Type keyword(s) to search


Arnold Schwarzenegger’s FUBAR Has Great Action And Wonky Ideals

The Netflix show isn’t nearly as progressive as it seems.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger in FUBAR (Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix)
    Arnold Schwarzenegger in FUBAR (Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix)

    Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis certainly have their faces carved in the granite, but when it comes to the Mt. Rushmore of action movie heroes, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the guy in the center. He’s such a potent avatar of traditional, hyper-aggressive masculinity — from the bodybuilding to the stoicism to the third act as a Republican governor — that in one way or another, every project he works on is about that mythology. Even comedies like Kindergarten Cop and Junior rest on the so-called hilarious premise that the Austrian Oak could do anything as feminine as teaching children or giving birth. And so as Schwarzenegger takes his first starring role in a television series, it’s a given the show will engage with the vision of manhood he represents. The question is whether it will subvert that vision or reinforce it.

    For long stretches of its first season, FUBAR tries to have it both ways. The Netflix series, from creator Nick Santora, has a daffy sense of humor that can pull laughs from almost any knife fight or car-chase shoot-out. That’s clear from the first scene, when we meet Schwazenegger’s character Luke Brunner, a career CIA agent who’s on the verge of retirement. As he jogs through the alleys of Antwerp, beating up goons and starting a fire in order to retrieve a batch of blood diamonds, he has non-stop banter with Barry (Milan Carter), the superhero-obsessed mega-nerd who’s feeding information into his earpiece. When he eventually kills the diamond smugglers, his weapon of choice is a novelty beer stein, and when he gets back to headquarters, he laughs about the whole thing with his colleagues Roo (Fortune Feimster) and Aldon (Travis Van Winkle), who are basically a vaudeville duo with weapons training. The series is meant to be a lark.

    And the comedy is actually funny. Just like on Reacher, which he created for Prime Video, Santora revels in teasing his macho star. There are cracks about Luke’s age and a running gag about his frustration with ice cream cakes that don’t have “chocolate crunchies.” There are also extended scenes of Luke’s home life, where he tamps down his training and has fun being a grandfather instead. (There are shades of the film True Lies in this setup, although that was adapted for TV by CBS.) Schwarzenegger is game for all of this — he’s always been willing to spoof his persona — and as he’s gotten older, he’s found a more relaxed and fluid acting style. He nimbly plays off excellent comedians like Feimster instead of just shouting and making goofy faces like he did in the ’90s.

    It helps that Luke has such clear objectives: He wants to retire, get back together with his ex-wife Tally (Fabiana Udenio), and make up for lost time with his son Oscar (Devon Bostick) and his daughter Emma (Monica Barbaro), whose childhoods he basically missed while he was out saving the world. Throughout the first season, his goals never change, no matter how many international adventures get in the way, and Schwarznegger is good at playing that single-minded purpose as he barrels through his scenes.

    Fortune Feimster and Travis Van Winkle in 'FUBAR' (Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix)

    This is also where FUBAR tries to have its action hero ice cream cake and eat it, too. As a terrorist named Boro (Gabriel Luna) threatens the world with a nuclear weapon, Brunner gets pulled out of his almost-retirement to stop him, and that makes plenty of room for hand-to-hand combat, machine gun fire, and elaborate set pieces that involve crawling on top of a moving train. Even in his 70s, Arnold still gets to be Arnold, kicking butt in the name of justice and the family he’s determined to defend.

    At the same time, the other characters don’t always want his help, or at least they want him to try a different approach. That’s especially true of Emma who (plot twist!) is a CIA agent herself. Neither she nor Luke knew the other was in the agency, but since they both have ties to Boro, their bosses decide to throw them together. As their family tension spills into their missions, the show points out that being an old-school family man can actually be damaging to the family. And as Emma proves herself to be just as capable and stubborn as her dad, she underscores that men aren’t the only ones who can be heroic, flawed, and funny. By the time Scott Thompson (The Kids in the Hall) arrives as a CIA therapist, forcing the Brunners into counseling sessions that involve hand puppets, FUBAR has become an intergenerational domestic farce as much as a zippy shoot-em-up.

    And if you choose to ignore certain aspects of the show, then this is all an uncomplicated blast of escapist fun. The writers — who include Santora’s regular collaborators Scott Sullivan and Cait Duffy — thread family dynamics into the rest of the CIA crew. It’s a hoot to see Roo and Aldon’s brother-sister bickering, and Barry is a charming “cool uncle” as he tries to sympathize with Emma without pissing off her dad. This is the kind of “domestic workplace” humor that Santora mastered on his CBS series Scorpion, and it adds warmth to the many scenes of graphic violence. This diverse group of goofballs — people of all races, sexualities, and ages — helps the show get awfully close to being a classic action caper with a modern sensibility.

    At two significant moments, however, it slides into morally murky territory. Midway through the season, Brunner’s granddaughter (and Emma’s niece) needs medical treatment, and the one person who can help her refuses. The Brunners sic an “enhanced interrogation” specialist on the guy, and the scene where he gets tortured goes on for an uncomfortably long time. Though Emma makes a comment about abuse being hard to stomach when it happens five feet from your face, the show quickly frames the torture as a righteous act. In fact, it explicitly adopts Luke’s logic: If you do something to protect your family, then it’s always acceptable, no matter what. This philosophy is embodied even more brutally in the series finale, and by then, nobody even questions whether it’s the right choice.

    Despite its nods to modern perspectives, FUBAR ultimately sanctions the commando-style worldview that Schwarzengger’s films so often embodied in the ’80s and ’90s. Yes, the show features love, kindness, regret, and emotional growth, but it’s implied these “softer” traits are only viable when someone’s willing to make space for them with violence. That’s not much fun to think about, and it’s not very funny.

    FUBAR premieres May 25 on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: FUBAR, Netflix, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fortune Feimster