Review: “The Last Stand”

Film critic James Frazier reviews Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to Hollywood, "The Last Stand"“The Last Stand” isn’t an action movie, a comedy, a crime thriller, or a Western. It’s an Arnold, the smallest genre in cinema. Arnold Schwarzenegger is arguably the only post-silent era actor whose participation mandates that a film be thought of as something other than what it ostensibly is. He’s singular, having such an effect in terms of star-power that entire films warp around him. Even the most auteurial of Schwarzenegger’s directors, from James Cameron to Paul Verhoeven, are compelled to concede a degree of their authorship to the actor’s presence.

“The Last Stand” marks Schwarzenegger’s first starring role in nearly 10 years, and it’s obvious that Hollywood expectations about his bankability have changed. The budget, reportedly between $30 and $45 million, would have barely covered the cost of individual action scenes in the actor’s ‘90s films. The director, South Korean import Jee-woon Kim, is plainly talented but has yet to carry much Hollywood weight. As such, “The Last Stand” isn’t a glorious return to the blockbuster form in which audiences once knew Schwarzenegger, but then again, its strength is that it doesn’t really try to be. The film instead aims its appeal at those who have been eagerly awaiting the day that Schwarzenegger could simply step into a lead role and declare, “I’m back.”

Sheriff Ray Owens, Schwarzenegger’s protagonist, is a classic Western archetype, a disgraced lawman seeking quiet as the protector of a dusty small-town. We learn little about Owens, and he’s not so much a character as an amalgamation of Schwarzenegger’s screen history. When Schwarzenegger tells a deputy that he has “seen blood, and death,” we understand that he’s not so much talking about Owens’ record as he is the legions of criminals, terrorists, cyborgs and aliens that he has slain in past films. The actor’s fans should quiver with anticipation at moments like this, though the appeal to anyone else will be limited.

It’s largely by dint of Schwarzenegger’s iconography that “The Last Stand” proves to be a worthy addition to his own canon. His somewhat disastrous California governorship resulted in the added insult of robbing fans of more than a couple of Arnolds. This return, while cautious with its modest Hollywood budget and boilerplate plot, proves to be a wholly appropriate comeback vehicle for Schwarzenegger, both practically and thematically. It showcases him as an older but still imposing physical presence, retaining his offbeat charisma and humor while letting other actors carry much of the story.

Of course, there’s not much of a story. Owens, a former top L.A.P.D. officer, finds himself commanding a motley crew of micro-town deputies looking to prevent Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), a notorious drug kingpin, from crossing the border from Arizona to Mexico, a scenario that the comparatively iconic John Wayne could have worn like a glove. Cortez flees the F.B.I., including Agent Bannister (Forest Whitaker), and is aided by a team of mercenaries led by Burrell (Peter Stomare), the sort of bad guy who, to prove he’s evil, shoots a cameoing Harry Dean Stanton off of a tractor.

These mercenaries are good at their jobs, extracting the kingpin from an F.B.I. convoy and proceeding to kill a few dozen cops. They aren’t, however, as skilled as Owens’ four deputies, including Johnny Knoxville and Luis Guzmán, who under our hero’s tutelage manage to stall and then exterminate the mercenary lot. Oh, how many movie villains have had their perfectly perfect plans ruined by the unpredictable appearance of one of Schwarzenegger’s characters, whose courage is only outmatched by his ability to kill. If one were paid a dime for each time that’s happened, certainly one could afford a brand-name soda.

The film’s first 75 minutes or so consist mostly of exposition for the final battle, though director Kim does make time for a few slick car chases and gun fights. A surprising amount of effort goes into the relations of Owens’ deputies, including a pretty woman (Jaimie Alexander), her Iraq vet boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro), and Knoxville’s dippy gun nut (parts of “The Last Stand” legitimately play like a non-partisan N.R.A. ad). There’s little doubt as to how the climactic showdown will turn out, but these moments do lend the finale some tension, in addition to demonstrating that Schwarzenegger is aware that he need not be the focal point of every scene.

Between Schwarzenegger’s blazing iconography and the constraints of the script, Kim doesn’t have a lot of directorial wriggle room, but he still manages to make his mark. The action scenes are gruesome and exciting, filmed and edited with spatial clarity, which is especially important for the lengthy climactic battle that luxuriates in the clash between local yokel law and hired cannon fodder. The only thing the climax celebrates more than heroic violence is its star, and rightfully so. In an age when the traditional action movie has largely given way to intellectual property-driven spectacles, it’s nice to know that we’ll get more Arnolds.