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Criminally Overlooked: “The Last Stand”

September 23, 2013

Poster

In hindsight it’s not hard to understand why The Last Stand tanked early in 2013. Headlined by Arnold Schwarzenegger—who is heavily played up in the trailers—it was a part of the failed “1980s action-star renaissance” Hollywood producers seemed to be trying to will into existence out of whole cloth. This mini-trend included The Expendables 2 and Sylvester Stallone’s Bullet to the Head (which had the added nostalgia bonus of being directed by ‘80s action mainstay Walter Hill). All these films pretty much crashed and burned at the box office (domestically, anyway–Expendables did well enough overseas to justify a third installment), and that’s too bad in the case of The Last Stand, because it’s a light, fun action movie that steadfastly refuses to take itself seriously.
So, the plot of The Last Stand is perfectly streamlined, like any good action movie should be. You got your garden-variety Mexican drug-cartel boss who is being transported by a team of FBI agents led by a scenery-inhaling Forest Whitaker. Well, like pretty much every prisoner transport ever shown on screen, it goes south. A team of highly-trained mercs spring the cartel boss—named, of all things, Noriega and played with smug implacability by Gabriel Cortez—in a clever and over-the-top sequence that involves an industrial magnet, ziplines, and a bunch of decoys.

Noriega promptly hauls ass in an experimental 1000 horsepower Corvette with an FBI agent as a hostage, making a beeline toward the border. His last stop in the US is a small border town named Sommerton Junction. This sleepy hamlet is practically a stereotype of Anytown USA, with one strange exception: its Sheriff is a hulking Austrian bodybuilder-turned-former-governor of California. Okay, not really. In this movie Arnie is a former LAPD cop, who fled the violence of the big city and now manages a small police force that consists of the following archetypes characters: the tough chick (Jaimie Alexander), the doofy newbie (Zach Gilford), and the exasperated Latino (Luis Guzman).

Just an FYI: there are some hawt law women in this movie.

Just an FYI: there are some hawt law women in this movie.

The Sommerton Junction PD runs discovers Noriega’s plan when they run afoul of a group of heavily-armed mercenaries led by Peter Stormare (who’s is totally the last dude you want in charge of a band of mercs, because that dude is nuts in everything). Their job is to prepare the town for Noriega’s crossing.

Outnumbered, outgunned, and counting down to Noriega’s arrival, Arnie and his deputies have to use everything at their disposal to stand in the way of this seemingly-unstoppable force. At their disposal is a screw-up Iraq veteran (Rodrigo Santoro) and a lunatic gun-nut played by Johnny Knoxville. So, the PD goes all A-Team and prepares for a confrontation in the town square.

"And the governor will now open the floor for discussion of the land-rezoning bill..."

“And the governor will now open the floor for discussion of the land-rezoning bill…”

The Last Stand is directed by accomplished Korean action-movie director Kim Jee-Woon, and he not only knows how to stage a fantastic action sequence, which highlights the stunts and avoids any shaky-cam. In one late scene, Arnie and Noriega slowly stalk one another through a cornfield in sports cars. It’s a deliciously suspenseful scene as they try to locate one another by the sound of crackling cornstalks. Watching it, I had the giddy pleasure of encountering something I’d never seen before in an action movie.

He also shows a keen eye for cinematic Americana. It’s interesting to compare this with John Woo’s Hard Target, which was so choked with American iconography that he gave us Jean-Claude Van Damme swaggering in slow motion from behind an American flag. Kim, on the other hand, gives us iconography in the form of the small town filled with amiable oddballs and the warmth in their relationship with the Sheriff.

I know there's a housekeeper joke to be made here, but just can't find it...

I know there’s a housekeeper joke to be made here, but I just can’t find it…

In his first starring role since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Schwarzenegger gives a delightfully grounded performance. He’s low-key, feeling his age, and graciously gives up the screen to his co-stars, allowing them to become fleshed-out characters. He never once strikes an action-hero pose, because he doesn’t have to. Hell, we don’t even get the obligatory early scene of kicking ass, because, hey, we know who this guy is. It’s a great, late-career transformation.

But most of all, everyone involved seems to understand that action movies should be fun. Unlike the grim humorlessness of something like Olympus Has Fallen or even the first Expendables movie, this film revels in some understated goofiness that lightens the carnage on screen. Any movie can show a guy getting shot with a flare gun. Having that guy’s ammunition explode is pretty cool, but having one of his arms land on one of the deputies who promptly goes “Ick!” and swats it away is sheer genius.

"You think that's bad? I was in 'Battlefield Earth.' I can't really cast stones."

“You think that’s bad? I was in ‘Battlefield Earth.’ I can’t really cast stones.”

It’s sad, really, that this movie was marketed as another Schwarzenegger-mows-down-everybody action flick and dumped in the cinematic wasteland of January. It deserves to be a beloved action-movie on par with Predator or Die Hard. So check it out. It’s definitely worth your time.

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