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Non-Review Review: The Last Stand

In theory, The Expendables demonstrated that age was no real impairment when it came to the task of kicking ass and taking names, even if you might need to put your reading glasses on first. So, you could argue that the issue of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s age doesn’t really need to come up during The Last Stand. We know that he is 65 years of age, and we also know that he’s probably a great deal fitter than most of us will be at that age. (Being honest, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that a hexagenarian Arnie could trump most people in their prime.) As a result, the fixation of The Last Stand on the age of its leading man feels a little strange.

It feels especially strange because it eats into a lot of the film. The Last Stand is mostly functional, but its pacing suffers greatly. We’re going to see an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, so it’s safe to assume that (a.) we’re okay with his advancing age, and (b.) we want to see him kick some whippersnapper ass. Unfortunately, The Last Stand seems to misjudge the audience’s interest in an Arnie film, and as a result our leading man spends most of the first three-quarters of the film doing very little.

The Last Stand is clearly intended to demonstrate the viability of its leading man in this modern age, but it seems to lack the confidence to just dive into the action that this sort of film is meant to provide. The result is a strange mish-mash of a film that winds up wasting a lot of good will long before it reaches its climax.

He's back!

He’s back!

Okay, so maybe it is necessary to deal with the fact that Schwarzenegger is no longer in his physical prime. And, to be fair, The Last Stand does a half-decent job getting that idea across. There’s a sense that Arnie is a veteran of the genre, who has endured a lot. Indeed, the entire film could be read as a meta-fictional commentary on the usurpation of the action genre by a younger and more aggressive generation.

Arnie plays Ray Owens, a sheriff of a small town who retired from life in Los Angeles because the violence just got too much from him. The first police matter we see Ray handling is a report about the failure of the local farmer to deliver the milk on time. “This is a police matter?” Ray laments, as we get an idea of how quiet life must be. Like the actor playing him, Ray Owens had retired from a career of heroics and action movie set-pieces. And, like the actor playing him, Ray is about to be drawn back in.

Carrying Johnny Knoxville...

Carrying Johnny Knoxville…

Ray spends a lot of his time managing the younger and more foolhardy troopers under his command. He has even struck up a fatherly relationship with a young officer who wants to venture to the big city. He clearly shares some of Arnie’s genre experience. When one of his young officers heads out to investigate something that appears relatively minor, Ray is at least shrewd enough to make sure there is another officer accompanying him.

Ray is shrewd enough to recognise the plot elements of a action thriller, realising immediately that the strangers from out of town and the drug baron rumbling towards his community are very unlikely to be completely unrelated. While his fellow officers panic about the inevitable confrontation, Ray has an air of calm that masks his own uncertainty and fear. Again, he steps into the role of veteran, assuring his deputies as much as Arnie assures his co-stars, “I know what’s coming.”

Copping on to themselves...

Copping on to themselves…

Arnie’s age is raised repeatedly. After one stunt, the hero laments, “I’m getting old.” Thankfully there’s a member of the community nearby to assure him, “You got a ways to go.” When he confronts the villain of the piece, a “third-generation” drug cartel leader, he tries to convince his foe to surrender. The younger man smugly responds, “Maybe once, amigo. But your time is over. It’s my time now.”

There’s very clearly a sense that Ray is finding himself in a bold new world – as Arnie himself confronts the bold new reality of action films. The villain is racing across Nevada in a stolen high-tech prototype. The agent chasing him refers to the car as “a goddamn batmobile”, and that isn’t a random comparison. The bad guy who has an addiction to speed racing has clearly picked up tips from modern action movies like The Fast & The Furious, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Indeed, at one point, the villain even evades a police helicopter using a move learned from Batman Begins.

Knoxville still doesn't have a flare for the comedic...

Knoxville still doesn’t have a flare for the comedic…

We’re supposed to get the impression that all this comes from a new generation of film, in contrast to the older films that used to star Arnie. Indeed, there’s a long stretch of narrative featuring a car chase across America that features all manner of insane and malicious planning that attempts to make the villain seem as organised as Silva from Skyfall. There are legions of goons seemingly camped on the side of long stretches of road to handily dispatch any police blockades that might get in his way, and the movie’s first action sequence is the sort of high-tech jailbreak that is increasingly popular in modern blockbusters.

As a result, the inevitable collision between this more modern school of movie villain and the classic eighties action hero is pitched as something of a generational conflict. The obvious intent of which is to demonstrate that Arnie is still relevant. There are several problems with this, however. The most obvious is the fact that anyone paying to see the film already accepts that Arnie has a measure of pop culture credibility, so you’re preaching to the converted.

