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Reviewing Netflix's 'FUBAR' Series, Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

The last action hero kicks off his run as Netflix’s "Chief Action Officer" with an action-comedy series that borrows the best parts of ‘True Lies’

After a 13-year layover between Avatar movies, James Cameron is having a bit of a moment. Avatar: The Way of Water washed away any skepticism that the franchise lacked a legitimate cultural footprint, becoming the third-highest-grossing movie of all time while also ensuring that Cameron will get to make as many sequels as he wants. (Big Jim already claimed that a studio executive said “holy fuck” and had zero notes on the Avatar 4 script; consider me Pandora-pilled.) What’s more, February gave us the 25th-anniversary theatrical rerelease of Titanic, which reaffirmed that it’s one of cinema’s great historical epics. But considering all the fanfare for Cameron’s blockbusters—and his lifelong love affair with the ocean—it’s easy for another recent project with ties to the filmmaker to fall under the radar.

In March, CBS debuted True Lies: a small-screen reboot of Cameron’s 1994 blockbuster of the same name. (Cameron retains an executive producer credit on the series.) The show tackles the same premise from the film, in which a woman discovers that her seemingly ordinary husband, played by Steve Howey in the new version, is actually an international spy. But while Cameron’s True Lies received generally favorable reviews and made a healthy profit at the box office—it was the third-highest-grossing movie of 1994—the CBS series failed to meet the hype. Amid poor critical reception and low ratings, True Lies was unceremoniously canceled earlier this month: another reminder for networks that simply resuscitating preexisting IP isn’t a surefire path to success. After all, the real draw of Cameron’s True Lies was the hulking, former bodybuilder at the center of the frame.

By the time of True Lies’ release, Arnold Schwarzenegger had long established himself as one of the biggest movie stars on the planet: an ever-present action hero whose raw physicality was matched only by his killer delivery of punny catchphrases and one-liners. (There are way too many to choose from, but my favorite Schwarzenegger one-liner comes from Total Recall after his character shoots the sinister agent posing as his wife: “Consider that a divorce.”) It’s not that an A-lister in the meaty mold of Schwarzenegger can’t exist anymore—Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson is following a similar career trajectory with more underwhelming results—but an action-movie résumé that includes the Terminator franchise, Predator, Total Recall, Commando, Conan the Barbarian, True Lies, Last Action Hero, and The Running Man speaks for itself. With all due respect to Howey, taking on a role that once belonged to the Governator was always going to be a losing battle. But perhaps CBS was on the right track with its short-lived reboot: a decent recipe missing its most essential ingredient.

While Netflix doesn’t have an official continuation of True Lies on its hands, it might possess something even more valuable than any piece of IP: Schwarzenegger’s first starring role in a TV series. In FUBAR, now streaming, Schwarzenegger plays Luke Brunner: a globe-trotting CIA agent who’s set to retire after decades of service. But before Luke can call it a career, he has to deal with—and you won’t believe this—one last job that’s more than he bargained for. Said mission requires Luke to rescue an undercover agent whose identity has been compromised—much to his surprise, it’s his own daughter, Emma (Monica Barbaro). From there, Luke and Emma must reckon with the secrets they’ve been keeping from one another while attempting to stop a terrorist from selling nuclear weapons to the highest bidder.

An international spy managing familial problems as he’s saving the world? The allusions to True Lies aren’t hard to miss; in fact, it’s explicitly baked into the show’s DNA. (“Everywhere I go, people ask me when I’m going to do another big action comedy like True Lies. Well, here it is,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement last month after the first teaser was released.) As a project aimed at anyone who’s mainlined Schwarzenegger’s filmography, FUBAR also slots in nicely as an essential entry in the canon of Dad Television. Prime Video has fashioned itself as the go-to streamer for small-screen dad programming (see: Jack Reacher, Jack Ryan, The Terminal List), but Netflix is clearly trying to get in on the action: This year, the first season of The Night Agent became one of its most-watched original series to date. FUBAR certainly continues that trend, but while the show channels Schwarzenegger’s heyday as an action star—and True Lies in particular—it makes some modern tweaks to the formula.

