The Last Stand, the modern Western starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, understands its limitations and comfortably works within them. Director Kim Jee-woon takes the classic Rio Bravo model, in which a sheriff and his deputies defend a small town from a dangerous criminal, and update it with large-scale thrills and winking humor. This is Schwarzenegger’s first leading role since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and while The Last Stand is not exactly a return to form, the action star has aged into more of an everyman. Jee-woon uses our expectations to tease us. When he and Schwarzenegger do finally bring the goods, it’s with a flash of sudden, wicked violence.
Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) is an incarcerated drug kingpin whose hobbies include race car driving and murder. During a prison transfer, Cortez escapes from the clutches of an FBI Agent (Forest Whitaker) and makes a run for the Mexican border. His secret weapon is a souped-up Corvette, one that can hit speeds of over 200 miles per hour. The destination is a small Arizona town, one where most residents are conveniently away for the high school football. The town Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) suspects foul play when he finds a murdered farmer, and stumbles upon some bad guys who have more than enough fire power. A phone call from the FBI Agent helps Owens figure out just what’s happening, so he and his deputies prepare for an assault from Cortez and his henchmen.
Compared to Schwarzenegger’s previous films, minor characters have much more screen time. Johnny Knoxville, Luis Guzman, Rodrigo Santoro, and Jaimie Alexander are likable enough as the deputies, and the script gives them a lot to do, whether it’s a romantic sub-plot or providing back-up with a sniper rifle. It takes a while for the titular stand to take place – there’s maybe an hour of exposition before Cortez arrives – and Schwarzenegger is maddeningly off-camera once it starts. So when he does arrive, his badassery comes with a sense of catharsis. Jee-woon, whose I Saw the Devil is one the most violent movies I’ve ever seen, adds grisly details wherever he can. In a memorable stunt, Owens fires a point-blank shot that’s entertaining precisely because it’s so superfluous. The director is also fond of austere, flat landscapes, and here he uses the figures of his actors to amplify the sense of danger. It’s not suspenseful, exactly, yet the style elevates the material beyond its plot holes and corny one-liners.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been the most physical action star. When he was crushing a fist or firing an automatic machine gun, his deft movements had a peculiar grace about them. Now at age sixty-five, the director had to deal with an actor who is nowhere as fast as he used to be. The solution is to put him in more car chases, and have the hits be slower, harder. When Cortez and Owens finally face off, Schwarzenegger shows us that he’s preserved his raw strength even though speed escapes him. His work does not dominate the film, yet his understanding of his limits suggests that he’ll chose his future projects carefully. The Last Stand is more than a return to form for Arnold because his oddly humble, self-aware performance has us rooting for him more than the character he plays.