Wednesday, June 5, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: THE LAST STAND Isn't the Arnold Comeback We Deserve, But It Is the One We Need

If you are at all a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his particular brand of action films, it's kind of hard not to like The Last Stand. While it isn't as over-the-top as many probably want it to be, and while it certainly has some pretty big flaws, it's still a solid entry in his leading man filmography. It's deftly directed by Kim Jee-Woon (making his American debut) and has just enough energy and old school charm to help gloss over the weaker parts.

Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) is planning on enjoying his day off in the quiet border town of Sommerton, when escaped cartel boss Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) and his band of goons (lead by veritable character actor Peter Stormare) come storming through town on a mad dash to get into Mexico. It's up to the sheriff and his rag-tag group (Luis Guzman, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro and the insanely gorgeous Jaimie Alexander) to gear up and make good on the movie's title.

The simplicity of the story may actually be to its detriment, since most lovers of Arnold flicks want things to be as outlandish as the Austrian's acting style, but I kind of like that Arnold's comeback movie is actually very downplayed until the third act. There aren't tons of one-liners being thrown around (there's a good number near the end though, so don't worry) and the action featured in the first two-thirds of the movie is fairly straightforward and unspectacular. That may sound like a dig at the movie, but it only helps to make the big climactic showdown seem even bigger by comparison. And that showdown is, for lack of a better term, awesome. You get lots of practical squib work with the blood, nice big explosions, vehicular shenanigans and a great variety of gunplay. When Luis Guzman emerges from a cloud of smoke wielding a Tommy gun, it's applause worthy.

As far as performances go, everything here is standard fare, which may be another reason Arnold fans might not have been as overjoyed with the film. Ray Owens won't join the ranks of the T-800, Dutch or Conan in Arnold's acting trophy room, but that's okay for this movie. It all works into the down-to-earth feeling the town and its inhabitants are supposed to have. The only two "out there" performers in the picture are Peter Stormare and Johnny Knoxville, but that's inherent to their personalities and acting styles. Stormare's second-in-command baddie is actually far superior to the main villain, Cortez, in terms of presence and cool factor. There's a scene early on in the film with Stormare and a farmer (played by the always welcome Harry Dean Stanton) that gives Stormare's character a lot more menace than Eduardo Noriega's antagonist role. If the film has one big flaw, it's this. Action movies (and most other stories) rely on a strong villain to help give the surrounding events proper heft. Noriega's character spends almost the entire running time in a car, away from the town, which is where our brains know the real threat is going to be. I wish they could have found a way to consolidate the two villains into one and let Stormare play around more.

And Knoxville is pretty much directly riffing on a character from another Kim Jee-Woon film, The Good, The Bad and The Weird, going so far as to wear the exact same hat as the character from that film. This has to be a direct reference by the director himself, and I'm fine with that. Knoxville plays himself well, but my main issue with most of the characters in this film is that they serve no other purpose than to service the plot. Knoxville owns a gun museum, so he's where they get all of their weapons from. Rodrigo Santoro's character is an ex-Marine who spends the first two acts locked in a cell, but once his deputy friend is killed, he is deputized so they have another good shot on the team. And poor Forest Whitaker's FBI agent. ...Oh, did I not mention that Forest Whitaker is in this movie? Well, he doesn't merit much mentioning since his character exists solely to spout exposition about the bad guy and give us reasons why Owens and his town won't be getting any help. His character is necessary, but they don't do anything with him to make him interesting as a person.

But, in the end, you're coming to this hootenanny for some action, and on that end, this film more than delivers. Action doesn't just need to be exciting, but also staged well and that takes the hand of a confident director. Kim Jee-Woon is certainly the man for the job, since his action scenes are easy to follow and properly choreographed. I also applaud the minimal use of CG blood, since you can't get the same impact as you can with a big goopy squib explosion. The violence in this is spaghetti western at its finest, and I'm all about that. There's an especially humorous part with a flare gun that certainly wins the kill of the movie. John Woo's American debut, Hard Target, and this movie would actually make a spectacular double feature.

I'm glad I mentioned spaghetti westerns because that's essentially what this movie is, just filtered through an Arnold action movie lens. It's also nice because there isn't really a western film in Arnold's filmography (I refuse to acknowledge The Villain) so it helps it to stand out amongst his other films. You can tell Arnie likes playing up the Gary Cooper-esque qualities of the character, especially at the end when he finally confronts Cortez. Since Cortez isn't the best villain, the last fight doesn't have the narrative weight it should, but it totally works as a knock down brawl between two guys. Seeing Arnold give a guy a suplex is cool in any movie.

I think if this movie had come out in the mid-nineties (somewhere between Junior and Batman and Robin), people would be calling it one of Arnold's best. But, as a comeback movie, it disappointed by not being the zany cartoon people expect from Arnold and his action adventures. That's a shame, because it's certainly worth a viewing. And it's a much welcome distraction from the majority of action films nowadays, which are either so slick that they feel sterile (pick any Jason Statham movie), or are primarily children's properties gone big time (I'm giving you the evil eye, Transformers). It's nice to see a very simple, straightforward piece of popcorn action that has a good sense of focus behind it. It'd be nice if the characters were more strongly written and the villain was more intimidating, but I could lob that same complaint at Eraser and I enjoy that movie as well. If you're an Arnold fan, you definitely need to see this one. If you're an action movie fan, this is certainly worth a rental at the very least. It probably won't knock your socks off, but it'll leave you with a nice little smile on your face at the end.

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