Movie Review: The Last Stand: He said it, he meant it, he proves it

By January 15, 2013
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Rating: 4/5

The return of a sidelined action icon from days past, in a hot-hook script that was celebrated on the industry’s notorious ‘Black List’ before it sold, as directed by a film maker working, for the first time, in both the English language and the Hollywood system. From a brief recounting of those factual elements, ‘The Last Stand’ sounds like a potential disaster. Imagine my surprise, then to find that ‘The Last Stand,’ starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by Korean filmmaker Jee-woon Kim (‘A Tale of Two Sisters,’ ‘The Good, the Bad, the Weird’) is a rousing barnburner of an action movie, made with B-movie swagger and a few visible seams that it wears as badges of honor. It’s not just that Mr. Schwarzenegger is back in a feature role after a brief digression as the Governor of California — it’s that he’s back in a great film, with a great cast, a smart script and a talented director; ‘The Last Stand’ may be old-school, but it earns top marks with skill, strength, strangeness and charm.

The plot’s simplicity itself, which is also an old-fashioned sort of virtue: Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), a drug lord in federal custody in Las Vegas is busted out and put in a car to make a run for the border to Mexico; the fact that the car is a modified corvette capable of 250 MPH means that his plan has better odds of success than you might give it at first glance. Meanwhile, in New Mexico’s Summerton Junction, Ex-LAPD Sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is getting ready to enjoy a sleepier-than-usual weekend in his sleepy small town, as almost everyone’s off to the big football game. However, Cortez’s plan, and his left-hand man Burrell (Peter Stomare) are heading right for Summerton Junction to bust through the border in the last place anyone would suspect. …

So, then, ‘Die Hard’ plus ‘Speed,’ plus maybe a skoche of ‘High Noon’ — albeit in reverse, as Ray’s rag-tag band of uniformed officers (Jamie Alexander, Luis Guzman and Zack Gilford) and wild-card town troublemakers (Johnny Knoxville and Rodrigo Santoro) drafted for the fight prepare to take down an army of mercenaries as they, not the FBI, not the Border Patrol, realize they’re the only people between Cortez and freedom.  Director Park has the perfect touch for this kind of stuff — car-chase stunts, big gun battles, car crashes, buildings being demolished — all of it handled without much visible reliance on digital effects, preferring instead to offer us analog mayhem delivered hot, fresh and well. Written by Andrew Knauer (with credit to Jeffery Nachmanoff and George Nolfi), ‘The Last Stand’ moves as swiftly as a punch, and should be about as carefully contemplated; anyone who wants to complain about implausibility and the absence of logic here can go enjoy a Fredrick Wiseman documentary, or some security-camera footage.

As for Mr. Schwarzenegger, well, his face is still as impressively impassive as ever, and he moves more slowly and makes agreeably-timed jokes about being old, usually after performing feats that would cripple younger, lesser men.  He may be 65, but he’s still a movie star — Ray Owens is hardly King Lear, but Schwarzenegger does a good job of suggesting his worries and regrets leading up to the final showdown, and then leaps into action to execute moments like, for but one example, shooting someone and then tackling them. Redundant? Possibly. Awesome? Most assuredly.

There’s also some plotting hugger-mugger with the FBI’s part in chasing the charmingly arrogant and amoral Cortez, as he’s taken FBI field agent Ellen Richards (Genesis Rodriguez) hostage, and he’s being doggedly pursued by FBI head man John Bannister (Forrest Whittaker). But really, the film boils down to Ray and his team — plus some of the historical oddities from the barn of Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville), who collects and restores antique weapons like, say, a 1939 Vickers .50 caliber machine gun. “I bought her all legal-like, but I got all the parts to fix her up and make her full auto again … but that’s between you, me, and Jesus; no need to let Uncle Sam know,” as he notes. (One of the most endearing things about ‘The Last Stand ‘ is how much fun it makes of the idea that, in a crisis of international proportions, the best thing that can save us is a well-supplied, ready-to-rock-and-reload armed lunatic fringe.) Kim knows how to keep the stakes high, or high enough — characters we like get killed — and yet never lets ‘The Last Stand’ get slowed down or stuck in being dour, sour or moody. With a great sense of humor, a better sense of showmanship, and an impressive ensemble doing fine work around a star from yesterday who still know when to turn on the shine, ‘The Last Stand’ is a terrific action film that, separate from the hype of its star’s return to the big screen, stands on its merits.

GeekNation’s Kevin McCarthy got to sit down with the cast of the film. Enjoy.

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James Rocchi lives in Los Angeles. Born in Canada, he's a regular contributor, interviewer and reviewer for MSN Movies, Indiewire's The Playlist, GeekNation, ScreenCrush.com and the Toronto Star. He's also written for ifc.com, Netflix, Mother Jones magazine and The Guardian UK. A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, you can find him on twitter @jamesrocchi.