Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a welcome return to the sort of high octane, high concept cinema that made him a much-loved Hollywood action hero. Dan Stephens explains why The Last Stand is his best film in 20 years.
Arnie’s comeback year in 2013 couldn’t have enjoyed two more apt films for the heavyweight of Hollywood action. After a decade out of cinema’s limelight he returned with Escape Plan and The Last Stand, a pair of high concept, mid-budget actioners geared towards re-establishing his big screen persona. Admittedly, Escape Plan could have been better but the poster depicting Sly Stallone and Schwarzenegger sitting in adjacent prison cells plotting their freedom was the nourishing nostalgic dessert to the Terminator star’s brief cameos in Stallone’s Expendables movies during his career hiatus.
That same year, the former Mr Universe headed to Arizona to work under the direction of South Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-Woon. His American debut tasked Schwarzenegger’s aging Sheriff to bail out the FBI after a violent Mexican drug lord made a dash for the border. The result is Arnie’s most satisfyingly entertaining movie in 20 years.
Principally, Schwarzenegger’s advancing years hamper him little here (2013 marked 30 years since Conan The Barbarian). His role as a grizzled Sheriff of middle-of-nowhere town Sommerton Junction is perfect for the now 64-year-old. In fact, there’s so little to raise the blood pressure his deputies (led by the ever-watchable Luis Guzman) bemoan the lack of excitement, instead wasting their time with local gun enthusiast Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville doing his best Johnny Knoxville impression) shooting an array of high-powered weapons at slabs of meat. As sleepy Middle American towns go, this is one of the most drowsy.
But things are about to get spicier when Forest Whitaker’s team of FBI agents manage to let international drug lord and – ahem – racing car driver Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) free himself from their custody in a daring and amusingly far-fetched escape. He’s now in a souped-up Chevrolet Corvette heading for a makeshift border crossing that just so happens to have been erected in Sommerton Junction. It’s time for Action Arnie once again!
Aside from Schwarzenegger being an ideal fit for the role, director Jee-Woon’s underlining humour never drifts into self-parody. It’s also much needed given the implausibility of the plot. But Arnie, like the rest of the cast, is having plenty of fun. Guzman is a particular highlight, his sarcasm delivered like a rabbit caught in the headlights. His restrained comic delivery is more satisfying than Jackass star Johnny Knoxville turning in a performance that’s a variation of his real persona. But it helps to alleviate any concerns about plot holes and irrationality; this is a big budget b-movie and a very enjoyable one at that.
While the film never strikes a perfect balance between lightweight frivolity and moments of dramatic tension, they work as effective parts if not a cohesive whole. A night time shootout between the Sheriff and his deputies against a heavily armed team of mercenaries is a highpoint of the action, particularly when Arnie arrives on the scene taking down bad guys with his four-wheel drive and a shotgun. However, the bloody aftermath loses most of its intensity thanks to the throwaway nature of the film’s comedy.
The finale, taking its cues from the Western but switching horses for cars and six-shooters for automatics, strikes a better balance with the incorporation of the hurriedly deputised town rogue Frank Martinez (Rodrigo Santoro) and more screen time for Guzman. The action is fittingly intense – some kinetic camerawork and fast cuts bringing caustic gravitas to the videogame-like carnage. I’ll let Jee-Woon off for revisiting a scene from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan’s during the final battle since The Last Stand is so much fun. Similarly, any reservations about predictability will soon be forgotten when the warm, fuzzy satisfaction kicks in of finally watching a good Arnold Schwarzenegger movie again.