Monday, January 21, 2013

Film Review: Kim Jee-woon's The Last Stand

With his stoic, larger-than-life on screen presence, Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Mr. Olympia, one time box office champ, former two-term California governor, and the freakin' Terminator himself, could be considered the modern day equivalent to Gary Cooper.  Then again, perhaps not.  Seriously though, to get this out of the way right away, Schwarzenegger is an atrocious actor.   No doubts about it, he is simply terrible.  He should not even be used in the same breath with an actor such as Cooper, unless it were to help describe what opposite ends of the acting spectrum look like together.  Just godawful.  With that said, I must admit to having enjoyed quite a few of the Austrian "actor/politician's" films.  And yes, quotes, air or otherwise, need to be put around both of those occupations.  The first two Terminator films were fun.  Both The Running Man and True Lies were enjoyable - even Last Action Hero had its moments - and Total Recall is one of my favourite sci-fi films of the last thirty years.  Granted, the Austrian Oak's oeuvre is bulked up with the lion's share of things like Commando and Red Sonja and Raw Deal and Red Heat and Twins and Kindergarten Cop and Jingle All the Way and Batman and Robin and so on and so on and so on.  Still, every once and a while, we hit on a good one.  Maybe not top grade beef, but still a pretty good chop now and again.  And that is just what we get with The Last Stand - not Grade A by any means, but still a pretty good chop, if you are willing to dig in and take a bite.

The Last Stand, directed by Korean director Kim Jee-woon, making his English language debut, marks the return of Schwarzenegger to leading roles.  After a decade's absence from film - other than a few cameos, most notably in pal Sly Stallone's Expendables films - and eight years spent as laughing stock-cum-governator of the great state of California - including his very own sex scandal and a quick kick to the curb from the Kennedy compound - Schwarzenegger returns as LAPD hero turned small town sheriff Ray Owens, who must hold off an onslaught of a cartel leader and his small army of ridiculously over-armed killers.   With its rag tag team of misfits, up against seemingly insurmountable odds, the film is a sort of take-off on Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, which in turn was a cinematic reply to Fred Zinnemann's High Noon, and its indictment of Hollywood blacklisting (ooh, see, there's that aforementioned Gary Cooper connection), and probably owes just as much to John Carpenter's urban Rio Bravo remake, Assault on Precinct 13.  Kim Jee-woon's first Hollywood film plays fast and loose with genre conventions, and even though it never goes quite far enough to be considered a deconstruction of said genre, its ever-climbing ridiculous scenarios, blatant riff on the cartoonish American gun culture, and the excessive 1980's-esque action mentality - wait til you see Ah-nold go mano y mano with the cocky cartel leader - make for a fun movie indeed.

Sure, Schwarzenegger still hasn't learned to act in his years away, and now returning as disgraced governor turned back into action hero, he is still just godawful, but let's face it, he really has no need to truly act, as long as he is playing such roles as he is playing here.  Riffing on his age - he is 65, but I wouldn't call him an old guy to his face - as well as the conventions of the genre that made him an inexplicable star, Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Last Stand, go together quite well.  Yes, Kim Jee-woon's direction has been more than a bit stunted by the Hollywood machine, but that is to be expected.  Many foreign directors have come to the states with dollar signs in their eyes, only to be disappointed by their outcome.  Both Eisenstein and Murnau fled back to their respective homes, and more recently, anyone who knows anything about cinema, will surely agree that John Woo's Hong Kong films are far superior to his American ones.  Still though, even in his stilted form, Kim manages to breathe a bit of life into the old Austrian horse, as well as into the action-comedy genre itself.  Surrounding Schwarzenegger with a plethora of interchangeables - Eduardo Noriega as the psycho cartel leader and Peter Stormare as a ticky head henchman are the closest we ever get to a stand out performance - as well as the stereotypical hapless federal agent (Forest Whitaker in a role well beneath him), the stereotypical crazy gun nut (Johnny Knoxville, pretty much just being Johnny Knoxville), and the equally stereotypical smokin' hot woman ass-kicker (Jaime Alexander, last seen as the Goddess Sif in Thor), the film may not be Grade A sirloin, but it ain't no McDonald's burger either.  What we get with The Last Stand is still a pretty good chop.