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Schwarzenegger is game for a laugh in the goofily entertaining new series
It's alarming to think that there are kids in college who were not even alive when the last truly solid Arnold Schwarzenegger movie — 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines — was out in theaters. Some might even say such a situation was FUBAR.
Many of us had all but given up on the Teutonic titan of mainstream cinema, but I have some uplifting and surprising news. Netflix, of all places, has come to rescue our beloved Austrian-born superstar. His new scripted series — his first scripted series — the action-comedy FUBAR, is peppy and funny and even occasionally thrilling. Each of the eight episodes ends on a preposterous "Oh, how the hell are they going to get out of this?!?!" fermata that makes it impossible not to keep watching. All the while, the interplay among its pretty stacked cast beats you into submission with corny dad jokes. It's by far the most likable and entertaining thing Schwarzenegger has done since he quit his day job and got into politics 20 years ago.
FUBAR (a military acronym meaning "fouled up beyond all recognition" — but not "fouled") is a goofy workplace comedy that just so happens to be about a group of CIA specialists who zoom around the globe hacking into tightly guarded secret lairs, blow up baddies with grenades, assume false identities to enter high stakes poker games, dangle off of high speed trains, and do all sorts of other cool spy crap. If the average Mission: Impossible film bends believability, a typical episode of FUBAR snaps it in two.
After one last daring operation, Schwarzenegger's Luke Brunner thinks he's ready for retirement. His next plan is to woo back his wife (Fabiana Udenio — Alotta Fagina from Austin Powers), whom he divorced 15 years ago. Their marriage couldn't withstand his constant traveling "for work." As is the case with any superhero (and in the 1994 Schwarzenegger classic True Lies), Luke's family (a wife and two kids) never knew what he really did. Just that he was always away.
But here comes the big twist: When Luke thinks he's out, the agency pulls him back in. A particularly nasty villain named Boro, played by Gabriel Luna, has built a suitcase nuke and is selling it to the top bidder. They've got someone embedded at his compound — the CIA's top new agent — but comms have gone silent. Why is this Luke's problem? Well, the agent is actually his daughter, Emma, played by Monica Barbaro.
The premiere episode — the most rocky of the bunch — shows Luke and his team yanking Emma out of harm's way. Accusations of betrayal fly in both directions. She told him she was working for an NGO bringing irrigation to developing nations. He told her he sold weight lifting equipment. But by Episode 2, and for the rest of the series, it becomes clear that they must work together to stop Boro. (The official reason is that both have had previous entanglements with the international terrorist and know him better than any other agents. The real reason is that Ahhhnold beating the snot out of assassins while grunting "watch your language" to his daughter is funny.)
Part of what is surprising is just how well FUBAR works on multiple levels. Sure, its plot is beyond far-fetched (I do not think agents in the field halt their operations to take calls from their clueless fiancés), but the various prison breaks and assorted capers are sharply edited together and clever. Alongside that, the comedy works, too, largely due to the terrific supporting cast.
Fortune Feimster is fun doing Melissa McCarthy-esque schtick, as is Travis Van Winkle as a himbo who starts to fall for Emma. (This is a problem because Emma is engaged to a kindly twerp played by Jay Baruchel.) Also in the mix are Adam Pally as an arms dealer, The Kids in the Hall's Scott Thompson as a CIA headshrinker, and Tom Arnold (!) as the agency's mild-mannered specialist in "enhanced interrogation techniques."
That's another thing. Though this is, at heart, a comedy about an extended family that leans heavily on Arnold being a big softie, there is a huge body count. Luke Brunner will wax rhapsodic about singing "Teddy Bear Picnic" with his daughter when she was 8 one minute, then shoot a guy point blank in the face the next.
As that's as it should be! Let's face it, Arnold Schwarzenegger really hasn't figured out what to do in his post-political life. If you look at his credits, it's all pretty meh. (Escape Plan was decent, and Sabotage had its moments, I guess.) No disrespect, but, at 75, he's getting on in years, and it's fundamentally weird to see the former governor of California in a straight-up violent action picture. His sole attempt at doing some legit acting, the low-budget zombie film Maggie, was a swing and a miss. (You probably didn't see it, and, if so, you should keep it that way.)
A lighthearted comedy, but one that exploits Arnold as a Hulk-like action beast, is truly playing to his strengths. As such, though he remains the hero, he's the butt of the joke most of the time. He doesn't know what "cuckold" means, for example. Moreover, unless I am forgetting a Saturday Night Live appearance or something, FUBAR features one of the few times when other people "do an Arnold voice" in his presence. One must wonder how that never got the green light in any of the Ivan Reitman comedies he made. (Fun note: Danny DeVito, Arnold's co-star in Twins, gets a nice shout-out in this series. Maybe that means we'll get an appearance in Season 2?)
And, fates willing, we'll get that Season 2. The final episode certainly sets us up for that. Netflix has proven itself as the essential content platform for must-watch dramas (The Crown, The Queen's Gambit), and, though it has yet to nab that Best Picture Oscar it so obviously craves, features like The Irishman, Marriage Story, Roma, Okja, and Dolemite Is My Name are all top notch. But come on: The Netflix action pictures — Extraction, The Adam Project, Project Power, Red Notice, and The Gray Man — have all been pretty rotten. Calling in the biggest gun of all — Arnold Schwarzenegger — looks to have been the missing ingredient.
Premieres: Thursday, May 25 on Netflix
Who's in it: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Monica Barbaro
Who's behind it: Nick Santora (Creator)
For fans of: Arnold being back
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8