Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to muscle his way from action hero to actor

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.

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    Image: The Cinema Society With Muscle & Fitness Host A Screening Of Open Road Films' "Sabotage" -  Arrivals

    Arnold Schwarzenegger

    Bodybuilder, actor, governor, Kennedy family member — Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger has lived a varied and dramatic life.

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    Back home to Austria -

    Actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger greets Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann and his wife Martina Ludwig-Faymann during the men's Downhill race of the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup in Kitzbuehel, Austria on Jan. 25, 2014. Schwarzenegger was born in Thal, Austria and moved to the U.S. at age 21.

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    One warrior among many -

    Schwarzenegger visits the Terracotta Warriors in Xian, China on Dec. 5, 2013.

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    'Sabotage' -

    In the 2014 action film "Sabotage," Schwarzenegger leads a team of DEA agents who take down a dangerous drug cartel -- and then face the consequences.

    Open Road Films
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    Tough guys -

    From left, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jason Statham, Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins attend a photocall for "The Expendables 2" at Simpsons On The Strand in London on Aug. 13, 2012.

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    Hospital buddies -

    Schwarzenegger and fellow actor Sylvester Stallone are shown next to each other in a Los Angeles hospital on February 7, 2012. Both were there for shoulder surgery.

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    Statuesque -

    Schwarzenegger unveils a statue of himself in a bodybuilding pose as his son Patrick watches. The actor officially opened a museum dedicated to his life and located in the house where he was born in Thal, Austria on Oct. 7, 2011.

    Heinz-peter Bader / Reuters
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    Biking with the mayor -

    Mayor of London Boris Johnson, left, rides a London Cycle Hire bike with Schwarzenegger in front of London City Hall on March 31, 2011.

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    See you later, alligator -

    Schwarzenegger holds a four-and-a-half-foot-long American alligator presented to him by Brad Tylman, right, while touring the Jungle & Reptile Adventure exhibit at the California State Fair in Sacramento, Calif. on July 14, 2010.

    Rich Pedroncelli / AP
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    Hooray for Hollywood -

    Schwarzenegger, seen here with Trust for Public Land President Will Rogers, Los Angeles councillor Tom LeBonge and Chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust Chris Baumgart, celebrates after making the announcement that sufficient money had been raised to purchase and protect the land around the historic Hollywood sign in California on April 26, 2010. The sign and 138-acre parcel of land surrounding it were in jeopardy of being turned into luxury mansions along the ridgeline.

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    Keeping the flame alive -

    British athlete legend Sebastian Newbold Coe, left, passes the 2010 Olympic Torch flame to Schwarzenegger during the 2010 Olympic Torch relay at Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in the early hours of Feb. 12, 2010.

    Robert Ghement / EPA
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    Survived the fire -

    Schwarzenegger lifts a charred dumbbell as he tours homes that were burned by the Station Fire in Vogel Flats near Tujunga, Calif. on Sep. 2, 2009.

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    With the president -

    U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with then-California Governor Schwarzenegger at the White House in Washington on March 20, 2009.

    Jim Young / Reuters
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    Greeting the Gov -

    Schwarzenegger is greeted by youngsters as he walks to a ceremony honoring several Olympic athletes from California, at the Capitol in Sacramento on Sep. 8, 2008.

    Rich Pedroncelli / AP
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    At the UN -

    Schwarzenegger receives applause from the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Sep. 24, 2007 after speaking at the UN in New York during the High Level Event on Climate Change.

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    Second term -

    Schwarzenegger smiles at his then-wife Maria Shriver after being sworn into office for a second term as governor on Jan. 5, 2007 in Sacramento, Calif. They split in 2011 after it was revealed that he fathered a son with another woman.

    David Paul Morris / Getty Images
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    Working recovery -

    Schwarzenegger signs an order creating the Public Employee Post-Employment Benefits Commission in his hospital room in Santa Monica, Calif. on Dec. 28, 2006. Schwarzenegger was recovering from leg surgery that followed a skiing accident in Idaho.

