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Why TOTAL RECALL is the MOST BRUTAL action movie EVER made

Paul Verhoeven’s cult science fiction portrays screen violence naturalistically, creatively and in almost every possible way.

Rafał Donica

12 May 2023

total recall schwarzenegger

Total Recall… (which should be noted at the outset) is not a record-breaker in terms of the so-called “Body Count”. Body Count; for the body count stopped here at a mere 94 corpses, losing in this competition even to Hot Shots 2 – with this bloodiest film in the history of cinema no one is likely to ever win again, not to mention war and historical pictures, where the number of dead on screen reaches 247 (John Rambo), 255 (Saving Private Ryan), 336 (Unbreakable 2), and even 440 (in Snyder’s 300), 550 (The Last Samurai) or exceeding the cosmic value of 600 dead (Kingdom of Heaven). Interestingly, the 2012 remake of Total Recall is not far behind Verhoeven’s classic in terms of deaths, as as many as 86 people lost their lives in Les Wiseman’s film, although most of them as a result of gunfire and without much fanfare. Nor is the 1990 SF actioner the most, so to speak, disgusting in terms of screen violence; this title is left to gore films like Bad Taste, Toxic Avenger, Brain Necrosis or Society, in which people were melted with acid, drank vomit from a previously devoured person, ate brains with a spoon straight from the skull, snorted pudding with an ear or a dog whole, victims were shredded with a garden lawnmower, and one was skewered on the left side….

But in terms of ingenuity and creativity in the ways of killing, the full-bloodedness of the shootings, the degree of brutality and realism of the scenes where someone blows off a putz, Total Recall remains to this day an absolute role model and number one in the BADASS category! This cult science fiction by Paul Verhoeven, which by the way stands remarkably compelling and brilliant plot (based on short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip. K. Dick), where you don’t know whether dream is all or reality, is uncompromising, politically incorrect (ah that breath of 1990s freshness) and tough as steel in its depiction of violence! Here the main character, working all day with a jackhammer, doesn’t even use hearing protection, having health and safety rules for nothing! To this, the film breaks several screen taboos like throwing a corpse at an opponent, hitting a woman in the face with his fist or shooting another defenseless woman in the back. And at the center of all this brutality that characterizes strong action cinema of the end of the last century stands my favorite iconic actor: Arnold Schwarzenegger (you can read about the cinematic evolution of his frame here) experiencing his absolute prime time at the time.


The first person killed in the film, which remains a rarity to this day, is… the main character (!) Douglas Quaid (Arnold S.), who, like the last llama, smashes the glass in his spacesuit mask and dies in the oxygen-deprived atmosphere of Mars, a not very appetizing-looking, slow and painful death from suffocation and decompression. In the final seconds, his eyes almost pop out of his eye sockets and Arnold looks so ugly for a moment that when I was young and watched Total Recall for the first time, the sight of my favorite actor’s almost exploding face was a slightly traumatic experience for me. Fortunately, it was only a dream (Arnold’s, not mine), but the death depicted in it still seems to this day an unsympathetic way to descend from the earthly – and Martian, too, for that matter – vale of tears. Significantly, this is how Cohaagen, the main antagonist, and the viewers part with their lives, Mars and the audience in the finale, as well as earlier a few innocent bystanders sucked out through a shot glass window at the airport, which of course the camera didn’t show, because, after all, they’re just extras flying out the window and who cares about them.


A headshot is no novelty in cinema one might say, Sylvester Stallone even titled his film like this (Bullet to the Head from 2012), but in Total Recall the holes after hitting what we carry – colloquially speaking – a meter above our ass, are remarkably realistic, huge and suggestively bleeding, and the number of characters shot off in this way – striking, because there are as many as three. A bullet in the head was scored here, among others Kuato, a beautiful headshot was also caught by the sweaty doctor and Lori (this is how Arnold “divorced” Sharon Stone). We move seamlessly from the head to the neck (which will be pierced a few points below) to the spine. And this one in no other action film crackled at breaking so gleefully as in Verhoeven’s space brute. The spine of Harry – Quaid’s friend – and Harry’s friend, whom Quaid’s friend brought in to help take down his friend Quaid, ended with such a “wow” effect. Quite a few of these friends for such a violent end to a relationship.


sharon stone

Verhoeven, known for exuding on-screen violence (vide, among others, Alex Murphy’s unforgettable execution in RoboCop) and ravishing the male part of the audience (the female part, too, probably) with the sight of naked female breasts (Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, RoboCop, Hollow Man – pretty much every film by the Dutch filmmaker), has no problem killing off the female part of the cast. The aforementioned Lori (Sharon Stone) ends up with a huge hole in her head, and a three-striped girl from a bar on Mars is dishonorably shot in the back by Richter, although this is not a first in cinema, after all, Deckard had already pushed a replicant onto a display window with a shot in the back a few years earlier. It also kills in Total Recall the fairer sex. Quaid’s beloved, a brunette from Mars, skewers hosts of enemies with a rifle, as does the lowly Thumbelina pummeling continuous fire with a rifle while standing on a bar. This inconspicuous creature also fixes Helm with a scythe thrust into his belly. And cycle, the white weapon assassination we have ticked off, and as if that wasn’t enough – Melina kills one of Cohaagen’s men with a fire axe stuck in the abdomen. Here she kills or fist-packs everyone, lords of lords, ladies of lords, ladies of ladies, ladies of ladies… Verhoeven takes no prisoners. When Sharon Stone fights Arnold hand-to-hand, the beautiful woman has no reluctance to kick the Austrian brass in the crotch, face or back here or slice him with a kitchen knife. Arnold doesn’t give up on her, doesn’t give in and doesn’t want to sell his skin cheaply, and in a gentlemanly fashion knocks the woman out with a right straight right to the jaw.


