Movie heroes tend to come and go in cycles, with inspiring golden boy Rocky eventually giving way to brooding menaces like Rambo, and vice versa. Machine gun-toting lugs of the ‘80s and ‘90s used to be the prime examples of this routine, before they aged out and special effects took their place. Now, audiences can’t settle for one guy taking on a dozen terrorists, they flock to see superheroes avert nuclear annihilation, or defend us from massive alien invasions. The comic book genre has taken the place of action movies as the purest source of refined, uncut, popcorn entertainment; they’ve even adapted the pattern of stylistic overturn, with wisecracking Spider-Man passing the baton to the brooding Batman, who in turn gave the box office crown to those lovable Avengers last summer.
So what’d the old guard do? They made their own Avengers, and did so two years before Marvel did. The Expendables, a big, noisy, high school reunion of an action movie, was a secretly a backdoor reintroduction to all your favorite musclemen from yesteryear, testing the waters to see how excited audience would be at the return of familiar (if not fresh) faces, like Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger again. The experiment was enough of a success to warrant a second movie, a full-on career resurrection for Stallone, and confirmation that A Good Day To Die Hard will probably do pretty well next month.
Arnie though? He was still busy trying to stall Skynet’s plans for an economic Judgment Day in California. Seems the duties of political office were the only thing holding back the Austrian Oak, though. His first starring vehicle, The Last Stand, has just hit theaters, and might be the ultimate test of the ‘80s testosterone revival.
In the film, Schwarzenegger plays Ray Owens, a once legendary L.A. cop relaxing through his golden years as the sheriff of a sleepy little border town. Trouble starts brewing though when cartel heavy Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noreiga) makes a run for Mexico in a supped-up Corvette ZR1, having engineered his escape from FBI custody through planning and resource management that would make The Joker smile (more than usual). The incompetent feds (led by Forest Whitaker) botch every attempt to apprehend Cortez -the car chases add up to what’s probably the closest thing to a Spyhunter movie as we’ll ever get-, so it’s up to Arnie to reawaken his inner-Terminator, and lead his ragtag handful of deputies against Cortez, and his band of mercenaries.
Sure, there’s a Western flavor brought out by the small-town setting, and Luis Guzman’s pristine cowboy hat, but The Last Stand plays exactly like the spec-script of an Arnie comeback movie everyone thought of at one point or another during his ten year absence from the spotlight. The trademarks of his catalogue are all here: fast cars, beautiful ladies, lasciviously shot gun collections (with the orgiastic violence that follows), and most importantly, grade-A Austrian beef. And sure enough, the film treats Arnold with a reverence somewhere between Jordan retaking the basketball court, and the Second Coming. It’s as much a tribute to the man himself, as it is to the idea of a heavily accented slab of muscle and bone once representing the pinnacle of Hollywood star power.
It is all these things, yes, but the subtlety and cleverness it employs in doing so has no right being in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. The Last Stand isn’t so much a throwback to an older school of filmmaking as it is an update, an unofficial remake of Demolition Man, wherein a cryogenically frozen dinosaur wakes up to find the genre he once ruled has evolved greatly while he’s been sleeping. This is Arnold starring in movie that owes as much to his own action movie resume, as it does the films that took their place, your The Dark Knight‘s, your Bournes, and your Fasts, both Five, and Furious.
First time writer Andrew Knauer paces the film exceptionally, taking time to establish the three factions at play, and intercutting between them regularly to build momentum, before the real action starts. The driving sequences are impressive, the gunplay is impactful in short bursts, and there’s even a well-handled character death on the way to the titular shootout, which is High Noon by way of Commando. The middle starts to bleed energy, as the villains themselves are never more than paper thin, the FBI act only as exposition providers, and a romantic plot between two of the deputies falls short of even being called half-baked. When you get out of the movie’s spell, it’s easier to notice relic genre tropes, like portrayals of Mexican-Americans as only villains or comic relief, and a fetishizing of gun violence that couldn’t clash more with the current climate.
But when Arnie’s onscreen, the film finds its focus, even when he’s not mowing down baddies with a Gatling gun. The gunfights are messy, violent affairs, which is firmly in Arnold’s wheelhouse, but The Last Stand showcases a surprising wit when celebrating the man through dialogue too. When one of his rookie deputies begs him for a transfer to L.A., it’s obviously Schwarzenegger, not his character, delivering a monologue about glory days in the big city. It’s an insane modernization of the typical Arnold routine: instead of cheesy one-liners that wink at the audience, he’s delivering full-on meta-commentaries about his career, and subsequent comeback.
There’s a scene near the film’s climax that might turn out to be one of the most memorable of the year. Korean director Jee-Woon Kim can’t recapture the creativity of something like his The Good, The Bad, and the Weird in most of the more pedestrian shootouts, but he makes poetry out of an absolutely beautiful, utterly bonkers chase through a field, that’s both a thrilling setpiece, and yet another cheeky sendup of Arnold. The self-awareness may have been the only way to make the movie work; the fact is, Arnold’s spirit is willing, but the flesh is rigid, awkward, and labored in old age. His gait resembles the T-800 more than ever; he awkwardly lumbers across the battlefields, and his big fight scene is well shot, but limited by ossification of the star.
And yet, Kim turns that to his advantage, staging the duel as a battle between good old-fashioned raw muscle, and the wiry technique of modern day MMA, a loving reminder of what the big guy used to mean in ways no dusted-off catchphrase ever could be. Not since Cabin in the Woods has a film so deftly toyed with audience assumptions, while also giving them exactly what they want. The Last Stand is a rare breed of comeback picture, a decent enough action movie, but one propped up by a subversive reverence for its star, making it a very, very fun ride.
It certainly won’t last long, but for now, Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen is a surprising success.