Monday, January 21, 2013
The Last Stand brings Arnold Schwarzenegger back as the star of a movie since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines a full 10 years ago. Sure, he's made cameo appearances in The Rundown and The Expendables and had a slightly bigger role in last summer's The Expendables 2, plus governed the state of California and fathered an illegitimate child, but he hasn't taken the lead in a decade.
I would actually argue that The Last Stand is the first real Schwarzenegger movie since Eraser in 1996. While he made several movies between Eraser and T3, none were really Schwarzenegger movies in the classic sense. In some cases, like End of Days and Collateral Damage, he was experimenting with his onscreen image; in others, like Jingle All the Way and Batman & Robin, he was just floundering. And while his latest effort doesn't quite bring back Golden Age Arnold -- his acting is a little rusty, there's little self-effacing humor (except maybe for "Old," a good line that's been spoiled by all the trailers, and another moment where he pats his belly) and mercifully few one-liners -- at least he's back to being a kickass man of action instead of a depressed mope or cartoon dipshit.
As someone who has waited nearly twenty years to see Arnold Schwarzenegger get back to doing his thing on the big screen, there was a good chance I was going to like The Last Stand whether it was any good or not. It unites one of my favorite current filmmakers with one of my favorite movie stars of all time. It would be like if Brian De Palma made a movie with Tom Hanks.
Oh, wait. The Bonfire of the Vanities. Well, The Last Stand is better than The Bonfire of the Vanities (-Patrick Bromley, F This Movie!).
The movie isn't great. Pretty far from it. It doesn't rank in Schwarzenegger's Top 10, though it doesn't belong at the bottom, either. In many ways, it's the right vehicle for his return: he doesn't have to carry the whole thing, it's fun and entertaining without becoming too silly and the pairing of the actor with Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-Woon alone makes the movie worth seeing. It's unfortunate that so much time is spent away from Schwarzenegger and his deputies; nearly equal screen time is given to both the efforts of federal agent Forest Whitaker's eye and to bag guy Noriega (it reminded me a little of the Dwayne Johnson movie Faster in that way), and both of those story lines -- the way they're written, shot and acted -- are pretty terrible. The movie also wastes a lot of time, essentially spending an hour building up to its last act. The good news is that the finale is worth the buildup, with a nonstop barrage of action and an insane number of bullets spent. Jee-Woon knows how to stage a sequence for maximum payoff, so there are bursts of violence that have us laughing and cheering at the same time -- they're punchlines with squibs. There's hardly a cliché left unturned, but the whole sequence has enough high points that they can be overlooked.
Where The Last Stand is most interesting is in the way that it biographically reflects where Schwarzenegger is in life in 2013. The movie doesn't shy away from his age (he's 65), but doesn't spend all kinds of time making jokes about it, either. It puts him in the position of Old Guard, surrounded by younger people who respect and look up to him for leadership and guidance -- there is some recognition that he can no longer do it alone. Even the title, The Last Stand, is telling: this is Schwarzenegger's last stand as a movie star. It will determine if there is still an audience who wants to see him carry an action movie. (Even if they don't, he's got two more due out this year, so fuck those people.) Based on the early box office returns -- the movie was outgrossed by the truly awful Gangster Squad in its SECOND WEEK -- it seems the fans have moved on.
But the connections to the star go deeper than what's apparent on the surface. I've said time and again that most of Schwarzenegger's '80s and '90s output cast him in the role of "The Other" as a way of explaining or rationalizing both his foreignness and his superhuman physique. But he's been a movie star for over 30 years now. America is his home. He was governor of one of the country's largest states for two terms. He's no longer an outsider. He's one of Us. That's why in The Last Stand, he's not the Other; he's the one protecting us from the Other. Though this is one of the few films I can think of where Schwarzenegger directly acknowledges his status as an immigrant, there's no question that he's on his home turf. He's playing less the traditional Schwarzenegger role and more the John Wayne, which makes sense because The Last Stand is very, very much a western.
After mugging his way through The Expendables 2 (a movie that's going to make about four times as much money as this one, despite not being as good) with a bunch of obnoxious references to his body of work, it's great to see Schwarzenegger really trying to do something good here. The Last Stand could have been another stupid victory lap -- a self-satisfied excuse for a movie that we should all consider ourselves lucky to be seeing. Instead, Schwarzenegger approaches it like he still has something to prove. The movie doesn't totally work, but it's a step in the right direction not towards restoring him to his former glory, but finding his new place in action movies. Things are never going to be what they were for Arnold. The Last Stand seems to understand that.