After nearly a decade since he headlined Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back with a starring role in The Last Stand. During his time as California governor, the actor enjoyed only a brief cameo appearance in The Expendables – a role that was later expanded in its sequel, The Expendables 2.
Korean director Kim Ji-woon was tasked with reintroducing the iconic action star (now ten years older) to the leading man spotlight. An especially fitting challenge, given that the primary character in his new film left Los Angeles to live his peaceful golden years in small town New Mexico. Does The Last Stand prove that Schwarzenegger still has what it takes to be a worthwhile Hollywood leading man that can kick butt and spout memorable one-liners?
While some movie fans might have written-off The Last Stand after seeing a generic middle-of-the-road trailer, the final film provides plenty of crowd-pleasing scenes, exciting set-pieces, and an extremely enjoyable performance from Schwarzenegger. In fact, not only does the aging actor hold is own when going toe-to-toe with bad guys, he also wholly embraces his Hollywood persona, which will further endear viewers to the quirks of his character. Out of context, the gags could be mistaken for a film that tries too hard, but scene-to-scene, even the campiest moments are worthy of a solid laugh. Nitpickers will have an easy time challenging plot holes and logistics, but The Last Stand is unrepentant in its action-western ambition – and delivers where it really counts.
The core storyline is pretty straightforward – starting with the bloody liberation of sadistic drug cartel head Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) from federal custody. Instead of attempting a quiet disappearance via private jet or a low-key border crossing, Cortez hops into the driver’s seat of a modified Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1 for a mad (and violent) dash to Mexico. Unfortunately for Cortez, his flight from the law is set to take him through the local farming community of Sommerton Junction, and into the path of LAPD Tactical Forces Officer-turned-small town Sheriff, Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger). As FBI agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) races to catchup with Cortez, Owens and his deputies – along with the help of local weirdo/gun enthusiast, Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) – scramble to stop the drug lord and his team of mercenaries from escaping across the Mexican border.
The Last Stand‘s setup is unapologetically formulaic, and as mentioned before, filled with plot holes that require a hefty dose of disbelief suspending. Any attempts to fill-out the relatively straightforward plot – supporting character arcs, villainous exposition, or an underdeveloped twist – speed past without consequence and occasionally distract from the pacing in the core storyline. The film doesn’t bother with deep or insightful drama; however, The Last Stand presents enough charming characters, clever filmmaking choices, and downright entertaining (sometimes gory) action set pieces for an enjoyable experience. The third act, especially, is full of crowd-pleasing shootouts and brawls that provide just as many surprises and humorous one-liners as there are bullet holes.
Part of the success is owed to a smart mix of side characters – both supporting roles and townsfolk bit parts. Onscreen, Noriega’s Cortez – coupled with that super-powered car – serves as a competent ‘force of nature’ antagonist, even if his overall character is relatively standard. Furthermore, the assembled Sommerton Junction force of Mike Figuerola (Luis Guzmán) and Sarah Torrance (Jaimie Alexander) - along with drunkard war veteran Frank Martinez (Rodrigo Santoro) – provides a good counter-balance to Schwarzenegger’s grumpy-but-honorable sheriff. Enjoying second-billing in the film’s marketing, Knoxville’s role as Dinkum isn’t that big, but his performance provides some of the more humorous moments. On its own, the sheer elation on Dinkum’s face while feeding bullets into a mini-gun is bound to help win-over at least a few cynics.
Still there, would be no Last Stand without Schwarzenegger’s larger-than-life persona. Despite a few scenes of overly-sentimental dialogue, where the action star comes across as a bit stiff, Schwarzenegger carries the film. It’s not a career-changing performance, since Owens is mostly an aged riff on characters we’ve seen the actor portray in the past. Nevertheless, he’s the perfect protagonist for the situation depicted in the film. It’s clear that to help separate Owens from the list of memorable Schwarzenegger roles, the actor plays the character to his strengths – even incorporating some interesting self-referential banter about his history with Los Angeles. Instead of distancing this movie from his public persona, Schwarzenegger smartly embraces it – especially when the action ramps up.
A few set pieces of vehicular manslaughter keep the plot moving for the first half of the film and some viewers will likely find the overarching plot to be stretched too thin upfront. However, the second half of the movie provides one explosive setup after another – making smart use of main street Sommertown Junction and surrounding areas. Most notably, a sequence about two-thirds of the way through ups the ante – providing a quick succession of crowd-pleasing moments that lead into a slick (albeit campy) finale.
Director Kim Ji-woon finds a solid balance between cheese and stylized action with his American debut – while making smart use of a likable and quirky roster of characters. Ultimately, The Last Stand is a fun throwback to the days of formulaic but immensely entertaining Schwarzenegger-led films. After the actor’s ten year hiatus, the gamble pays off this round, but with a healthy does of in-development action roles ahead of him, audiences may be less excited about similar performances down the line. Yet, for now at least, watching Schwarzenegger fire shotguns and body slam bad guys is as enjoyable as ever.
Ben Kendrick blogs at Screen Rant.