Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Last Stand (2013)

I feel something this momentous needs an epic sounding introduction. Something Tolkien-esque. One that rhymes, is in iambic pentameter or narrated by Morgan Freeman or something. But were he still around, maybe Mako would be a better choice, since the momentous occasion I speak of can only be referring to the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger! It's been so long since Arnie has graced us with a movie that gave him top billing, and I for one missed him terribly.

He's one of my favorite action leads ever, and I personally don't want to live in a world where there are no new Arnold movies to look forward to. The years he was governor were just painful for me, but now the wait is over and a new day is upon us! A day filled with cheesy one-liners! Onward to a new dawn!

Obviously, the extent to which I was excited about "The Last Stand" can not be measured by normal human methods. And after finally, finally seeing it, I can say without hesitation that it was exactly what I expected it to be. It is both a vehicle specifically designed for Schwarzenegger's comeback and a really fun time on top of that. What's interesting is it also possess both the classic campiness of older Arnold films while maintaining a level of gritty realism that has become more commonplace in action movies today.

I don't know guys, he looks like he's having too much fun here. I'm not sure I can get on board...

It seems that was what they were going for in terms of reintroducing Arnold to movie goers after such a long hiatus. In the 11 years since the last "Arnold movie," the horribly disappointing and weak "Collateral Damage," action movies have seemingly gotten overall less cheesy and more dour, with shaky cams and serious heroes aplenty. And when a big movie does come along that does have fun like "The Expendables 2," it's decried as stupid even though that's the whole point. Clearly this is not a market that Arnold can easily fit into anymore.

But since when was it written that nobody can have fun in an action movie now? Why is that seemingly relegated to direct-to-video affairs with Nicolas Cage?  Nobody even spouts one-liners much anymore besides James Bond, and even he's dialed it down a significant amount lately. Hell, seriousness almost flat-out killed the Bond franchise with "Quantum of Solace." This is an endangered concept. So how can Arnold Schwarzenegger, the guy who made action heroes fun, compete with the stone-faced austerity of characters like Jason Bourne?

Well, the answer seems to be "very carefully." If there is one thing that "The Last Stand" balances well, it's the mix of fun and serious tone. If anything, perhaps it's a bit too serious for its own good. This has a tendency to slow down the pace, but at the same time when there are scenes of both a sports car flipping an SUV by driving backwards and using itself as a ramp and of Arnold shooting a frakking minigun from the back of a schoolbus while Johnny Knoxville cackles maniacally and feeds him ammo while wearing a medieval helmet, it's easy to see that at its core "The Last Stand" is not trying to fool you into taking all this too seriously.

Pictured above - Totally serious.

The story concerns Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger), a former LA cop who settles down in a quiet Arizona town on the Mexican border as sheriff. And no, never once does anyone ever acknowledge the fact that "Ray" has an indecipherably thick Austrian accent. This, as in every other Arnold movie ever, is never explained. But on the other hand it's all part of the charm of Arnold. I just love imagining that his real name is Raymünd Owenschlisser, and I come up with an elaborate backstory as to how he came to live in the States. In my version of things he was a former bouncer turned hot air balloonist who found a love of crime stopping when he busted up a diamond smuggling operation whilst ballooning over South Africa. I'm working on the screenplay.

When Cortez, the leader of a Mexican drug cartel gets sprung from jail in Las Vegas in a jailbreak that would make Danny Ocean proud, he speeds towards the border in a car that can roughly do 200 mph. The FBI is at a loss to find or stop him, as they seem to have been outsmarted and out-"impossibly convenient BS-d." Perhaps the bad guys have a psychic among their ranks, I don't know. In any case, the only person who can stop them is Ray and his staff of inexperienced small-town cops. And Johnny Knoxville playing a crazy person. That's clever casting right there.

Much of the first half of the movie is a slow build up to the carnage that is to come, as the bad guys are constructing a bridge right outside of the town spanning a gorge between the States and Mexico for Cortez to drive over. Slowly we see Ben and his men getting closer and closer to piecing together what's going on as it goes from Ben's nagging suspicions, to a farmer going missing, to a case of murder, and finally to an outright shootout with the bad guys as they finally realize what's going down. All this is going on while Cortez speeds towards the town, the FBI in hot but hopeless pursuit.

Honestly, if your last hope is Arnold Schwarzenegger, you could be in worse shape.

Director Jee-woon Kim keeps the action pumping and inventive during the last part of the movie, and unlike a lot of action directors, he also has the common decency to keep it framed nicely so that we can actually see what's happening. The slow buildup is also used effectively, injected with just enough episodes of brief, brutal violence to keep us going and on our toes while we wait for Cortez to finally make it to the town.

