You know what they say about absence, hearts, and growing fonder? Well, it’s true. In the early 2000s, it seemed like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s particular brand of action ass kickery had run its course. Aside from a hand-talking bout with self-parody in Terminator 3, Arnie’s once towering box office ways dwindled away as the age of the comic book movie began and it seemed like there might no longer be a place for movies featuring a larger-than-life Austrian chomping cigars and killing bad guys. Then he went into the three ring circus of politics and a hole was left in blockbuster filmmaking that only one accent could fill. Over the last few years there’s been a nagging desire for Arnold to get back to doing what he does best. We were all teased by his wink-wink-nudge-nudge roles in The Expendables movies, but the real test to see if the man was still myth and legend would only come when his name was once again squeezed onto the top of a poster. Well folks, that magical day has finally arrived. The Last Stand is here and not only does it prove that the Arnold’s still got it, the film itself is right up there with his best work. Arnie’s a little older now, with wrinkles around his eyes, a slightly smaller frame, and less mobility, but put a gun in his hand and surround him with a movie just ridiculous enough to contain his screen presence and you’ve got yourself popcorn bliss. Plus explosions of course, can’t forget those.
Schwarzenegger stars as a small town sheriff who saw it all in the big city and now needs a little break handing out parking tickets to elderly locals in a Texas border town. He’s still hard as nails, but softened by his surroundings and his doe-eyed innocent deputies. It’s the type of role that Clint Eastwood would have taken in the 90s and it fits Arnold’s particular talents like a gun in a holster. It helps that the tone of the film is more like a colorful comic strip than a hard edge Eastwood flick, with his follow officers played by the likes of Luis Guzman at his most eccentric of the townsfolk played by Johnny Knoxville at his most…well, it’s Johnny Knoxville with all the absurdity that implies. Of course this isn’t just going to be a movie about Arnie sipping lemonade with old timers and sharing memories. There are bullets to be fired and they will be directed at a particularly dangerous drug dealer played by Eduardo Noriega. He was supposed to be transported to high security prison supervised by FBI hotshot Forest Whitaker, but ended up kidnapped by a team of people dressed like Danger Diabolik. Even worse news: the Danger Dialboliks gave Noriega a supped up supercar that can fly at 200 mph and he’s hobby is underground racing (Forrest has seen him drive, he’s good). The FBI just can’t keep up with the guy and the last stop on his race to the border is some small town with an old sheriff who hasn’t scene action in years. Thankfully that’s Arnold’s town and even better, Knoxville’s redneck goofball’s hobby is collecting guns n’ ammo. Cue climatic shoot out with a side of awesome.
The main reason The Last Stand works is it has no pretensions beyond being a good old fashion B-movie. The script unapologetically follows classic Western/action motifs to the letter. There’s plenty of kitschy humor, but it never becomes ironic self-parody like an Expendables movie. Things are played straight, but broadly which is Arnold’s comfort zone. You never have to buy him as a real person, just an action archetype. Writer Andrew Knauer even finds room for an entire love triangle involving two deputies and a ne’er do well that never feels distracting. That plot is developed along with the action and actually makes you care about 3 otherwise tacked-on side characters there to be meat in the final shoot out. The focus is on Schwarenegger and a handful of high profile sidekicks, all of whom deliver some sweet tasty goods.
Knoxville is used just enough as an idiot sidekick to avoid being annoying while Guzman is always shoved into the corner of a frame with Arnie to improv up a one-liner when needed (he has a moment with a giant Conan sword that is just priceless). Whitaker throws down just enough overacting to be an enjoyably cocky FBI agent inover his head, Noriega slithers evil all over the screen, and Peter Stormare pops up as the head henchman to provide more accented fun. Even Harry Dean Stanton shows up to give a character actor master class. It would have been easy for Arnold to go the ego route and be in every scene of his comeback vehicle, but he was smart enough to surround himself with talent that can carry the narrative burdens and allow him do what he does best: shoot folks, look tough and make jokes. You’ll get everything out of Schwarzenegger you’d want from the hilarious double takes to the occasional stilted delivery that adds another laugh. He’s old and doesn’t fake it, but he still has no trouble throwing down for a hilarious wrestling finale and never makes too many “I’m too old for this shit” jokes.
Of course while it’s nice all those actors came out to play, we should be able to expect this level of work from them. The real wringer in The Last Stand is director Jee-woon Kim (I Saw the Devil, A Bittersweet Life) making his first American feature. Along with Jonn-ho Bong (The Host) and Chan Wook Park (Old Boy), Kim helped make South Korea the best genre movie factory of the 2000s. He developed a distinct, heightened tone and style in his movies that translates to The Last Stand perfectly. That can’t have been easy. Kim went from a place where he was able to shut down the massive production of The Good The Bad And The Weird for a few weeks to rewrite the climax to jumping into a project with a finished script and a star that had as much influence as his director (not to mention the fact that he can’t speak English). Yet, Kim has managed to infuse the movie with his patented swooping acrobatic camera, eye-piercingly bright color scheme, and oddball humor (especially apparent in the hilariously murderous elderly townsfolk in the climax). Kim was always a filmmaker deeply influenced by American genre movies and clearly relished the opportunity to make a traditional Western/action movie and work with an icon. His sensibility adds just enough off-kilter freshness to a weathered tale to make things interesting. He was a perfect choice. Arnold played this one right.
So, what you’re getting this week is both the return of Arnold and the start of the Korean Hollywood genre movie invasion (Chan Wook Park’s American debut Stoker is just one month away). If you’re a genre movie nut, that means it’s time to roll your dribbling tongue back into your mouth and go buy a ticket. This is the stuff dreams and basic cable classics are made of. This whole old school action comeback rumor might be real and The Last Stand is the first genuine VHS-revival action classic of the bunch. Plus, we’ve still got a Sly Stallone/Walter Hill movie and an R-rated Die Hard sequel coming in a few weeks. Time to party like it’s 1989 (this just in from Will Smith: “hold up, it is”).