Watching The Last Stand is like pouring a shot glass full of a classic western, dropping it into a full glass of Red Bull, and chugging the whole concoction. Korean director Kim Jee-woon makes his English language debut here, and his first Hollywood effort is brimming with frenetic pacing and a plot that’s so brilliantly simplistic, it’s sort of shocking it hasn’t been done before. Sure, we’ve seen “stand off” movies in the past, but few have the kind of furious energy, lighthearted humor, and focused vision that Jee-woon brings to the table. In short, The Last Stand is fast-paced, action-packed, and a total blast.
Barring a couple small appearances in the Expendables movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been out of the acting game for nearly ten years; color me surprised, then, that Arnold doesn’t miss a step when returning to the genre that he so dominated in the 80s and 90s. His advanced age serves as the fodder for some occasional jokes in this film, but the guy is still incredibly capable for a 65-year-old. Everything you liked about him back then, he still has: the charming lughead persona, the inability to pronounce a few English words correctly, and, of course, the larger-than-life screen presence. Most of his huge action moments come around the third act, but they’re worth the wait. Where the script lacks in iconic one-liners, it makes up for with creative and crowd-pleasingly ridiculous kills as we watch Arnie and Co. send the bad guys to meet their makers.
Schwarzenegger plays Ray Owens, a sheriff in a small, sleepy American town that borders Mexico. He used to work narcotics in the L.A.P.D., but sh*t hit the fan and he headed for a more quiet life elsewhere. Surrounded by well-meaning (but mostly untrained) fellow officers played by Luis Guzman, Jaimie Alexander, and Zach Gilford, as well as a local gun lover played by Johnny Knoxville, Owens and his unlikely crew become the last line of defense when a notorious cartel leader (Eduardo Noriega) escapes the clutches of the FBI (led by Forest Whitaker) and tries to race a souped-up sports car from Vegas down across the border. It’s a modern western - High Noon by way of Neveldine/Taylor - but in lesser hands, it would have felt tired and played out. Thankfully, it’s in the hands of the man who made the terrific Korean western The Good, The Bad, The Weird.
Jee-woon isn’t afraid to go overboard with violence, and in fact the movie gets relentless during some of the firefights between evil henchman and unprepared lawmen and in its cartridge-filled climax. But after seeing Tarantino’s latest opus Django Unchained and that film’s usage of practical effects and squibs, situations in The Last Stand are almost cartoonish in comparison because it uses mostly digital blood added in post-production, removing some of the realism from the story.
To be fair, realism doesn’t seem like it was high on anyone’s list of priorities for this film…and that totally works. After all, this is a movie in which a bad guy sneaks up on two speeding FBI SUVs in a sports car, does a 180 in front of one of them, slams on the brakes, and ramps one of them off the front of his own car for the other to crash into. There are a few “holy sh*t” moments like that, and most induce laughter at how outrageous they are. It reminds me a lot of some of Arnie’s big 90s action movies: bombastic and preposterous, yes, but also sort of endearing how hard the filmmakers tried to give us moments we haven’t seen before.
There’s also a decent amount of humor, led mostly by Schwarzenegger’s deadpan reactions to things and the amusing supporting cast, which serves to balance the tone when things occasionally get dark. Many of the townsfolk conveniently leave to follow the local high school football team to an away game during the weekend of this big showdown, but the people who stay behind (including a particularly no-nonsense granny) also provide some of the movie’s biggest laughs. Perhaps there’s something to be said about the homegrown justice being doled out by gun-toting locals in this movie in the wake of the mass gun murders that have happened in America over the past few months, but I’ll side with Schwarzenegger’s feelings on the matter: guns in entertainment are separate from tragedies of real events, and films shouldn’t be blamed for the actions of people who are mentally unstable.
Frankly, I had my doubts going into this film about whether or not Schwarzenegger could successfully come back after being away from acting for so long. But if he continues to team with visionary directors who consistently elevate material and writers who can craft stories that play to his strengths, then it’s possible audiences will return to see a former relic of the action genre come back to shake things up a bit. Everyone loves an underdog story, and while in some respects his character’s story in The Last Stand is a good metaphor for Arnold’s own career trajectory, I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of The Governator. Until next time…