Arnold Schwarzenegger is old. Do you get that joke? Okay, good. Because the rest of this movie has nothing to do with that. In fact, the rest of this movie is so surprisingly action-packed and practically impressive that the marketing should have shied away from this being Arnold’s return to Hollywood and just given us the goods on what it’s really about: The sleekest A to B thrill ride to hit the screen in a long, long time.
I grew up with Arnold the action hero. I saw the movie Predator when I was five-years-old and, for want of better parenting, it is still the benchmark that I measure the genre by (for me, it stands neck and neck with Die Hard as the best action movie of all time). It seems necessary that a proper review of The Last Stand should focus on its protagonist, a man who defined this genre in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, but it is a stroke of genius that places the aging star in the midst of this ensemble and lets the action gradually build and spiral its way to him.
In Las Vegas, a heavily armored FBI convoy is escorting Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), an internationally wanted drug lord. But the FBI is caught off guard by his sudden and well-calculated escape plan. An intricate series of outmaneuvers and costume changes later, Cortez is racing for the border in a C6 ZR1 (sorry, I can’t avoid the product placement), a modded Chevrolet that can drive faster than any chopper. As his goons mow down every blockade the FBI and local authorities place in his path, his escape route is cleared all the way down to the quaint border town of Sommerton Junction. There, the cartel has assembled a team of military-grade mercenaries to wait for his arrival. With most of Sommerton’s small population gone (attending a high school football game), a four man police force is all that stands in their way. But Sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a former Los Angeles Narcotics Officer, isn’t going down without a fight.
From start to finish, The Last Stand is a ride. There is only one credited screenwriter to the film (Andrew Knauer) and that, coupled with the adrenal punch of Kim Ji-woon’s direction, makes for a stylish force to be reckoned with. Are there familiar action beats? You bet there’s familiar action beats. Is this thing trying to carve its way down to the deep, dark soul of the post-modern action film? Hell no.
There are two major surprises to be had: One, the lack of fat. This is a simple chase movie that swings back and forth between Cortez’s race to the border and Sommerton’s gradual involvement in the plot. There’s nothing close to a subplot, and every bit of character development happens in story, every relevant bit of backstory is divulged by the FBI (run by a blustering and pissed off Forest Whittaker). It sounds so much duller than it plays out on screen, owing to the snappy dialogue and relentless pacing. Secondly, and much to my delight, the effects are almost entirely practical, meaning the computer effects are minimized and when a car spins out of control and goes smashing down the road, it really goes smashing (and there is a whole lot of spinning).
I don’t know how Johnny Knoxville ends up in these things, but he’s really the only out of place element. He provides the film’s heavy artillery and the comic relief, and his role as the latter almost pulls the whole thing off course. Thankfully, his goofy antics are just in keeping with the overall oddness of the town of Sommerton and he isn’t around long enough to complain about. The police force of Sommerton all have their own quirks, as does the leader of the mercenaries, played by Peter Stormare, who just oozes odiousness. His boss, Cortez, provides a great foil to Ray, and his low-key menace slowly builds in tension and desperation the closer he gets to the far side of the border. Their final showdown is a nicely staged bit of business that contrasts today’s slick UFC hold-based style of fighting to Arnold’s old school “smash-you-in-the-face”-fu.
So let’s end this review with the man of the hour. He’s back from politics, and he’s old, and that is the truth. The film never shies away from that fact. Schwarzenegger can’t be expected to pack the punches that he used to, and to do so would be absurd. For a kid raised on his classics, it’s actually a disarming reminder of mortality, but in lieu of that heavy subject, let’s move on to the latter day career of the Austrian Oak.
Arnold has never been a great actor. But his charm somehow negates the common laws of cinema. Believable? No. The king of all one-liners? Absolutely. This giant has lumbered through countless actioneers and he has always done so as a force of nature, a rough, cocky, and unapologetically macho avatar of the silver screen. While he played along with Stallone in the latter’s Expendables films, those movies hearken back to a sensibility that no longer plays in today’s movie houses, and though Stallone can’t be faulted for being nostalgic, Arnold’s shtick was always a cut above. No other actor has embodied a particular brand of movie so well as he, and for that brand, and this actor, time has moved on. That’s what makes The Last Stand so refreshing. This is not a Schwarzenegger movie. It’s a movie with Schwarzenegger in it (a much slower, methodical Schwarzenegger to be sure). If this movie belongs to anyone, it’s to the dynamic duo of director Kim Ji-woon and cinematographer Kim Ji-yong. And that is very, very cool.
The Last Stand (2013)
Directed by Kim Ji-woon
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