The most savvy choice director Kim Jee-woon made when approaching The Last Stand was to relegate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback to the edges of the story. From a classic perspective the weight of the inevitable finale falls a little flat, seeing as our attachment to the hero is predicated on preconceived notions of the star, but in a strangely connected way, the overall effect of the film manages to ascend expectations of these types of blockbusters. Like a Pixar film, The Last Stand employs a rag tag group of disparate young lawmen and women to take down the world’s most feared drug smuggler. The group is lead by a sheriff with a hazy past filled with violence in the big city. And, yes, the film follows the exact path you might expect, even down to a “discard your firearms and fight with knuckles” ending. But The Last Stand engages by being surprisingly brisk along the way.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brand of charisma has always seemed to me rare and preternatural. Like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, in his prime, Schwarzenegger, with his inflated jaw line unveiling full-faced grins and pulling off action hero jokiness, was born to be watched. After a decade of inactivity and bad off-screen press, Arnold has lost his muscles, his charm, and a great deal of his staying power. The Last Stand, dealing in metaphors about a culture at the precipice of breaking under an influx of gun debates, liberalism, and immigration pressures, plays Schwarzenegger’s withering presence to perfect effect. Rounded out by a surprisingly strong cast, that includes the underused Luis Guzman and Johnny Knoxville, there’s a whimsical compliment to Schwarzenegger’s weariness. Similarly, the simplified writing clearly defines its bad guy, a conveniently able drug smuggler; again a metaphor for the increasingly unstoppable antagonism of creeping drug cartels. As far as analogies go, The Last Stand can be quite ambitious.
The first thing one notices about The Last Stand is its unabashed fascination with guns. Unlike most action spectacles, this one has a character who is so infatuated by guns that he owns a museum housing hordes of them. Including some that he giddily declares illegal. Gun violence isn’t just a gratuitous fetish, but a point of intrigue that runs to the bone. Schwarzenegger’s shady past apparently involves the kind of awful horror that only streets riddled by guns (he’s from LA, naturally) could provide. However, the violence is patented shootout-style destruction, digital blood, car chases, and masculine fisticuffs without any effort to question the necessity of such force. For all the proclamations of originality, the brass tacks of The Last Stand plays like a conservative anthem: pro-guns, pro-revenge, and, right down to its title, a strong belief in eye-for-an-eye governance. The Last Stand is a conspicuous NRA rallying cry. Besides being a gun-toting blood fest, a line before the final fight has Schwarzenegger telling the drug smuggler, “You give us immigrants a bad name.” If this isn’t a blatant defense of gun use to protect national pride, I’m not sure how much clearer the film need be. That said, the worrisome aspect of The Last Stand is that the creators don’t seem to have thought through the ramifications of such lofty stances.
The best you can say about The Last Stand is that its a quaint story about standing up for a small community just trying to get by. In that sense, the film is a pleasant January surprise. The movie has roots that wrap around Howard Hawks Westerns and idealistic politics. Cinematically, the film is skillfully paced, well-shot, and acted with a genuine chemistry amongst actors who deserve to be in more substantial material. Only one random plot thread involving people building an enormous bridge over an international line – something we neither see nor know much about – struck me as pushing too far on the suspension of disbelief. While top billing has promoted Schwarzenegger’s comeback vehicle, it’s actually guns that are given the starring role. The politics and nonchalance of this gun play is troublesome, enough so to shrink my enjoyment of the film’s admittedly unique appeal. [C+]
On a related note:
A few weeks ago, Will wrote a note about morals in regard to Quentin Tarantino’s recent work. Being in the midst of a serious gun control debate, The Last Stand and its juvenile solutions to crucial contemporary issues made me think about the role movies will continue to play in our shrinking world. Many mainstream critics and bloggers saw The Last Stand as a throwback to classic action. The film has been appreciated for “grandly conceived and elegantly executed set pieces” and being a “pleasant ramble” However, few critics seem to challenge the violence or pose questions as to what it stands for. Outside of morbid self-deprecation, I’m not sure how to feel about a film culture, or general culture, where a seemingly arbitrary and nocuous film like, say, Django Unchained is applauded for its bravura without actually proposing a serious discussion about its themes or its approach. In fact, the few complex reactions to Django have felt like a battleground for liberal critics to speak out against censorship and cheer courageousness without probing its many problematic elements. Likewise, the recent release of The Last Stand made me feel like a prude for finding its moral implications antiquated and borderline offensive. Are we not supposed to talk about film on this level? Am I missing something to think that the movie is not nearly controlled enough to be dealing with topics like guns, immigration, or drug lords, without specific conviction?
While I did see the charms of The Last Stand and Django Unchained, I worry that we have become so limited in our value system that art, clearly at least insidiously affecting the violence in our culture, whether Quentin Tarantino wants to believe it or not, doesn’t transcend but instead reduces. Those critics who think their fanboy indifference (lead by Tarantino himself) adds up to somehow looking realistically at contemporary topics are actually avoiding progressing what films can provide. For what it’s worth, I think filmmakers do have a moral obligation to have a point to their work. Even if the work is meant purely for “entertainment,” the creator must set out to prove something for the film to have any credo. Because I know I might sound like a troll, I thought I’d mention that Funny Games, RoboCop, and A History of Violence are some of my favorite movies of all time. Each is extremely violent, yet isn’t scared to be transparent about having the discussion.