By Jeff Jensen
Updated July 11, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Arnold Schwarzenegger is one dusty old movie star.

Quibble if you want with calling a 55-year-old man ”old.” But this is Hollywood. And this is Conan we’re talking about. By action-hero standards, the star of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is geriatric. And at this moment, on one of the 10 massive soundstages occupied by T3 at L.A. Center Studios, he is undeniably dusty, having just finished wrestling in the debris of a military-weapons lab with a lithe blonde packed tightly in cherry red leather. The fight scene with Kristanna Loken, who plays the sexy high concept called the T-X, has left Schwarzenegger shrouded from chiseled head to booted toe in soot.

But this is quickly rectified. Sitting in his director’s chair — and while he’s not the director, he’s certainly T3’s most powerful player — he bats at his brown hair, and the powder flakes off like snow. A few swipes, and there they are — the black biker pants. A few more, and there it is — the black leather jacket. He stands, puts on the shades, and suddenly looks every bit the robo-bodyguard from the future that last shot up the screen 12 long years ago in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger is still very much a movie star. For now.

A lot of people have been talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger lately, and not just because of T3. The actor is currently starring in another suspenseful drama in California, where a movement is afoot to unseat embattled Democratic governor Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger has a juicy part — the would-be white knight, a Republican Lancelot with a Camelot wife (TV journalist and Kennedy cousin Maria Shriver). How well does the potential GOP savior get along with the opposition in a traditionally Democratic state? ”Just remember,” he replies in a quip you’ll be hearing frequently, ”I sleep with a liberal every night.” And right now, he has everyone on the edge of their seats: Whether it’s in 2006 or in a special election sooner, will Arnold run?

If Schwarzenegger is being coy about the answer, it might be because he’s in the middle of a more pressing campaign with moviegoers: reclaiming his status as the man who once defined the Hollywood action hero. Schwarzenegger’s last three films — Collateral Damage, The 6th Day, and End of Days — grossed an un-muscular $142 million collectively, a sad contrast with the Terminator franchise, created by Titanic auteur James Cameron in 1984. In fact, T2 — with its then-groundbreaking digital F/X, then-cool ”Hasta la vista” catchphrase, and $205 million gross — is still the biggest hit the seven-time Mr. Olympia has ever had.

In an era when wirework, kung fu, and quasi-intellectual whoa! have redefined cinematic excitement, will the big! bang! boom! of the Terminator franchise seem as dated as hair metal? ”There’s a lot of reasons to be skeptical walking into this movie,” says T3 director Jonathan Mostow, whose list begins with…himself. For despite impressive action credentials (Breakdown and U-571), even Mostow knows the man everyone really hoped would helm T3 is Cameron, who hasn’t directed a feature in six years. Mostow also knows T3’s toughest sell will be to folks who might naturally view it, in his words, as ”a cheesy, cynical attempt to cash in on whatever goodwill people have for this franchise.”