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The Comeback (1980)

thecomeback_1 The Comeback (1980)
AKA Total Rebuild

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Platz, Frank Zane, Dennis Tinerino, Boyer Coe, Mike Mentzer, Samir Bannout, Roger Walker, Roy Callendar, Ken Waller, Tony Emmott, Chris Dickerson, Casey Viator, Ed Corney, Roy Duval, Danny Padilla, Bill Pearl

Directed by Kit Laughlin

Expectations: Moderate.

The Comeback is a short film that caught a choice moment in the history of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Just a few weeks before filming for Conan the Barbarian began, on the precipice of true Hollywood stardom, Arnold decided that since he was already pumped up for that barbaric role, he’d challenge himself to prepare for a Mr. Olympia competition in only eight weeks. Most of the competitors train for at least a year to compete in this competition, but Arnold had six wins under his belt already (the sixth was the one featured in Pumping Iron), and he had the cocky, self-assured attitude to go with the accolades.

The other featured bodybuilder is Tom Platz. He reminded me a bit of Arnold, as his approach to the sport is philosophical and more ethereal than you would expect someone focused on building their body to be. It makes sense that Arnold is his idol, and when asked what would happen if Arnold returned to the sport, he immediately responds that Arnold would win the competition. Without question, Arnold is the top of the game in his eyes, even five years after his retirement from competition. This is followed directly by a clip with Bill Pearl, the head judge of the competition, who worries that if Arnold wins, it might mean that the sport has stood still in his absence. These musings become even more interesting when you dig into the history of the competition, uncovering allegations that the filmed event was rigged. Had the sport really stagnated without a charismatic figurehead like Arnold, or was it simply a calculated publicity stunt?

I am definitely not the person to answer that question, and neither are the filmmakers responsible for The Comeback. Their film is hyper-focused on the flexing men and their thoughts within the moments in question. There is no encompassing narrative about the competition at all, but it doesn’t feel like it’s missing one. In fact, even at a quick 46 minutes, The Comeback still feels a bit long. The Comeback is less substantial than Pumping Iron, but it has much more in the way of extreme close-ups of bulging muscles. The posing routines take up a large portion of the runtime, which is either a good or bad thing depending on your prerogative. I was somewhere in the middle, but many of these routines are scored with pure ’80s synth rock, so there is a silver lining to be found if you dig such things.

Fans of Pumping Iron will find this more interesting than an average viewer, but even then it’s so light on substance that it’s hard to recommend. Arnold is not the over-the-top caricature of himself either, so most of his dialogue scenes are more reserved and realistic. There are some good nuggets, through, such as an impromptu ad he does for Jim Beam, or his adrenaline-fueled wish for a time machine so that he doesn’t have to wait for the results of the competition. The high of competing, and of performing in front of a live audience, juiced up Arnold more than any of the iron pumping. I’d love to believe that he took this positive energy and laid it in the cut when he nailed the role of Conan, slipping fully into the acting groove. Arnold broke down the door for larger-than-life action heroes to fill the hearts, minds and screens of the 1980s, forever changing the cinematic landscape. This may have been his comeback to the world he once dominated, but his true reign was about to begin.

Fun fact: this was the first film shot by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who later went on to work with Peter Jackson on all his films from Lord of the Rings on!

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