The Last Stand

thelaststandIf 2013 quickly begins to look like 1988, you’re not crazy.  The great triumvirate of action stars (and Expendables buddies) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis return to cinemas laying the smackdown with their own respective starring films.  February kicks off with Sly’s Bullet to the Head, and V-Day brings the fifth(!) entry of the Die Hard franchise for Willis.

Schwarzenegger launches the retro time warp this weekend with his return to the big screen in leading man capacity after a 10-year absence.  He was busy governing a state or something and racking up a bevy of bad press.  The 65-year-old icon sets out to prove he’s still got the chops to be a seasoned action hero by headlining The Last Stand, a modern-day western set in southern western corner of Arizona, in the small town of Sommerton Junction which shares the border of Mexico.

Ahnuld plays the small-town sheriff Ray Owens looking forward to his day off when he spots two mysterious truckers in the local diner.  Something feels out of place, and it’s ironically not the senior citizen, Austrian-accented tree trunk in a sheriff’s uniform sitting at the breakfast bar.  Meanwhile, federal agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) attempts to a transport a highly dangerous incarcerated drug cartel leader, Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) to a death row facility, but his team inevitably finds an intercepting band of assassins that snatch the criminal from the Feds’ slippery fingers.  Cortez escapes in a specially modified ZR1 Corvette—faster than any chopper, and utilizes his men to run off all law enforcement blockades.

Somehow the sleepy town of Sommerton and the 200 mph fugitive will cross paths, and Owens knows this after finding a local farmer murdered by a high-caliber weapon.  He exchanges a few words with Agent Bannister about how the events are connected, but Owens “has seen enough blood and death, and he knows what’s coming.”  The muscled sheriff locks down Sommerton and brings his lackluster team of three local cops (Luis Guzman, Jamie Alexander, Zach Gilford) and two appointed deputies together (Johnny Knoxville and Rodrigo Santoro) to stand in the way of the cartel before the evil Cortez can speed his way into Mexico and out of the hands of the law leading to a rough-and-tumble shootout of epic proportions.

Directed by the highly praised foreign filmmaker Jee-woon Kim, he brings Schwarzenegger to light like we’ve never seen him before.  The Last Stand is a slow boil, with more character and nuance than any of Arnold’s earlier shoot-em-ups.  As ballistic and violent as this film is, it is very much a good old fashioned western in a modern small town setting.  Even though this is the former governor’s show, the supporting characters actually have a great deal of development, and a surprising amount of humor spills over into nearly every scene.

TheLastStand2Knoxville and Guzman get the best laughs, as do a few random locals.  But Schwarzenegger gets the most applause, again commanding the action and even bringing some much needed vulnerability to the beady-eyed old-timer that is called upon to do the impossible.  The action in this film, in its limited scope, is some of the most impressively shot of Arnold’s career, updating the star’s fisticuffs and bullet-dodging to a gritty and current visual aesthetic impressively captured by the sharp eye of a wild-card choice for a director.

The Last Stand doesn’t do anything particularly original with its story, but the action set pieces are undeniably creative and impressive.  Sitting through this thriller, I realized how small of a film it really is, far from the excessive branding brought on by Arnold’s wildest adventures from the 90s like Eraser and True Lies.  This is a character-based slow burn Western that eventually bursts into a full-blown war zone.  I enjoyed Last Stand more than I thought I would, and for different reasons, even though I was predisposed to enjoy it as a Schwarzenegger fan.  This is likely his most out-of-place action film, but I think patient audiences will love it, and I for one welcome the return of Ahnuld who has most definitely still got a punch or two left in him.

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