The Last Stand (trailer) is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. But even in mid-January, it lays down the gauntlet for providing one of the more overtly crowd-pleasing (and thus successful) genre films to come down the pike in awhile. The key to this film’s success is simple: Director Kim Jee-Woon and writers Andrew Knauer, Jeffrey Nachmanoff and George Nolfi remember the basics to constructing this kind of meat-and-potatoes entertainment. It’s not rocket science, but you’d be shocked how often simple entertainment value gets left in the dust in the quest to construct the biggest and/or baddest genre entry out there. The Last Stand isn’t the biggest of anything. It’s a mid-budget B-movie action picture set in a small town between California and the Mexican border. But it is filled to the gills with inventive actions sequences, colorful heroes and appropriately nasty villains. Everyone knows exactly how seriously to take this material, never getting too reverent but also never descending into pure camp. It also plays to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s relative strengths while doing its best to work around his weaknesses (a look at his very best films). It may not be art, but its surprisingly splendid entertainment if you’re in the mood.
The plot is both relatively simple and somewhat complicated. For much of the running time, we’re actually watching two concurrent stories unfolding, only one of which directly involves Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger). The film’s plot concerns an escaped drug kingpin (Eduardo Noriega, doing the best he can with the English language) who is zooming towards the Mexican border in a revved up sports car that seems to resemble a non-talking version of Kitt from Knight Rider. Since he has an FBI agent (Genesis Rodriguez) in the front seat as his hostage, the Feds (led by Forest Whitaker) can’t just blow up the car from the sky. Meanwhile, nefarious doings are apparently afoot thanks to a mysterious visitor (Peter Stormare, with yet another inexplicable accent) and his heavily armed baddies. As Owens and his deputies investigate the apparent disappearance of a local dairy farmer (Harry Dean Stanton no less!), they uncover a plot brewing on their side of the border which may involve the race car-driving kingpin. Needless to say, things blow up, people die and a seemingly over-the-hill sheriff must decide if he should turn his back on the problem or stand and fight.
The film takes the time to flesh out the sleepy town in which it is based, offering momentary slice-of-life that actually allows the climactic action beats to have genuine weight. We like these people, be it the regular customers at the local diner or Arnold’s deputies, played by Jaimie Alexander, Luiz Guzman and Zach Gilford. The picture creates an authentic sense of fear and panic as these local cops run head-on into what is basically a small army, out-matched and out-gunned and genuinely afraid of what’s to come. By the time the final showdown occurs, you get the very real sense that any of our heroes, even Arnold, could perish in the battle. A moment where an innocent bystander accidentally enters the fray creates genuine tension. Just as importantly, during the film’s action sequences, every major character gets their moments to shine. It’s obvious that Schwarzenegger isn’t in peak form anymore, and much of his ‘action’ involves running up stairs or firing guns from a stationary position. But what could be a weakness becomes a strength, as the filmmakers now have no choice but to spread out the action highlights among the colorful supporting characters, and the film is much stronger for it.
The action sequences, especially in its last reel, are full of spectacular violence and colorful deaths. The emphasis is on quasi-realism, so there is frankly a ton of top-notch practical stunt work and outrageous moments where you can nonetheless believe your eyes. The film is unapologetically R-rated and even if some of the blood is obviously CGI, the overt gore is still appreciated and appropriate. The film’s violence has sting when it needs to, but the tone is mostly light. Some may take issue with the film’s fetishistic view on its many and varied guns (Johnny Knoxville shows up as a heavily-armed gun nut who lends a hand) and I would argue the film wastes an opportunity to comment about the militarized Mexican drug war spilling over onto American soil. But I’m not going to penalize an action film for the political points it doesn’t make or the national headlines that put its obviously cheeky look at American gun culture in a darker light. What I will note is the surprising respect accorded to its several female characters. The film doesn’t quite pass the Bechdel Test, but it has several women in its large cast and the film puts them squarely in the action without sexualizing their heroics or even commenting on them.
The Last Stand is indeed a glorious return to form for a man who once dominated a genre that often feels on the brink of extinction. It has more in common with the B-movie days of Commando than the mega-budget spectaculars like Total Recall. But it is very good at what it sets out to do, creating sympathetic and colorful characters and placing them in enjoyably staged action sequences that pays off our investment. While Noriega spends most of his screen time driving his ‘batmobile,’ Peter Stormare provides the necessary off-the-wall villainy and their combined might creates a genuine sense of threat even for someone who looks like Schwarzenegger. The film just plain works on all intended levels, creating a genuinely crowd pleasing action film that will delight genre junkies and please those who merely tag along. By adhering to the basics (strong characters, varied and creative action, genuine tension and striking the correct tone), Kim Jee-Woon has crafted a strong American debut that bodes well for whatever English language picture he chooses to do next. If this is his Hard Target, I can’t wait to see his Face/Off.