Sunday, January 20, 2013

Local Hero: THE LAST STAND


I was surprised how welcome it is to see Arnold Schwarzenegger back on the big screen in a starring role. It’s at least as good as it is to see South Korean horror/action/comedy hybrid genre filmmaker Kim Jee-woon's new feature opening wide all across America, come to think of it. That the former’s return and the latter’s Hollywood debut is one and the same is a nice bonus. If only the movie they made together was better. It's the kind of pared down actioner featuring a small setting and big stakes that should make for some nice lean excitement. And sometimes it does. This is a movie of fleeting diversions, but mostly it plays as witlessly flip, excessively violent, and creakily predictable.

The slight plot features a fugitive drug cartel leader (Eduardo Noriega) fleeing capture, leaving a frustrated F.B.I. agent (Forest Whitaker) in Las Vegas. He stays a step ahead of the feds, racing a super fast sports car towards the Mexican border. To get there, he has to go through a sleepy one-stoplight Arizona town where the aging sheriff (Schwarzenegger) and his green deputies (Luis Guzmán, Jaimie Alexander, and Zach Gilford) are dealing with a shady trucker (Peter Stormare) and a missing milk farmer (Harry Dean Stanton). They’re a bunch of stock characters – complete with stereotypically twangy Americana scoring in the background – waiting around for the shooting to start. The film works along parallel paths as a car chase zooms towards a slow small town mystery, cutting between the two, biding its time before the two halves will eventually collide in a whole climax in which every character gets to play a part.

If you don’t think a crazy weapons-museum proprietor (Johnny Knoxville) and a jailed-for-the-weekend drunk and disorderly Iraq war veteran (Rodrigo Santoro) will become important in the lengthy climactic firefight, then you’ve not seen an action movie before. But who would go to this movie without having seen an action movie before? The script cobbled together by Andrew Knauer, Jeffrey Nachmanoff and George Nolfi leaves no room for memorable characters beyond the typecast personas. It’s an uncomplicated movie of dusty setups for obvious payoffs that take their sweet time showing up. In the opening scene, Schwarzenegger is thrown the keys to a shiny new car, its owner telling him “Don't let anything happen to it.” It’s overwhelmingly obvious what condition that car will be in by the movie’s end. There’s a lot of bloodshed coming as well and when the sheriff growls that he “knows what’s coming,” I believed him, because I did too.

Cartoonish and hollow, it is, in tone and genre positioning, a pale American echo of Kim's slapstick spaghetti western The Good, the Bad, the Weird. That’s not a great film, but it’s a similarly convoluted and empty expression of well-staged style. The Last Stand has an admirable looseness about it, a jokiness that sometimes comes across as genuine. I especially liked when Schwarzenegger has a line about one of the villains “making us immigrants look bad.” It’s not often that one of his pictures feels the desire to explain, even in a throwaway line, why a thick Austrian accent is rumbling out of the mouth of an American character. But the ease with which Arnold can command the screen is thrown away by the ways in which Kim’s pacing is off. Jokes misfire through bad timing. The humor is strained, especially when Knoxville gets involved, and the setpieces, though clever enough at times, like when a car disappears into the night by turning off the headlights, or when two men chase blindly through a cornfield, never really becomes more than repetitive. Action beats arrive too slowly, last too long, or end too soon. Plot twists are fumbled. I felt myself straining to have a good time while my affection slowly drained away.

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