MOVIE REVIEW: THE LAST STAND
We got a taste with Expendables and then he left us salivating for more with Expendables 2, but now, with THE LAST STAND, it’s official - Arnold is back with a vengeance, proving that he is not at all expendable when it comes to movies and the action genre. Older, perhaps a bit wiser, and definitely a bit slower and more stunt cautious, Arnold Schwarzenegger slips into the character of Sheriff Ray Owens with the ease of a well-oiled trigger. In many ways, Ray Owens embodies Arnold at this stage of his own life, and that’s a good thing as neither is trying to "carry" a film on his shoulders with the same ferocity, intensity and screen presence as Schwarzenegger did in his pre-Governor days.
Directed by Korean wunderkind, KIM Jee-woon, THE LAST STAND is a 21st century take on the beloved American western and perhaps most specifically, High Noon, but incorporating the global elements of today while retaining all the action, excitement and adrenalin of a guns-a-blazing shootout only amped up a thousand gigawatts. In what can only be described as an “action comedy”, Schwarzenegger and company will have you cheering with every move. And when I say company, I also include the Corvette ZR-1 which is as integral a character to THE LAST STAND as any individual man or woman.
Ray Owens has moved from the high stakes, hard-charging, crime fighting turf of Los Angeles gangs and drug lords to a quieter, gentler life as the Sheriff in the sleepy border town of Summerton Junction, one of the last bastions of the United States before crossing into Mexico. With a Mayberryesque aura and calm, Owens’ biggest bust is Frank Martinez, once local hero but now occasionally drunk and disorderly.
A few hours north in Las Vegas we find FBI Agent John Bannister about to transport Mexican drug cartel boss Gabriel Sanchez. Shrouded in secrecy, the transport should go off without a hitch. Should. But of course, it doesn’t and Sanchez escapes, taking Agent Ellen Richards as hostage. Aided by the mercenary Burrell and his gang, Sanchez - a legendary race car driver in his own right - begins his trek south to the border in a specially outfitted Corvette ZR-1. Racing at speeds up to 250 mph, the ZR-1 is unstoppable. But Sanchez and the Corvette have yet to reach Summerton Junction and Sheriff Ray Owens.
As Owens, Arnold Schwarzenegger solidifies his return to film and in the action genre. He makes us believe in and identify with the character of Ray Owens and subconsciously, has the audience seeing the parallels between Owens and himself. He's been there, done that, seen it all and is now looking for a quieter and more purposeful life. (Just look at Schwarzenegger’s climate actions and foundations.) Yet, he can still step up to the plate, but with a purpose. And stepping up to the plate here requires a lot of action and stunt work, a large portion of which Schwarzenegger at age 65 is still more than happy, and more than capable, to do. “This movie required a lot of stunts, action and a lot of physical work. The director, KIM Jee-woon, was a fanatic about seeing as much as possible done by me. When you could risk getting injured heavily or killed, the stunt guys would take over.” To insure that Schwarzenegger was able to do as much stunt work as possible, the action choreography was impeccably designed. “[W]e all practiced. We all rehearsed. We all did over and over. But when you're 65, it's different from when you're 35 [laughing]. The great thing in the movie is that we're trying to not play me as the 35-year-old action hero, but as the guy who is about to retire -- and all of a sudden this challenge comes up where he really needs to get his act together. That's what the movies about, the underdog. He has the 20 most dangerous mercenaries descending on his town.” And speaking of age, it’s used as an effective comedic tool. “I think it was appropriate. It takes the curse off then. You can make fun of yourself. I think Clint [Eastwood] did that very well, and others I've seen do that very well when you get to a certain age, and we felt we'd use it too.”
The cast as a whole is a perfect blend, making THE LAST STAND a true ensemble effort. Luis Guzman and Johnny Knoxville, as Deputy Mike “Figgie” Figuerola and town buffoon and gun collector Lewis Dinkum, respectively, are perfection when it comes to adding comedic tone. Those two should have had more screen time, just to allow us a chance to breathe between all the fast driving! Having seen the script early on in the shooting, the character of Figgie was supportive and solid, but in the hands of Guzman becomes four dimensional, layered with heart and soul! Outstanding work by Guzman. Similarly, Knoxville is the epitome of comic relief
Kudos to producer Lorenzo DiBonaventura and KIM Jee-woon for amping up the female testosterone and presence with Jaimie Alexander, Genesis Rodriguez and even a female FBI chopper pilot. While Schwarzenegger has really only had one strong female counterpart in his earlier films (Linda Hamilton w/Terminator franchise), it's nice to see a shift of balance and more equitable distribution of kick ass. As Deputy Sarah Torrance, Alexander goes balls to the wall with sharp shooting and armament. I would have thought, however, that as Agent Richards, Rodriguez would have had a bit more action given her great physicality in Man On A Ledge.
