Although Arnold Schwarzenegger briefly featured in both Expendables pictures, the Austrian Oak has not had a leading role in a film since 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. 2013’s The Last Stand is Arnie’s big comeback vehicle after the star gave up acting for a career in politics, and it’s a sensational return to business as usual for the behemoth. Although Arnie is older and less agile than he used to be, The Last Stand finds him doing what he does best. Immensely enjoyable, this is a resolutely old-school Schwarzenegger action flick – it’s got quality one-liners, badass action set-pieces and eccentric sidekicks, and it’s tied together by a surprisingly strong plot. Best of all, the whole thing was overseen by Korean director Ji-woon Kim, making his English-language debut following a number of diverse films including the offbeat Western The Good, the Bad, the Weird and the magnificent action film A Bittersweet Life.
During a prison transfer, powerful cartel leader Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) is broken out of custody by his loyal goons, which sends the FBI into a fit of panic. Aiming to cross the border into Mexico, Cortez speeds through the desert in a modified sports car, waiting for a team of his subordinates to create a makeshift bridge to allow him to leave the country undetected. Word soon reaches the ears of dedicated lawman Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) that Cortez will be passing through his small, serene town of Sommerton Junction. Unprepared to let the criminal escape without a fight, Owens rounds up a gang of deputies as well as gun-toting local nut Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) to stop Cortez dead in his tracks.
The Last Stand plays out like a traditional western, containing shades of High Noon and Rio Bravo in its narrative structure. Admittedly, the film is a little slow to start and some of the storytelling is leaden from time to time, but it’s good fun more often than not. And once the action kicks in, it’s worth it. The final half an hour or so is dedicated to the titular last stand, with Owens and his ragtag team of deputies defending their now-fortified town as Cortez’s men descend upon it. This leads to shootouts, inspired stunt work and fisticuffs, which were immaculately handled by the Korean director. A late car chase through a cornfield is a bit on the shonkier side due to some shaky cinematography, but the set-pieces are otherwise thrilling, precise and fluid, not to mention amazingly violent. The Last Stand earns its R-rating; Kim ladles on the bloodshed, evoking the bygone spirit of ’80s action cinema. It’s completely badass. Added to this, Kim’s direction is full of energy and he keeps momentum building as the action unfolds. It’s rare to witness such a skilfully assembled action movie, which is a credit to Kim, who was an inspired choice to fill the director’s chair.
Further contributing to the entertainment value is the picture’s marvellous sense of humour. On top of all the proverbial one-liners, the script has fun with Schwarzenegger’s age; he pulls out glasses to scrutinise a murder scene, and he fast grows breathless during hand-to-hand combat. The Last Stand refuses to take itself too seriously, which is why it works so well. Sure, there are stakes and the action carries a certain grit, but it’s all supplemented with a fun sensibility, and you’ll most likely have a big dumb grin on your face for most of the picture. And in keeping with Arnie’s output, The Last Stand gives the big guy a number of big guns to handle. The film fetishises firearms, leading to a few nifty arming up montages and a handful of extremely badass moments. Uptight, politically correct folks will probably be up in arms over the use of guns in the wake of recent shootings, but who cares? The Last Stand is entertainment, not a political statement.
Schwarzenegger is more of a screen presence than an actor, relying on star power rather than actual talent, and he’s back in fine form here. His line delivery is occasionally wooden as we’ve come to expect, but the star is a commanding presence, exuding charisma and handling the one-liners with great panache. The action legend may be older, but he’s playful and assured here, reminding us why we loved him in the first place and bringing to our attention just how much we’ve missed him. Luckily, the supporting cast is just as strong; Luis Guzmán is very funny as one of Owens’ deputies, and Jaimie Alexander makes for terrific eye candy as another deputy. Surprisingly, Knoxville is good here, too, making the most of his limited screen-time as an eccentric citizen who loves guns. Knoxville gets some great comedy and he meshes extremely well with the stern Schwarzenegger. Also of note is Peter Stormare, who sunk his teeth into his villain role here. Stormare is hammy, but it’s all part of the charm of his performance. Meanwhile, Noriega is a decent enough villain, though he’s not as show-stopping as some of the better bad guys Arnie has overthrown in his career. Forest Whittaker is a bit less successful, though, delivering an average performance at best.
Fans of Ji-woon Kim may walk away disappointed with The Last Stand, as it’s not exactly on a par with the director’s best work. He’s renowned for tackling different genres and bringing a sense of novelty to each of his films, whereas this is more or less a standard Arnie action film as opposed to anything innovative or genre-bending. Miraculously, though, Kim does not tarnish his filmography with this picture. Hollywood has a way of chewing up and spitting out foreign filmmakers, but this isn’t the case here. If you enjoy the likes of Raw Deal, Commando, True Lies, Eraser and The Running Man, and if you’re just seeking a whole lot of fun, The Last Stand will prove to be a godsend, delivering arresting action with genuine style. And it’s just terrific to see Schwarzenegger back on the big screen where he belongs.