The Last Stand: Arnold Schwarzenegger was once the biggest movie star in the world. It seems quaint, now, in retrospect: first, that a biggest-movie-star-in-the-world title existed outside of the honorary (and default) status Will Smith has been rocking for well over a decade; and second, that an Austrian bodybuilder could ascend to worldwide superstardom on the strength of alternating science fiction/action extravanganzas (Total Recall; Terminator 2; True Lies) with goofy Ivan Reitman comedies spoofing his tough-guy image (Twins; Kindergarten Cop). But even with a couple of underperformers on his resume before his stint as governor of California, Schwarzenegger returns to the screen not as a cross-demo uniter, but as a niche object. He went out making movies for Warner Brothers, Universal, and Sony; he returns to the welcoming arms of Lionsgate, home of Jason Statham, Taylor Lautner, 3D horror, and the Expendables franchise.
The Last Stand, the neo-Western that formally reintroduces Arnold after some glorified Expendables cameos, basically functions as a spinoff of that series; for a generation of 13-year-old boys, this may be the first Arnold vehicle they have the pleasure of sneaking into. (“One for The Last—er, Les Miserables, please!”) He is, as he’s so incredibly fond of pointing out like he did in that movie that time, back. And he’s changed, sort of! “LA is not what you think it is,” Schwarzenegger says to a young colleague, ostensibly as Sheriff Ray Owens, current small-town lawman and past hotshot Los Angeles narcotics cop, but just as likely winking at his own disillusionment with the entertainment-industrial complex. The subtext isn’t a great fit: Schwarzenegger has never seemed particularly disillusioned with entertainment, industry, or complexes. Winking, though—that, he likes. As such, The Last Stand includes Expendables-ready references to his age, though none of his good-natured unwisecracks match the stupid poetry of the ol’ Arnold two-word rejoinder (“stick around”; “you’re fired”) nor, for that matter, the amused self-deprecating confidence of Clint Eastwood in something like Space Cowboys (“Clock’s ticking,” he growled to a superior reluctant to pull the trigger on sending him to space. “And I’m only getting older”).
Really, Last Stand is no kind of mediation on Schwarzenegger’s career or his place in a reformulated, effects-driven Hollywood; like Jack Reacher, it stretches back further than its star’s 90s peak or 80s origins, into stripped-down faux-70s territory. And as it turns out, faux-70s, relatively low-budget neo-Western is a decent look for Arnold, beefier and oakier than ever. The movie sometimes matches its inspiration’s relaxed pacing and its star’s lumbering gait, taking a simple hook (escaped drug lord zooms toward a sleepy four-cop Arizona town en route to an impromptu border crossing, leaving just ONE HONEST MAN standing in his way) and catching it on some excess plot (Forest Whitaker leads a team of FBI agents in a series of white-knuckle explaining sessions! The drug dealer is also a former racecar driver who has stolen a 1,000-horsepower car! He has a secret accomplice who does nothing!) that it drags along over an oddly protracted 107-minute running time. For a movie happy to dole out weird details, it’s oddly disorganized, providing set-ups without clear pay-offs, and vice versa.
But if the director, Kim Jee-woon making his English-language debut, doesn’t exactly deal in narrative economy, he sure engineers some nifty, satisfying action sequences. This corny, sometimes clumsy western is better-looking than some of the pictures Schwarzenegger churned out as a massive star, with kinetic multi-vantage shoot-outs and a surprisingly exciting corn-field car chase. The B-movie cast includes a loose, goofy Johnny Knoxville, the always-welcome Luis Guzman, and, of course, Peter Stormare, doing some kind of wonderfully ludicrous voice, stewing his Swedish accent in a pot of Louisiana gumbo and upstaging the actual villain (Stormare, as ever, is a psychotic henchman).
I’m not sure if all of this fun comes wrapped in an 80s-style conservative package only because The Last Stand tries to be so earnestly all-American. By making the villain a Mexican cartel thug absconding to his country of origin, the movie floats with Arizona-ready xenophobia—but then, the cast has plenty of non-American accents on good guys and bad, including Arnold intoning “you make us immigrants look bad” to his prey, all overseen by a Korean director. Knoxville’s deputized gun-hoarding kook invites the audience to fetishize illegal firepower, but the character is also played as a total clown (albeit a lovable one). And of course, more lovable townfolk congregate at the local greasy spoon. After the pumped-up spectacle of blockbusters and Governating alike, Arnold goes back to the basic version of his career’s two halves: 70s exploitation meets cornpone 70s sitcom.