Film Review: The Last Stand

A rollicking riff on “He’s back!” kick-starts Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring vehicle since serving as California governor. You’ll be glad.

In The Last Stand, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in his cinematic “return” playing a border-town Western sheriff, place your bets on which of the three zingers fanboys will take to repeating and stick on t-shirts.

The choices are:
A) “I don’t know you and I don’t answer to you” (on the phone with an FBI chief, then slamming down the receiver).
B) “Welcome to Sommerton” (an armed and mean Arnold facing down some dangerous criminals threatening his town).
C) “You ruined my day off” (Arnold’s sheriff to conquered criminal).

Not quite as punchy as Eastwood’s “Go ahead, make my day,” but still not bad.
The Last Stand is very much a star vehicle, cleverly written by Andrew Knauer and directed by Korean genre-master Kim Je-woon, especially known for his action films such as the disturbingly violent I Saw the Devil. Wittily self-referential, the film particularly sends up Schwarzenegger’s age. Sheriff Ray Owens has to put on his reading glasses to get a good look at the mortal wound in the head of a corpse (the scarily scruffy Harry Dean Stanton in an uncredited cameo). Recovery time from bashings is much longer, and Owens lets it show.

As The Last Stand begins, Owens has retired after a messed-up narcotics operation in L.A. But it’s a given that he will get reeled back into action soon enough, especially with that gimlet eye and sixth sense about crime as keen as ever. He, and we, figure out long before the FBI does that his teeny Arizona town, Sommerton Junction, is targeted for a border escape by the dashing (literally, in a car driven faster than a plane can go to Mexico) Gabriel Cortez, head of a drug cartel. Cortez is portrayed by Eduardo Noriega, a big star in Spain—did Lionsgate have international sales in mind?—as both dangerous and sophisticated. Cortez is no thug and therefore never boring to watch, especially as he slips away from the authorities during an FBI transport out of jail. Vegas is the setting for this spectacular plot starter, with hotel façades cleverly used for slick getaway synchronicity, and all contrasting nicely with the Arizona scrub brush.

The usually on-the-mark Forest Whitaker as John Bannister, the head agent who has let his captive escape, overdoes his one-note frustration. But most of our attention is on Sheriff Owens and his deputies anyway, only some of whom can shoot straight. Sarah (Jaimie Alexander), joining a recent list of highly competent cinematic women fighters, is to be counted on, but the Sheriff is stuck with sweetly inept Jerry (Zach Gilford), replaced mid-action by Frank (Rodrigo Santoro), a spitting-nails type of jailbird. Figgy (the well-known character actor Luis Guzmán) is Owens’ helpmate, with his self-effacing humor breaking up some of the gunplay. The outlier is the local loco Lewis (Johnny Knoxville), who seems utterly incongruous until his weaponry is revealed.

“Cinemah”-hungry fans—if there is a sprinkling following this action movie targeted to a thrill-seeking demographic—will recognize some burlesqued western elements: a High Noon-type confrontation in the main street of the town, a rifle-totin’ granny, and some funny townsfolk not too perturbed by violence; they hang out at a local diner, though, not a saloon. Cinematographer Ji Yong Kim shows his stuff with an aerial cornfield shot and some North by Northwest-derived hide-and-seek in rows of corn stalks.

So to answer the implied question behind the film: Can Schwarzenegger still deliver? You don’t have to wait till the end to answer yes, though the concluding mano a mano is pure, vintage Arnold: bravado with jokes.