What’s more American than a modern-day Western—especially one that’s packed with muscle cars and insane gunplay? Never mind that many of the genre’s favorite conventions were invented by Japanese and Italian filmmakers; few movies have ever been as carefully calculated to appeal to red-state America as The Last Stand, a film that, taken at face value, would have NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre’s eyes rolling back in his head from the sheer, orgiastic ecstasy of it all.
And you can certainly read it and enjoy it that way if you’re so inclined. Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring role since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines back in 2003, The Last Stand is a perfectly serviceable, bullet-riddled comeback for the 65-year-old, er, actor. It’s bloody, goofy, loud fun that harks back to ’80s body-stackers such as Raw Deal and Red Heat. (And no, that’s not a backhanded compliment.) As mindless, violent fun, it’s no Commando, but it’s a hell of a lot better than, say, 2002’s Collateral Damage.
But there’s something sly going on under the surface here. First of all, the murmurs of xenophobia that have accompanied the film’s release are hilarious. The Last Stand is about as ’murican as the GM cars featured in nearly every scene—it may have been assembled in the States, but it’s an entirely global affair. The film was directed by Korean Kim Jee-Woon, features a principal cast that includes an Austrian, a Spaniard, a Brazilian, and a Swede, and lavishes fetishistic attention on British and German firearms.
Even more puzzling is the critical hand-wringing that has gone over the movie’s timing and its supposedly unabashed promotion of gun violence. The Last Stand was clearly meant to be taken about as seriously as an episode of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. It might not be clever enough to qualify as satire, but this is parody through-and-through.
Take, for instance, the plot. Ah-nold stars as Ray Owens, a one-time LAPD narcotics officer who has retired to a much quieter patch of Arizona desert known as Somerton Junction. Owens heads up a sheriff’s department made up of himself and three deputies of varying degrees of inexperience and ineptitude. The town has emptied out thanks to a high-school football away game, and the sheriff is looking forward to a day off. Mexican drug lord/professional race-car driver (seriously) Gabriel Cortez has other plans, though. When Cortez (played by Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega) escapes from federal custody in Las Vegas, he hightails it toward the border at 200 mph in a stolen supercar with a beautiful hostage (Genesis Rodriguez) in tow. His minions, led by Burrell (scenery-noshing Swedish character actor Peter Stormare), are literally building Cortez a bridge to Mexico; all he’s got to do is make it across it. Since FBI agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and his team of pilots, tech nerds, and sharpshooters lack the resources to stop a guy in a fast car, the task falls to Owens, his deputies, the town troublemaker (Brazil’s Rodrigo Santoro) and a local gun nut (Johnny Knoxville—god, we’re proud).
It’s absolutely as ridiculous as it sounds. Kim, a top-notch Korean director whose filmography includes the creepy fairy tale A Tale of Two Sisters, the nutso spaghetti western The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and the grisly revenge thriller I Saw the Devil, doesn’t expend much energy during the film’s clumsy set-up, but he makes up for it with the tightly directed and often inventive action sequences. The Last Stand’s frequent shootouts are certainly gory—when a movie leads with a bloody joke about the recoil of a massive .50 caliber handgun, there’s little doubt that someone’s eventually going to take one of those huge rounds through his face—but the violence is so over the top that it’s played for laughs, not shocks. A bad guy is shot in the head during a fall that would kill him anyway; when another heavy tries to cut through a storefront manned by a granny lady in a rocking chair, she blasts him right through a plate-glass window.
This is a hyper-violent fantasy flick made by a director from a country where handguns are hard to come by; it’s a stretch to assign it any sort of genuine social or political subtext. Still, it manages to be unexpectedly poignant when the good guys suffer casualties. Kim caps everything off with a fantastic car chase through a cornfield that subverts every convention you can think of, before giving Schwarzenegger one last opportunity to prove that, even in his twilight years, he can still take most would-be action stars to school.
We’ll probably never return to the days of the shamelessly violent but weirdly innocent action films that crowded video store shelves throughout the ’80s. For the foreseeable future, The Last Stand might be as close as we’ll get.