Is Arnold Schwarzenegger Still A Credible Leading Man?

6.2. 9.9. 5.3.

These aren't seismic readings. Those are the opening numbers, in millions, for the last three Arnold Schwarzenegger starring vehicles. The last one, this weekend's Sabotage, was his worst opening weekend since Red Sonja opened 29 years ago. Since his return from elected office, Arnold Schwarzenegger has only run into disinterest and apathy. It's easy to forget that, once upon a time, Schwarzenegger was one of the biggest stars in the world, running the table in the action world through the eighties and nineties.

In case you haven't noticed, that was a long long time ago. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a legend in the way that Gene Hackman is a legend, in the way Sean Connery is a legend, in the way Robert Redford is a legend. And by that, I mean the current generation really has no idea who he is or what he does, and they only have a vague idea of him as some punchline-worthy action movie avatar. Being in office, and aging, has kept Schwarzenegger away from the key demographics for a long time.

Even when he was a viable leading man, you saw him slowly weaning himself off action pictures. His last real action movie was 1996's Eraser, which was 18 years ago. He took three years off action pictures, instead popping up in the odious comedy Jingle All The Way (which is probably in heavier rotation on cable than his earlier films, particularly during the holidays), the eternal Batman And Robin, and the supernatural chiller End Of Days. The latter showed him trying to experiment with a new genre, but he also wanted to make it a traditional Arnold film with fist-fights and one-on-one showdowns. And The 6th Day and Collateral Damage were decidedly off-brand Arnold Schwarzenegger films, toothless time-wasters that saw Arnold sway from usual collaborators like John McTiernan and James Cameron.

As soon as he ditched the familiar names behind the camera, his appeal vanished. Chuck Russell had a decent resume when he took on Eraser and probably wasn't a terrible pick to work with Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he can be grouped with Collateral Damage director Andrew Davis as reliable journeymen who wouldn't, or couldn't, put their foot down on a creative choice against Schwarzenegger's preferences. And Peter Hyams was an anonymous last-minute fill-in for End Of Days, probably saving original helmer Marcus Nispel from being eaten alive from the Austrian oak. It was cool to see Schwarznegger get back into action in Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, but it would have been a whole lot cooler if it were for James Cameron and not Jonathan Mostow.

What we should have learned by now is that it takes a special kind of director to maximize Schwarzenegger's talents and appeal, specifically a big, well-established name that's going to spotlight his physicality and menace, not his leading-man appeal. James Cameron made Arnold Schwarzenegger into an invincible superman in The Terminator and True Lies: you didn't relate to him, you let him tower over you. John McTiernan knew that he was no mere man, but some sort of ancient specimen: in Predator he shoots him like he's a product of the environment, not a lone man. And in the Conan movies, John Milius smartly observes that he's not god-like: he is a God, all blistering muscles and obscene machismo. He doesn't speak until twenty minutes into Conan The Barbarian. The audience doesn't even realize it: Arnold Schwarzenegger's silence is a lot louder than ours.

Since returning from political office, Arnold Schwarzenegger's gone back to making the same mistakes. In The Last Stand, Kim Jee-Woon was making his English-language directorial debut, which isn't great when dealing with one of the most infamous accents in movie history. In Escape Plan, Schwarzenegger and Stallone ran all over director Mikael Hafstrom, resulting in a generic stew of 80's action cliches. And now in Sabotage, Arnold refuses to allow the film be an ensemble picture. He's the voice of reason and the man in charge, but that's all misleading subterfuge: the final half hour confirm that this is Schwarzenegger's show, and at 66, he becomes a stogie-chewing killing machine, leaving plot threads in his wake. Schwarzenegger isn't like the 'roided-out Stallone, who has been steadily fighting the onslaught of time: he looks every bit his age, and it's not entirely plausible that this guy can run very far whilst holding a gun without getting winded.

He's set to continue to make the same mistakes, believing it is he and not James Cameron who is the real star of the Terminator series: next year brings Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Genesis, where somehow he returns as the craggy-faced killing machine that moves like a sexagenarian. The director this time is Alan Taylor, who last helmed Thor: The Dark World, considered by many to be just as good as the last Marvel movie, whatever it was. And there's a supporting cast in place, including a new John Connor, but what does it matter? Schwarzenegger was amazing in those earlier pictures because he was so massive, but so still. Now that he's in an older skin, there's more movement, more jitters, more imperfections. He was the masculine ideal. Now he's just elderly.

Of course, the man is not without his appeal. The size is gone, there's no doubt about that: his age has only magnified his relatively-normal 6'1" height. But he's still the fiercest-looking 66-year-old you've ever met, and that voice still moves mountains. You don't become the biggest star in the world by being a walking brick. He still has that macho charisma. There's no reason he can't age into a slightly more limited Lee Marvin, or a crusty James Coburn-type.

But Schwarzenegger needs to stop messing around, thinking he's a movie star. He's not. He could always barely speak, but now he can barely move, too. He's got too much baggage from his days in California, he's got zero appeal to female audiences, and an entire generation raised on memes still thinks of him as Mr. Freeze. There's a handful of old warhorse directors out there who know how to use him, and have the clout and the balls to tell him to shut up when he's got a bad idea. He needs to call them up: no doubt he's talked to James Cameron about Avatar 2. Has anyone written a part for him in Ridley Scott's Prometheus 2? Could Steven Spielberg or Clint Eastwood know what to do with him?

Arnold Schwarzenegger's a beloved part of movie history, and his time is running out. He deserves to ride it out with dignity, by the orders of a great filmmaker. You can't tell people you'll "be back" for long.