This is also where most of the seriousness comes in, as Arnold not only plays it calm and relaxed when going around town, but also dour and mournful when the deaths of people he knows comes up. Often in Arnold movies we see him swearing cold-eyed vengeance on those who killed his friends, but here it's not played quite as hammy. The difference is that previously, he's usually more mad than anything else. But now, since we're taking our action movies more seriously today, he has to be more mournful instead. And while this isn't a deal breaker, in fact Arnold plays it surprisingly well, it does tend to mellow some of the more fun aspects which come later.

Take for example the line Arnold has in "The Running Man" after Yaphet Kotto dies. He tells Richard Dawson that he's going to "Ram [my fist] into your stomach and brake your goddamn spine." That's pretty badass and fun. In "The Last Stand," as he's getting ready to do battle with the villains, he tells one of his remaining cops that there is no way that she is as scared as he is at that moment, because "I've seen enough bloodshed to know what's coming." That's no doubt a badass line, but it's not very fun, and it tends to humanize Arnold as opposed to making him larger than life like he was before. That speaks to the differences I was talking about earlier. It's still awesome, but we can't have too much fun with it nowadays, apparently.

Easy with those cars, boys. You can drive through a cornfield. Just don't crack any one-liners. That's too much fun.

After the humanizing lead in, the back half of "The Last Stand" really fires up to fulfill the promise of Arnold's return to the world of action movies. When the bullets start to fly and the eponymous defiance begins it's hard to deny that not only does Arnold still have it, but there are more than a just a few big action movies to get out of him. This isn't a swan song, this is a new beginning for him. Yeah, he's older but you don't need to be young or even in very good shape to shoot a gun. That last part is important because it's clear that under that uniform, he's packing some gut. But hey, he can still one-hand a .44 like it's a pop-gun with the best of them.

Just keep his shirt on and he'll be fine.

This was also a fun cast to watch. You all know I loved Arnold in it, but Eduardo Noriega, who I remember from "The Devil's Backbone," an awesome movie by Guillermo del Toro, also made a fun and sleazy villain. Luis Guzmán and Johnny Knoxville. two people I'm not a big fan of, also deserve a lot of credit for providing a master's class on how to be a comedic relief character without being annoying, a talent utterly lost on most actors. That right there is worth the price of admission for the shear relief. Okay, maybe Knoxville got a little over the top with it, but the payoff was actually pretty funny.

The only two people I didn't really like were Forest Whitaker and Peter Stormare. I didn't like Forest much because he didn't do a whole lot except wheeze into a phone and fail at doing things. And Peter Stormare I really don't like in anything because he's Peter Stormare and I cannot tolerate his voice. It's seriously distracting because I never have any idea what kind of accent he's supposed to have. It's always this weird, nasally Italian/Russian/Swedish/German sounding dialect that just drives me up the wall. Even when he has a vaguely Texan accent like in this movie I can still hear it. Although his Texas accent is far more tolerable than his normal speaking voice.

And I enjoyed seeing him getting shot in the face.

Is "The Last Stand" art? No, it's not. But is that really what you were expecting it to be? Apparently so since this movie is bombing hard. And that's a damn shame that I don't understand. Are you all so jaded that when an action movie icon that became famous for cheese and gratuitous slaughter, which we LOVED him for, comes back after a long time gone and gives us a movie which is right in line with the things we loved about his old stuff, we roll our eyes and scoff? What's wrong with everyone? What more do you want? You know you love Arnold movies, as everyone with red blood pumping in their veins should. Why not this one?

Because I tell you what - If you see this movie and think that it's a weak entry in Arnold's filmography, watch "The Sixth Day." Watch "Collateral Damage." Watch "Jingle All The Way." Watch "Junior." Watch "Batman & Robin," if you have a death wish. Watch any of those. Then watch "The Last Stand," where Arnold tackles a guy off a roof while shooting him in the head, and then lands on him to cushion his fall.

And then look me in the eye and tell me that he's not starting his return off on a high note.

THE BOTTOM LINE - I really liked "The Last Stand." While it may not have had the shear amount of action per frame that I was hoping for, the mounting tension made for a more suspenseful film as opposed to a more brainless one, which is an acceptable tradeoff. This is a great return for Schwarzenegger, and I can't wait to see what else he has in store, particularly later this year with "The Tomb." It's going to be sweet. Welcome back, Arnie. I missed you so much, bro.

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