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Arnold Schwarzenegger is back, but can he flex box-office muscle?

LOS ANGELES -- Arnold Schwarzenegger is back at the box office, but will anyone notice? We'll find out on Friday, when he debuts as a kick-a-- small-town sheriff in "The Last Stand,' his first starring role in nine years.

When Schwarzenegger famously delivered his "I'll be back" line in 1984, it was as a time-traveling android in "The Terminator." Following his stint as California governor and a very messy divorce from Maria Shriver complete with love child, his return as a box-office force seems almost as unlikely as his role as a time-traveling android.

But Hollywood has embraced the return of California's 65-year-old former "Governator." He has three films coming out in the next 12 months and Universal is developing "Triplets," a sequel to the Danny DeVito-Schwarzenegger comedy "Twins," as well as another "Conan the Barbarian" movie.

But whether the movie going public is as excited as Hollywood about Arnold's return is an open question.

Lionsgate is distributing "The Last Stand," an action film with a reported $50 million budget.

Directed by Korean director Kim Jee-woon and written by Andrew Knauer and Jeffrey Nachmanoff, "The Last Stand" is the tale of an aging border-town lawman drawn into a showdown with a drug cartel kingpin. Johnny Knoxville, Forrest Whitaker and Eduardo Noriega co-star. It was produced by Leonardo Di Bonaventura and was acquired by Lionsgate back in 2009 before Schwarzenegger was involved. Liam Neeson was attached to star at one point.

Lionsgate has proven adept at marketing genre films, including "The Expendables" and Tyler Perry franchises, and last year's "The Possession," and that will help "The Last Stand." Distribution chief Richie Fay tells TheWrap he's confident Schwarzenegger's return will connect with the public.

"I've been in a number of screenings and at the premiere," Fay told TheWrap Tuesday, "and the reaction to the film has been great. People are laughing at his one-liners, they seem very comfortable with Arnold back on the screen in his action mode."

Fay has reason to be bullish. Schwarzenegger's most recent screen appearance was in another Lionsgate entry, the ensemble action film "The Expendables 2," last August. That one has taken in more than $300 million worldwide. And he'll be back - there we go, again - with Sylvester Stallone in "The Tomb," for Lionsgate's Summit Entertainment in September.

Others aren't so sure.

"I can't see this film opening to more than the mid-teen millions," Exhibitor Relations senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap. "There's not a lot of negative buzz, but people aren't dying to see him come back, either. Bottom line, I don't think he'll inspire anywhere the level of passion he once did at the box office."

If Lionsgate is to make money on "The Last Stand," it appears foreign will be critical; analysts see the film topping out at $30 million domestically.

"Schwarzenegger is still a big deal overseas," Bock said, "and that's where this movie will make or break itself.

I could easily see it doing double whatever it does in the U.S."

At this point in his career, the stakes for Schwarzenegger may be higher than they are for the studios. His paycheck for "The Last Stand" is reportedly in the $8 million to $10 million range, with some potential profit participation. That's about half of what he commanded in his heyday for the "Terminator" films, "True Lies" and "Total Recall."

Schwarzenegger's box-office clout was beginning to fade prior to his heading to Sacramento in 2003. His last film, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" made $150 million domestically for Warner Bros. in 2003, but his two previous movies, "Collateral Damage" and "The Sixth Day," topped out at $40 million and $34 million respectively.

Hollywood's expectations have changed, too. Most of Schwarzenegger's hits were big summer movies, with budgets well over $100 million. "The Last Stand" cost half that, and its release on a moderate 2,800 screens in January, typically a soft time for new releases, is no accident. "Ten," Schwarzenegger's third film, is scheduled for release on Jan. 24, 2014, by Open Road Films.

"The Last Stand" is the first of three upcoming openings for action movies with older stars. Warner Bros. is opening "Bullet to the Head," starring Stallone, on Feb. 1. Bruce Willis stars in "A Good Day to Die Hard" from Fox on Feb. 15.