Silver Screen: The Last Stand ***
Big news on the Action Movie Senior Tour as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the undisputed king of fisticuffs and shoot-’em-ups, returns for his first post-political-career starring role in The Last Stand. The novelty ensemble of The Expendables is all well and good, and Liam Neeson adds some class to fighting wolves and punching foreign terrorists who want to devirginize his daughter, but nobody headlines an action flick like Arnold.
The Last Stand seems perfectly calibrated to account for all of Arnold’s baggage-- his age, his absence, and even his politics-- which probably also explains why it’s so uneven. The story and characters seem like an afterthought to constructing the ideal vessel in which to deliver Arnold back to the world of commercial entertainment.
Arnold stars as Ray Owens, an aging badass who was once a hotshot on the Los Angeles tough-guy scene before taking a voluntary leave of absence. Owens is an ex-narcotics cop who tired of the bloodshed and eased into graceful semi-retirement as the sheriff of a sleepy Arizona border town, where his main task is keeping his dedicated but inexperienced staff in line and preventing local gun nut Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) from accidentally killing himself.
But trouble comes in the form of a generic villain, drug lord Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), who stages an improbably complex jailbreak in Las Vegas and then pilots a racecar toward Mexico. A small army of Cortez’s henchmen, led by Peter Stormare as his right-hand man, set up shop just outside Sheriff Owens’s bucolic town with a plan to ferry their leader across the border when he arrives. The only thing standing between Cortez and freedom is Arnold and his ragtag crew, the Bad News Bears of law enforcement.
It’s throwaway fluff, but there’s plenty to like about The Last Stand. The filmmakers’ smartest move was keeping the scale relatively small; it never poses itself as a blockbuster, and by Schwarzenegger-fronted action-movie standards it’s downright intimate. Most of the action in the first hour involves Forest Whitaker’s bland federal agent as he battles bureaucratic stupidity and a traitorous agent in his efforts to contain Cortez. That frees up Arnold and his crew to spend most of their time preparing for the titular final showdown, when the movie explodes into a frenzied battle.
The film’s other ace in the hole is its nifty supporting cast. The aforementioned Whitaker brings some gravitas to a role that’s almost purely expository. It makes no sense why Stormare, a Swedish actor who seems to have cultivated his own unique ethnicity, would be the top henchman on a team otherwise composed entirely of Latinos, but who cares when he’s oozing that excellent Stormare menace? Friday Night Lights’ doe-eyed Zach Gilford is lovable as ever as a sweetly innocent deputy, and Knoxville does fine adding a dash of comic relief. It is a bit curious, though, why the studio would cast great character actors like Harry Dean Stanton and Luis Guzmán in smaller roles but not bother to find a more impressive villain than the capable but uninspiring Noriega.
South Korean director Jee-woon Kim (I Saw the Devil) makes his English-language debut, but his kinetic camerawork and wonderfully stylized setpieces are toned down and homogenized here. It’s reminiscent of John Woo’s self-bastardization in the American desert in 1996’s Broken Arrow, although Kim finally gets to let loose a little in the conclusion. A great shot in which the camera follows Arnold as he tackles a bad guy off the roof, then shoots him as they plummet through an awning and into a storefront, at least hints at the slapstick wizardry of Kim’s far more enjoyable The Good, the Bad, and the Weird.
This is Schwarzenegger’s first starring role post-governorship, so even despite The Last Stand’s lightweight sensibilities, politics still creeps in. There’s some inherent irony in going from being the governor of California to playing a guy who’s trying to stop Mexicans from fleeing the country, to which the film makes a few passing nods. “It’s people like you who give us immigrants a bad name,” Schwarzenegger growls, somewhat incongruously, given his character’s name of Ray Owens, which sounds like the manager of a Rural King.
The movie’s most pointed political gestures are perhaps less intentional. The Last Stand was made well before the Newtown shootings and the renewed battle for gun control, so the subtext is likely the inadvertent, default position of bullet-strewn action movies. That said, it plays like one of National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre’s wet dreams. Knoxville’s trigger-happy survivalist character is dismissed early on as goofball comic relief, but when the bad guys show up, his massive armory of military-grade weapons is the only thing that can save the town from certain destruction.
More notably, several times throughout the movie, the bucolic town’s slow-moving, polite residents take up arms against the villains themselves. The silliest and most blatant instance comes when a little old lady minding an antique store spots a thug stalking our hero and casually blows the baddie away with a shotgun she keeps next to her rocker. After killing a man, she makes a wisecrack, then goes back to her porch-sitting.
The NRA has made the claim that violent movies and videogames, not guns, are partly the cause of the random acts of violence mowing down American citizens on a daily basis. Critics of this position argue that no amount of time spent watching movies and playing games will drive an ordinary person to murder, which seems fair. The most pernicious element of movies like The Last Stand may not be that they encourage bloodlust so much as they portray violence as clear and easy. In movies like this, average, untrained citizens never bumble their weapons or shoot an innocent bystander out of fear, nor are they traumatized in the least by taking a human life. Perhaps the most insidious subtext in these films stems not from the violence itself, but in playing to the delusional fantasies of gun-toting average citizens that they’re likely to perform magnificently in times of sudden danger. That’s a dangerous message that seems almost incidental to The Last Stand, but a fallacy so close to the hearts of NRA fanatics to hit it you have to put one in the X-ring.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.