Schwarzenegger is back.
He may be a little bit older. He may be a bit more limited in what he's capable of, the result of about 10 more years on his tires since we last saw him in a starring role. He may be a bit more grounded, playing to that advanced age and no longer hamming it up in an over the top fashion as the center of a film's attention. But he's still the same charismatic guy he's always been, and that ability to connect with an audience whether saving the leader of the resistance or fighting off aliens has not disappeared one bit, making his return to the screen in THE LAST STAND, grouped together with the visual flair of director Kim Ji-Woon (I SAW THE DEVIL and THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD) and a simple action-packed premise, a fun watch that any fan of Arnold should consume.
Schwarzenegger is much more toned down in THE LAST STAND, playing Ray Owens, sheriff of a small Arizona town that sits right along the United States border to Mexico. He prefers the peace and quiet of this quaint little spot where the most action he might see on a regular day is warning one of his residents not to park in a fire zone or locking up one of the locals for public intoxication after seeing more than he ever needed to working narcotics as a cop in L.A. There's some plenty of room for Schwarzenegger to fire off a couple of traditional Arnold one-liners when the moment calls for it, but this is a different type of role for Arnold, requiring him to play the sage veteran who only acts with violence when he's forced to, not because he wants to. He's going to be called into action here as a vicious cartel boss named Cortez (Eduardo Noreiga) has escaped federal custody and is dead set on making it back to his homeland with no regard at all for anyone who dares try to get in his way. Driving a monster on wheels - a Corvette ZR1 - and accompanied by his no-nonsense right hand man (Peter Stormare who is always a pleasure to watch in villainous roles such as this) and a small army of hired guns, Cortez is going to have to travel through Ray's town in order to get to where he needs to be. It's going to be up to the sheriff and his ragtag group of deputies (Luis Guzman, Jaimie Alexander, Zach Gilford, Rodrigo Santoro and the heavily armed Johnny Knoxville) to stop them, setting the stage for an exciting battle between good and evil with plenty of ammunition being put to use.
THE LAST STAND manages to use Schwarzenegger's age as an asset, repackaging him as the wise elder who uses his experience more than his muscle to better position himself for not only victory but survival. This isn't the same Schwarzenegger we've seen before in the past. He's more than capable of holding his own physically when the moment calls for it - and he certainly does get a few moments to do so - but, as an actor pushing 65, he just can't do everything he's done before in the past without it looking a bit ridiculous. I don't care what kind of shape he's in... it's a tall task to ask an audience to buy into the idea that this Schwarzenegger can still throw down with an opponent nearly half his age without the aid of some sort of weapon. It's just the nature of the beast. But with the help of Kim Ji-Woon, we're able to see Arnold in this new light as an intelligent force to be reckoned with. This is really nice work from Arnold in re-establishing himself for the next stage of his acting career... the one where he can't just rely on his muscles to get the job done.
Kim Ji-Woon manages to strike the right balance between humor, action and violence, allowing both the old and new Schwarzenegger to co-exist effectively in this one character while also providing plenty of carnage and bloodshed during the film's big shootout, which incredibly spans all of the town's Main Street. Ji-Woon opts for practical effects and sets, which make the car chases and the firefights feel real, creating an emotional stake for you in this good guys against bad guys scenario, as opposed to the CGI-heavy action and digital bloodspray we've seen far too often as of late, which disconnects you from everything happening on-screen, because how much can you possibly invest yourself in watching some overblown cartoon? But if the film does suffer from one problem, it's that it doesn't quite know when to get out. After all, too much of a good thing is still too much, and THE LAST STAND suffers from an additional 10-15 minutes that feel long-winded, sort of like that last party guest who refuses to leave even though the time for everyone to go home couldn't have been more apparent. There's a pretty clear spot for THE LAST STAND to wrap-up, but Ji-Woon pushes the envelope a little further, and it makes for an ending that doesn't quite seem to jive with the rest of the movie. This isn't George Costanza going out on top... this is a film that holds on for just a little too long. Trimming the fat at the end would have made for a much leaner flick. It certainly doesn't ruin the film by any means, but it would have been nice for the climax to actually have been the climax... and not just a stepping stone for Arnold to have a bigger solo hero moment after the group dynamic had been built to mean so much.
The supporting cast really rounds out the movie nicely though, injecting the film with a bit more personality, but also properly setting the stakes for this collision between Arnold's gang and Cortez's crew. It's a group of archetypes that are all too familiar - the underachiever, the girl in love with the bad boy, the inexperienced young cop who wishes he could see more action, the trusted and humorous sidekick, the lunatic - but, because of the wonderful casting of people like Alexander and Guzman and Knoxville, they're able to put a fresh bounce in the steps of in these easily recognizable character that would make any further development feel unnecessary. That familiarity puts you in a position to know who these people are already, and, as a result, it's easy to commit to enjoying their company and also rooting for them to succeed. These are characters you already feel like you know, because you do, giving THE LAST STAND plenty of room to work on creating those that you don't have a firm grasp on yet, namely Ray Owens.
THE LAST STAND is a hell of a lot of fun, and, for any Schwarzenegger fan, it's definitely one to check out. I get the feeling we'll be seeing more of Schwarzenegger on this level moving forward into this stage of his career, and it's not a bad spot for him to be in. There are still occasions where he can be the Arnold of yesteryear, but it's refreshing to see a new side of Arnold that should carry him well into movies where he doesn't have to shoulder the physical burden all by himself anymore. Kim Ji-woon's style clearly translates well into making a film directly for American audiences, and THE LAST STAND winds up as a worthy vehicle for Arnold's return to the spotlight. This is what entertainment at the movies is all about.
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