Somebody's about to get schooled...

Somebody’s about to get schooled…

The more serious problem with this approach is that it effectively sidelines Arnie until the movie’s climax. There is a brief action sequence around the mid-point, but Ray Owens and his deputies seem mostly incidental to the car chase movie that is being intercut with their story. It feels like we’re watching two separate films until the last quarter, and neither of them feels like an Arnie film. And then the ending feels like it conflicts with both of those intertwined films as it is very decidedly an Arnie film.

The film feels awkwardly structured and painfully paced. It’s very clear what the film is attempting to do, but it winds up undermining itself by sidelining its star for far too long. There’s also the simple fact that despite the plot line involving impossibly fast cars, there’s nothing about the villain that really makes him stand out as an especially modern bad guy. Yes, he is introduced breaking out of captivity, which seems to be a rite of passage for most modern baddies, and he also seems to have the legion of loyal followers poised to strike anywhere without warning, but neither of these feels especially well earned.

Hardly a thrilling ride...

Hardly a thrilling ride…

Quite simply, our young cartel leader is not defined enough to clearly contrast with our veteran sheriff. More than that, though, while he has a few modern trappings, there’s nothing fundamentally modern about him. He’s a powerful individual who lays siege to a small American community. In that regard, he feels more like a villain from an old Steven Seagal movie than a more modern breed of baddie. He bribes a law enforcement official, but that’s stock eighties movie villain policy. He’s also a drug baron, which doesn’t seem too far from the type of baddie that Arnie might have faced a quarter of a century ago.

In short, the comparison between old and new feels disingenuous here. Despite the fact he escapes custody and has a cool gadget car, there’s very little to distinguish the bad guy as a more modern style of villain – which is clearly what the film is trying to do. As such, his claim that this is his “time” feels a little strange. Were he a more modern school of film baddie, the claim would make sense, and would hammer home the movie’s exploration of Arnie as a movie star who may or may not be past his selling point. However, as it stands, the moment falls a little flat because the movie wastes a lot of energy building up a confrontation that ultimately feels sort of “same old, same old.”

One last shot...

One last shot…

It’s a shame, because some of The Last Stand is quite interesting. For example, it does a rather excellent job distracting from the surreal casting of Schwarzenegger as a local small-town sheriff by casting Peter Stormare as a decidedly American bad guy. Stormare has a great deal of fun in the role, and his American accent isn’t all bad, but he does pronounce his character name as “Bur-el”, as if he is another refugee from Krypton. (And, in the interest of fairness, the movie does very briefly concede that Ray Owens is an immigrant, I think.)

There are other nice touches as well. Luis Guzman is great as one half of the film’s comic relief. Guzman has a natural gift for timing. Unfortunately, this ultimately sets Johnny Knoxville in sharp contrast. Guzman acts Knoxville off the screen, making his own comedic supporting role redundant. There’s also something a little uncomfortable about casting Knoxville’s comic relief character as a stereotypical gun nut. It’s not that the character seems out of place in a film like this, it’s just that it feels a little weird to have so brazen an example of the stereotype at a time when gun-control is a hotly-contested issue.

Stand tall...

Stand tall…

Being entirely honest, I am a little surprised that the presence of Knoxville’s character didn’t push the release date back slightly. Of course, I might be biased because Knoxville isn’t the strongest comedic actor. Perhaps the sequences feel a little awkward due to the performer’s stilted delivery (and the fact the character isn’t that funny) more than the external context. Characters like Dinkum are hardly uncommon in this genre, and it’s possible that he wouldn’t be especially remarkable had the film been pushed forward or back by six months.

The Last Stand feels like a misstep on Arnie’s attempt to return to the genre that made him a pop culture icon. It seems a stupid idea to so firmly sideline your headline attraction for so long, particularly when the appeal is seeing that actor try to re-capture his glory days. We all know that Arnie will inevitably school these young upstarts, so it just feels like padding to spend so long delaying the inevitable confrontation. Indeed, if you have to delay that confrontation, the time might be better spent building up the contrast between your hero and your villain.

One Response

  1. It certainty could have been better, and maybe I am biased, but I still enjoyed it. It had Arnold’s one liners, action and kept me entertained throughout. I do agree though that this film could have done without John Knoxville. It felt like he was casted just so they could add his name to the poster to draw kids in.

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