I don’t know if before Total Recall – after all, I don’t know all the films in the world – any action movie hero used a corpse as a human shield. Maybe there was something like that in Asian shooters by Tsui Hark or John Woo, whatever. However unsavory the scene of covering himself with a corpse from gunfire is, and it puts the ethics of the main character in a mean light, Quaid should be excused because he did it in so-called necessary defense. Okay, I was kidding about the unsavory scene and Arnold’s justification, the rifle-ball-shredded corpse behind which Douglas Quaid bunkers down is a cossack scene, meaty, satisfying and rightly bathed in red substance – I give a like! And if the profanity of the corpse isn’t enough for anyone yet, let me remind you that Quaid throws a bullet-riddled wretch, or rather what’s left of him, at Richter and his men. And for dessert we have a close-up of Richter’s foot stepping (stepping?) on the chest of another slain man. Arnold, apparently, liked the idea of a human shield, because in Chuck Russell’s Eraser, filmed six years later, he again hid from gunfire behind a man who was still alive. A man who had his life, his plans, his dreams, his family, perhaps still calculating a moment ago whether he would be enough to get by on his first… And all in all, he was enough.


Verhoeven showed the piercing of the aorta remarkably picturesquely already in the finale of RoboCop, when Clarence Boddicker gleefully gushed red blood spurting out under considerable pressure from Murphy’s pierced (with that USB pick) neck. Considering that in the carotid arteries the average blood velocity is about 0.43 m/s, or about 1.6 km/h, that’s not a stick of speed, at least for the blood, because already with the car it’s almost like standing still. Returning to the aortic puncture, here the creator of Basic Instinct repeats this spectacular way of killing when, with a steel bolt, Quaid stabs one of the operators of the memory implantation machine in the neck; whenever I see this scene, I’m reminded – I don’t know why – of Commodus sticking his tongue out in Gladiator at the sight of the bloody arena scene. The other cameraman ends up with some kind of steel damnation stuck in his skull, bueeeh… Richter finishes his life in an interesting way, too, after playing with Arnold in “Mow, mow paws” losing both arms, and his life after falling from a great height. Significantly, the actor playing Richter – a bit of a Jack Nicholson clone – Michael Ironside, in Starship Troopers, made seven years later, played the armless veteran of the Bug War. So perhaps he was already training ambitiously for a future role in Total Recall.


There is also no shortage of classics in Total Recall in the form of death in an explosion, including from the exploding head of that big fake woman inside of which Arnold sat in a way that is incomprehensible to me to this day. Let’s move on to drilling now! With the use of a hand-held mining-digging device, we will experience the very impressive, satisfying and fully deserved painful demise of Benny, the father of no known number of children (according to various sources, from not a single one to five), who so soundly pissed off Arnold that the latter, using a mining auger, drilled through the hydraulic lines, the thick armor of the vehicle and Benny’s body, and if the auger hadn’t run out, would probably have drilled through to the other end of Mars!


Paul Verhoeven will not let live, as the old Chinese adage goes. And according to the calculations of Internet users, in Total Recall, in addition to 95 men and 5 women died, also 6 or a little more fish (lack of oxygen) and at least 1 rat (by automatic weapons fire). Of course, I hope that nothing bad happened to the animals on the set, and to this day they are still spending the cash earned from these short stunts, sipping drinks somewhere in the Maldives. I also hope Arnold’s skull and kinol didn’t suffer after he pulled a golf ball out of his head. It hurt just from looking at it, a good week I didn’t pick my nose after that.


Of course, all those aforementioned kills were not slaughtered by Arnold himself (he didn’t even touch the fish or the rat, although he contributed to the death of the latter), because even on his shoulders it would have been too much, yet as the main character he deprived the most people of their lives. Douglas Quaid managed to amass 47 kills, the lovely Melina accumulated as many as 12, strangely enough the bastard Richter shooting through half the film netted only 2, while the inconspicuous Thumbelina was able to put as many as 3 bodies on the scoreboard, while the newly equipped Benny, scored like an honorary goal, one victim. The militant Lori and Cohaagen, the film’s main antagonist (not counting the hapless fish), killed no one.


sharon stone

As you can see, the ways of killing in Total Recall were innumerable, and it’s basically such a cinematic catalog of 1000 ways how to die. On top of that, everything was realized with a lancer’s imagination, very realistically, as with physical effects, bloody (today the sweat would gush out as shoddy CGI), uncompromising and hardcore enough for Total Recall to hold the title of THE MOST BRUTAL and creative action movie of all time! Of course, Verhoeven’s cult film lacked even a second-story gut-jumping (Machete went so wild), heart-punching (Rambo: Last Blood, while entertaining, teaches how to do it), death by overeating (La grande bouffe), by freezing (Jack Torrance from The Shining warmly salutes), being doused with acid and smashed by a car (Emil from RoboCop was the winner of such a combo) or finally death by old age (Yoda from Return of the Jedi is said to be dying to this day), well, but you can’t have everything.

Rafał Donica

Rafał Donica

Since watching "Blade Runner", he has been passionate about cinema, loves "Akira", "Drive", "Escape from New York", "North by Northwest", the underrated "The Hateful Eight" and "Terrifier 2". Author of the book "Frankenstein 100 years in cinema". Founder and editor-in-chief (in the years 1999 - 2012) of the Polish film portal FILM.ORG.PL. Since 2016, a professional reportage photographer.

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