One of the best parts about any Arnold Schwarzenegger movie is when they manage to explain how a gigantic muscle-bound Austrian man – most likely with a bland and dorky sounding American name – winds up in each ridiculous situation that stands for the movie’s plot. Most of the reasons involve him being ex-military or police who managed to get out of a hairy situation before it got the best of him, all the while leaving him emotionally scarred in the process. Here, in Arnie’s big return to headlining the kind of balls-to-the-wall action that’s his raison d’être, it’s no different. He plays Sheriff Ray Owens, an ex-LAPD narcotics officer who left his shady past behind him to move to the small Arizona border town of Sommerton Junction to live a peaceful and quiet life free from all possible harm.
But you know the drill – something happens to upset this twilight calm and Arnie has to revert to his old ways of shooting first and asking questions later. That something is Mexican cartel kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) who escapes from the custody of an FBI agent (Forest Whitaker) with the convoluted help from his cronies to make a mad dash to the border in a specially-equipped Chevy Corvette capable of reaching speeds up to 250 mph. Cortez means to flee to Mexico via a makeshift bridge between a narrow canyon on the border, but he has to make it through Sommerton Junction to get there. Throw in a ton of random side characters including Luis Guzman as Arnie’s deputy, Peter Stormare as one of Cortez’s American henchmen, and Johnny Knoxville as a local gun nut and you’ve got yourself one dumb fun ride. Leave any semblance of normalcy at the door because yes it is absolutely ridiculous and yes this is an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie we’re talking about.
In the normal mold of said Schwarzenegger movies, he’s the nucleus and everybody acts around him. It is the same here, though for long stretches of time The Governator is off-screen and we’re annoyingly put through blatant exposition while the focus is elsewhere. We’re left wondering why Arnie isn’t around smirking at the camera, shooting a gun, or delivering one-liners like he should be. There are too many peripheral characters in place in order to tie the story together and interest in these initially minor plot points is lost too often. When Arnold is onscreen, he’s as magnetic as he was back in the day, and though he might not be as gigantic and imposing as he once was he still gets by on the charm of poking fun at his image as a possibly has-been action movie titan. The lightheartedness is what is surprising about The Last Stand, because it’s sort of more comedic than it is an action film. Johnny Knoxville is restrained enough in doing his shtick and Luis Guzman brings the right level of clowning around to not get bogged down in seriousness. There has to be at least two gags to every one explosion, but don’t get me wrong there are a lot of explosions.
This is Korean director Kim Jee-Woon’s first Hollywood movie and he seems to have phoned in his usual directorial flair. Maybe the weight of breaking through to the big-time with a certified action legend weighed him down a bit. He brings a sense of kinetic energy at times that is notable, but other times he lazily prolongs sequences past the point of being effective. Honestly, the villain spends about 95% of the movie in a car and it gets tiring after awhile jumping back to a guy just spouting threats from a driver’s seat.
That’s another thing – there are so many people in this movie with super heavy accents delivering extremely clunky dialogue that it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing because, again, this is a Schwarzenegger movie and we’re supposed to welcome really dumb dialogue, but a lot of it – including many of the forced one-liners – falls really flat. Then again, hearing Arnold Schwarzenegger cuss out a guy after he’s blown him to bits is really really great.
The problem with The Last Stand is that it’s got a lot to live up to given its star. But the only thing that lives up to “Arnold the huge action star” is the eponymous last stand itself where he gathers his rag tag group of deputies in the conveniently empty center of town to face down Cortez and his arsenal of baddies. Everything that comes before it seems like frivolous setup for Arnold hanging out of the back of a school bus and firing a Gatling gun. It’s great fun once you’re in it – I can’t imagine how many squibs were used on the set of this thing – but it might be too little too late to make a difference.
You should see this movie just to see the big guy back in action and as good as ever in parts, and when he quips directly towards camera following a blaze of gunfire you’ll be glad to know he’s still got it.