LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Arnold Schwarzenegger, taking inspiration from his idol, Clint Eastwood, returns to the big screen on Friday in the action film "The Last Stand," his first starring role since he took a seven-year break from moviemaking to serve as California governor.
In a departure from his typical superhuman roles, Schwarzenegger plays a retired Los Angeles policeman forced to protect a tiny border town from a notorious drug kingpin. The 65-year-old former bodybuilder looks every bit his age and admits in the film feeling "old" as he takes a ribbing from some of his significantly younger deputies.
As he embarks on a movie comeback in which he will star in three films over the next 12 months, Schwarzenegger is embracing his age rather than trying to relive his glory days as an action star.
He is taking his cue from the 82-year-old Eastwood - the gun-toting former macho "Dirty Harry" star who eased into more senior roles, winning plaudits for movies like last year's "The Trouble with the Curve," and "Million Dollar Baby" in 2004, for which he was nominated for a best-actor Oscar and won for best director.
Schwarzenegger said he was inspired by Eastwood in the 1993 film "In the Line of Fire," where Eastwood's character, a Secret Service agent, is short of breath after running alongside the president's limousine.
"I thought that was so cool," Schwarzenegger told Reuters TV recently. "I remember how smart it was to acknowledge that because it took the curse off. No one was trying to say, 'Isn't he too old for this job?' That's what I tried to do in this film since (Eastwood) is a big idol of mine and I always like to learn from him."
Schwarzenegger said he felt great physically, but that reality had set in. "I'm not a 30-year-old action hero anymore," he said. "I'm now 65 years old, but I'm still doing action movies. I acknowledge that it's a different ballgame now. I'm an older guy."
In "Last Stand," Schwarzenegger said he agreed to play the part of Sheriff Ray Owens because "it was kind of a traditional Schwarzenegger action movie" with "big blow-ups, a great story, good drama, fight scenes and action from the beginning to the end."
Schwarzenegger began his transformation to an aging action star in the 2010 film "The Expendables" and its 2012 sequel where he played an aging movie star in an ensemble cast that included Sylvester Stallone and other older stars.
"I was very pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction," said Schwarzenegger, who was Republican governor of California from 2003 to 2011.
Critics have mostly embraced Schwarzenegger's return with "Last Stand," despite the film's modest budget. Film critic Marshall Fine called it "shamelessly entertaining," while The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy wrote that Schwarzenegger "still conveys the old self-confident, humorous I-dare-you attitude towards his adversaries."
An older, wiser Schwarzenegger chose to play vintage roles in his other upcoming films as well. In September, he teams up again with Stallone in "The Tomb," where they play aging inmates who plot a prison escape. Next January, Schwarzenegger will star in "Ten," playing what the film's director, David Ayer, called "a broken old drug warrior."
In an interview with Reuters, Ayer said his No. 1 goal in working with Schwarzenegger was "transformation." The director said he studied every frame of Schwarzenegger's films, noting that most of the actor's filmography had "a very specific tone, almost jocular in a sense, where it is not necessarily a psychologically realistic portrayal of a man or a character."
"You look at all these performances, and the question is, have these characters been treated as something he can transform himself?" Ayer said. "I probably asked him to do things he wasn't asked before. I knew I could take him someplace new. Some of these scenes required real, heavy lifting."
In the end, Ayer believes moviegoers will be "blindsided" by what they see of Schwarzenegger on screen.
Yet even as Schwarzenegger attempts to widen his range as an actor, he is not leaving behind the genre films that made him famous.
That means going back to some of his popular franchises of the past, including a new "Conan the Barbarian" film that is expected to go into production later this year and a sequel to the 1988 action comedy "Twins" to be called "Triplets."
"It's important I pick projects that the fans, that the audiences like to see," he said.
He already has another big fan in his friend Stallone, who talked him into acting in the two "Expendables" films.
"What is the definition of a star? Someone who people will wait three hours in the rain to see," Stallone said. "And people still have their umbrellas out for him."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)