There may never be another Hollywood film star like Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the 1980s and 90s the Austrian oak was such a totemic figure on the big screen that screenwriters stopped bothering to explain away his thick Styrian accent and preposterous bulk, aware that audiences accepted him instinctively.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of the former California governor's slide down the stature scale comes in the denouement of his new action film The Last Stand, which is out today in UK cinemas. Faced with a sneering villain who has been behaving very badly indeed, Schwarzenegger's grizzled small-town sheriff tells his enemy: "You make us immigrants look bad." It raised a laugh at the screening I attended, but 80s writers wouldn't have needed to flag up Arnie's alienness.
While Schwarzenegger often played characters with Anglo-Saxon names such as Ben Richards, John Kimble and Julius Benedict, the role that made him famous took advantage of his teutonic tones. John Milius's 1982 fantasy epic Conan the Barbarian cast the former Mr Olympia as Robert E Howard's unstoppable Cimmerian warrior. Those of us who recall the iconic Schwarzenegger era were delighted earlier this week when he confirmed plans for a new Conan movie in which the actor will star as an older version of the character. Out goes Game of Thrones' Jason Momoa, who headed up the poorly received 2011 remake, and back comes the saga's original lead in a movie that will be built around him.
"[Universal] finally came forward," Schwarzenegger told Ain't It Cool. "And said, 'You're absolutely right. The previous regime has missed the boat here. We want to pick it up. We're going to buy the rights and we're going to be serious about it and make a quality film with an A-director and with A-writers and so on. And we want you to participate in this. We want you to star and you to play Conan. We're going to take a story where Conan is at that age so it's totally believable and you're not looking like a 30-year old action guy.'"
"The original ended with Arnold on the throne as a seasoned warrior, and this is the take of the film we will make," producer Frederik Malmberg told Deadline when Legend of Conan was first announced. "It's that Nordic Viking mythic guy who has played the role of king, warrior, soldier and mercenary, and who has bedded more women than anyone, nearing the last cycle of his life. He knows he'll be going to Valhalla, and wants to go out with a good battle."
But is the great lunk still up to the job? On the evidence of The Last Stand, the jury's still out. There is a fatigue in Schwarzenegger's performance that rather suits the character. He's a hard-boiled former cop in a US-Mexico border town who finds himself the only obstacle in the way of an escaped cartel boss. The movie itself has the sort of low-rent, throwaway veneer you might expect to find in a film starring one of Schwarzenegger's 80s action contemporaries – Jean Claude van Damme or Dolph Lundgren, perhaps – rather than the big man himself. And Arnie is no longer the towering colossus of old: those years away from the big screen do not seem to have improved him as an actor or as a screen presence. It's an entertaining watch in a cheap and cheesy kind of way, but there are moments when you wonder if Schwarzenegger's heart is really in it.
The Last Stand might have been written for Clint Eastwood, a figure who (on screen at least) gets more intense and intimidating the older he gets. It is this kind of battered determination that Schwarzenegger needs to rediscover if his late era acting career is to bear fruit. While it's wonderful to see him back on the big screen, he appears right now like a man who has been shrunk by his travails.
No one wants to see Schwarzenegger appearing in storylines that do not suit his age, but he needs to be given scripts that allow that old cheeky confidence to emerge. Audiences want to see Arnie the bombastic barbarian again, which (hopefully) is where Legend of Conan comes in. Schwarzenegger is almost as much of a self-made man as the great Cimmerian himself. He personally recruited Paul Verhoeven for 1990's Total Recall, perhaps his best film, and set himself up to star. He may have less clout in Hollywood these days, but I have no doubt that Legend of Conan has a better chance of emerging as a decent movie if its star takes it upon himself to crack a few heads together.
When the film was first announced in October, there were suggestions that producer Chris Morgan, best known for the Fast and Furious films, might write the screenplay. Morgan hardly constitutes an A-list figure, so Arnie may yet have his work cut out. Milius is still around, aged 68, and most likely just waiting for a chance to emerge from Hollywood purgatory. He also has a ready-made unfilmed screenplay, King Conan: Crown of Iron, ready to draw on. Now what a movie that would be.
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image: © Gage Skidmore