The Last Stand should interest us on two fronts: as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to above-the-title billing after his probationary supporting role in studio Lionsgate’s Expendables series, and as the English-language debut of Korean director Kim Jee-woon. For the uninitiated, Kim is the sharp stylist who moved from 2003’s distinctive horror A Tale of Two Sisters and 2005’s terrific hitman flick A Bittersweet Life to 2008’s rambunctious The Good, The Bad, The Weird; here, he goes full Hollywood with what’s effectively a Western in casual modern clothing.
Arnie plays Ray Owens, sheriff of the Arizona bordertown of Sommerton, yet The Last Stand’s first surprise is how much of the film is allowed to go on around him. Like a rinky-dink Hawks, Kim is more interested in hanging with his characters – the sheriff’s Stetson-sporting deputy (Luis Guzman, giving typical good value), a couple of yearning underlings (Jaimie Alexander and Zach Gilford), the bestubbled prisoner in cell one (Rodrigo Santoro), the crackpot owner of a local gun museum (Johnny Knoxville, used in mercifully spare doses) – affectionately spying their strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, and working up a keen sense of community.
Sommerton’s tranquillity will, however, soon be threatened, with the lightning-fast approach of murderous convict Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), who – during his escape from custody – has somehow come to equip himself with the fastest car in America. As harried FBI agent Forest Whitaker, showing up late to the party, phrases it: “A psychopath in a Batmobile – how am I supposed to top that?” Well, having a Terminator at your disposal – even an aged and creaking one – might help.
As in Jack Reacher, there’s some cognitive dissonance to get past for maximum enjoyment: powering down your brain might help. How else to square the film’s lingering shots of bullets being poured into and pumped out of mini-cannons, which might well rally the NRA at this uncertain moment in its history, with the gun debate America finds itself in? One could argue it comes with the territory: sometimes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even if that means starting the mother of all shoot-outs on Main Street.
For his part, Arnie now delegates much of the running and shooting to others, partly out of generosity, partly – no doubt – from necessity, and his fabled non-gift for dialogue is very much front and centre here, offered up as part of the joke: there’s a reason his early successes limited him to terse wisecracks, and why Last Action Hero was the closest he got to playing Hamlet.
Still, the guy has a whole Monument Valley’s-worth of presence, which is what you might be looking for in a sheriff, or anywhere else; faced with the blankness of the Tatum-Gosling generation, where no-one really seems to know what a leading man might look like and has to wilfully project to find one, it’s oddly reassuring to be returned to a more stable and recognisable model of stardom. Writer Andrew Knauer keeps finding witty new ways to humanise Schwarzenegger, stuffing Ray with doubts, fears and regrets. “How are you, Sheriff?,” inquires the concerned owner of a diner whose window Arnie has just come crashing through. “Old,” is the response.
Kim, meanwhile, is having great fun making one of the most briskly entertaining East-to-West transfers in recent memory. While something of a throwback in itself, The Last Stand turns out to be an action movie with characters you like and maybe even care about, full of set-ups that are very deftly, and often artfully, paid off. Tarantino can gab on all he likes, but sometimes a dumb-as-nuts oneliner’s what you really want.
(MovieMail, January 2013)
The Last Stand screens on five tomorrow night at 11.05pm.