stands as an excellent reminder of when action films were unashamed to be violent, and Schwarzenegger will never make a film even half as good again. Films like this make me mourn the death of semi-independent cinema.