    Duncan Mcintosh / AP
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    Celebration -

    Schwarzenegger, Shriver and children celebrate his re-election on Nov. 7, 2006 at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

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    Election day -

    Schwarzenegger, Shriver, and their son Christopher, 9, arrive at their polling place on Nov. 7, 2006 in Los Angeles. Schwarzenegger was re-elected California governor.

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    Family portrait -

    Schwarzenegger and Shriver pose with their children, left to right, Christopher, Patrick, Katherine and Christina, at the premiere of the film "The Benchwarmers" in Los Angeles on April 2, 2006.

    Reuters
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    A-R-N, O-L-D -

    Schwarzenegger, Mickey Mouse and Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney, pose at Disneyland's 50th Anniversary rededication ceremony held at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. on July 17, 2005.

    Marsaili Mcgrath / Getty Images
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    Proud walk -

    Schwarzenegger, Shriver and children walk to his inaugural ceremony at the California State Capitol in Sacramento on Nov. 17, 2003.

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    Governator -

    Schwarzenegger addresses the news media in Los Angeles the day after winning the recall election in a landslide on Oct. 8, 2003.

    Carlo Allegri / Getty Images
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    Happy days -

    Newly-elected Gov. Schwarzenegger and his first lady wave to his supporters after delivering a victory speech at a party in Los Angeles on Oct. 7, 2003.

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    Thanking the in-laws -

    Schwarzenegger embraces his wife's parents, Sargent and Eunice Shriver as they celebrate his win in the California recall election at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles on Oct. 7, 2003. Sargent Shriver helped found the Peace Corps and served as its first director, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics.

    Blake Sell / Reuters
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    Big news on 'Tonight Show' -

    Schwarzenegger announced his intention to run for governor of California in the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis. on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" at NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif. on Aug. 6, 2003.

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    Here comes Santa Claus -

    In the 1996 movie "Jingle All the Way," Schwarzenegger plays Howard, a man vyying for the love of his son and wife over the holidays.

    20th Century Fox
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    Disney workout -

    Schwarzenegger and Olympic decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner lead visitors in a short workout at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. on May 7, 1995 to celebrate National Physical Fitness and Sports Month.

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    Handy -

    Shriver sits beside Schwarzenegger as he leaves his handprints in cement outside Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. on July 14, 1994.

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    Behind the camera -

    Schwarzenegger directed his first and only feature movie "Christmas in Connecticut," starring Kris Kristofferson, in 1992.

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    He said he'd be back -

    Schwarzenegger's most famous films are the "Terminator" series. Here he revs his engines in a scene from "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" in 1991.

    TriStar Pictures / Everett Collection
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    Work on that, Willard -

    In 1990, Schwarzenegger, seen here with TODAY weatherman Willard Scott, was appointed chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

    thejoyboys.com
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    Conan in action -

    Schwarzenegger played legendary muscleman Conan the Barbarian in two films. He's seen here in 1984's "Conan the Destroyer."

    Universal Pictures / Everett Collection
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    Proud to be an American -

    Austrian-born Schwarzenegger shows off his new U.S. citizenship papers with Shriver by his side at the Shrine Auditorium in Hollywood, Calif. on Sep. 16, 1983.

    Wally Fong / AP
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    Tough as 'Iron' -

    Schwarzenegger flexes his muscles on May 19, 1977 during the 38th Cannes Film Festival in France. The actor presented "Pumping Iron," a documentary that spread his fame beyond bodybuilding circles.

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    Beach body -

    Schwarzenegger is seen showing off his body for an appreciative beach audience in 1977.

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    You like me! You really like me! -

    Schwarzenegger and actress Sally Field goof around on the set of "Stay Hungry" in 1976. He won a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture for the role.

    Everett Collection

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 Schwarzenegger in "Sabotage." Open Road Films
Arnold Schwarzenegger takes on a more human role in the very violent "Sabotage."

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.

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