Schwarzenegger’s new wrinkle in ‘Last Stand’

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He’s back, all right.

But will movie audiences be glad to see him?

In the past decade, Arnold Schwarzenegger has spent more time battling Democrats and deficits than mowing down maniacs or trying to save the world from alien predators. This weekend, he returns to the big screen in “The Last Stand.”

In his first lead role since taking the reins as California’s governor in 2003, the former action-movie icon stars as the sheriff of a small desert town who is forced to confront a ruthless Mexican drug lord and his gang. But with the film set to open Friday, questions hover over the former “Governator” and his chosen comeback vehicle.

At 65, is Arnold too old to be credible as an action-movie hero? Have the tawdry details of his philandering and failed marriage to Maria Shriver reduced him to a pariah or, worse, a punch line? Has he been diminished by years of political bickering and frustration in Sacramento, Calif.? Has the shocking Newtown, Conn., school shootings ruined filmgoers’ appetites for hard-core action?

The ad tag line of “The Last Stand” is “Retirement is for sissies,” showing that both Mr. Schwarzenegger and his filmmaking team are fully aware of the potential ridiculousness of his trying to kick butt at a time when he’s eligible for Social Security. At the same time, it’s a cleverly self-aware line, priming viewers to expect a movie filled with the kind of knowing one-liners that made Ahnuld a global superstar.

Wisely, Arnold confronts his age head-on in the movie. When someone asks his Sheriff Ray Owens how he’s feeling after taking a dive in the middle of a gunfight, he deadpans: “Old.” He wears old-man loafers on his day off, sits quietly on his porch in the still of the night and is a cranky, by-the-book rules enforcer.

“When you get older, you can still be an action hero. Only the ‘brains-to-brawn ratio’ has to be reversed,” says conservative satirist and political commentator Evan Sayet. “[Schwarzenegger] can probably still punch and kick, he just probably can’t bite into anything too hard. He probably couldn’t get the bad guys out of town, but he could get children off of his lawn.”

He also relies much more on teamwork to help him than his larger-than-life single-combat warriors of blockbusters past would have deigned to. His Sheriff Ray paternally supervises a team of deputies much younger than he is.

In the most surprising scene of all, Ray has a thousand-yard, sad-eyed stare as he confesses his fear of the violence in store for his town and wearily concedes he’s seen too much blood and pain in his life already. It’s as if Mr. Schwarzenegger is not only acknowledging the passage of time, but also bowing to the criticism he has faced for building a career on depicting mayhem as entertainment.

One thing Arnold doesn’t have in this movie is a love interest. This omission spares us the always-awkward image of him trying to look romantic while engaged in liplocks more robotic than anything he does as the Terminator. But aside from allowing the movie to hew to a tightly wound action plot, it’s perhaps a savvy acknowledgment that none of his guy fans care if Arnold gets romantic, and that his female fans well, let’s face it: After his icky scandal fathering a secret child with his housekeeper, he doesn’t seem to have any female fans left. (One gal I know turned down an invitation to see the movie for free by texting, “I don’t care for Mr. Laundry Bag Stuffed with Meat!” That’s pretty negative.)

“The Last Stand” is also rife with interesting echoes — for those attuned to such things — of the former governor’s experience in politics: Sheriff Ray is the de facto leader of what looks like an utterly desolate and bankrupt town (read: California), with neither his deputies, nor citizens paying attention to anything he has to say (again: California).

As for the release of this film amid the renewed national debate over gun violence, “The Last Stand” turns out to be, contrary to expectations, amazingly well-timed. It takes the side that guns are good, as long as they’re in the hands of law enforcement or law-abiding citizens. An elderly woman who has a shotgun and knows how to use it got the wildest response of the night from Wednesday’s screening audience.

With “The Last Stand,” Mr. Schwarzenegger holds his own in the end, managing to survive for another day not only on-screen, but metaphorically as well. His political career is over, his home life is damaged perhaps irreparably, and his memoir “Total Recall” not only bombed, but was named among the worst books of the year by Entertainment Weekly.

But just like his sheriff in “The Last Stand” had the little town of Summerton Junction, Ariz., to retire to after a turbulent career as a Los Angeles cop, Arnold always has the movie screen to come home to.

Like his character, he may be weary and realistic about his age and failed home life, but he’s trying to regain his dignity and lay the groundwork for bigger and better things. It’s up to audiences to decide if they want to help him get there, but in making the effort, he ensures that he’s one guy who doesn’t look that bad after all.

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