Friday, January 25, 2013

The Last Stand

THE LAST STAND (Kim Jee-woon, 2013)

Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) experienced more than enough danger and action for a lifetime as a Los Angeles narcotics cop, which is why he gave it up to become sheriff of a sleepy southwest Arizona border town.  With its postcard-perfect Main Street, Sommerton Junction is the kind of place where a local farmer delivers fresh milk to the diner and strangers stopping for a bite to eat stand out.  As almost everyone has left town to watch the high school football team play in the state championship, it promises to be another quiet weekend for Ray and his three bored deputies in THE LAST STAND.  

Meanwhile, drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) escapes from the FBI despite the high level of security and secrecy surrounding his prison transfer in Las Vegas.  Cortez’s subordinates supply him with a supercharged Corvette boosted from an auto show.  The one-time race car driver speeds toward Mexico with an agent (Genesis Rodriguez) as his hostage.  Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and his team eventually determine that Cortez plans to cross over in Sommerton but are incapable of catching up to him in time.  It falls upon Ray and his ragtag crew, which includes a prisoner (Rodrigo Santoro) and a local eccentric with an arsenal (Johnny Knoxville), to block Cortez’s road to freedom.

Schwarzenegger eases into his full-fledged return to the movies after his terms as California governor.  Like an athlete shaking the rust off after time away from his sport, he warms up with routine police work and self-effacing humor in THE LAST STAND’s table-setting first half.  When the film smoothly shifts into non-stop combat, Schwarzenegger turns on the charisma and brute force that made him one of the biggest action stars in the world.  His corny one-liners seem more obligatory than amusing, but despite getting up there in years, the star’s broad-shouldered brawn is still built for manhandling bad guys.  He may not be the superhuman he was in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but when Schwarzenegger is wearing a badge, he can credibly claim to be the roughest, toughest lawman on screen.   
To its detriment THE LAST STAND doesn’t provide Schwarzenegger with a worthy antagonist.  While the small scale of Cortez’s scheme is refreshing in an age of action films with outlandishly high stakes, he doesn’t do much, mainly because he’s isolated behind the wheel of a car most of the time.  Cortez is also less imposing or funny than his henchman Burrell (Peter Stormare), who wallows in his sleaziness and disregard for those who get in his way.

Once the bullets are flying director Kim Jee-woon shoots the barely contained chaos with a clear understanding of physical space often neglected in the hypercut, CGI-heavy spectacles of today.   At its core THE LAST STAND is a throwback film, an old-fashioned western updated with 20th and 21st century weaponry and vehicles. The lengthy gun battle in the middle of Sommerton delivers the simple pleasures of watching heroes and villains exchange fire and trying to outflank one another.  The subsequent car chase through a cornfield and hand-to-hand fight thrill with the one-on-one showdowns between machines and men.

The streamlined ticking clock plot pushes THE LAST STAND along during its pokier moments, and the supporting characters, like Luis Guzman as the comic relief deputy and Harry Dean Stanton as a crotchety farmer, liven up the wait for the face-off with the bad guys.  At a time when most cinematic action stars receive significant special effects enhancement, if not existing entirely in computers, it’s nice to have Schwarzenegger back and practical effects showcased.  THE LAST STAND doesn’t find him in peak form, but it’ll suffice as a sturdy exhibition of his talents.

Grade: B-

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