For the first time in a decade, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in a leading role. And not only is he acting again, he’s starring in the sort of big, dumb, violent actioner that made him a household name as opposed to a horseshit like Batman and Robin or End of Days. The Last Stand, helmed by Korean director Jee-woon Kim, serves as Schwarzenegger’s carefully tailored comeback vehicle—a film that’s designed to remind us all why Schwarzenegger was able to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the first place. The movie itself mostly works, but unfortunately, it also reminded me that the Austrian action hero’s glory days are behind him.
If you grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s as I did, then Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were undoubtedly a staple of your childhood. Despite an unwieldy last name and a thick Austrian accent, Arnold Schwarzenegger found a way to climb to the top of the Hollywood food chain to become the most quintessentially American movie star of the ‘80s. His characters always bore inexplicably Anglo-Saxon names (Douglas Quaid, John Matrix, Ben Richards, John Kimble, etc.), he could expertly wield any firearm, he massacred more bad guys than anyone else, and he was completely jacked. Schwarzenegger was the physical embodiment of Ronald Reagan’s America: excessive, impractical, violent, and waving a gigantic American flag. And I felt the same reverence for him as an action hero that the people of my father’s generation felt for Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood and that the people of my grandfather’s generation felt for John Wayne.
So, needless to say, I was excited to find out that Schwarzenegger was coming out of retirement to star in an R-rated action vehicle. And what a vehicle for Schwarzenegger to choose! He reportedly handpicked filmmaker Jee-woon Kim, the inventive director behind the chilling horror flick A Tale of Two Sisters and the baffling-yet-absolutely-gorgeous thriller I Saw the Devil. The Korean film industry has been kicking Hollywood’s ass in the action department for the past decade, so it was particularly astute for the star to pick Jee-woon Kim as the captain of his ship. And a brilliant supporting cast that includes veteran character actors such as Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, and Luis Guzman provides The Last Stand with additional credibility.
Schwarzenegger plays Ray Owens, the Sheriff of an inconsequential, Arizona border town. Law enforcement for the entire town consists of Owens and three inexperienced deputies. Not that the place needs much protection: at the beginning of the movie, we see the town’s population depart for the weekend to accompany the local high school football team to an away game.
So it should be a quiet weekend for our Austrian sheriff with an all-American name, right? Of course not, this is an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, after all. We soon discover that drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) has just escaped federal custody in Las Vegas and is making a run for the border in a souped-up Corvette. Paving the way for Cortez’ exodus is a gang of mercenaries headed by Burrell (the always reliable Peter Stormare). Only Owens and a mostly empty town stand between Cortez and the Mexican border.
This sounds like standard Schwarzenegger fare. The Last Stand, however, is quick in its attempt to distinguish itself from Arnold’s older, better movies. The movie surprisingly takes its time building up to any sort of pay-off. Schwarzenegger really doesn’t assume the role of the action hero until the film’s final act, and in the meantime he mostly attempts to act haggard and besieged. At one point, we see Schwarzenegger confess to one of his deputies that he’s secretly terrified during shoot-outs, and at that moment, it becomes clear that the filmmakers here are trying to give Schwarzenegger the same opportunity to deconstruct and comment upon his career in the way Clint Eastwood did with Unforgiven.
But Arnold Schwarzenegger is no Clint Eastwood; in fact, he’s really no Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone, either. Sure, Schwarzenegger is easily as much of a Hollywood legend as any of them, but Eastwood, Willis, and Stallone typically played flawed, broken characters. In their movies, they often screw up, get captured, or get the shit kicked out of them. They portrayed characters that weren’t necessarily physically or intellectually superior to the bad guys, they just had more grit. Old age was just another obstacle for them.
Schwarzenegger’s on-screen persona, however, has always been that of impossible physical perfection. He wasn’t great because he was a plucky underdog, he was great in movies like Commando and Total Recall because he was vastly superior to the people he opposed. Again, he was playing the embodiment of Reagan’s America. So Schwarzenegger was never primed for old age in the way that Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood were. It’s odd to see him reticent to jump into combat and even odder to see him having difficulty dispatching bad guys. It’s beyond bizarre to see him awkwardly expressing self doubt.
However, The Last Stand is not without its pleasures. The third act of the movie affords Schwarzenegger the opportunity to do all of the things that made him an action icon in the first place. There’s a high-octane, innovative shoot-out, a lengthy car chase, and a visceral fist fight between Arnold and the film’s villain. In fact, the final fist fight—a sort of a MMA-inspired throw down, complete with both actors attempting submission holds on each other—registers as one of the best hand-to-hand action sequences Schwarzenegger has ever been in. The final half hour of the film is violent and dumb and hilarious. It manages to contain all of the elements of a good, ’80s-inspired action flick.
The final explosive act of The Last Stand proves that Schwarzenegger isn’t destined for retirement yet. The movie mostly works, but it’s not vintage Arnold. The man shouldn’t hang up his hat yet, but this older, more vulnerable screen persona he’s creating for himself is going to need considerably more work.