Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"L" is for The Last Stand

 Of the three "aging action stars" releasing a movie in the early days of 2013, I was honestly not expecting that I would prefer Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand to a Walter Hill movie or a new Die Hard. Even a bad Die Hard looked like it would be more fun than jokes about old Ah-nuld and Johnny Knoxville playing some kind of spaz in his pajamas who likes shooting guns. Luckily for you and for me, things don't always work out the way we expect, and I'll be damned if I didn't have more fun watching The Last Stand than the other two movies combined.

 Maybe my reticence for the movie came from the trailer, but I also didn't have the benefit of being familiar with any of Jee-woon Kim's catalog coming in. I know, I really need to see I Saw the Devil and The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, but I haven't. People even tell me that A Tale of Two Sisters is way better than The Uninvited, which I also haven't seen, but I'm a busy guy, you know? The Cap'n wishes that he had time to sit down and watch everything that his friends highly recommended, but dammit, Terror at Blood Fart Lake isn't going to watch itself!

 Anyway, so I didn't have the proper perspective coming in for Kim's American language debut, so I just went with the ads I saw on TV and they looked pretty stupid. I like stupid, but if I'm going to have my stupid it doesn't need the Terminator with sidekicks. And I like Johnny Knoxville. He is far and by the preferable counterpoint to male action lead to Sung Kang in this instance. But I'll get to that. So unlike Park Chan-Wook's Stoker, I was not adequately enthused. My mistake.

 The Last Stand is a refreshingly unpretentious action movie from a director who clearly enjoys the Arnold films of days of yore. It is, at time, surprising in how earnest the story is and how it mostly avoids winking at the audience (unlike, say, Terminator 3). Arnold plays Ray Owens, a small town Sheriff near the U.S. / Mexico border who enjoys his quiet life. He had his wild years in California - which we hear about in a modified "how bad is this dude" speech - but now he enjoys being able to chide Sonny Ladham (Predator) for parking in a fire zone. It's all in good fun because everybody's leaving town for the big high school championship football game or something.

 Meanwhile, Mexican Cartel leader Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) is being transferred from one prison to another in Las Vegas, when he gives Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) the slip in a spectacular way, taking along Bannister's partner Agent Ellen Richards (Genesis Rodriguez) as a prisoner. His men stole a prototype super-racing etc (sorry, I'm not a car guy, so I honestly don't remember) and have set up a moving battering ram of vehicles to get Cortez from Las Vegas to the border before he can be recaptured. When all else fails, Bannister realizes that Cortez is heading right for Summerton Junction, the sleepy little town I mentioned before.

 Ray and his deputies (Luis Guzman, Jaime Alexander, and Zach Gilford0 are investigating the disappearance of local grouch Mr. Parsons (Harry Dean Stanton), which the audience knows is tied to the sketchy activity of Burrell (Peter Stormare). Now, I always enjoy seeing Peter Stormare play a sleazy bad guy in action movies (even in Bad Boys 2!) but he's extra fun in The Last Stand because, for no apparent reason, he intermingles his own accent with a corny "Southern" accent. It's just goofy enough not to be annoying.

 Burrell and some of Cortez's other men are up to something in anticipation of their boss' arrival, and Ray can tell right away that these scumbags are trouble. It just turns out he's out-gunned, and they even kill one of his deputies (hint: not Guzman or Alexander. It's the "rookie" the team - I guess he was "too young for this shit"), so now we've got revenge on top of doing the right thing. Good luck, Cortez.

 Ray turns to local goofball Lewis Dinkum (Knoxville) who, when not wearing pajamas and Kyle's hat from South Park, is the curator of the local guns and ammunition museum (a.k.a. his barn). Lewis agrees to help arm the police force and to help fortify the town before Cortez can get there on the provision that he be deputized. Also he gives his guns names and I would normally hate this character but Johnny Knoxville plays this kind of amiable idiot so well that I didn't mind so much.

 But let's talk about Arnold, who hasn't been a leading man since Terminator 3 and hasn't been in any movies not called "The Expendables" since becoming the Governator. The trailer uses every "old man" joke in the movie, so that was a relief, but Schwarzenegger takes well to the "elder statesman" role. It's not to say he can't still throw down with the young bucks (the last fight pretty much disproves that concern), but I can believe this guy saying "I need a vacation" after the ass-kicking he absorbs more than a T-800.

 I was really worried that Arnold had become the parody of himself he was playing in The Expendables 2, but Ray Owens is an actual character who reacts in the only way that makes sense for his situation. This guy has principles, and Arnold's stoic, stubborn defiance of the baddies was a nice throwback. Sure, it's High Noon without subtext, but it's not corny in the ways I feared it might be and the action is pretty good. There's a decent car chase near the end of the film and it's not an aggressively dumb action movie. More of a pleasantly dumb action movie. I guess that's why people who like shaky-can action rejected it, which is unfortunate. The Last Stand doesn't really merit immediate dismissal, and I suspect it will have a long life playing on cable during weekends.

 So anyway, The Last Stand is better than A Good Day to Die Hard and more enjoyable than Bullet to the Head. What does that say about the movie? More than you'd expect from that comparison, but let's not get crazy and start elevating it up to the very best of what Ah-nuld has to offer. This is more upper middle territory, like better than Eraser (a lot better) but not quite Running Man. You'll enjoy it, but not enough to bring everybody over to watch it again right away.