The unofficial motto for The Last Stand could very well be something along the lines of ‘the more things change the more they remain the same.’ It was not so long ago that Arnold Schwarzenegger, star of the film under review, was still blasting through walls, robots and people in major Hollywood motion pictures. Elsewhere in the world, a little over a decade ago, mainstream South Korean cinema was beginning to take off and make a real name for itself in other parts of the globe, the most recognizable export being Oldboy from Park Chan-wook, which has achieved near legendary status by now. In the last decade, South Korean movies have become all the craze while Schwarzenegger served not one but two terms as the Governor of the state of California. As such, it many be argued that a lot has changed over the past ten years up until today, not the least of which that another one of Korea’s cinema darlings, Kim Jee-woon, has opted to test his creative skills within the Hollywood system. At his side for this first attempt is none other than Schwarzenegger himself, back in a starring role with a romping, stomping action adventure film.
The FBI has finally got a hold on notorious drug cartel king Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) and, under the auspices of agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), are to transport him in the dead of night. Before the platoon of tightly guarded vehicles can even leave Las Vegas, Gabriel’s men exploit an expertly envisioned escape plan, catching the FBI totally off guard. Soon, Gabriel is off in his ridiculously quick Corvette ZR1, racing towards the Mexican border. However, he has chosen to pass through a rather inconspicuous town just north of the border, Sommerton Arizona. Quiet and peaceful almost to a fault, its Sheriff, Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) is quite comfortable there following an eventful career in the LAPD. However, upon receiving word from Bannister that Gabriel is in the area, he and his deputies (Luis Guzman, Jamie Alexander and Zach Gilford) brace themselves what is to come, along with some help from resident military history fanatic Lewis (Johnny Knoxville).
The success of The Last Stand may rest on what expectations certain goers take with them when heading to see the picture. There is undoubtedly some excitement in the air with Schwarzenegger returning to the realm of movies while others, admittedly a smaller portion of the public, are eagerly awaiting to discover what Kim Jee-woon, a real phenom back in Korea, has in store for Western audiences. With that in mind, it seems appropriate to ask those reading this review with the intention of seeing the movie to temper their expectations, if only to a degree. The Last Stand does not break new cinematic ground. It does do enough to warrant declarations of it being ‘boldly original’ or anything of the sort (not that anyone has, in fact, made such a claim as of yet). What it does do, rather well even, is provide a little less than two hours of good old fashioned Hollywood action movie entertainment, complete with some decent laughs, amusing characters, with at least a little bit of inventiveness courtesy of Kim Jee-woon.
Of course, it seems next to impossible to write a review for this movie without awarding a line or two specifically to Schwarzenegger himself, which itself is somewhat curious considering he never was consider much of an actor, but rather a very fun physical presence, a titan if you will, who delivered his lines with a charmingly European accent he never could let go of. Nevertheless, he is back and more than serviceable as the grizzled, seasoned sheriff of a small town that cannot fully understand that fast approaching danger. The accent is still there and he definitely is a step slower than before, yet fans should get more than enough to appease any worries that their hero does not ‘have it’ anymore. If anyone is going to play an aging sheriff who can still kick a surprising amount of ass and round up the efforts of his less experienced deputies, the choice is either Clint Eastwood or Schwarzenegger. This movie features the latter and, warts and all, is amusing thanks to him.
Director Kim has wisely chosen to ease the star’s return to the enterprise of movie making by surrounding him with a capable and in some instances surprisingly effective cast. While Schwarzenegger is the star of the film, at least as far as the marketing wants the public to believe, the entire cast gets their turn in the spotlight, even the often controversial and divisive Johnny Knoxville who, for all intents and purposes and despite maybe even the actor’s own instincts, is actually toned down. Manic he certainly is, but not so over the top that he ever becomes grating. In fact, his character’s obsession with old fire arms not only becomes handy for the heroes as they face the antagonist’s posse of gangsters but adds an interesting twist to the gun fights, wherein the villains are equipped with the latest technology and the heroes rely on aged weaponry. Luis Guzman is one of those character actors who rarely, if ever disappoints and his underplayed yet playful role is a welcome counter-balance to Schwarzenegger’s might. Even Jamie Alexander balances the vulnerability of someone unsure if she can stir up the courage to face the odds but who eventually comes through in impressive ways. Peter Stormare shows up playing the main villain’s right hand man with the slimiest smirk on his face, so that should also please some people. Not everyone scores high points (Rodrigo Santoro is bland and Genesis Rodriguez merely sits in a car and looks pretty, things she accomplishes with the greatest of ease, but still…), although overall the cast is pretty swell.
As for the movie’s style and action, Kim Jee-woon’s talents come in handy. Despite what some people might be thinking, The Last Stand is not exactly a big movie, especially considering its small town setting. Nonetheless, director Kim gets a lot out of the tools at his disposal, all the while doing precisely what so many other of his compatriots have succeeded at as well: inserting comedic beats and plenty of cleverness when the either the tension or action rises. The Last Stand is not tension filled by any means but boasts a healthy dose of gun fights, fist fights and car chases. Already this review touched on the idea of pitting merciless villains with sophisticated weapons against protagonists relying on aging tools of warfare, and there are plenty of other moments very much in line with this sort creativity and it seems safe to admit that a handful of them are of Kim’s doing. He has, many times in the past, demonstrated flexibility and intelligence when crafting his scenes, a talent that definitely makes this picture plenty more entertaining than it otherwise might have been. Among the highlights is the scintillating pairing of a school bus and a Gatling gun, Johnny Knoxville’s character deflecting bullets with an old shield from his makeshift military museum and a strange, visually unorthodox car chase late in the film that occurs in a corn field of all places, just to name a few.
In the end, movie fans get what they should be expecting. The Last Stand is a solid piece of entertainment simultaneously in line with some of the old Schwarzenegger movies, effective in their simplicity, and with some of the more flamboyant cinematic tendencies of its director. Think The Good, the Bad, the Weird but in a different setting, people talking in English and with Schwarzenegger in the lead role. Why would that not sound appealing?