Go,See,Talk resumes their Double Take Review series with the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to headlining status in Jee-woon Kim’s small town shoot em up The Last Stand. Today Marc Ciafardini and Andrew Crump chime in on what works and what doesn’t in the latest from The Governator and American film debut of of Korean director Jee-woon Kim.
Take 1 – Marc Ciafardini:
When the son of a drug cartel baron breaks out of a US prison and does a Cannonball run for the Mexico border, there’s only one man who can stop him. Yes, it sounds as trite as any 80’s actioner or B-Movie from that era, but it’s a Schwarzenegger vehicle and that detail alone gives The Last Stand some distinction. Ah-nuld is back in a big way in his first headlining feature since leaving his role of Governor of California in 2011. It’s very much in the vein of the style we’ve come to expect but this time there’s a lot of “I’m too old for this shit” humor to compliment the outlandish and unbelievable plot. Like a freight train there’s only one direction this story is going, everyone knows it and since they can’t alter its course they do their best to brace for impact. Sure it’s big, it’s loud and fun but it lacks substance and a simple premise does not a fulfilling story make. Between the eye-popping high speed car chases with a nigh uncatchable Corvette ZR1 The Last Stand still stumbles a bit and the jokes carry the slow story if barely.Yet that’s where Arnold’s presence and director Jee-woon Kim shooting style attempt to make this more than an drawn out episode of, at best Justified (which is a great effen show by the way) or, at worst a ho-hum TBS movie.
There are some rather inventive scenes and shots to be had and this is in no way a wasted time at the theater. Case in point: the drug lord’s escape scene. Right when things start to take an uninspired queue from The Dark Knight, in a bit of directing brilliance the camera (in one take mind you), follows the cartel to the edge of their dizzying zip-line descent then drops from the top of the building, lands softly and turns to find Forest Whitaker and the bewildered pursuing federal agents. It’s so seamless and so well done it doesn’t even register until it’s over; that’s the hallmark of a great director (or a great DP and cinematographer). Scenes like that don’t happen often but when they do help elevate the film above what it might have been and offset banal chase scenes through corn fields and the inevitable stand off at the finale.
The cast is about as varied and mismatched as could be assembled. Watching this drug war come to the small corner of Arizona is like watching the end of Return of the Jedi except it’s not diminutive Ewoks, it’s half-ass mountain boys. Luis Guzman, Johnny Knoxville, Jamie Alexander, even her convenient love interest/ex-Marine Rodrigo Santoro round out this bunch of make-shift soldiers banding against Peter Stormare (typecast again!) and Eduardo Noriega. Granted, on any other day, nothing of any real danger probably would ever come down Main Street Sommerton Junction so the Sheriff’s deputies can’t be expected to be ex-military or anything but volunteers. That only increases the degree to which they’re outmatched and incapable of this last stand. Best course of action? Aim wildly and hope they have enough bullets.
Some how it all works in their favor. Again its all Ewoks vs Empire but the humor, blazing guns (and gore) and high octane excitement make it fun enough to get us past the ludicrousness of any and all situations. Normally this just wouldn’t fly but then again it’s an actioner (and an Ah-nuld actioner at that), when did rules ever get in the way of a story?
No matter what you might think of this last action hero getting up there in age, he is a treat on screen and again commands our attention. Although he’s the main draw and nails the witty one-liners, the one person who should get as much praise, though not enough screen time, is Knoxville. His back and forth with Schwarzenegger is short lived but keeps things lively with equal parts zany and quirky humor. Their odd couple antics are memorable and the bright counterpoints to the heavy-handed Forest Whitaker scenes. Also Knoxville’s brief presence is made all the better when he and Luis Guzman do their best Laurel and Hardy rendition.