If you haven’t watched True Lies in a while, some parts of the film have aged far better than others. On the plus side, its practical effects more than hold up: Cameron’s literally explosive action sequences are good enough to make Michael Bay blush. Conversely, some storytelling choices deserve scrutiny: Its portrayal of an Arab terrorist group led to Arab Americans protesting the movie in the ’90s, and advocacy groups sought to ban it in 54 Arab and Muslim countries. Then there’s the film’s humiliating treatment of Schwarzenegger’s on-screen wife, Helen, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. The middle chunk of True Lies is largely devoted to Helen mulling an affair with a used car salesman (the late, great Bill Paxton) pretending to be an undercover agent because she feels neglected by her husband, Harry, who is always going away on business. (The irony being that Harry actually is a spy.) Although Helen has been deceived from the start of their marriage, Cameron wants the audience’s sympathies to lie with Harry—someone who retaliates by using government resources to spy on his wife and coerce her into going undercover as a prostitute to seduce an agent (the agent being Harry, hidden from her view). If nothing else, True Lies has the most divorced energy ever put into a blockbuster: a reminder that, for all the strong female characters Cameron has written over the decades, he’s equally capable of putting his foot in his mouth.

Thankfully, FUBAR doesn’t repeat this mistake. For one, Luke deals with the real consequences of living a double life. By the start of the series, his marriage has ended. Luke’s relationship with Emma isn’t any better: She blames him for the divorce because he was absent for much of their lives. Working as a secret agent may sound aspirational, but it comes at the expense of forming meaningful relationships—just as Luke’s job destroyed his marriage, Emma’s commitments in the field are already affecting things with her wholesome boyfriend, Carter (Jay Baruchel). (In a nod to Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarten Cop, Carter is a preschool teacher.) The extreme tension between father and daughter boils down to how much the characters have in common: The things they hate in one another are reflections of what they don’t like about themselves. The prickly father-daughter dynamic also leads to some delightful gags—a scene in which the two bicker over adjusting Emma’s chair during a mission briefing has no right to be as funny as it is.

Nailing the comedic beats is especially important for FUBAR, which, for all of the callbacks to Schwarzenegger’s action-packed past, must contend with what the actor can do in the present. At 75, Schwarzenegger will no longer be hurling nameless goons across the room: His strengths now rely more on his dry charisma. As his scene-stealing performance as the reformed Terminator known as Carl in Terminator: Dark Fate proved, Schwarzenegger is still a commanding presence, and he can elevate dialogue that doesn’t necessarily jump off the page. When Luke justifies killing people by saying, “They were all dicks,” it works because Schwarzenegger’s iconic Austrian drawl has aged like a fine wine.

It also helps that Schwarzenegger has a reliable scene partner to help shoulder the burden. Off the heels of a supporting role in Top Gun: Maverick, Barbaro is beginning to emerge as a new age action heroine—someone who’s earned the opportunity to take center stage in a crowd-pleasing tentpole she can call her own. Really, the best thing that can be said of Barbaro’s performance in FUBAR is that, despite not looking the part of Schwarzenegger’s on-screen daughter, she absolutely nails it in the vibes department:

FUBAR won’t score many points for ingenuity—vertical throat-slitting notwithstanding—but as a by-the-numbers action-comedy series, it’s another encouraging step for Netflix cutting into Amazon’s slice of the Dad Television market. (Perhaps the most telling sign that FUBAR is truly catering to the dad demographic is its use of some punny episode titles, including “Urine Luck” and “Royally Flushed.”) As an extension of this strategy, Netflix is going all in on Schwarzenegger. Next month, the streamer will release a three-part docuseries, Arnold, tracing Schwarzenegger’s life, from his early days as a bodybuilder to an unlikely career in politics. Netflix has also tapped Schwarzenegger to be the company’s “Chief Action Officer” in a new marketing campaign to spotlight its upcoming slate of action-oriented programming. (Schwarzenegger emerges from a tank in the promo, which is how I imagine he commutes when traffic is bad on the PCH.)

Such a partnership should be mutually beneficial: Netflix gets to use Schwarzenegger’s action-movie credentials to bolster its own reputation within the genre, while the actor gets to headline the type of star-driven project that’s become increasingly rare on the big screen. After decades of headlining blockbusters, Schwarzenegger making the pivot to streaming could serve as a blueprint for other A-listers who’ve been crowded out of the theatrical landscape in favor of countless sequels, reboots, and remakes. Of course, Schwarzenegger’s career change hinges on the success of FUBAR and whether audiences are still craving the kind of high-octane high jinks that put him on the map in the first place. With any luck, he’ll be back.

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