After a hiatus from action movies—during which he deftly portrayed a two-term California governor who, married to President John F. Kennedy’s niece, finds that the secret love child he’d fathered with their longtime housekeeper is no longer such a secret (or did that actually happen?)—Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the genre that made him famous with The Last Stand.
An American production directed by the talented Jee-woon Kim, The Last Stand tells the story of Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a past-his-prime sheriff in a sleepy Arizona town that sits on the Mexican border. When the notorious drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) escapes from the custody of FBI agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) with the aid of an impossibly fast Corvette sports car, life in the town livens up considerably. To stop the ruthless Cortez in his tracks, Sheriff Owens needs all the help he can get. That includes the zany Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame), who conveniently owns a weapons depot, a long-barreled hand cannon, and a set of duds to make a she-Viking swoon. Deputies Mike (Luis Guzmán), Frank (Rodrigo Santoro), Sarah (Jaimie Alexander), and Jerry (Zach Gilford) round out the motley crew of helpmates who bolster the sheriff’s crackdown on Cortez and his mercenary force led by the dead-eyed Burrell (Peter Stormare). Meanwhile, FBI agent Bannister determinedly pursues Cortez, whom he dubs “a psychopath in a Batmobile.”
The Last Stand features more than its share of riveting action sequences involving high-speed car chases and ultraviolent gunfights which culminate in spurting blood and/or pitiful groans. One nighttime shootout depicted in night vision is particularly harrowing: the sheriff’s crew cower behind their cruiser under volleys of bullets, lit up by tracer fire. Sheriff Owens comes to save the day, but his intervention does not lead to the definitive victory that the arrival of an American Action Hero usually portends. Rather, much more in the style of Hong Kong action cinema—which has clearly influenced Kim’s work—Owens merely helps to extract the pinned-down deputies from the danger. Not only do several cops get shredded by enemy bullets in The Last Stand, but they actually die.
Kim’s newest film is less formally adventurous, and much less accomplished, than his genre-juggling, self-aware Manchurian Western The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (08) and his martial-arts-heavy, torture-porn thriller I Saw the Devil (10). The Last Stand borrows from these films, though. One hallmark of Kim’s directing that made the transition to his Hollywood debut, albeit with less panache or success, is his habit of rapidly intercutting between wide shots of an unfolding battle and shaky, vibratory close-ups—inflected by zooms and pans—which may issue from any point on the vertical axis, independent of any point of view. This technique not only shapes the narrative visually but excerpts the action in a way that’s simultaneously slightly illegible and extremely exciting. While some viewers might find this method distracting and disjunctive, others will appreciate the haptic energy it imparts.
A second continuity with Kim’s Korean films is the presence of a buffoonish male character who is, despite all appearances, an effective warrior. To wit, Johnny Knoxville’s Lewis Dinkum, who, clad in aviator hats and helmets, seems loosely based on a character (Tae-goo Yoon) that appears in The Good, the Bad, and the Weird. (I Saw the Devil had its own version of this type.) The Last Stand also retains some of Kim’s pet tropes: cars speeding down a foreboding unlit road, and the switch to sepia-tinged black and white at the end of the film. Kim also apparently permitted several actors who speak accented English to deliver their lines incomprehensibly in the film. When your audience finds itself holding out for verbal clarification from Arnold Schwarzenegger, you know something’s not working.
The Last Stand’s most promising performance comes from Peter Stormare who makes the mercenary Burrell as slick a villain as he is mean, his broken-jawed delivery feeding a pleasing aura of degeneracy. Viewers may recognize Stormare, who is Swedish, from the Coen brothers’ Fargo and The Big Lebowski, in which he played kidnappers Gaear Grimsrud and Uli Kunkel (aka Karl Hungus), respectively. If The Last Stand demonstrates anything—aside from just how dramatically the Governator has aged—it’s that Peter Stormare is ripe for a strong leading role, preferably as a complex villain. (Although he played the lead in Small Town Murder Songs, that film didn’t do his abilities justice.)
There is something reassuring about seeing—and hearing—Arnold Schwarzenegger back on the big screen. As an ex-governor who supports gun control and the Brady Bill, Schwarzenegger fittingly does less killing in The Last Stand than in his films of yore. His signature muscle-bound look and deadpan Austrian delivery, however, are unchanged—at least for now. What he’s forfeited in athleticism and youth, Schwarzenegger’s made up threefold in viewers’ nostalgic investment in the man who will forever be the Terminator and Kindergarten Cop.
With luck The Last Stand will serve as a launching pad for the gifted Jee-woon Kim, whose potential as a director is not particular evident in this film, and for Peter Stormare. As for Arnold, the film’s tagline says it all: “Retirement is for sissies.”