Big Arnold is back and he's not happy. That's on the screen, of course. Offscreen he's going to be very happy as "Total Recall" becomes yet another in his canon or is that "Conan" of monster hits.
This time Arnold Schwarzenegger is somewhat miscast as a mild-mannered construction worker in the 21st century, 2084, to be precise an Orwellian omen if ever there was one and he discovers that his real life has been erased from his memory and a new life memory implanted.
You'd think by the year 2084 villains would have learned they shouldn't mess with Mr. Biceps. But no-o-o-o.
So Schwarzenegger surprise, surprise decides to get revenge and kills dozens of villains who get in his way. And while he's at it, he figures to root out his past as well.
Actually, there's a lot more to "Total Recall" than that simple description suggests. The film spins its four-author screenplay from a classic Philip K. Dick short story, "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale," and for the first 30 minutes or so the film is remarkably faithful to the book.
But it soon turns into pure Schwarzenegger as carnage takes over and our hero begins making sick wisecracks as he bumps off the bad guys. (And, as you might guess, there is none of the "Twilight Zone"-style irony of the original story's twist ending.)
Despite that, director Paul Verhoeven knows how to build suspense and excitement, and as the plot thickens and does it ever he keeps things moving. (He also gradually allows the gore factor to rise, and "Total Recall" rivals Verhoeven's "Robocop" in terms of graphic carnage and like that film this one also had some violent scenes edited down to qualify for an R-rating, along with considerable profanity, a sex scene and some partial nudity.)
The story has Schwarzenegger living with his wife of eight years in a sterile environment where big-screen TV is really big-screen living a quiet life together. He's a construction worker, but for some reason he keeps flashing back in his dreams to another life as a secret agent on Mars.
So he heads for Rekall Inc., a company specializing in memory vacations, to fantasize a trip to Mars. As they explain, there is "no lost luggage" or any of the other real vacation hassles when the memory of a trip is merely implanted in the brain.
But, of course, something goes wrong and Schwarzenegger finds himself embroiled in a strange mystery about his dream life and his real life, which eventually takes him to the red planet. At times, his dream life and real life seem interchangeable.
To give much more away would spoil the surprises, and there are some terrific, if not fully realized ideas at work here along with some very silly, illogical ideas.
Further, a good deal of the fun stems from Verhoeven and clan's toying with modern sensibilities in a futuristic setting from little sight gags based on product-placement (on Mars there's a USA Today-style newspaper box that says in red "Mars Today") to stark scenes on the streets of "Venusville," where the homeless are mutants who have been denied sufficient oxygen.
Despite the elaborate trappings and mix of clever and stale jokes, however, most of the way this is fairly typical Schwarzenegger stuff. And that should please fans no end.
Schwarzenegger does try to be more of an everyman this time out (and the character actually might have been more interesting if a less heroic actor played the part), but he isn't really, of course, despite opportunities for a bit more acting than in some of his other action pictures. He's still a stiff actor but satisfactory in these kinds of roles.
Actually, it's Sharon Stone, Richard Chamberlain's co-star in his two "Allan Quatermain" films, who turns in the least-convincing performance. Rachel Ticotin ("Critical Condition") is much better, Mel Johnson Jr. offers a nice turn as a cabbie with a secret and villains Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside are also good, if not much different than characters they've played in several other films.
There is no question that excess is the name of the game here, right down to Jerry Goldsmith's score, which seems to echo Basil Poledouris' music for "Conan the Barbarian."
And director Verhoeven doesn't know the meaning of restraint. Why have a character simply die when he can implode?
To some degree, that's entertainment. But it soon begins to wear out its welcome. Examples: An innocent escalator-rider is killed and then used as a shield. A gag that has a homeless woman on the street using a particular profanity, but it loses its punch because the same profanity has been used so much before by other characters. A joke that has a mutant hooker opening her blouse to reveal she has three breasts is trotted out not once but three times. There is some questionable taste in the way Sharon Stone's character is treated. And though the gore doesn't confront us from the first, as it did in "Robocop," by the end it has really gotten out of control.
"Total Recall" offers a ton of entertainment, no question about that. And that may be enough for fans of this kind of thing to consider its weaknesses overcome including me.
But I wish over-the-top directors like Verhoeven and there are many could recognize the value of subtlety on the big screen. Even if it's just here and there.