Disgraced, disgruntled, and a bit outdated, our formerly high flying hero has returned. The man who made the ’80s the stunt filled guilty pleasure we action fans still crave promised he would “be back”, and with likeable The Last Stand, he is. For many, Arnold Schwarzenegger is nothing more than a fond memory, a thick accented anomaly who turned a near wordless role in James Cameron’s brilliant Terminator (and Terminator 2) into an entire career — both within and outside the movie business. He became the world’s biggest, and most baffling, box office draw, and parlayed said paydays into a surreal politico marriage, a stint as California’s Governor, and before his maid-diddling downfall, talk of a run at the White House.
Now, Ahhhh-nold is like his character in this High Noon like homage — trying to get comfortable in his aging and addled skin. Sheriff Ray Owens has escaped to a small town in Arizona named Sommerton Junction. A former detective in LA, he has seen too much blood and death to warrant more than a sleepy stop-off near the Mexican border. It fits his new laid back lifestyle. He has a group of goofy if good natured deputies (Zach Gilford, Luis Guzman, Jaimie Alexander), a gun-loving local yokel (Johnny Knoxville) to deal with, and an ex-GI prisoner (Rodrigo Santoro) who’s lost and looking for direction. One night, the FBI loses track of a notorious drug kingpin (Eduardo Noriega) and fear he is headed Owens’ way. At the same, a group of baddies led by a man named Burrell (Peter Stormare) has staked out some land near the edge of town. They are there to protect this high profile criminal and help his escape. Of course, Owens will rally his tepid troops to make sure that doesn’t happen.
At its core, The Last Stand is a throwback. It’s a self aware piece of filmmaking that wants to reintroduce a former film icon to the audiences who love/loved him, while hoping to find a niche within the otherwise overblown field of Willis/Statham/Neeson vehicles. As such, it’s a decent fit. Schwarzenegger looks comfortably old and eager to exploit his age. Unlike his then potent peers — Stallone, Van-Damme, and to some extent, Seagal — he’s not out to recapture past glories… or worse, kick Father Time in his face-lifting , tattooed ass. No, this is a movie made to showcase what a once mighty muscleman can do, some three decades removed from his stellar Cineplex past – and in that regard, it works. Even better, it knows what it wants to do and dives right in, foregoing any necessary moviemaking muddles like characterization, complexity, or narrative context.
Perhaps more importantly, The Last Stand marks the US debut of acclaimed Korean director Kim Ji-woon. Perhaps best known for such high profile foreign films as A Tale of Two Sisters, The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, and the brilliant I Saw the Devil, he brings a knowledge of the genre and all its telling blood-soaked tropes without kowtowing completely to them. His thrill sequences are precise, direct, and full of bare-knuckled, tire screeching, exploding fireball fun. Kim also brings a lot of humor, casting the film in a way that allows for the actors to play up their parts. This is especially true of Knoxville (whose like a survivalist savant trapped in a gun geeks arrested adolescence) and Guzman (who gives good discontented). Even the ancillary elements find moments of humor. FBI head Forest Whitaker, saddled with the always thankless role of hyperbolic bugged eyed boss, gets a few laughs.
Of course, Kim also brings a burden that’s actually not his fault. This is the year 2013, after all, and with that comes an expectation of something…more. We don’t want standard stunts and fisticuffs. We want style. We want panache. We want some wonky combination of the handheld you-are-there camerawork, outlandish human endurance, weird weaponry and the wielding of same, and above all, the snarky acknowledgement that you, as the viewer, only want more, More, MORE! It’s a try-and-top-this aesthetic comeuppance that’s fueled everything from the good (Wanted, Shoot ‘Em Up) to the god-awful (anything with the credit “A film by Olivier Megaton”). Kim could care less about this, and it may be to his own commercial detriment. Audience will flock to see the famed freakshow that is the TMZ-inator. The jocular simplicity of The Last Stand may not translate down the generations, however.
No matter. For what it is, and for what it doesn’t try to be, The Last Stand is a first class ride. It doesn’t reinvent the genre so much as reinvest it with much of the moxie it had in the first place. It’s old fashioned. It’s fun…and it does what it intends to do – that is, re-launch Arnold Schwarzenegger as an aging but still capable action star. Unlike other attempted updates, like JCVD or The Expendables, there is no attempt to conspire with the crowd to acknowledge the material’s creative camp. Instead, this film feels its aching joints and wants us to wobble along with it. For Schwarzenegger, it’s the best comeback he could hope for. It’s fully realized, fascinating, and full of promise. For Kim Ji-woon, it’s a path to more high profile Tinseltown gigs. For audiences, it’s a nostalgic nod without the added wink.