As written, The Last Stand is not an interesting movie. It’s a simple modern-day western as action flick with dialogue that’s nearly 100% expositional and a plot that offers nothing in the way of surprise, suspense or subtlety. It could really have been made at any time and starred any major or minor actor and been roughly the same as what we’re looking at this weekend with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the leading role.
But The Last Stand is arriving now and indeed with Schwarzenegger’s name on the top of the marquee, his first starring vehicle in ten years. That makes the movie of note all by itself, in such a way that it might as well be actually titled “The Return of Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Or “Arnold is Back,” although this would imply that it’s an opportunity for winking bits of self-awareness. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of silly references to the Arnie classics and signature lines. He thankfully got the obvious “I’m back” shtick out of his system in last year’s The Expendables 2.
Adding significance now, also, is that it’s the most gun-happy movie in years and opens amidst the most heated national address of gun control in decades, mere days following the signing of both stricter legislation in New York and a Presidential initiative to reduce gun violence throughout America. When a newly deputized arms museum owner (Johnny Knoxville) utters the words “Uncle Sam doesn’t need to know” about an illegally functioning Vickers machine gun, you can just imagine NRA members approvingly applauding at screenings across the country.
And that’s not where the anti-fed attitude stops. The premise involves a South American drug lord (Eduardo Noriega) who escapes from sloppy FBI custody during an elaborate scheme that would seem more unbelievable were it not for the aid of internal corruption (they’re incompetent and crooked!). With a hostage in tow, this modern-day Pablo Escobar races from Las Vegas toward Mexico, wiping out all roadblocks in the way. But of course the last place he needs to pass through before the border is fictional Sommerton Junction, which is presided over by a former Los Angeles narcotics detective turned small-town sheriff (Schwarzenegger).
Eventually there’s a man-to-man showdown, but initially Sheriff Owens has in his employment three regular deputies (Jaimie Alexander, Luis Guzman, Zach Gilford) and later two more recruits (Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro). Meanwhile, on the kingpin’s side in Sommerton is a large crew led by regular accent-ham Peter Stormare. A few violent gun fights occur, therefore, before the main baddie arrives. The cops defend the downtown, which is fortunately nearly empty due to an away high school football game, with artillery borrowed from the museum, including an old Tommy Gun and a flare gun, which graphically splatters a henchman to pieces from the inside out.
Most of that violence is bloody yet cartoonish, especially compared with that of director Kim Ji-Woon’s previous feature, the gruesome cat and mouse revenge thriller I Saw the Devil. There’s outright fetishism of weapons themselves, with Knoxville’s character giving female names to all his favorite guns, and enough love for the Second Amendment to include the token elderly woman with a shotgun and the knowhow to use it properly. While it might be a Constitutional fantasy, it’s also just pure entertainment of the kind we look for in a Schwarzenegger movie, one that naturally acknowledges in more ways than one that we’re dealing with an aged action hero.
Any other allusions to the star’s past are likely unintentional, even the link to Raw Deal via his profession as an out of place big city lawman in the country and the raid on the museum that seems reminiscent of the surplus store break-in from Commando. If anything, outside of the western genre that is, The Last Stand feels at times like a remake of Die Hard 2 (which interestingly enough is the sequel to a movie originally intended to be a sequel to Commando), with its similar mercenary-aided drug kingpin escape plot. If you’ve seen the film recently, you might even get a sense of deja vu with bits similar to the Annex Skywalk ambush.
If you’re satisfied with a familiar yet well-directed action movie so long as you hear the voice of Schwarzenegger guiding you through it, you should still be disappointed by just how indistinct The Last Stand truly is. The best one-liners are as basic as “I’m the Sheriff!” and a remark about the villain being the sort that makes immigrants look bad, which is sort of funny coming from the Austrian-American until you realize it doesn’t actually make sense. The Last Stand is almost a worse sort of nostalgia-fueled trash than something as reference-heavy as the Expendables films, because it depends on us bringing in our own relationship to Schwarzenegger without giving us anything memorable to leave with.
Regardless of its faults, this is the sort of weak, ultimately forgettable release that movie geeks enjoy seeing with friends on opening weekend and pouring over the good and the bad afterward. Behind me was a group that, during the end credits, discussed the many guns by name and whether each was used correctly and complained about each plot hole as if that’s an integral part of the show (my own biggest nitpicking issue is how the drug lord seems to have more swagger than smarts, so not a likely mastermind kingpin type). They seemed to love the movie for all that they could easily criticize about it.
That’s often what elevates mindless entertainment to “fun,” as many will say of it, which requires some form of activity on the audience’s part. Of course, the majority of Schwarzenegger’s filmography is full of this very sort of “fun” fare, but after a long absence from the big screen, his old movies have been just fine to revisit themselves. So, if he’s going to do anything new at this point, I’d rather it actually be something new.
The Upside: There’s some minor interest to be had in the irony of a border town lawman attempting to stop an illegal from crossing out of the U.S. And, well, Schwarzenegger still has his charms as a completely ridiculous leading man, and I appreciate that they didn’t try to give him a love interest.
The Downside: Lacks an identity of its own outside of being the movie Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a feature-length comeback in.
On the Side: Screenwriter Andrew Knauer also co-scripted the horror comedy Ghost Team One, which premieres this Sunday at the Slamdance Film Festival.