Friday, January 25, 2013

THE LAST STAND Infuses Old-School Action With New-School Excitement


- Those who are predisposed not to like Arnold Schwarzenegger's particular brand of pumped-up action movies, well ... they may still get a kick out of THE LAST STAND. The movie is, after all, the American debut of acclaimed Korean director Kim Jee-Woon (I Saw The Devil). And Jee-Woon makes this much more than just a nostalgia trip. This is fresh, funny, slick, exciting, over-the-top filmmaking. This is a potent mix of Asian extreme cinema with good old-fashioned American badassery. On that note, if you did grow up with Arnold, if you do regard him as an action icon, and if you are eagerly awaiting that icon's return to a starring role - well, The Last Stand is a fantastic return to film for the former governor of California. The Last Stand plays perfectly to Arnold's strengths - giving him some great one-liners, some great hard-hitting action, and a story that plays up the actor's iconic, larger-than-life status. The film fully acknowledges Arnold's advancing age - in fact, it has a lot of fun with the concept. But it also shows you why Arnold still kicks ass - it positions him as a throwback and a hardass. Sure, he's older and a bit worse for wear - but come on ... when a sadistic crime lord is heading to your town to lay waste to it, en route to the border - is there anyone else you'd want as your last line of defense? Old-school action movie fans know the answer - and if you have doubts, then The Last Stand will put them to rest.

In The Last Stand, Arnold plays Ray Owens, an ex-LAPD cop who, after some stuff went down in LA, decides to ditch the big city for the quiet life of a small-town sheriff. And so, in a sleepy Arizona border town, Owens serves as the way-overqualified long arm of the law, heading up a barely-qualified staff of deputes. However, Owens and his staff have to step it up when Gabriel Cortez - a dangerous Mexican drug lord - escapes federal custody, steals a souped-up experimental car, and makes a dash for the border - eluding the FBI and local cops at every turn. Cortez appears to be home free and on his way to freedom. Except, of course, for the fact that Owens, his team, and a town full of gun-toting, half-crazy sons-of-bitches still stand in his way - a challenge that Cortez, surely, did not anticipate.

At first glance, the movie's obvious affection for this town full of gun-nuts might come off as a little disquieting, especially in the wake of recent tragedies. But I think there is a clear element of satire here - a streak of absurdist humor that calls attention to the fact that, hey, this is the kind of thing that could *only* happen in the hyper-reality of the movies. On that note, The Last Stand is an incredibly funny movie - this is a film that is winking at the audience the entire way through. It's incredibly self-aware, and in the way it does its best to play to the audience. It's the kind of film that goes for the crazy moments, the applause-worthy one-liners, and that completely understands that, yes, it is an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie - no apologies - and it has a lot of fun reminding us what that means. And yet, it also tweaks the formula - modernizing it for today's more savvy audiences.

And so even though in some ways this is a throwback (my god, an action movie where you can actually follow the action!), it also is super-slick and even a bit dangerous. Kim Jee-Woon infuses the film with the kineticism and style of post-modernist extreme cinema - the kind that's been popularized in Korea thanks to guys like Jee-Woon and Oldboy's Chan Wook-Park, and here in the US thanks to Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and their ilk. Jee-Woon totally gets what we love about old-school action flicks, and gives those qualities a shiny polish of sly self-awareness. But this isn't just a purely silly movie. It's often laugh-out-loud funny, with great gags, and a game cast with plenty of comic chops (Johnny Knoxville, Louis Guzman). But this is also a movie that hits the "awesome" mark over and over again. Everything here is just, well ... satisfying. The story expertly builds and builds until we're chomping at the bit for the climactic showdown. The action hits hard and with impact - visceral gun battles, breakneck car chases, and even a classic fist fight. Point being: even though there's plenty of humor, the movie also brings the pain when need be - and does so in classic, audience-pleasing style. Suffice it to say, it's been a long time since I was so purely and unabashedly rooting for an action film's hero to kick ass and save the day.

 And of course, our heroes are nothing without good villains. And The Last Stand has a very good villain in douchey slimebucket Cortez, played with aplomb by Eduardo Noriega. But even better is the great Peter Stormare as Cortez's advance man, the guy who's made it his personal mission to make Schwarzenegger's town Cortez's gateway to the border. I'm not quite sure what Stormare is going for here (his accent is all over the map), but there's no doubt that he cranks it up to eleven and goes full-on crazy in this film. So yeah, Stormare vs. Arnold feels like an epic battle of iconic hero vs. iconic villain. All that's missing is a wood-chipper. On the side of the angels, there's Knoxville - whose role is nowhere near as substantial as the marketing would have you believe. And that's cool. He's great as a funny supporting character - a local one-man militia who's seemingly been preparing for this criminal invasion his whole life. Guzman - come on, he rules it. As a pudgy, lazy lawman confronted with his first real test of mettle ... he nails it. And then there's Forest Whitaker - another dude who is perfect for the movie's over-the-top aesthetic. As the lead FBI agent tracking Cortez, Whitaker's trademark brand of crazy adds to the movie's pulpy, grindhouse vibe. Hell, there's even a pretty good love story in the mix, as a by-the-book deputy finds herself having to team with her sad-sack ex-boyfriend - a regular in the drunk tank - who's got to rediscover his long-lost mojo in the fight to save the town. Oh, and Harry Dean Stanton has an awesome cameo as an off-his-rocker farmer.

And as for Arnold - sure, maybe he's a bit rough around the edges after a long acting hiatus, but overall he is in fine form here. Nobody else delivers those one-liners with quite the same snap. And hey, he's having fun here. This isn't him coming back and trying to be the Arnold of old. This is him returning as the grizzled, old-school vet who might be a step slow but can still deliver a knockout right hand. This is vintage Arnold, but it's also an encouraging sign that the man's comeback won't just be about him acting like he's still a young man.

On Kim Jee-Woon ... this is most definitely a talent to watch. The guy has a talent for crafting striking, vivid imagery and visual motifs, but also has a knack for crazy-ass action in which you feel every smash, hit, and cut. It's exciting to see him go to work here, bringing together a variety of influences to create an action film that pays homage to what's come beforem but that also feels new and different.

I came out of The Last Stand feeling, well, pumped-up. Here was an exciting blend of old-school action with new-school cinema, that was both a vintage entry in the Ah-nold cannon and something new and different and exciting. The movie crackled with gorgeous visuals and eye-popping action, and the narrative was refreshingly simple-yet-effective. Fans of classic action should run to check this out, as should fans of cutting-edge filmmaking. Arnold is back, yes - but he's brought some exciting new blood with him for his return.

My Grade: B+

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