Amidst high-octane explosions and seamless CGI environments, it’s often fun to be reminded of where big things once began. Even the highest-paid actors once had non-speaking roles to cut their teeth in the Hollywood biz before making it big on screen. For the Schwarzenegger legacy, however, all of that actually started in the world of bodybuilding.
Pumping Iron, approaching 40 years old at this point, is a short yet whimsical reminder of Arnold’s history before transitioning into acting as a professional body builder. Looking to defend his title as Mr. Universe, Arnold and his cohort of bulked buddies work to perfect each and every muscle before the competition in South Africa.
Easily the most entertaining factor of Pumping Iron is Arnold’s almost playful demeanor. After so many years of big-budget movies and political scandals, it was easy to forget how charming Arnold can really be. Although he totally understands each of his companions are gunning for his title (and he later goes into his version of playing mind games with them), he still exudes an amicable zeal that keeps everything from getting too “bro-ish”.
The rather brief documentary doesn’t dabble too much in the serious science behind muscle building, but rather focuses on the mentality and persona behind it. We get some glimpses into the boyhoods of certain body builders to help build a sort of culture and following that brings these men to the iron playground, but it never succeeds at convincing you there is some deeper meaning to it all. Unfortunately, Arnold’s charm weakens its own message at times by never allowing a serious tone to take flight. More than anything else, it just feels like these guys just want to be huge.
To their credit, though, these guys are huge. During these competitions Arnold was at his largest ever, even more so than his Conan the Barbarian or Terminator sizes. Every pose and flex taken seems to erupt new groups of muscles I didn’t even know existed, but when stacked against other body builders, that’s precisely the point. Lou Ferrigno is Arnold’s main competition for the title, but his amateur nature is exposed when put against Arnold’s sheer confidence and poise.
It’s certainly not a thought-provoking piece or serving in the realm of knowledge, but Pumping Iron does provide a refreshing romp down memory lane into one of Hollywood’s more fascinating actors. Part muscle, part mind, and all charm, Arnold’s time as Mr. Universe is still one of the most fascinating parts of his life and well worth sitting down for.