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THE HERO: 2 ½ STARS FOR THE MOVIE, 4 STARS FOR SAM ELLIOTT. “untapped star power.”

Sam Elliott, he of the easy drawl, smoky voice and horseshoe moustache, has made almost fifty films but has rarely ever been the above-the-title star. In “The Hero” he plays Lee Hayden, an aging Western film star, diagnosed with cancer. He’s in almost every frame, bringing an easy charm that solidifies his leading man status while smoothing over the film’s rough patches.

“The Hero” is a story of a man who can see the end of the road. Well known but underemployed and living off residual cheques from his heyday, the one time movie star now does voice overs for commercials to pay the bills. When he isn’t shilling for Lone Star BBQ Sauce—“The perfect pard’ner for your ribs.”—he’s smoking dope with his friend, former “Cattle Drive” co-star and drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman). Through Jeremy the seventy-one-year-old meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a stand-up comic more than half his age.

As a new life of sorts is beginning with Charlotte a cancer diagnoses—“One of the worst you could hope for,” he says.—prompts him to look for a “chance to write another chapter” with his estranged daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter) and possibly find some career defining work to leave behind as a legacy.

Writer/director Brett Haley knows how to make the most of Elliott’s weary but stately presence. The pair worked together on Haley’s last film, “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” another look at aging and legacy. Both films rely on clichés to forward their stories, but both films are saved by strong central performances from their stars—Blythe Danner in “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” Elliott in “the Hero”—who bring warmth and believability, not to mention high powered and often untapped star power, to their roles.

When the film falls into the romantic / comeback template already established by films like “Tender Mercies” and “The Wrestler,” Elliott’s quest for redemption keeps it from becoming a maudlin look at Hayden’s twilight years.

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