In 1993, Hong Kong film director John Woo made his American feature film debut with Hard Target, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. That film is not very good as a whole, but the action is solid and one can see Woo’s signature style lurking beneath what is essentially a studio-produced action film, with a bit more talent behind the lens. The Last Stand is the American feature film debut of South Korean director Kim Jee-woon and it is better than Hard Target. It also has its share of problems, given the type of film it is, but Jee-woon’s style is apparent and hopefully future American efforts from him are even more successful. The Last Stand also marks the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a leading role for the first time in ten years, proving that while he may be getting older, the one-liners haven’t much changed.
Irv: How you feelin’ Sherriff?
Sherriff Owns: Old.
Schwarzenegger stars as Ray Owens, Sherriff of Sommerton, a quiet bordertown in Arizona. He wants to have a simple weekend off, with most of the town having left to watch their high school football team compete at an away game. Unfortunately for him, an FBI transfer gone wrong has led to the escape of a notorious drug kingpin, Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), speeding towards Mexico at 200 mph, in a supercharged Corvette. Ray is made aware of this by the FBI agent leading the hunt for Cortez, Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), but not too long after he notices suspicious activity occurring in his town, with a couple seedy individuals (including the country-accented Peter Stormare) acting like they are up to no good. This all leads to Sherriff Ray and his deputies (Luis Guzman and Jaimie Alexander), along with a few citizens he deputizes (Johnny Knoxville and Rodrigo Santoro), making a last stand against those who seek to slip across the border or help in that plan with violent force.
The Last Stand is essentially a modern western, but in much more of a “Hollywood” way, rather than trying to be anything subversive. The premise of this film is obviously ridiculous, but this also is not my first Arnold film and I knew what to expect. I suspect there will be people upset that the film is not non-stop action, but it makes me question whether or not people remember Arnold’s films in general. They may not all have the best story, but they all do attempt to have one and tend to have lots of setup in the lead up to an explosive finale, with pieces of action along the way. The Last Stand plays just like that, which is fine, because there was plenty of goofiness along the way to the action finale of the film. Older Arnold films were able to get away with not being self-aware of their goofiness. The 90s had more fun with that aspect and played off of it (see True Lies or Last Action Hero). The Last Stand is more of a throwback to the earlier stuff, but with a dose of self-aware humor thrown in, because surely everyone involved is aware of what they are doing, without stepping into campy territory.
It is easy, especially now, to make fun of Schwarzenegger “the actor”. He has never been one to really sell a dramatic performance, but has easily drifted on charisma throughout his career. This has worked in films with better central premises and directors, which really highlight his talents, particularly his comedic timing, when the films call for it. The Last Stand is a return, because after watching him slum it through two brief roles in The Expendables films, I was truly worried about whether or not Arnold could still command the screen. Yes, this movie is full of laughable dialogue, but it is certainly not just Arnold who has to deliver it and I had a lot of fun going through the motions of this plot to get to where it needed to go. And with that said, for the type of film this is, it does have some dramatic stakes that are about as effective as they need to be, given that the film takes time to properly lay out the characters, the town, and threats. The movie could have easily been twenty minutes shorter, but then you would get the reverse criticism about The Last Stand lacking plot and characters. The writing may not be amazing, but it does what is necessary and I was engaged, especially given that I did have a lot of fun with the goofiness of Arnold playing the Sherriff of some town in Arizona.
The cast is fairly inconsequential, but Forest Whitaker provides a level of authority here, even if there are some really dumb decisions being made. Peter Stormare is always welcome as a villain, regardless of his ridiculous accent choices. Jamie Alexander and Genesis Rodriguez are nothing but eye candy. Rodrigo Santoro is basically filling in for the stunts that Arnold is too old to perform (and also eye candy). And then you have fun comedic support from Johnny Knoxville and Luis Guzman. As the villain, Noriega is happy to chew up the scenery as “generic rich drug kingpin,” which is just as annoying as it needs to be. Bonus: we get a Harry Dean Stanton cameo!
As mentioned at the top, this is the American debut of director Kim Jee-woon, who knows how to make fun, inventive action films (those who haven’t seen The Good, The Bad, and The Weird should go watch that right now, it’s even on Netflix Instant). The Last Stand has a lot of fun and inventive action in it, with a nice emphasis on practical effects work. The film is grounded in a fair level of reality, which I think reflects the budget and smaller scale of the film, but it makes sense for a film about a siege in a small town. We get some fun car stunts, shootouts and firefights that are all over the place, and even a climatic session of fisticuffs. It is all handled well and makes me hopeful for the next film by Jee-woon, which has the potential to be even greater.
There was a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ during my screening of this film (from other critics and regular audience members alike) and I can’t say that this did not help me to have more fun with the film. The Last Stand is a lot of fun and solid all around. The film is certainly in the realm of B-movie fluff, but I admire that the film does not try to hide that fact, and in January, that is all I really want from the dead zone of new film releases. It may not be top tier Schwarzenegger for me, not rising high enough to join the ranks of films like Terminator 1 and 2 or Predator, but it does sit on the same tier of films like Commando or Eraser. It is an enjoyable mix of fun action filmmaking on display, combined with the returning screen presence of Arnold, who has almost always been fun to watch. Yes he is older and slower, but he said he’d be back and this time out, he delivered.
Burrell: Who the hell are you?
Sherriff Owens: I’m the Sherriff!