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The Last Stand (2013)

Everything Old is New (And Practical!)

I didn't miss Arnold Schwarzenegger during his eight-year acting hiatus, but I'm glad he's back. True, his big coming-out party happened across two Expendables movies, but Jee-woon Kim's The Last Stand is more than a cartoon shoot-'em-up or nostalgia bomb. It's also better than most of the movies Schwarzenegger made in the decade leading up to his governorship of California.

Maybe the actor's time in office softened his bulldozer persona. Maybe the ensuing scandals reminded him and everyone else that "The Terminator" not only has a shelf-life but a battery life, too. Whatever the case, Schwarzenegger's performance here is surprisingly reflective and touching--with, of course, frequent reminders that he's also a larger-than-life badass. I attribute half of that to the star, and half to Kim and screenwriter Andrew Knauer (with assists from Jeffrey Nachmanoff and George Nolfi). The Last Stand is at once a return-to-form for hard-R 80s action movies and a commentary on the gross vigilantism that makes many of them seem quaint now.

Schwarzenegger stars as Ray Owens, a former L.A. narcotics officer who retired to the sleepy border town of Somerton, Arizona and became its sheriff. Owens' quiet life is interrupted one morning when the FBI informs him that Mexico's most dangerous drug lord has escaped custody and is headed his way. Following a brief, bloody encounter with Gabriel Cortez's (Eduardo Noriega) advance team, the sheriff gathers the remaining members of his department--plus a townie/ex-marine played by Rodrigo Santoro--and seeks help from a local weapons enthusiast named Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville). Together, they close off the two main roads into Somerton and take on Cortez's army of paramilitary thugs.

The plot really is that cookie-cutter, down to the ultra-loose characterizations and predictable order of the action's escalation. Does Forest Whitaker play a grumpy FBI agent who spends much of the film yelling at Owens over the phone? You bet he does! Does Luis Guzman pop up for his billionth role as "that funny Mexican guy"? Si! Does Cortez take a nosedive off a makeshift border bridge following his bloody confrontation with Owens at the end?


And that's part of what makes The Last Stand worthwhile. In these kinds of movies, even if the hero has taken a moral stance against killing, the villain always ends up splattered against a street, a car, or a canyon floor. Yep, that's a spoiler, but knowing the outcome in this case might keep you engaged during the climax. Pay attention to Cortez's desperate, angry face as he tries to weasel his way past Owens' bruised tower of principle. There's no doubt in the audience's mind that the good guy will succeed, but Kim and Noriega put us firmly in the head of a villain who believes he'll make it home. Owens remains committed to not letting his enemy off easily. He takes an insane amount of punches, kicks, and stabbings in a fight he could have ended much sooner, all to make sure that Cortez rots in a deep, dark hole.

There are a handful of other little surprises that should silence your internal snark alarm early on--mostly having to do with the conventions made popular by Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies. If that's not enough for you, perhaps the lack of obvious computer-generated stunts will be a draw. Aside from the atrocious climactic set piece, which I'll get to in a minute, The Last Stand features some pretty thrilling car chases, building spills, and squib-poppin' gun violence. Like Jack Reacher, the characters in Kim's movie are fetishists of all manner of artillery. The grand arming-to-the-teeth montage is kind of gross if you've still got Sandy Hook on the brain, but the filmmakers do a great job of backing the protagonists into a corner from which the only way out is to go over the top.

Now, for the drawbacks. If, like me, you approach every new movie fully switched-on, you'll have to tiptoe through a minefield of problems in order to enjoy this thing. From the poorly shot crane magnet that lifts the armored truck carrying Cortez during his escape (I honestly don't recall ever seeing what it was attached to), to Peter Stormare's puzzling accent (perhaps best described as Swedish redneck), to the time-padding interrogation of a low-level thug that goes absolutely nowhere, The Last Stand provides frequent reminders that, despite being a commentary on big, dumb action movies, it is still, at heart, a big, dumb action movie.

Which brings me, finally, to that climax. Ugh. Following a suspenseful and really exciting car chase through a cornfield, Cortez and Owens duke it out over a canyon linking Arizona and Mexico via bridge. The preceding fifteen minutes was well-photographed, believable, and fun to watch. As we follow Cortez out of the field and into a small valley leading to the bridge, the setting opens up to reveal a barren landscape straight out of No Country for Old Men. But when Owens is revealed a moment later, standing between Cortez and freedom, he's standing on a pathetic bridge set filmed entirely against green screen.

All the good will Kim and company built up with their practical effects and stunt work is undone in an instant, and the unconvincing fight drags on for over five excruciating minutes. The worst part is that this could have been a Casino Royale-worthy, high-stakes/high-altitude brawl if the budget hadn't been blown on things like Johnny Knoxville's stupid Viking helmet (that's speculation, but there's waste all over this picture). The punches and strangulation feel real, but the blatant stage lighting and halos completely sapped my enthusiasm.

Believe it or not, I'm not the biggest fan of meta-criticism. But in special cases like this, I like to step outside the review and talk about information peripheral to the actual movie. I was really bummed to see The Last Stand bomb last weekend, debuting in tenth place. Had you told 1991 Arnold Schwarzenegger that one day he'd lose out to a French musical, a drama about bitchy co-dependents, and a three-hour dwarf fantasy--all of which had been out for over a month, by the way--he probably would have killed himself.

I wonder if this poor showing has anything to do with today's troubling news that he's slinking back to The Terminator franchise. It's too much to hope he'll reconsider, or at least not turn his back on different kinds of roles. In one light, Ray Owens is a goofy character who loves Schwarzenegger-style one-liners; in another, he's a reluctant warrior--a wise, old man who sees the second half of his life as an opportunity to do realize completely different dreams. Likewise, I thought this movie would be a turning point for the actor. Unfortunately, it looks like the lesser, dumber version of him will be back.