Aside from some fleeting cameo appearances in the last two “Expendables” movies (and that incredibly brief walk through in “The Rundown”), Arnold Schwarzenegger has mostly been absent from movies. (His last leading role was 2003’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”) Much of this had to do with his political career as Governor of California, a part most agree was almost as bad as “Junior,” then there was that itty bitty sex scandal that threatened to derail his career even longer, but it seems it’s all in the past and he’s ready for his big comeback.
That comeback comes in the form of this week’s hyper-violent, modestly budgeted “The Last Stand,” the western debut of acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-Woon, which pits Arnold’s grizzled old sheriff (and a team of ragtag locals) against a notorious escaped convict making his way towards Mexico. But is this the comeback we’ve been waiting for or further proof of the actor’s craggy irrelevancy?
PRO: It Is The Perfect Comeback Vehicle
Arnold was very smart in choosing “The Last Stand” as his return to the spotlight. It’s just the right kind of slam bam action flick that gets people excited, and it’s one that doesn’t try to hide the fact that he’s old as hell and maybe not the most badass on the block anymore. There’s an easygoing charm that the actor possesses that is on full display here, and a willingness to play the senior role to a bunch of younger actors (they don’t try and saddle Schwarzenegger with a love interest, for example). Arnold gets to run and jump and shoot people in the brain, but he also gets to take on a haunted world-weariness that he’s never gotten to explore before, mostly because he was too busy throwing knives into people or piloting jets or terminating. As far as Old Man Arnold goes, this is the perfect role and the perfect project. By the end of it you will be very glad to have him back on the big screen, towering even mightier than he does in real life.
CON: The Villain Is Pretty Lame
The conceit is that the bad guy is really, really bad is reinforced throughout “The Last Stand,” most notably by a monologue given by the senior FBI Agent (played gamely by Forest Whitaker), who describes him as the most vicious drug kingpin since Pablo Escobar. They even hide his face until the last minute, to give him an even more menacing aura. Except that when you see who it is, it’s not anyone you recognize (unless you’re a big ole nerd like me), and he’s honestly not all that scary anyway. It’s Eduardo Noriega, who starred in Spanish productions like Guillermo del Toro’s Criterion-bound “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Open Your Eyes,” the movie that “Vanilla Sky” was based on. Quite frankly his goons are more convincingly evil, particularly Peter Stormare, who plays a white trash baddie posing as a truck driver.
PRO: Kim Ji-Woon Elevates The Material
Another reason why “The Last Stand” feels like such a perfect comeback for Arnold is because he’s teamed with Kim Jee-Woon, a ridiculously intelligent, playful and talented South Korean filmmaker known for movies as diverse and brilliant as “Tale of Two Sisters,” “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird” and “I Saw the Devil.” The team-up feels very much like Arnold partnering with madcap European auteur Paul Verhoeven for “Total Recall” — a mashing together of two distinct aesthetics that merge to create something new and visceral and exciting. The most noticeable thing about Jee-Woon directing this movie is his keen observation and sharp satirical barbs aimed at America’s gun culture (something that is obviously very much in the public consciousness right now). There is something very knowing and probing about the way he dramatizes the citizenry’s relationship with guns, and it is both funny and observant (while still being exciting). If there’s something that elevates “The Last Stand” above casual B-movie status, it’s Kim Ji-Woon’s involvement (along with his frequent collaborators, cinematographer Kim Ji-yong and composer Mowg).
CON: Kim Ji-Woon Feels Somewhat Hampered
At the same time that bursts of “The Last Stand” feel exhilaratingly Kim Ji-Woon-y, there are also moments that reek of studio interference or someone dampening his wild, playful visual style. You just wish it had more of what the director is typically known for. There is, however, a moment towards the end where Arnold and the villain are racing through a cornfield that is so bizarre and visually striking that it borders on the hallucinogenic. It was a pretty clear moment when Ji-Woon got to go nuts, and you just wish there were more moments like this throughout the film.
PRO: It’s Got A Great Supporting Cast
Surprisingly, “The Last Stand” is stocked with really wonderful characters in supporting roles, including Johnny Knoxville (channeling the “Weird” character from “The Good, the Bad and the Weird”) as an outrageous gun nut; Rodrigo Santoro (from “Lost”) as a perpetually intoxicated local (who also happens to be an Iraq vet and a crack shot); Luis Guzman as Arnold’s loyal deputy; Jaimie Alexander (from “Thor”) as another member of the police force; Genesis Rodriguez as an FBI Agent; Zach Gilford (from “Friday Night Lights”) as a young policeman; and Harry Dean Stanton as a farmer. Not exactly superstars, but all really wonderful at what they do, gleefully adding some zippy color to the movie.
CON: Arnold’s Backstory Is Never Fleshed Out
At some point during “The Last Stand” you learn that Arnold used to work the drug beat in LA before becoming disillusioned after members of his team were brutally murdered. For the rest of the movie you’re waiting for the revelation that the bad guy that’s coming through town is the same guy that had Arnold’s men killed, but it never comes. It’s so bizarre. It would have raised the stakes emotionally and just seems like it would fit together, from a narrative perspective. Apparently not.
PRO: A Truly Awesome Title Card
Never underestimate the power of an amazing title card.
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