Things We Learned From The Last Stand

by Ethan Alter January 18, 2013 6:02 am
Things We Learned From <i>The Last Stand</i>

Sure, The Last Stand may look like a brainless, pumped-up action movie that only exists because ex-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger decided he wanted to be a movie star again. But in actuality, the film -- which casts Arnie as a border town sheriff tasked with preventing an escaped drug kingpin (Eduardo Noriega) from crossing back into Mexico -- has a number of valuable lessons to teach audiences. Here are just a few of the things I learned from this contemporary treatise on heroism, honor and killing bad guys real good:

Arnold Schwarzenegger Has Completely Forgotten How to Act
While some would argue that he never learned this skill in the first place, I'll always contend that -- in his heyday -- Schwarzenegger was an above-average action movie thespian. Granted, I never wanted to see him do Hamlet (although that short clip in Last Action Hero indicated that his Hamlet would be awesome), but compared to so many of the other well-built, but performance-challenged he-men that dominated '80s and '90s shoot 'em ups, the Austrian Oak had charisma to burn and delivered his lines as naturally as can be expected while sustaining heavy fire. Despite his ramrod-straight posture, his vintage performances were rarely stiff. But seven years in politics have clearly taken their toll, because from the moment he appears onscreen as Ray Owens -- the well-liked sheriff of Sommerton Junction, Arizona -- Schwarzenegger is practically a zombie, lumbering through the frame at a glacial pace and speaking in a halting rhythm that suggests he's having difficulty remembering his lines. He's more like a robot here than he ever was in The Terminator movies.

That Said, He Can Still Throw a Mean Punch
Fortunately, the one thing that Schwarzenegger hasn't forgotten from his glory days is how to convincingly take -- and dish out -- punishment. The Last Stand takes its sweet time putting Arnie into action, but when Ray finally dispatches his first set of bad guys -- mowing one down with his car and before putting bullet holes in two others at point blank range -- the scene is designed to make audiences erupt in a frenzy of bloodlust. But director Kim Jee-woon, the South Korean filmmaker behind such gory cult favorites as A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw the Devil, saves the real fireworks for the extended climax, where the drug lord's sizeable army (led by the invaluable Peter Stormare, whose accent hilariously changes in every scene) attacks the small Sommerton Junction police force, which consists of Ray, two deputies (Luis Guzman and Jaimie Alexander), an Iraq war veteran-turned-town drunk (Rodrigo Santoro) and a crazy person (Johnny Knoxville). Soon, Ah-nuld is falling off buildings and spraying bullets out of the back of a school bus. All of this carnage leads up to the movie's best bit of action, a face-off between Schwarzenegger and Noriega that's done Rocky-style, with our hero putting down his guns for an old-school bout of fisticuffs and rassling. This is the Arnold that nostalgic '80s action movie fans hoped would show up and it's nice to see him back.

High Noon is For Pansies
The Last Stand's premise -- small town lawman has to confront a gang of vicious outlaws -- is clearly modeled after the seminal 1952 Gary Cooper western, but that's more or less where the similarities end. Because where High Noon (which is, at heart, a Red Scare parable) depicts a frontier town where none of the citizens will stand alongside their lone protector, the residents of Sommerton Junction are more than happy to take up arms to aid Ray. Even the little old lady who runs the local antiques store is packing heat and, without any prompting, puts a bullet in the brain of one heavily-armed villain. Clearly, Gary just picked the wrong frontier town to defend.

If You're a Lunatic With Your Own Personal Armory, You Too May Be Deputized to Kill Bad Guys
Via the Johnny Knoxville character, The Last Stand unexpectedly endorses two key elements of the NRA's platform: 1) The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun; and 2) The mental health care system in this country is woefully inadequate. Despite clearly having a screw loose, Sommerton's resident eccentric Lewis Dinkum has managed to assemble an entire warehouse-full of weapons he really, really, really shouldn't have up to and including a military-grade machine gun that he only half-jokingly asks Ray to not tell his fellow officers of the law about. But it turns out to be a good thing that he's so well-armed because the state-sponsored police force sure doesn't have the firepower to take on the privately-funded army of a drug lord. And, naturally, the only thing that Dinkum wants in return for the use of his guns is to be deputized, thus having the legal right to kill Mexicans, blacks and all of the other minorities that make up Noriega's goon squad. It's the ultimate bit of wish-fulfillment for any paranoid gun nut convinced that they need all those assault weapons and high capacity magazine clips because you never know when Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to show up at your door and make you his sidekick. Yay?

A Camaro is the Fastest Car in the Universe
Noriega makes his run for the border in a special prototype vehicle -- freshly stolen from an auto show -- that's referred to as the "Batmobile" due to its stealth and speed, which can climb up to 200 miles per hour. Nothing can keep up with this car... except, it turns out, a sporty red Chevy Camaro, which Ray "borrows" from the town's richest citizen to beat Noriega to his crossing.

Kim Jee-woon is Not the Next John Woo
2013 marks the 20th anniversary of Hard Target, the first Hollywood film from Hong Kong action maestro, John Woo. For those of you who were still in diapers when Jean-Claude Van Damme's Chance Boudreaux was killing people in slow motion, that movie marked a major turning point in our country's action movie cinema, an era when Hong Kong style met and married American brawn. It's not an exaggeration to say that without John Woo, there would be no Matrix. The Last Stand, however, is unlikely to inspire a similar revolution... or an eventual science-fiction masterpiece. While Jee-woon has displayed a great deal of visual flair in his South Korean features (particularly, I Saw the Devil, which features a terrifically staged close-quarters knife fight in a taxicab), his work here proves disappointingly straightforward and impersonal. Sure, there are touches that recall his previous films -- most notably a scene where an enemy's bullet belt is set on fire courtesy of a flare gun and blows him to literal pieces -- but overall, this feels like a movie almost anyone could have made -- even a hack like Dominic Sena.

However, Forest Whitaker Is the Next Nic Cage
Remember when Whitaker was a respected dramatic actor? Yeah... me neither. Ever since winning the Oscar for The Last King of Scotland, he's followed fellow Best Actor winner Cage into the action movie realm, typically as the grumpy, hard-assed authority figure that has no affection for the (usually white) hero. That's the role he assumes again here, playing the FBI agent whose unit loses Noriega and tries to fix the mess back at HQ while Ray deals with the problem on the ground. Perhaps as a way of keeping himself awake, Whitaker take it upon himself to give the part the full Cage, twisting his face into grimacing knots and barking out swear words like he's suffering from Tourette's. The only thing missing is the glued-on toupee that travels with Nic to every set.

A Balls-Out Climax Doesn't Really Make Up for a Dull First Half
I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a kick out of the mayhem that runs rampant in The Last Stand's big showdown. But getting to that point is about as torturous as being forced to watch Jingle All the Way on an endless loop. (Okay, maybe it's not that bad. Let's go with The 6th Day instead.) The bulk of the movie is dominated by lame attempts at comedy, even lamer attempts at drama and a general aura of laziness, as if the director and the entire cast are acutely aware that they're just killing time until the fireworks begin. Given that, the studio should probably have just lopped off the first hour of The Last Stand and released the final 40 minutes as a standalone picture. It would make about as much sense as the full-length film and protect its star from his most formidable opponent: acting.

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