The prison-break action throwback Escape Plan, in theaters this Friday, finds Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger trapped in the clink together. This is no regular clink; instead, it's a super prison ruled by the ruthless Jesus Christ Jim Caviezel, playing super warden Hobbes, and he doesn't want to see either Breslin (Stallone) or Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) escape.
Because the film is an exercise in sadness, like when kids act out an action movie with siblings and friends, but with a gang of senior citizens instead of children, the only reasonable reaction to Escape Plan is to look at the careers of both action superstars to determine which one is the greatest of all time.
Three of the Complex Pop Culture family—associate editor Ross Scarano, deputy editor Justin Monroe, and senior video producer Ryan Wick—discussed the careers of each and came to a conclusion about the two monumental badasses.
Justin Monroe: Let's start with memorable characters. Both Stallone and Schwarzenegger have enduring, iconic characters.
Ross Scarano: With Arnold, I think of the Terminator and Detective Kimble from Kindergarten Cop first.
Justin: Arnold also has Conan!
Ross: True! But I like comparing the Terminator and Kimble because they demonstrate range. Arnold, because of his voice and body, is a great comedic presence, intentional or not. He can be soulless, like a robot, or he can be hilarious. That's range, buddy.
Ryan Wick: Arnold played the same role in Commando and Predator. Both are stellar.
Justin: Most of his early roles were like that. You could probably replace his cop from Red Heat with any of his other movies.
Ross: I'm trying to account for Total Recall, a movie I love dearly, but more for the craziness of the story and situations. Arnold's character, Quaid—I don't know what to say. He's good with a jackhammer. He pulls a big ball out of his nose. It's a very physical performance. But I'm not sure what you take away from the specifics of the character. He's a man on the edge, I guess. And with Arnold, a man on the edge is a man who kills lots of people.
Ryan: I like that his films have a very clear cut character objective. One sentence. OK, Arnold, you're trying to get your daughter back. Got it? Cool. Or, this time you're trying to get your platoon out of the jungle alive. Got it? Cool.
Ross: Right. "Get to the chopper," as a way of living life.
Ryan: Stallone, on the other hand, seems to try to have more layers to his characters. I'm a boxer, but I'm in love and need money.
Justin: True Lies perhaps stretched Arnold as a thespian because he was a man living a lie while also carrying out his one-note action heroics.
Ross: Arnold is also good at winking at the camera. True Lies and Last Action Hero both involve lots of winking, playing with conventions, playing into his own shtick and on-screen identity.
Justin: There's so much more depth to Sly. John Rambo in First Blood is a legit dramatic role, just with a ton of military badassery.
Ross: Say what you will about the movie's effectiveness, or of Stallone's effectiveness, First Blood is really trying hard to say something. About PTSD. About Vietnam. And Stallone is really working hard at complexity of character. But when Stallone is bad, his grimaces about being tortured in a tiger cage don't feel much different from him grimacing during an arm wrestling bout to win his son's affection.
Justin: In Cliffhanger, Sly is haunted by the death of his friend. It wasn't the biggest leap for him to do a film like Cop Land, because we'd seen him handle real emotion before, but in movies where action figured heavily. Do we give Sly a boost because his most memorable franchise characters, Rocky and Rambo, had humanity and depth (before they became silly spoofs and then later returned to hard-hitting reality)?
Ross: In Cop Land, he wears a Breathe Right strip on his nose. Powerful.
Ryan: But Arnold had comedies as well. Sly never made that move.
Ross: Have you guys seen Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot? I died a thousand deaths. It's horrible.
Justin: But there is comedy in Sly's films. Tango and Cash, with Kurt Russell. That's an all-time favorite of mine.
Ross: Can we talk about this comedic moment in Cobra? (I think it's totally unintentional, of course.)
Ross: Why does he cut up his pizza with scissors? Was that in the script? Did Stallone improvise that? What is anything?
Ryan: I wish I was Cobra.
Justin: HE DOESN'T PLAY BY THE RULES, ROSS! (Can we also acknowledge, scissors aside, that Cobra wears his shades in his apartment, by himself? He's not even stunting for anyone. That's just how he does. It's like the Drake line about wearing all his jewelry, but a zillion times more badass.)
Ryan: Is there even any disagreement that Arnold kills Sly in one-liners? "I eat green berets for breakfast...and right now I'm very hungry" is probably the greatest line in the history of cinema.
Justin: His action hero shtick was built on the one-liner.
Ross: "What killed the dinosaurs? The ice age," in Batman and Robin, is a personal favorite. Also, "You're a fucking choir boy compared to me," which Arnold yells at, of course, Satan, in End of Days. That's special and we have to acknowledge it.
Justin: I forget if End of Days was the first movie I fell asleep in or walked out of. One of those two. So, do we delve into the darker years? Do we talk about failure? Both of them have had some TERRIBLE action films. Eraser? The 6th Day? Although, Sly has way more, actually.
Ryan: "You're luggage." I love Eraser.
Ross: Stallone has a lot of really bland action movies. Assassins? The Specialist? What is there to even say about those?
Ryan: Fuck you, those are both great. The Specialist? Sharon Stone awkward sex scene, bro.
Ross: It's like a sexual nightmare you might have after reading Muscle and Fitness all day.
Justin: Driven? Anyone see that?
Ryan: I watched it on Cinemax one day. I literally remember nothing about it.
Ross: Eye See You? Avenging Angelo? These are movies that get sold in DVD bundles at rest stops.
Ryan: I saw Avenging Angelo and Eye See You. Do I even need to tell you how bad they are? Well, Eye See You has Stallone in rehab for cops with a serial killer—killing patients! The killer HATES cops. He's been murdering cops for years. So...I vote Arnold. Hands down.
Justin: I guess I side with Arnold, but I'm truly torn. I respect Sly's contribution to action movies. He raised me just as much as Arnold did.
Ross: I think there are more Arnold movies I enjoy, but it's very close. Rocky IV and Over the Top are camp classics that I will adore forever. We'll never have anything like Arnold and Sly ever again. The '80s and early '90s were such a weird time. The movies were loose. So much action stuff takes itself so seriously now. And the ones that don't just don't have the charisma, like White House Down. The craziness of a movie like Total Recall—well, you just have to compare it to the shiny remake to see how the landscape has changed.
Justin: Jason Statham is great, and also a really charismatic guy, but his work is not even comparable to theirs. And all these "action stars" like Sam Worthington? The CGI is partially responsible for taking the good-bad out of the bad action movies.
Ross: Less emphasis placed on the human element. We need humans like Sly and Arnold.