A real surprise is Rodrigo Santoro. He never ceases to amaze me as he gets more daring and chameleonic with his work and here he steps into the action arena for the first time. Lookout folks! Santoro can easily become one of our next action heroes. He is rock solid with action, physically capable and masters the balance of emotion with action. As Frank Martinez, Rodrigo Santoro is one of the nicest town black sheep ever! And talk about nice weapons handling.
Patented “bad guy” Peter Stormare is a bit of a disappointment, feeling “out of place” as Burrell in terms of backstory and how Burrell became associated with Eduardo Noriega's Cortez. Adding to the distraction is Stormare’s very poor Texas accent. But, may I just say how wonderful it is to see a villain and bad guy as suave and sexy as Noriega!
But let’s talk about one of the film’s biggest stars - the GM manufactured Corvette ZR-1 and a “little friend”, a cherry red Camaro. Clearly a big thank you goes to President Obama and the auto bailout as it undoubtedly helped with the development of the ZR-1. Without the ZR1, the believability and plausibility of the story would never have worked as it is integral to the story. According to producer DiBonaventura, “I’ve had a great association with [GM]. We were talking earlier about then nice red Camaro we had sitting there getting ready to die a glorious death. It’s fun. Those kind of things add a lot to the picture. When you have a company like GM who ‘gets’ entertainment and gets to be part of it and support it, it allows us to do a lot of the crazy stunts we do.” With seven ZR-1's customized for the film, “We were down to one by the end of it. We were holding on tight by the end. We were really hoping we wouldn’t need another one because they’re really expensive.” However, given the importance of the ZR-1, product placement becomes a bit too obvious, albeit genius, in integrating it into the story.
Written by Andrew Knauer, THE LAST STAND achieves great balance among character types and development, action, humor and some quiet human messaging. Not to be missed is a backhanded slap at perhaps the “incompetence” of the federal government/FBI with Forest Whitaker's Agent Bannister, filling him with inept pomposity and arrogance.
KIM Jee-woon has clearly studied classic westerns in designing the palette and lensing for THE LAST STAND, but then expounding on that consciousness with his own styling. Known for some of the most innovative lensing in action films today, his entre into “American” cinema is nothing short of explosive. Nice confined handheld camera work in stairwells and in the school bus. And talk about some of the vintage armory! Fantastic. There are times, however, that the film forgets itself though and story seems to fly out the window in favor of longer focus and edits with the ZR-1.
Key to THE LAST STAND are the old school stunts and, of course, the driving. And yes, I am partial given several of my old friends worked on this film, and some with prominence, such as 2nd Unit Director Darrin Prescott whose experience extends “way back” in the stunt world and with Schwarzenegger. Similarly, Wade Allen who did the 2nd Unit stunt coordination. With a film of this nature, there is a very intricate division of the action in the production of this film. I cannot say enough about the level of precision driving that takes place here and as a whole, expect THE LAST STAND to garner some stuntmen's association awards for this work.
Local characters add flavor and reality to the heart of the film, as does Franco Carbone's production design. Wonderful work on the town of Belen in the creation of Summerton. Gives a real feel of the old west, Gary Cooper and High Noon, and Americana at its finest.
A glaring problem to my eyes is a cornfield sequence. While the camera work with crane overheads is spectacular, and the design of the chase between the ZR-1 and Camaro is riveting (and even comical), we have to remember the film takes place in the Fall. After harvest. The corn is dead. The corn has been harvested. There wouldn’t be any ears of corn left on the stalks to be smashing into the windows and onto the cars. I realize hardened ears of corn and cobs make nice sounds and look good, but it sticks out like a sore thumb.
While not a perfect film (should have had some more humor from Guzman and Knoxville and "more" of anything from Genesis), it goes beyond testosterone fueled into jet-fueled with action, heart and fun. You need more than a shoulder harness to strap yourself in for this ride.
If Arnold Schwarzenegger makes action acting his own "last stand" in the world, I'm all for it, as long as it remains the caliber of THE LAST STAND.
Directed by KIM Jee-woon
Written by Andrew Knauer
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Luis Guzman, Jaimie Alexander, Genesis Rodriguez, Peter Stormare