The Governator returns to the big screen, and that fact sabotages any efforts to talk about The Last Stand on its own merits. It may be huge, it may be a flop, but that matters less than the larger-than-life übermensch at its heart. After all this time, it’s still Planet Arnold. The rest of us are just living on it.
The Last Stand certainly carries its share of pleasure for Arnold Schwarzenegger fans. It acknowledges his advancing age, it keeps the central equation simple, and while it’s certainly no classic, it will kinda-sorta do in a pinch for January releases. It feels like a stepping-stone project, designed to get us used to the fact that he’s making movies again (beyond five-minute cameos in The Expendables, of course).
The plot sticks to the basics, delivering your basic irresistible force vs. immovable object scenario and leaving things at that. The bulk of it takes place over the course of four or five hours and director Jee-Woon Kim doesn’t waste time on excessive flourishes. The biggest baddest drug dealer in the whole wide world (Eduardo Noriega) busts out of a Vegas convoy taking him to federal prison. He hops behind the wheel of a concept Porsche (“a psychopath in the Batmobile,” as Forest Whitaker’s dutiful plot expositionist tells us), then promptly heads for the border: specifically, a sleepy little Arizona town whose populace has left for a big high school football game. It’s up to Arnold’s grizzled sheriff Ray Owens – along with the requisite band of rag-tag misfits – to stop him before he gets away.
Kim keeps a tight rein on the action pieces, held together with clean, crisp set-ups and the occasional unexpected twist. He does best with the Noriega’s midnight flight as the villain barrels through roadblock after roadblock with an air of inevitability to him. Peter Stormare backs him up as his Number-One goon, commanding a squad of heavily armed thugs building a bridge across the nearby canyon to Mexico
Their strength and cleverness plays well against Schwarzenegger’s advancing age, making him look badly outgunned for perhaps the first time in his career. Owens has seen his share of action, and knows what he’s up against. It’s a good concept on which to bolster his acting: never brilliant, even in the best of times, and looking awfully rusty here. (Try not to wince at his lame delivery of “I’m the sheriff.”) On the other hand, his physical presence remains undeniable, and if acting if your thing, you’ve clearly wandered into the wrong star vehicle. (I’m sure there’s a lovely Oscar contender somewhere else in the same multiplex if you look.)
The Last Stand needs that efficiency, because it struggles for traction too often for comfort. Anytime we take our eyes off that barreling Porsche, the energy levels drop, and while the game cast gets into the spirit of things, they lack interesting material to work with. Humor, in particular, evades Kim far too often, with heavy-handed jokes and pay-offs lacking the heft to score the laughs for which they were intended. Johnny Knoxville picks up a fair amount of slack as the local gun nut deputized to help the cops, but he really needs Jackass levels of lunacy to be at his best and he doesn’t get it here. Several subplots involving the feds fall miserably short as well, with Whitaker standing around and explaining things most of the time, and a mystery involving a mole in their ranks that basically goes nowhere. The finale can’t find the right tone and many times, the Road Runner quality of the mayhem butts heads with the earthier realism the movie hopes to attain.
If The Last Stand came out in the summertime, its problematic qualities would sink it for sure. Here in January, where expectations drop far below the norm, they skate by without so much as a hiccup. The movie passes muster as a nuts-and-bolts action film, though just barely sometimes and with no expectation of being anything more. If future efforts don’t improve, this comeback could end as quickly as it began. But compared to bloated Schwarzenegger showcases like Eraser and End of Days, it’s positively Fellini-esque. In this month of down-and-dirty cash grabs, The Last Stand does well enough for government work… or Governator work, as the case may be.