|The golden age of the R-rated action movie has to be from somewhere near the start of the nineteen-eighties through to the nineties, at which point the studios realised the more people saw their projects, the more profits they could make, hence the plethora of action flicks made with a PG-13 (or 12A in Britain) during the twenty-first century. It didn't matter if the director felt they could only make their efforts with the most extreme imagery they possibly could get away with, those money men were insistent: tone it down so the kids can be taken to see them, or their parents won't mind if they see those movies in a home environment.
This is why it can be jarring to go back to that era and watch action designed to be as bloodthirsty as it could muster, since violence, and to a lesser extent sex and strong language, were considered big draws at the box office. One of the proponents of the big budget action film was the independent company Carolco, backed by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, who followed the model hit upon by lower budget rivals Cannon in the eighties: sell the non-United States rights to as many territories as they could, thus putting the production in the black before a single frame was shot. If anything, Carolco beat Cannon at their own game, throwing countless millions at their releases.
But there's a reason you don't hear about Cannon or Carolco making movies now, and that's because they went too far; for the former, it was a variety of bad (read: insane) marketing decisions, and for the latter it was one big flop, Cutthroat Island, that scuppered their chances of lasting past the mid-nineties. But they had had a pretty decent run, from the turning point of Rambo: First Blood Part II, one of the blockbusters that proved audiences wanted blood and guts in the eighties, through to such famous, runaway successes as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Basic Instinct, Cliffhanger and Stargate that defined commercial cinema in the nineties - for a while.
Right slap bang in the middle of these hits was Total Recall, a movie that has come to represent the excesses of the day, that day being somewhere in 1990 when Arnold Schwarzenegger bestrode the world like a Colossus of action. This had been in development hell for years, passing through such cult movie hands as Richard Rush and David Cronenberg, who came closest to getting it made until the studio organising it, Dino De Laurentiis's went bankrupt. Schwarzenegger, his commercial senses at their peak, knew in his bones this was a perfect proposition for him, so he persuaded Kassar and Vajna to buy the rights and got Paul Verhoeven onboard to direct, having admired RoboCop.
Certainly Verhoeven was no stranger to motion picture sex and violence, and though he dialled back the carnality for Total Recall, he was not about to do the same for the bloodshed, so much so that certain bits had to be trimmed for that precious R-rating (it was an 18 in Britain without more cuts). Yet if it had merely been a gorefest with dunderheaded action throughout, it's doubtful it would have endured in the memory quite as much as it had, for this wanted to play games with you: it wanted the audience to question what they were seeing just as Doug Quaid, the Schwarzenegger character, refuses to. Indeed, he takes everything he experiences at face value, sometimes comically.
This leaves us in the privileged position of being aware that when Quaid goes to buy the future's latest leisure innovation, the holiday memories implanted into your brain to save you the trouble of actually going on vacation, that there may have been a malfunction and all these outlandish events he is going through (half of it set on Mars) might not be happening at all. This was based on a Philip K. Dick short story, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, and although tailored for Schwarzenegger, the rewrites had made something close to the paranoia and weirdness that author had made his stock in science fiction trade, Ronald Shussett and Dan O'Bannon (who had scripted Alien) being the real engines of the production.
But somehow, this was both a Schwarzenegger vehicle and a recognisable part of the Verhoeven canon: the action was plentiful, as if Quaid was living out the fantasies of a fan of the Austrian muscleman's work, but the mindbending, trickster plotting we would see in The Fourth Man or Basic Instinct was present into the colourful bargain. You could describe Total Recall as the director's own North by Northwest, the Hitchcock classic that went on to define the modern action movie for decades afterwards, as they both led with characters embroiled with plots and conspiracies they manage to cope with in increasing ability, plus humour and grand setpieces. Perhaps this is why fans return to both films, there's so much to delve into, whether you appreciate that feeling of being toyed with by smarter than they seem entertainments or you just want to see a story where Ahnold squares off against Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside. Either way, Total Recall is highly rewatchable.
[A brand new 4K 30th anniversary restoration, approved by Paul Verhoeven, is released by Studiocanal with these extras:
Total Excess: How Carolco Changed Hollywood
Open Your Mind: Scoring Total Recall
Audio Commentary by Paul Verhoeven & Arnold Schwarzenegger (something of a legendary commentary, this one, nice to see it retained here)
Models and Skeletons: The Special Effects of Total Recall
The Making of Total Recall
Imagining Total Recall.]