Arnold Schwarzenegger returns in The Last Stand

But do we still need him?

Arnold Schwarzenegger returns in <i>The Last Stand</i>
Merrick Morton / Lions Gate Entertainment

We're now a generation removed from Arnold Schwarzenegger's brief, odd reign as the biggest star in movies. This Coppertone age lasted from 1990, when two of the 10 top-grossing pictures were Schwarzenegger's Total Recall and Kindergarten Cop, until 1993, when Last Action Hero, an attempt at a tonal gene splice between those 1990 hits, bombed hard. In the middle came Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the biggest hit of 1991, and the best film he'd ever make, by miles.

An anti-tech tech thriller wherein a time-traveling killer robot not only learns to respect the sanctity of life but actually conspires with we puny humans to prevent his own existence, T2 remains the Schwarzenegger film almost everybody likes. Even moviegoers who find the Governator ridiculous or (more recently) repulsive accept it as something grand.

It was Schwarzenegger who suggested to writer-director James Cameron, during a lunch set up to discuss the possibility of him playing The Terminator's human hero, that the T-800 killing machine should never blink his eyes, flinch when shooting, or look down from his target while reloading. At one point, Cameron had lined up O.J. Simpson to play it. But the role of a lost-in-time robot making a half-hearted stab to pass for a human fit Schwarzenegger like a glove — and he definitely acquitted himself. Arriving in the U.S. in 1968 with a handful of European bodybuilding titles and a limited command of English, he pursued his athletic and financial ambitions with the mechanical focus of a cybernetic organism gunning down every Sarah Connor in the phone book.

Cameron quickly recognized Arnold as the mandroid for the job, but he had to persuade him to take it: Schwarzenegger fretted that the Terminator spoke even less than his last lead role, Conan the Barbarian. This inveterate salesman also worried that playing a villain would be a self-sabotaging career move.

It's ironic, then, that The Terminator would supply most of the eye-rolling one-liners he marched out endlessly during his gubernatorial campaign 20 years later. Also, Schwarzenegger had to buy that lunch. Cameron was broke.

Throughout Total Recall, the 624-page memoir he published last year, Schwarzenegger refers to the machine-like focus he brought to his bodybuilding career, and to the various mail-order (the Arnold Schwarzenegger weightlifting belt!) and real-estate ventures that had made the seven-time Mr. Olympia winner rich long before he got into the movies. The automated-man metaphor predated his greatest role, and now it seems fated to undercut his latest ones. Lethal robots aren't allowed to grow old.

This week, The Last Stand will attempt to prove that Schwarzenegger, age 64 when the film was shot in late 2011, remains a viable lead in an action picture. He plays the aged sheriff of a small New Mexico border town to which he exiled himself after shit went down. When a drug lord, flanked by armed henchmen, escapes federal custody and heads for Mexico, Arnold must decide — like his onetime rival Sly Stallone did in Cop Land, 16 years ago — whether to stay safe on the sidelines or risk his wrinkled neck to stop the bad guys. (It sounds like the setup for Raw Deal, a workmanlike 1986 crime flick Schwarzenegger starred in for Dino De Laurentiis in exchange for a release from his contract to star in five Conan pictures. Maybe the title Raw Deal was an inside joke.)

So The Last Stand is a western. Johnny Knoxville is in it, so it's hardly aspiring to be Schwarzenegger's Unforgiven. But what would his Unforgiven even look like? The Last Stand's director, Kim Ji-woon, seems as likely a candidate as any to find profundity in his star's twilight. His prior feature, 2010's I Saw the Devil, is a visually stirring meditation on revenge that manages a few moments of reflection — and is more grisly in its violence than any '80s Schwarzenegger bloodbath.

Schwarzenegger misses no opportunity in his book to profess his love of selling. Indeed, promotion is the only aspect of show business that seems to interest him enough to warrant detailed discussion. He talks persuasively about the finer points of perfecting a poster or a trailer, but he seems to have little awareness or interest in why his good films were good or his bad films were bad. His best work has come when he has worked for a director as domineering as he is: James Cameron (the first two Terminator films and True Lies), Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall), John McTiernan (Predator and, sadly, Last Action Hero), and John Milius (Conan the Barbarian). Over the course of three movies with Ivan Retiman — as many as he has done with Cameron, amazingly — he has developed into a passable comic actor, but this will not be his legacy. (One of his memoir's biggest bombshells is that he did scene work with Lucille Ball in the '70s.)

Anyway, Schwarzenegger's movie career already had its mournful coda, a decade ago. The surprisingly somber Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was his last, best hope for another big score after a dreary decade of End of Days and Collateral Damages. He tried, in those films, to show us his haunted, remorseful side — we didn't like it. (In Collateral Damage, the terrorism thriller that got pushed back after the 9/11 attacks, the Austrian Oak even cried.)

Three months after T3 opened to decent but unspectacular business, Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California. A more face-saving rescue from his foundering movie career could hardly be imagined. Directed by Jonathan Mostow, T3 isn't great, but it's as strong a Terminator flick as we were going to get after Cameron wandered off in pursuit of unobtainium. It was smart enough to have its still-hulking 54-year-old star observe, with a perfect, digital absence of sentimentality, "I'm an obsolete design."

What's left for Arnold, then? He sports a terrifying gray goatee in The Tomb, a prison-break movie he's starring in with Stallone, due later this year. He's playing a crooked DEA agent in Ten, directed by Training Day scribe David Ayer, whose cop films are always worth seeing. Then there are the sequels, one of which is promising.

Schwarzenegger is set to appear in 2014's The Legend of Conan, reprising the role of the senescent warrior-king we glimpse resting on his throne in the bookends of 1982's Conan the Barbarian, his starring debut. Writer-producer Chris Morgan has said the story will depict the warrior in winter, allowing Arnold to play more or less his actual age: a conqueror, seldom burdened by self-awareness, looking back on his bloody trail, withered by age and, just maybe, regret.

It sounds perfect.

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