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THE LAST STAND
Arnold Returns With a Thud, Not a Bang (review)

Kim Ji-woon, The Lats Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Luis Guzmán, Jaimie Alexander, Eduardo Noriega, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford, Genesis Rodriguez, John Patrick Amedori
By Dean Galanis

The Last Stand
Produced by
Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Written by Andrew Knauer
Directed by 
Kim Ji-woon
Starring 
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Luis Guzmán, Jaimie Alexander, Eduardo Noriega, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford, Genesis Rodriguez, John Patrick Amedori

Lionsgate / Rated R

The next few weeks hold great promise for fans who were weaned on Eighties action films.  On February 1, Sylvester Stallone stars in Bullet to the Head, his first collaboration with action guru Walter Hill (48 Hrs., Southern Comfort, Extreme Prejudice). Then on Valentine’s Day, Bruce Willis stars in A Good Day to Die Hard is released – the fifth John McClane film (the trailers aren’t promising, but I still can’t wait).

Up first, though, we have The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring role in a decade. As with the new Die Hard, the trailer didn’t leave me panting for more, but I still held out some hope as I walked into the sneak preview recently.

Well, let’s keep our fingers crossed that Sly and Bruce fare better. Graced with a good, pulpy premise and a strong supporting cast, including Luis Guzman, Forest Whitaker, Eduardo Noriega and John Patrick Amedori, The Last Stand winds up being barely passable entertainment, even with a responsive crowd. Still, it’s not without its (meager) pleasures.

Arnie plays a retired LAPD Narcotics officer who left the excitement of Los Angeles to play sheriff in a tiny Arizona border town where nothing ever happens. Of course, the sleepiness of the town is about to be disrupted by the nefarious plans of a ruthless drug kingpin, who has escaped the clutches of the FBI and is headed for Mexico.

The villain has a small army of vicious thugs who consistently embarrass (and murder) FBI agents and cops. How can Arnie and his small band of deputies be any match for them?!

Well, as luck would have it, Johnny Knoxville is the local goofball/gun nut who happens to have a huge, illegal (and ludicrous) assault weapons arsenal. Whatever your politics, it’s a little disconcerting to see an unhinged good guy character caressing and obsessing over his massive handguns and assault rifles so soon after Sandy Hook. I know it’s a little unfair, as the film was made long before the shootings and is aping the attitudes of the Eighties-era shoot-em-ups that I loved as a teen (many of which I still love). Still, it left a bad taste.

Would that were the film’s only problem…

First of all, this is a sturdy premise wasted. Director Jee-woon Kim has stated that High Noon was a major influence on The Last Stand. Fair enough: it’s got a similar, irresistible David and Goliath hook. Arnie and his men could just step aside and allow the bad guys to stroll through town to the border, but they choose to stand up to them. Classic scenario.

But the execution is almost all wrong. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that the director is from South Korea and is just too unfamiliar with the territory, but the film totally blows the whole Southwest American small-town set up. It’s got the ingredients: pre-football game parade down Main Street, the comfortable banter in the local diner, the bored local police, the crazy old coot farmer who doesn’t own a damned phone (at least this one is played by Harry Dean Stanton – always a good thing). But none of it feels remotely accurate, and the location is utterly devoid of atmosphere.

Part of it, to be frank, is that the local sheriff is Austrian, which, save for a throwaway line late in the film, is never addressed. Which, of course, isn’t to say that I’m upset that an Austrian immigrant is allowed to be an American sheriff, it’s to point out that the movie deals only in generalities and clichés. The comfortable diner banter I mentioned is strained mainly because there are no specifics in the conversation. They’re just stock small-town cardboard cut-outs exchanging banalities. The townspeople barely seem to know their sheriff or each other, even though the population appears to be about 30 (another huge problem is that aside from the aforementioned parade, we get no sense that anyone even lives here).

Another debit is the film’s tone. In order for the payoff to work, the setup needs to be sincere. In other words, the threat must be real. We should feel that these underdogs are sorely outmatched by ruthless villains. But despite the excessive bloodshed and extreme violence perpetrated by the bad guys, the film undermines itself by being too cartoonish. The villain’s plan is so far-fetched and flat-out silly that even after his ridiculous escape in the early reels, the movie’s good faith was badly damaged. If your bad guys are wholly unbelievable, your film’s got a major uphill battle.

The acting is all over the map as well. Guzman is always a reliable character actor, so he elevates every scene he’s in, but Whitaker actually looks pained through much of the film. Amedori and even Knoxville have their moments, but the bummer is Arnie, who is even more wooden than usual. Maybe he’s just rusty, but it was one of his least enjoyable performances.

For an action fan like myself, one of the film’s biggest disappointments is the dearth of “YEAH!!!” moments. “YEAH!” moments are the stuff that makes action fans’ hearts race: Arnie machine-gunning the T-1000 at point-blank range in Terminator 2, Costner matter-of-factly shooting a hired gun in the head in Open Range, hell, even Mandy Patinkin finally getting his revenge in The Princess Bride. There’s one nifty moment in The Last Stand that I won’t ruin here wherein Arnie tackles a guy on a rooftop, but it’s weak tea compared to other “YEAH!”’s.

Which brings about perhaps the biggest problem with this movie: the action. Forget wonderful, thrilling setpieces a la Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Bourne Identity, et al; The Last Stand’s action sequences, for the most part, feel rote and unimaginative, clunky and arbitrary. Certainly some of the outrageous ideas in the scenes have some distinction, but the execution is…just okay. Even Chris Farley’s hilarious SNL film fan character would be hard-pressed to utter his immortal “Remember the scene where….”

Which brings me to director Kim. A celebrated cult filmmaker who brought us the creepy and effective A Tale of Two Sisters, the flawed but intense I Saw The Devil and the wigged-out Western The Good, The Bad and The Weird, he was, despite his track record, a risky choice for a straightforward Arnie flick. Kudos to the producers for taking the risk; but sometimes these things pay off and sometimes they don’t (hey, even John Woo made two so-so American movies – Hard Target and Broken Arrow – before striking gold with Face/Off). Still, other than wanting to make what is, at base, another Western, Kim’s involvement is somewhat surprising. And his blah execution even more so. With the exception of a witty Sergio Leone homage in the final stand-off, there’s not a lot of personality in the direction of this generic script.

Having said ALL of these things, The Last Stand is ultimately weak and forgettable but watchable. I know that’s faint praise, but despite its many, many, deep flaws, the movie isn’t wretched, which is more than I can say for a large percentage of action flicks in recent years. If you go in with no expectations, preferably on opening weekend with a good crowd, you could do much worse. But I’d recommend waiting for DVD or Blu-ray, and gathering some friends and a case of cheap beer, and have at it.

** of *****, 2 stars
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