Monday, January 28, 2013

New in Theaters: The Last Stand

The Last Stand

Directed by Jee-Woon Kim

The Grade: A-

When The Expendables came out in 2010, I wrote at the time how sad it was that something “that was meant to remind us of how great action movies were in the 1980’s instead just ends up reminding us how those days are long gone.” Imagine my surprise then a few days ago when I saw The Last Stand, and saw how it succeeded in every way that The Expendables (and its even more embarrassing sequel) failed. The Last Stand manages to be a great action movie because the only thing it’s trying to be is a great action movie, instead of a VH1-like pastiche of every nostalgic trope it thinks its audience is looking for.

The Last Stand stars Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his first lead role since 2003, before he became Governor of California) as the Sheriff of a small Arizona border town, Sommerton Junction. When an international drug kingpin escapes FBI custody and plans to use Sommerton to cross the border, it’s up to the Sheriff and his small band of deputies to stop him. Of course it is. What ensues is predictable yet wildly fun, and along the way is everything someone could reasonably want out of an old school action movie. The car chases are fast and intense, the set pieces are elaborate and creative, the shoot-outs are reminiscent of spaghetti westerns (but with much bigger guns), the testosterone is rampant and absurd, and the one-liners are corny and delicious. Stir two minutes, bake until golden brown.

But even amidst all of that dependable predictability, some things surprised me. For one, Arnold never took his shirt off. At first this might seem inconsequential, but as I’m seeing the ads for the upcoming Stallone vehicle Bullet to the Head all over TV, and his chiseled 66-year old shirtless physique prominently displayed, I realized a subtle difference between the two: For Sly, it’s all about still proving to himself that he’s got it; that he can still be Rocky, still be Rambo, still be the toughest guy in the room. And to convey that, he thinks it has to be a “Who has the biggest pecs?” contest. But to Arnold, it’s not about that anymore. He spent decades having the biggest pecs, but he spent the last eight years wearing a suit and tie every day. And you get the sense watching The Last Stand that Arnold isn’t here to prove he can still do it, he’s here because he missed it. I think Arnold just loves making action movies, he has fun with them, and this represents his first time experiencing that fun in a long while. It’s contagious on the screen.

The director, Jee-Woon Kim, is a veteran of South Korean horror films, but he proves here that he’s more than capable of tackling other genres. His sense of momentum is fantastic, and he brings a violent grittiness that feels fresh amidst all of the PG-13 franchise movies that action cinema has slowly become. The entertaining and game supporting cast features Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, and Johnny Knoxville, whose stunts are just insane enough that he probably did them himself. But even with talented people surrounding him, this is Arnold’s show all the way.

The Last Stand defiantly is what it is, but it’s damn good at it. Even people with the best taste sometimes get a craving for a giant plate of sloppy nachos, and this is the best order of nachos I’ve had in a damn long while. I struggle to imagine anyone wanting to see The Last Stand and being disappointed by it. How could you be? It delivers everything an action junkie could want. And even though Arnold has never been a good actor, this serves as a reminder that he’s still a great movie star. Sometimes that’s all you need. 

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