In 2010’s I Saw the Devil, an upright secret service agent seeks vengeance against his beautiful girlfriend’s killer. His target, a serial killer, soon draws Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) into a horrific cat-and-mouse sort of contest, elaborate acts at once cunning and viciousness that the filmmaker, Kim Jee-woon, offered up in images at once astute and harrowing. His first American film, The Last Stand, achieves a similarly combinatory effect: it’s Arnold and Johnny Knoxville, immigration politics and car chases, exploding heads and cornfields.
The mix is at times surprisingly exhilarating, even if it does rather indulge in that exploding heads motif. The plot is as tedious as they come, with Schwarzenegger playing an ex-LAPD narcotics officer named Ray, now settled in the sleepy border town of Sommerton, Arizona. While his deputies are bored — and so spend an early scene shooting meat with local arms hoarder Lewis (Knoxville acting out in a bathrobe and goggles) — Ray sees the value of Sommerton’s lack of action, an idea soon complicated when the place is selected by cartel kingpin Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), as his route out of US custody and into Mexico.
That route is as intricate as any a movie serial killer might conjure, with whole squads of workers and shooters assembled at various points between the FBI (whose always-a-step-behindness is embodied by the agent John Banister, played by Forest Whitaker) and the border, beginning with a tremendous escape scene where a giant magnet appears to come down from the sky (perhaps a nearby building) to lift the armored vehicle in which he’s being transported is hauled off the street while the feds shoot and flail below. Cortez is an arrogant rich boy, third generation in the cartel, and so, he points out, accustomed to getting his way, no matter the cost or the preposterousness of that way. Thus he doesn’t just fly or tunnel his way to freedom, but instead, also being an amateur racecar driver, has his men steal a Zero One Corvette, in which he proceeds to zoom south.
Of course it makes no sense, but it makes for a long ride and lots of cutting from scenes of Cortez and his FBI hostage in the car to Bannister perusing monitors to basic brute Burrell (Peter Stormare) bringing mayhem to Sommerton to Ray and his team of earnest youngsters, as well as the comic-reliefy Figgy (Luis Guzmán), making their “last stand” against considerable odds. (That said, the townsfolk are apparently armed to the teeth, a running joke that has a new context now, with some pop-cultural urgency concerning gun control.)
If Ray’s team isn’t quite like Dutch’s in Predator, it does grant Schwarzenegger familiar ground for his return to a starring role: he squints, grimaces, and offers sage advice, and also reveals that even at 65, he can fake-shoot and fake-beat-down the heck out of anyone even a third his age. He’s also fine at making fun of himself, calling himself “old” as a punchline.
That punchline makes clear the film’s essential appreciation of Arnold, and offers one way to read it. Here Ray’s the old-school hero, hard-hitting and expert in all important cop activities, weary rather than cynical, prone to seek vengeance for worthy young deputies lost to criminal violence and make use of the resources at hand. That is, when he sees the bad guys are bringing heavy artillery, he asserts, “I’ve got an idea,” and heads straight over to Lewis’ place, a dusty warehouse as full up with guns (old, but guns just the same) as Sarah Connor’s border stash in T2. And when the Zero One blasts through town, Ray gets another idea, borrowing a red Mustang so he can (however implausibly) keep up with the turbocharged vehicle.
For all the gore and speed and violence leading to and from this point, the cars contest occasions The Last Stand‘s most memorable scene, as both drivers head into a vast cornfield full speed, only to have to stop and then crawl through, unable to see where they are or where their opponent is. The several shots designed to show this set-up — long and overhead, close on the grim faces and the pale yellow cornstalks, burrowing with the windshields — are sensational, beautifully conceived and composed, less standard action movie business than sudden stillness, no shooting, no screeching, just crunching dry stalks. Perverse and bracing, it’s a bit of art where you might least expect it.