March 27, 2014 at 6:27 AM ET
Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the savviest stars of his era. He carefully cultivated a screen persona built on his distinctive physique, his instantly recognizable Austrian accent, and a self-aware sense of humor behind his imposing muscles.
His characters were all variations on a theme. Whether he was Conan, the Terminator, the Last Action Hero, or a cop going undercover as a kindergarten teacher, he was still simply Ah-nold. It was a winning formula for a good long run, but Schwarzenegger's star power was already fading when he turned to politics in the early 21st century, a dated relic in a movie culture looking for younger, fresher models.
So he's trying something different with "Sabotage" (opening Friday), a hard-edged urban action thriller from David Ayer, who wrote "Training Day" and directed "End of Watch."
Arnold plays the veteran commander of an elite DEA task force, a protective papa bear in a world of drug cartels, deadly vengeance, and the temptation of corruption. There are no flashy supervillains here, no high-concept gimmicks, no smart-aleck remarks or tongue-in-cheek references to past glories. Will this be the career reboot he needs?
He's surrounded by a team of charismatic hotshots and potential action stars in their own right: Sam Worthington (of "Avatar" and "Clash of the Titans"), Terrence Howard ("Iron Man," "Dead Man Down"), Joe Manganiello (Alcide on HBO's "True Blood"), and Josh Holloway (of TV's "Lost" and "Intelligence"). That's a lot of youth and energy for the 66-year-old screen veteran to keep up with. It's also a lot of acting talent to compete with.
"I got older. I got wiser. I experienced certain things as governor [of California] that helped me with my performance," Schwarzenegger told CNN in 2013. "I think I'm better today than when I left the acting field."
Arnold doesn't lose his Austrian vocal overbite for "Sabotage," but he softens it for the role. And with his military haircut and combat tattoos, he's clearly looking to ground his character in human experience. He wears his age like battle scars, pumps iron to work off his stress and keep in fighting trim, and resists the temptation to drop a punchline quip in battle. Arnold is the serious, centered rock of this team of adrenaline-fueled soldiers and the first responder when they start turning up dead, hunted by unknown assassins.
"I think that was without any doubt the number one goal of our great director David Ayer," he wrote in a recent Q&A with fans on Facebook. "He admired all of my work, but he wanted to make sure we see very little Arnold. He wanted me to transform into this very complex, multi-layered hero that also has flaws."
Whether audiences are willing to accept him as a mere mortal after so many years as the outsized superhero is one question. Whether they can handle Arnold in a film filled with brutal, bloody violence is another. "Sabotage" is no comic book action romp, and this strike team takes no prisoners. Ayers isn't shy about showing the gory trauma of a gunshot to the head, the gush of blood from a wound, or the remains of a victim of a head-on collision with a speeding train. That mix of anatomical realism and extreme violence may be Schwarzenegger's ticket to reaching a younger audience, but he risks losing his old fans in the process.