There has never been a more truthful mantra from Arnold Schwarzenegger than his iconic “I’ll be back” phrase from 1984′s The Terminator. Time and time again Arnie has proven his resilience against the inevitability of time, age, and even an infuriating (and perhaps misguided) political career. Nobody has been able to keep the big dog down for long. Now, in early 2013, Arnold returns once more with The Last Stand, proving once and for all that he will always be one of the kings of the action film genre.
Let’s be perfectly clear about something right off the bat: Arnie isn’t the inimitable and unstoppable spectacle that he once was. Additionally, much of The Last Stand is about as antiquated and irrelevant as cinema can get. Still, with the assured, energetic direction of Jee-woon Kim, committed performances and the still vital charisma of the Austrian Oak, The Last Stand validates its existence and gives us a diverting blast of throwback fun.
The Last Stand offers a classic set-up for the world of a Schwarzenegger actioner. Arnold is Sheriff Ray Owens, a leathery and worldly ex-narcotics officer who left the gritty horrors of his life in LA for the dusty homeyness of Sommerton, a small town in the American Southwest. Owens is content with his quiet existence as the sheriff for a town where very little in the way of crime happens. This is something that can’t be said for his band of deputies, which consists of a motley crew embodied by actors Luis Guzman, Zach Gilford and Jaimie Alexander. However, the benign serenity of small town life is soon shattered by some terrifying news from the FBI: A vicious drug cartel leader has busted out of prison, commandeered a souped-up car and is making for the Mexican border with a small army supporting him. Fatefully, Sommerton sits directly in his path.
Pacing is an issue that plagues the exposition of the film, although the early sequences offer engaging introductions to Owen’s staff of bumbling deputies, and the eccentric group of hayseeds that make up the small town. Probably the most animated characterization comes from Johnny Knoxville as the eccentric artillery museum owner Lewis Dinkum. Much more nuanced is the work of Gilford as the feckless deputy Jerry Bailey, who dreams of working in a more exciting location. Gildford’s small role is probably the character with the most development (aside from Arnold) and his character’s scenes with Owens even carry a genuine emotional undercurrent, which is something quite surprising for a mindless action flick.
And speaking of action, once the film really dives into the central plot the visceral bloodletting comes fast and furious. Jee woon-Kim stages several effective action showpieces, including: drug lord Cortez escape from the custody of the blustery FBI agent John Bannister (Forrest Whitaker, giving us an excellent study in professional douchebaggery), some cool car stunts involving on and off-road action, and of course the bloody frenzy that erupts once Cortez’s crew arrives on the streets of Sommerton.
Now, for all of the competency on display nothing about the action in Last Stand is overly innovative; it is simply well shot and serves its purpose by delivering a couple of thrilling moments of destructive carnage. Probably the most effective thing about the film is how its script treats Arnold’s status as a grizzled old codger. For certain sections of the action Owens is almost completely absent, and when he does appear it is presented in a fashion that (barring a few exceptions) feels almost believable.
Of course this doesn’t mean that Arnold is sitting back in his rocking chair or putting his teeth in a glass of water; the old guy still gets plenty of opportunities for some of his trademark ass-kicking. There are showdowns galore, with Arnie getting to duke it out with both Cortez (a rather dull Eduardo Noriega) and his central henchman Burrell, who is played with a frankly outrageous level of cackling menace by Peter Stormare.
We live in an epoch of constant cinematic repackaging, with studios desperate to insure marketability through brand-name recognition and proven formula. The Last Stand assimilates to this trend by being a relic defined by the escapism and wanton violence that became Arnold’s bread and butter in the mid-80′s. Yet, amazingly this is not a bad thing. Like all of Arnold’s greatest work there is a line of intelligent self-awareness that runs through The Last Stand. Arnold’s aware of the absurdity of his films and aware of the silly worlds they create. His characters exist in worlds full of anonymous villains, caricatures as opposed to characters and violence free from moral consequences. However, he is also aware of how much his fan base loves this world, and aware of how much we all still love him, and how much we still need him. He always said he would be back. Thankfully, it’s a positive return.