Again and again we’ve seen foreign filmmakers come to Hollywood and be consumed, and ultimately spat out, by the machine. John Woo might be one of the most successful, and even he was eventually ground down by the studios. Will it be any different for South Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-Woon?
The Last Stand gives us a hopeful, if slight, yes. You can feel Ji-Woon in the movie, with its strange and sudden tonal shifts, its over-complicated plotline and its multiple moments of iconic visual imagery - and with the hat that Johnny Knoxville wears, which is a total shout-out to The Good, The Bad, The Weird.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the sheriff of a small town right on the Texas/Mexico border. Life is sleepy for him and his handful of under-experienced deputies. But things are about to get a lot noisier as a Mexican cartel lord on death row breaks out of FBI custody, hops in a souped up sports car, and begins high-tailing it from Vegas to the border at 200mph. He blows through every single obstacle in his way, and only Schwarzenegger can stop him from escaping the country.
In a lot of ways The Last Stand is Die Hard In A Border Town (or maybe Die Hard At High Noon). The villain, played by Eduardo Noriego (he played the Tom Cruise role in the original Abre los Ojos), has a way overcomplicated, clockwork plan that has taken everything into account... except for one cop who just wants a day off. While that makes the film a touch lopsided - for half the movie most of the action takes place on the highway, far from Arnie - it is still an irresistible set up. It’s also one of the only ways to put Olympian godling Schwarzenegger into a position where his eventual victory isn’t predestined.
This is Schwarzenegger’s first starring role since leaving politics, and it’s pretty clear that whatever lessons he learned about acting before becoming governor have long since worn off. He’s more wooden and stiff and inhuman than ever, but he still maintains a level of primal charisma that gets him through the movie. By the final fight - a brutal fist fight on a bridge - you’ve really warmed to the guy again.
He’s surrounded by capable supporting actors, but there is no one in the movie who can eclipse the bizarre, incredible performance of Peter Stormare, who may be doing his whole part in a Southern accent. I’m honestly not sure what his accent is (the whole film, incidentally, is a nightmare of accents that are all over the place), but it’s absolutely strange. He’s giving the sort of unfettered performance you’d hope for from Stormare, and he’s willing to go right to the edge of ridiculous, look over the edge, and then taking a running leap. He’s fun, dammit.
For those worried about Johnny Knoxville: he’s playing a possibly retarded (it’s never cleared up, but it really seems like he’s touched) gun nut who is instrumental in winning the day, but he’s not an overwhelming part of the movie*. As his hat indicates he’s doing the Song Kang-ho role, but Ji-Woon wisely doesn’t lean on him. He’s there just enough for comedy value but not there enough to irritate.
What truly sets The Last Stand apart from other modern action films is the use of tons of practical effects. There’s digital in there - a guy gets shot in half by a gatling gun digitally - but there are also a bunch of thrilling car scenes done in camera, and there’s a bunch of squib-work on display as well. The action scenes have a palpable intensity, and Ji-Woon (and his second unit) shoot them with expert precision. The Last Stand’s action scenes range from shoot outs to crazy car stunts to a daring escape in Las Vegas to a great fist fight, and every sequence is fun and engaging.
That last fist fight - I’ve mentioned it twice now, and while there are other scenes that are more daring or are fresher (a car chase through corn stalks), that big fist fight encapsulates what I like about the film. The script by Andrew Knauer focuses on the characters; this isn’t Masterpiece Theater, but every character feels defined and specific, and so when Schwarzenegger and the cartel baddie go toe to toe, you have a stake in the fight. On top of that it’s so old school, so simple, that’s it’s refreshing. Ji-Woon isn’t trying to up the ante on a traditional fist fight in terms of explosions or crazy stunts, he’s just shooting a really great, bone-breaking fight between two guys. He understands that sometimes two guys trading blows is better than all the extreme pyrotechnics in the world.
Funny, light and very violent, The Last Stand is a throwback to the kind of movies that Arnie made in the 80s, but directed by a guy who has a true feel for cinema. Kim Ji-Woon’s Korean sensibility is just under the surface of this film, and I think he really elevates what could have been a rote romp. This isn’t a blip on Ji-Woon’s filmography, but it’s a strong return for Arnie.
* Post-Sandy Hook the film's tongue in cheek moral - only spectacularly well-armed fringe lunatics can save the day - does feel a bit creepy.