The Last Stand (Lionsgate, R)

thelast 75This film will almost singlehandedly decide the future of Arnold’s career.

thelast 500 

A few minutes into The Last Stand, it hit me just how weird it felt to be sitting in a theater watching a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Sure, he’s made appearances in the Expendables movies, but they are mostly jokey cameos in which he is riffing on his own image in pop culture. Here he is playing a character, and for the most part, he’s not winking at us (there is an upsetting absence of puns). He plays Ray Owens, a small-town sheriff who lives right next to the Mexican border. A major drug dealer escapes FBI custody and makes a mad dash for the border, and Ray’s town is the only thing in his way.

This film will almost singlehandedly decide the future of Arnold’s career. He hasn’t been the lead in a film for nearly a decade, and in many ways, action movies have moved on. Gone are the days of the wise cracking muscle man who can’t really act but can wield a big gun. If audiences reject this movie, who knows what could happen?

I have to say, Arnold went to the right man. I have enough affection for him that I probably would have seen his new film anyway, but I got excited because of Korean director Kim Jee-Woon (or Jee-Woon Kim, depending on where you are). Kim is the greatest action director in the world right now, and one of my very favorite directors, period. I can’t think of anyone else who is better at capturing movement on film. Of course, foreign directors coming to Hollywood have a shaky history, so I was very curious to see how he would fare. He did pretty good.

Don’t get me wrong, The Last Stand is about as light and forgettable as its title. It’s a sub-par Kim Jee-Woon film, but it’s a pretty good Arnold movie, and the good things that elevate it clearly come from Kim. One is his sense of humor. It’s dark without being mean, and often infused with violence, which I must say is spectacular. The movie also looks good. Jee-Woon brought over cinematographer Kim Ji-Yong, who shot his best movie, A Bittersweet Life. However, Jee-Woon is obviously pulling from the movie that must have got him the job, The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Certain visual motifs are lifted wholesale, as is the character played by Johnnie Knoxville. The best action scene in this movie is not as good as the worst action scene from that one, but it still has that unique, playful vibe, and audiences will eat it up.

I like the western plot of The Last Stand, but unlike in say, High Noon, we can’t spend the whole movie building up to the climax. We have to have a bunch of little action scenes throughout, and that is the weakest part of the movie. First off, much of the action is taking place away from our central town and focused on the villain, who I found very boring. There’s a lot of treading water before getting to the big climax.

The biggest obstacle in Arnold’s way back to stardom (aside from certain personal issues) is his age. What this movie does well is use that to its advantage. He’s not the one-man army he used to be, and they don’t try to play him that way. One thing that does is add tension; another is that it requires some colorful supporting characters. The movie is full of good character actors, from Forest Whitaker, to the inimitable Luis Guzman, to Peter Stormare, who does an appalling southern accent, but is deliciously over-the-top fun. Harry Dean Stanton even shows up for about two minutes, and two minutes of Harry Dean Stanton is better than no Harry Dean Stanton. But the focus is Arnold, and while he has never been a great actor, he has always been a great presence, and whenever he’s not on screen in this movie, I wish he was.

I’m sure I’m coming off pretty lukewarm on this movie, but the parts I enjoyed, I really enjoyed. The last act makes it worthwhile for any fan of either Schwarzenegger or Kim Jee-Woon. It’s not as strong a comeback as Sylvester Stallone had with Rocky Balboa and Rambo, but it should remind people who like Arnold why they liked Arnold in the first place—even if it doesn’t win any new fans. | Sean Lass

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