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Criminally Overlooked: “Last Man Standing”

January 23, 2016

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New Line Cinemas might have been forgiven for thinking they had a sure-fire hit—or at least a modest box office winner—with Last Man Standing. After all, here was a bang-bang-shoot-‘em-up action film headlined by a still-hot Bruce Willis just two years after the monster success of Pulp Fiction, and directed by action-film maestro Water Hill. Unfortunately, Last Man Standing sunk like a Russian submarine at the box office when it opened in 1996, and while Bruce Willis’s reputation emerged unscathed (as it would continue to for the next fifteen of mostly terrible films), it hastened Walter Hill’s descent into Hollywood obsolescence. Twenty years later it’s worth taking a second look.

Last Man Standing is a loose adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s excellent 1927 novel Red Harvest, which also served as the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Clint Eastwood’s For a Few Dollars More. In it, Willis plays a nameless tough guy who by happenstance ends up in Jericho, Texas, a dying, Depression-era town someplace along Mexican border. In short order, he becomes embroiled in a gang war between rival bootlegging operations.

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The Italian mob is run by a pair of cousins (played by Ned Eisenberg and a pre-Sopranos Michael Imperoli), while the Irish mob is run by a guy named Doyle (David Patrick Kelly), who keeps a beautiful, mournful moll named Felina (Karina Lombard). Looking on neutrally is the town Sheriff (Bruce Dern), who advises Willis to “get a firearm.” As it happens, he already has twin .45 Colts in a double-rig beneath his coat. When one of Doyle’s men tries to muscle him, Willis blows the guy away in front of God and everyone, and we’re off to the races.

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The uneasy truce is threatened when the Italians make a power play by ambushing one of Doyle’s liquor shipments in Mexico, killing all Doyle’s men and stealing his booze and trucks. Willis, realizing the situation is going to deteriorate fast, promptly begins playing both sides off one another for his own benefit (read: staying alive). I’m not going to detail the precise plot permutations here because A) I could barely follow them myself, and B) Jesus, the synopsis alone runs 11 paragraphs on Wikipedia. Suffice it to say, by then end of the film, the baddies who haven’t killed each other face off against Willis, who himself is pretty banged-up.

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So what went wrong? Well, first off, Last Man Standing is an oppressively dour film. Filmed in unrelentingly bleak sepia tones, the only colors on screen are browns and greys and the occasional dark blue. Not even the spilled blood (which is considerable) is vibrant. There’s not a laugh, not a moment of levity to be found in the film’s 101 (but seeming longer) minutes. The characters are all varying shades of gruff—even Willis, who was, in 1996, moving past his wiseguy phase.

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This was, almost certainly, by design. Hill might have built his career on films about tough manly men shooting, punching, and insulting each other, but they were never this unceasingly humorless. After all, his biggest box office success was 48 Hours—one of Eddie Murphy’s first films and a key booster rocket on his stunning rise within showbiz. Hill also directed The Warriors, which became iconic precisely because of its unrestrained vitality.

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No, Last Man Standing is intended to be a joyless story, because it’s a distillation of the tough-guy tropes of action movies. It removes his macho archetypes from the comforts of their genres and lets them loose with only their stocisim and penchant for violence and shows what happens. Jericho is an artificial-seeming town—all clapboard buildings and seemingly empty except for gangsters and other assorted characters who’re necessary to the film with nary a regular citizen in sight—because Jericho is purgatory. Jericho is a place where the only living, organic thing is violence. It’s not just for exposition that upon arriving in town, Willis visits a tired saloon where the owner (Will Sanderson) tells him he’s the first customer he’s had for weeks.

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Even the action set-pieces have a sense of surrealism to them. If Hill knows anything it’s how to stage an exciting gun battle, and yet the massive gun fights in Last Man Standing are weirdly inert for their scale. They almost always begin as a showdown, and Willis always draws fast enough to get the drop on his enemies—even when it’s clearly impossible. He fires dozens of times, and only reloads when the threat is dead. The bad guys he shoots are often thrown bodily through the air in a way that defies physics in a way that would be fake even for cruddy ‘80s action movies. The outcome of thse acts of violence, Hill seems to suggest, are pre-determined. The characters are just going through the motions and ending up where they’re fated to be.

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The only place where the characters display anything other than greed, avarice, and violence is in a few cases where women are concerned. Doyle is hopelessly in love with Felina—even when it proves his Achille’s Heel. But that love is poisoned—her husband owed massive gambling debts to Doyle and left her with him to settle up, separating her from her daughter. Willis has a brief, joyless affair with a woman attached to the Italians and protects her when she flees Jericho after being disfigured by the mob when they find out her and Willis. Love, in this place, is not redemptive and leads only to suffering and weakness.

Here it’s worth taking a minute to examine the major differences between the film and Red Harvest. In the book, the town is called Personville (pronounced in the local accent as “Poisonville”), and the protagonist is not a nameless gunman, but Hammett’s nameless private investigator The Continental Op. The Op is there on a case, and while he may not be a cop, he’s a lawful man all the same—an emissary of civilization. When he needs support he calls in a few other detectives. The book is clearly about bringing a measure of law to a lawless place and what that entails (one detective actually quits the case out of protest for, among other things, the morality to setting bad guys up to kill each other). This moral valence is nowhere to be found in the film. Civilization doesn’t exit in Jericho.

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Not for nothing, the film’s most vibrant scene comes when Doyle’s decimated gang manages to wipe out the Italians by setting fore to the brothel where the men are holed up. Set vividly against the inky night, their soldiers plummet in flames from the building’s windows only to be mowed down when they escape the blaze. The only way out from purgatory, it seems, leads to hell.

The film ends with Willis alive, but no better off. He sets off from Jericho, but there will be another Jericho, of that he’s sure. In his closing voiceover, Willis remarks dispassionately that the story ends where it began: with him alone and on the move. Purgatory will always be waiting for him.

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A movie this bleak would be a hard sell in any climate, but by 1996 the language of action movies had changed radically thanks to Pulp Fiction and its countless imitators. Those movies now featured stylish gunmen trading arch and over-written banter. The bloodshed was countered with dark comedy, inviting the audience not to take it too seriously but instead to revel in how stylized it could be. Last Man Standing makes its violent set-pieces deliberately empty, allowing the audience no cathartic relief. Casting fellow Pulp Fiction alum Christopher Walken’s presence as a whispering, Tommy-gun toting hit man and making him as humorless a cipher as everyone else seems like a deliberate provocation.

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Last Man Standing is an unpleasant movie, and one I don’t particularly feel the need to revisit. Still, making a bleak and brutal meditation on the main ingredient in 90% of cinema is a subversive act for a filmmaker who’s bread and butter was that very ingredient. It deserves better than to be buried and forgotten.

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