The Last Stand
The South Korean invasion has begun. With "The Last Stand," a comic actioner that wouldn’t feel out of place playing in between "The Rundown" and the "Walking Tall" remake on a Sunday afternoon on TBS, Asian auteur Kim Jee-Woon makes his English language debut (following him will be Park Chan-Wook, whose "Stoker" releases in March, and Bong Joon-Ho, whose "Snowpiercer" releases in summer.) It’s an auspicious "debut," but hardly a striking one, from either side of the coin. It’s no disaster (the way many treated Wong Kar-Wai’s English language debut, "My Blueberry Nights") nor is it transcendent. No, it just feels like the kind of film John McTiernan would make on a good day.
But the story here isn’t Jee-Woon’s mainstream debut, but rather a return. Arnold Schwarzenegger, done with politics and adultery, returns front and center for his first lead role since "Terminator 3" (the past decade, rife with cameos in other "Terminator" and "Expendables" films, left many wondering if he was satisfied remaining a background player for life.) No longer is he trying to be attractive, or witty, or scary. And it’s a perfect fit. When we first meet him, Jee-Woon’s pans down to his boat shoes as the big reveal; as opposed to up to his weathered face. Hell, one of his only one-liners comes in response to "how are you feeling?" With a deadpan, he responds: "Old."
What makes it work is that Jee-Woon doesn’t try to recapture the old Arnold; he carves out a new persona for the rock-chiseled star. Gone are the confidence, the swagger, and the violent edge. In its place is a withered sheriff, borderline-afraid of confrontation, just searching for a quiet retirement. Now, we all know that can’t happen: drug baron Rodrigo Cortes is on the loose, barreling for the border, right through Ah-Nuld’s small Texas town. Jee-Woon, in a pleasurable conceit, keeps the two storylines - Arnold and his county, Cortes and his chase - separate until the final sequences. But there’s enough action from both sides of the narrative - you get silly turns from Luis Guzman and Johnny Knoxville in Arnie’s, and a silly turn from Forest Whitacre in the Cortes story - to keep any impatience at bay.
I feel a need to mention: the depiction of that Texas county may trouble some a bit, especially considering the sudden relevance (excuse the cynicism) of gun control in the national conversation. Jee-Woon depicts a town where even the sweet little old lady has a revolver under her rocking chair, and he celebrates the carnage that follows when she uses it. Now, make no mistake, he’s not sanitizing anything - "Last Stand" is like a Looney Toons cartoon where the violence hurts; many times the action is funny until he cuts to the aftermath and then suddenly it’s not. But the haphazard seeming-celebration of large caliber bullets will no doubt leave many wondering if it’s "ok" to enjoy such things in the wake of such tragedy. Personally, I wonder if it’s morally "ok" to even bring something as trivial as movies into conversations started by school shootings and mental illness, but I suppose we all draw the line somewhere. If the idea of a movie that even appears to celebrate gun violence sickens you, please, stay away from "The Last Stand".
For action junkies, however, this is catnip. I don’t want to spoil any of its myriads of surprises, but the smallest (smallest!) set piece here involves a criminal escaping from a multi-car police escort with the use of a very large magnet. Admittedly, it’s quite silly, and will earn its fair share of scoffs (as I said, this is a cartoon, and gloriously so.) But c’mon. This is "Rio Bravo" on steroids, with cars. What more could you ask for?