It’s a breezy shoot ’em up with surprising vitality and the start of a comeback (read: not a victory lap) for Schwarzenegger. Moreover it’s got all the makings of a more-fun-than-it-should-be actioner and succeeds in that respect. Even with its knocks The Last Stand still delivers a one-two punch via Schwarzenegger and the impressive shooting style of Korean director Jee-woon Kim. Kind of makes you wish there’d be another Last Stand but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Take 2 – Andrew Crump:
Lately it’s become the fashion to handle 80s action iconography with self-aware smirking. Remember how cheesy and lame shoot-’em-up films were three decades ago? The Internet sure does, and it boasts a large enough collection of stupid Chuck Norris memes to prove it. But Ji-woon Kim isn’t a teenager on Reddit with Photoshop and time to waste; he’s a real-deal filmmaker hailing from South Korea’s cinematic new wave who lacks the kind of sentimental baggage American audiences carry with them into wistfully insincere “homages” to the action stars of eras past. In other words, when he arrives in your cineplex with Arnold Schwarzenegger at his side, you’d do well to sit up and pay attention– the man means business.
So does his musclebound, oft-mimicked star, here making good on the promise he made in 1984. The very presence of California’s 38th governor should tell you precisely what sort of movie The Last Stand intends to be before you’ve caught a single frame of its hundred-minute running time, but forget not that while Schwarzenegger pronounces and saunters in front of the camera, Kim sits quietly behind it, engineering and plotting. I’m making it sound more artfully calculated than it is; the truth is that every move they make together is in service of creating the exact kind of movie that catapulted Arnold to prominence in his heyday, but with the right blend of the requisite tongue-in-cheek introspection and serious action. In other words, you’re invited to have a chuckle at the star’s elocution, but when he blows away bad guys in brutal, straightforward fashion, you’ll remember why he’s so beloved by action aficionados in the first place*.
The Last Stand— sort of an inverse variation on Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django— has its cake and eats it too. It’s the sort of film designed to invoke the trashy hokum of a bygone period in genre filmmaking while turning itself into a punchline, but it achieves both ends without being insufferable and bad. The second value judgment may vary for you depending on your level of appreciation for old action cinema, but if you buy a ticket to what Kim’s selling you probably know what you’re getting into. There’s a feeling here that Schwarzenegger and Kim are both aiming for earnest parody; it’s a joke, but they’re in on it with the rest of the cast and crew. It’s also a fun joke, and it’s the perfect cocktail to cure the early year doldrums of January and February.
The set-up here is simple: a Mexican drug baron (Eduardo Noriega) is freed from the custody of the FBI (led by Forest Whittaker) and makes a bid for the border to get back to his homeland. The only thing between him and his freedom? Arnold Schwarzenegger, plus one band of misfits which begins with Luis Guzmán and ends with Johnny Knoxville, who basically just plays the Kang-ho Song character from Kim’s 2008 “Kimchi” Western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (good news for those who haven’t seen anything Kim has done prior to 2008). Hilarity, oddness, gunfights, explosions, bad accents, and one-liners ensue. There’s nothing here on the level of “Hasta la vista, baby”, but Arnold– still as cut as ever and with all of his primeval charm to boot– still gets his digs in and even gets a few moments of grandfatherly warmth. It’s not “acting” in the strictest sense, but when he talks about his character’s past you get the impression he’s talking about himself. It’s wooden, but it works.
As does the rest of the film. The Last Stand is the first of two (possibly three) American films this year featuring a Korean director, and if Kim’s outing tells us anything it’s that the great experiment could be a huge success. This movie doesn’t rewrite the book on anything, but it knows the book better than most of its audience likely does, and Kim has all the verve and style necessary to make Arnold’s first starring role in ten years pop with excitement and energy. Impressive indeed, Mr. Kim. Impressive indeed.
*Though it bears mentioning that with the sudden frenzied interest in gun control, gun ownership, and gun responsibility, a film in which the fringe wins the day with the guns they keep stashed by their rocking chairs or in their personal armories may strike some as being a bit gauche. That said, cut Kim some slack– he’s not prescient.