By far, my favorite action movie star of the 1980s was Arnold Schwarzenegger. No one else came close. He had a certain movie-star charisma that was impossible to deny, even through his deeply accented English. I don’t think critics at the time gave him much credit – unlike most other action heroes of the period, Arnold’s characters actually had arcs. He chose interesting scripts, and much like John Wayne, knew how to play with his image and iconography a little bit. Sometimes he played with it too much, and from that we got movies like JUNIOR, but for the most part, he used his persona to tell interesting, compelling stories.
But perhaps more importantly, Schwarzenegger knew to work with very talented directors. John Milius, James Cameron, John McTiernan, Paul Verhoeven – all of them used the Arnold icon to make interesting and even subversive movies. I was always more of an Arnold fan than a Stallone fan because Arnold just made better movies. They were movies that took risks, that had interesting stories, and Arnold acted – yes, acted – well in them. Arnold was the clay on which was built a great castle. Even when an Arnold movie didn’t work, it was likely due to either overreaching on the director’s part, taking Arnold to a place that just didn’t work, or the script was too generic and safe for him.
And so we come to THE LAST STAND, Arnold’s return to cinema after his long hiatus in politics. And I can’t think of a better way for him to come back. Not that THE LAST STAND is perfect – no, it’s got a number of problems, which I’ll get to – but it’s got everything that Schwarzenegger fans have come to love about his best movies. Arnold’s hungry again, he’s got a very playful, innovative director in Kim Jee-Woon, and if anything’s going to bring him back into favor, it will be more movies like this one. It’s Arnold’s baby steps back to the movies that made him great.
Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) is Sheriff of a small border town named Summerton Junction. It’s a quiet place, where not much happens except the occasional drunk and disorderly, or a bar fight. During football season, most of the town takes off on the weekends for a big high school game, so there’s not much to do for Ray except sit at the local restaurant and eat omelets that are probably too fat for him, and talk with his other deputies (Luis Guzman, Jaimie Alexander, Zach Gilford). And that’s just how Ray likes it. He’s had his fill of action. When he worked in the narcotics division of the Los Angeles Police Department, he saw enough of it to last a lifetime.
But when drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) escapes from custody, in an amped-up Corvette that can go speeds upwards of 200 miles an hour, Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and his team must give chase. While Cortez’s man on the ground Burrell (played by a very over-the-top Peter Stormare) sets things up outside Summerton, Cortez means to cross the border into Mexico right in the middle of Ray’s territory. So Ray and his deputies, plus a local war hero turned drunk (Rodrigo Santoro) and a misfit named Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville), must stop Cortez from leaving the country.
The first third of THE LAST STAND is a bit of a slog. It sets up characters and situations but it does so, at times, at a very slow pace. It also doesn’t help that Arnold hasn’t acted for quite some time, and it shows. He’s not terrible, but he hasn’t exercised those particular muscles in a while, and it takes a little bit to warm up to him. But you can also look at THE LAST STAND as a kind of allegory for Arnold’s life since leaving acting, and as the movie progresses he gets more confident in his performance as Ray (and Arnold) find their true purpose. Ray’s played nice for a long time, but now it’s time for him to do what he does best. Comparisons to RIO BRAVO are not off the mark (though not in quality).
When the action kicks in a third of the way into the movie, and Kim Jee-Woon starts doing his work, THE LAST STAND truly begins to take shape. Schwarzenegger’s best talent, where he has the most skill, is in picking directors and projects to work with. Just looking at his back catalog of movies proves that. He’s always picked interesting filmmakers to work with, unlike most of his colleagues in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s probably why we still talk about his movies today. And Kim Jee-Woon is no exception to that rule. He shoots action in a coherent way that seems almost revolutionary in the Age Of Shakycam, and he paces it so that every sequence has the best impact. He also makes Arnold look like a badass again. During one particular scene at the climax, Arnold is about as badass as I’ve ever seen him, actually, and Jee-Woon makes it all work well.
It’s also a bit subversive – body parts fly everywhere, and each gunshot has visceral impact. This isn’t on the level of I SAW THE DEVIL or THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE WEIRD, but Jee-Woon holds his own in making an utterly American kind of movie. The NRA will likely champion this movie and have it bronzed – in THE LAST STAND everyone has guns and knows how to use them, and the gunplay is heavy. If thoughts of Newtown or Aurora come to mind it can’t be helped – this is a different world than it was in Arnold’s heyday. The movies haven’t changed, we have. That still shouldn’t keep anyone from enjoying it, unless you’re thinking about it too hard. It’s movies like THE LAST STAND that help us escape that reality, and I’d say that putting too much thought into any kind of social message the movie may contain is a wasted effort.
THE LAST STAND is an appropriate return for Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s baby steps, but when the movie is over, it feels like Arnold has returned in a way that makes sense in this new, more complicated world. He’s entered a new phase in his life and career, and it’s because Arnold acknowledges this that he’s still here while many other action movie icons have gone. He’s always been good at that – he’s very aware of how he’s perceived and has fun playing with those conventions. I also like that Arnold acts his age, and knows his limitations. Now that he’s returned, I fully hope KING CONAN or whatever he does next (I can’t wait for THE TOMB) gives us an Arnold truly unleashed. Don’t call it a comeback. This is only the second act.