There are very few actors who could walk away from the world of film for a decade and expect to be welcomed back by an audience, but Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a career out of defying the odds. No one would have expected that a muscle-bound Austrian with a thick accent would be able to carve out a successful career starring in not only action films but comedies as well. No one would have believed that America would embrace an action icon with the last name “Schwarzenegger.” And now, he manages another truly astonishing feat, returning to the world of movies after his time spent as the Governor of California, and to complicate things, he did it in a really good movie.
I am amazed that “The Last Stand” is as fun as it is, but I shouldn’t be. After all, it’s directed by one of the few filmmakers to place not one but two films on my end-of-the-year top ten lists in the last decade. Kim Jee-woon has more than proven himself as a significant voice in Korean cinema with movies like “The Foul King,” “A Tale Of Two Sisters,” and “A Bittersweet Life,” but it was the back-to-back punch of “The Good, The Bad and the Weird” and “I Saw The Devil” that convinced me that he is an important voice in genre film. He has a remarkable gift for staging action sequences, and he has a knack for building in all sorts of surprises into each sequence. I honestly believe we’ll be discussing his work for as long as I’m writing about film, and now we’ll be able to add a chapter to that conversation in which we talk about how he snuck into the American system making a better-than-it-should-be Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie.
“The Last Stand” casts Arnold as a guy who used to work for the DEA in Los Angeles until he was involved in a really awful situation that went wrong. He walked away with some scars, but most of his team was not that lucky. He took a job as a sheriff in a small town in Texas called Sommerton Junction, and he’s happy having basically nothing to do. He heads a very small department, and his deputies include Jerry (Zach Gilford), Sarah (Jaimie Alexander), and Mike (Luis Guzman). The most they typically have to do is lock up one of the locals, Frank (Rodrigo Santoro), for being drunk and disorderly.
As we get to know the people in Sommerton Junction, we also see another story unfolding, one in which a notorious Mexican drug cartel leader named Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) stages an ingenious escape from custody as he’s being transported from one prison to another. He ends up behind the wheel of a brand-new experimental concept car, convenient since he’s also an amateur race car driver, doing 200 MPH as he heads for the border. Forest Whitaker plays John Bannister, the FBI agent in charge of that transfer, and he is determined to capture Cortez again before he can escape. And, as you might expect, the escape path that Cortez has planned manages to steer him right through Sommerton Junction, where Ray is determined that no one is getting across that border.
It’s a pretty simple set-up, and one of the virtues of “The Last Stand” is that it doesn’t try to outsmart the audience, and it’s also not embarrassed to be what it is. It is an action film, first and foremost, built around a series of well-staged set pieces that escalate until you end up with Ray and Cortez facing down in the most primal way possible. This is one of those examples of something taking what could have easily been an empty exercise in formula and treating it seriously, and Kim Jee-woon makes an entirely successful transition from the freedom of the Korean system to the American film industry, something that has eluded many talented Asian filmmakers over the years. One thing that helps is that Kim has Schwarzenegger in the lead, and he’s caught him at a moment where he is vulnerable. There was a time when Arnold only did giant-budget films, and if “The Last Stand” had been made at the height of his box-office power, it would have been a much bigger film. Here, the limitations of the budget actually work in the film’s favor, because it falls back on something that you can’t buy… ingenuity. Each sequence seems important to Kim, and he makes sure to get the most out of every moment.
Even the character moments are handled with a light touch. Take Johnny Knoxville’s role in the film, for example. He plays Lewis Dinkum, a local gun dealer, and he’s introduced early in the movie in a scene that is short, funny, and just long enough to establish why Arnold’s going to go back to him later on when they need some extra firepower to face off against Cortez and his men. The one thing I’m curious about is how a film like this lands at this particular political moment. There is no way to get around the fact that this is a film that is entirely pro-firearms. One of the reasons Arnold is able to stand up to Cortez and the mercenaries that he’s hired, led by Peter Stormare, is because everyone in the town has guns of their own. You may think I’m exaggerating, but without giving away some of the second-half gags, let’s just say that I mean everyone. This is a film that comes down firmly on the side of people being able to keep guns just in case, and it pays off in the end. That may make it hard for people who are heavily invested in the real-world conversation about guns in America to enjoy this as the piece of break-neck entertainment that it is.
If you’re a grown-up who is able to enjoy escapism as escapism, though, “The Last Stand” is confident, breezy fun, and Arnold tweaks his own advancing age in a way that never feels like overkill. He’s still a badass. He’s just gonna feel it the next day. I have to admit, I really wasn’t looking forward to his return to movies. It felt like a moment that had passed. Now, though, I’m excited because he did it the right way, trusting a filmmaker and using his clout to let the director make the film he wanted to make. The cast is good across the board, and there’s eye candy for men and women alike. The cinematography by Ji-young Kim is crisp and colorful, and I was delighted by how clean the shooting style for the action sequences is. There’s no shaky-cam, and you can see everything that’s happening. It’s ridiculous that I have to point that out, but that’s how bad it’s gotten in modern action cinema. Simply observing the basics in composition and geography is cause to celebrate right now, and “The Last Stand” is a reminder of just how much fun a pure action film can be when everyone involved treats it like it matters. Arnold is, as he promised, back, and it turns out that is good news indeed.
“The Last Stand” opens everywhere on Friday.