How do you build a bankable action movie star? At least on the surface, retired professional wrestler Steve Austin—who was born (as Steven Anderson) in Austin, raised near Victoria, and trained at the Chris Adams’ Professional Wrestling School, in Dallas—would seem to possess all the necessary attributes. For one thing, he’s an enormous physical specimen: six feet one, 250 pounds, almost comically broad through his deltoid and trapezius muscles. More significantly, he developed a tremendous fan base in the late nineties and early two thousands as six-time World Wrestling Federation champion “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the bad boy quick to thrust a middle finger at authority. Presumably, Austin just needed to follow the path to Hollywood already blazed by his former opponents, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (The Scorpion King, The Game Plan) and John Cena (The Marine). For a few brief moments this summer, it looked as if he might pull it off too. There he was, on the poster for The Expendables, posing next to the most iconic action stars of the past quarter century, among them Sylvester Stallone (who also directed the picture), Dolph Lundgren, and Jet Li. Austin seemed to have finally gained entry into Hollywood’s muscle-bound elite.

One small problem: The former wrestler had a difficult time making much of an impression. The Expendables is actually an endearingly cheesy romp about a team of aging mercenaries, but Austin, playing the henchman of bad guy Eric Roberts, ends up being the odd meathead out. He silently stares down the camera and occasionally barks an embarrassing line of dialogue (“Look at me, you piece of trash”). His climactic showdown with Stallone is crosscut with two other fights happening simultaneously; it’s impossible to make sense of what’s going on, much less try to admire Austin’s heft and athleticism. Sure, you could look at the bright side—better to be a nobody in a well-liked commercial success than a somebody in a straight-to-DVD flop, right? But The Expendables is merely the latest in a string of false starts for Austin, and at age 45, he’s now reached that gray zone where a man’s brawn is neither youthfully imposing nor (like the 64-year-old, more-ripped-than-ever Stallone) scientifically curious. In building the next Hollywood action star, something went seriously haywire.

Part of the blame rests with Austin, who made an early and critical mistake: He assumed that moviegoers would embrace him for the same reasons his wrestling fans had. Witness The Condemned (2007), a foul thriller about ten death row inmates who are pitted against one another in a fight to the death that is broadcast online. Produced by WWE Studios (a subsidiary of World Wrestling Entertainment, the rebranded WWF), the movie lectures us about how the Internet is turning us into bloodthirsty cretins—and then gleefully watches as Austin beats, bludgeons, and vivisects his fellow actors. Less violent, if more idiotic, was the straight-to-DVD The Stranger (2010), in which he plays an FBI agent “in between fugue states” trying to unravel a conspiracy. In both films, Austin is given little occasion to smile or crack a joke or even unclench his jaw. He plays an extension of his Stone Cold persona, an outraged everyman who will obey no law that contradicts his righteousness. (He’s like Glenn Beck with an enviably low body fat percentage.) Yet he doesn’t seem to realize that movie audiences almost always want to see a well-established persona evolve: Just ask Johnson, whose biggest commercial dud, Walking Tall (2004), cast him as a four-by-four-wielding variant on the Rock. Or just ask Stallone, who endured a fifteen-year-long dry spell before finding a way to reinvent and slyly satirize his old self in The Expendables. As a wrestler, Austin showed a flair for performance—his longtime feud with WWF honcho Vince
McMahon was an epic mock soap opera, complete with kidnappings, steel chair assaults, and restroom ambushes—but onscreen he has been exhaustingly intransigent.

Then again, even had he made all the right choices, Austin might still have crashed into the same brick wall: Quite plainly (and somewhat poignantly), he represents a brand of action hero that no longer has much currency. His one halfway-decent film thus far has been the straight-to-DVD Damage (2009), in which he plays an ex-con who joins up with an underground boxing promoter (Walton Goggins) to earn money for a girl’s heart transplant (don’t ask). It’s the sort of overripe but brutally entertaining melodrama that, back in the fifties and sixties, Nicholas Ray or Don Siegel might have transformed into a B-movie gem. Austin’s performance, meanwhile, invokes the eighties- and nineties-era turns of Stallone, Mel Gibson, and Steven Seagal: the stoic, decent-hearted tough guy for whom “this time it’s personal.” But tastes change, and a new kind of action star now dominates. Austin is incapable of the ironic self-deprecation that Robert Downey Jr. brought to Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes; he displays none of the leonine grace of Will Smith in I Am Legend and I, Robot; and you certainly couldn’t imagine him as a physically pliable half-human, half-CGI hybrid like Sam Worthington in Avatar. The shortcomings of Damage as a movie turn out to be the same as Austin’s as an actor: not quite sophisticated enough to be a retro throwback, not original or knowing enough to feel relevant to modern audiences.

A bit of unsolicited advice to Steve Austin, from a critic who believes in your swagger and untapped charm: First off, enough with the WWE cameo appearances. You can’t reinvent yourself if you’re still clinging to a past that no one ever took seriously. (Can you imagine Mark Wahlberg getting an Oscar nomination for The Departed if he were still singing with the Funky Bunch?) Second, lay off the straight-to-DVD fare and consider earning your keep on television (see “Et Tu, Brute?”), a medium that tends to make room for actors no longer riding the wave of the zeitgeist (hey, it worked for Chuck Norris). Finally, take a cue from Johnson, whose deft parody of his alpha-male persona in the otherwise dreadful Be Cool (2005) revealed a surprising gift for comedy—and made audiences see him in a more approachable light. When you’re trying to muscle your way to superstardom on the strength of your 21-inch biceps, a little bit of humor and humility goes a long way.

ET TU, BRUTE? The best way for Steve Austin to really flex his acting muscle

Although he guest-starred for a six-episode stretch on Nash Bridges in 1999 and 2000, at the height of his popularity as a wrestler, it took Steve Austin a decade to return to episodic television. His brief guest spot on Chuck earlier this year, playing a secret agent who squares off against the title character (Zachary Levi) on a flight from Los Angeles to Paris, might just be the best acting work he’s done. His character, Hugo Panzer, is a standard-issue TV bad guy, but Austin displayed a light comic touch opposite the always-terrific Levi, not to mention a crafty way with a sword. The good news is that he’ll reprise the role this month, in an episode set to also co-star Nicole Richie. A few more character parts like this one might be just what the career doctor ordered—and perhaps provide the launching pad for a TV series of Austin’s own.