With The Last Stand (2013), director Kim Jee-woon makes a conditional success of a kind of film that defeated the Hong Kong directors in the mid-1990s: a big dumb action film with an intractable aging action star at the center. In this case, he's saddled with Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is admittedly a step up from Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose presence almost ruined the careers of John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark when they all made landfall in Hollywood two decades ago. It's also possible that the tightly controlled idiom of New Korean Cinema is less vulnerable to Hollywood derailment than the more freewheeling Hong Kong action films. Maybe.
The story here has Schwarzenegger playing Ray Owens, a big city cop turned aging rural sheriff whose town is in the path of a dramatic escape by Gabriel Cortez, a Mexican drug cartel bigwig. The feds in Las Vegas have let Cortez slip the leash, and he makes a break for the border in a stolen prototype car that's the fastest thing on the road. Cortez has people on the ground at the border crossing, too, who have come to the attention of Owens. Owens and his deputies soon find themselves in a running gun battle with cartel mercenaries who have them badly outgunned. Fortunately, they have a local friend who runs a gun museum, whose firepower evens the odds. Soon, the town is besieged, first by the mercenaries who have built a military-style bridge across the canyon to Mexico, and then by Cortez himself.
This is basically a boilerplate reworking of Rio Bravo, with Arnold in the John Wayne role. Rio Bravo is a pretty sturdy framework, and in some ways, this sort of thing always works. It’s not even out of character for Kim Jee-woon, whose previous dalliance with Western cinema was the delirious The Good, The Bad, and The Weird. Like that film, this one is mostly an exercise in style. It’s cleaner than TGTB&TW, less frenetic. Its action beats are somewhere between that film and the more elegant violence in A Bittersweet Life. It never approaches the lethal barbarity of I Saw the Devil, though, and maybe that’s a flaw. But, then again, maybe not.
The tone of this film isn’t particularly vicious, and this is not a film that transports the transgressive impulses of the New Korean Cinema to America. This one plays nice with American genre conventions, perhaps because it’s so carefully engineered as Schwarzenegger’s comeback movie. The quirks that make it through that filter are ones that won’t discomfort the actor’s fans. Chief among these is the supporting cast, made up of interesting faces. Roger Ebert used to have a rule that no movie in which M. Emmet Walsch or Harry Dean Stanton appeared could be all bad, and Stanton plays a farmer in this film. It’s nice to see Luis Guzman back in movies, too. Forest Whitaker seems to have lost something over the years (perhaps from his immersion in Scientology, but who knows?). He’s pretty much a stock lawman here. Peter Stomare is a stock character, too, one he's played a half dozen times before. Not a stock character is Sarah Torrance, played by Jamie Alexander, who is unexpectedly good in this film as Owens's primary deputy. She's not a gun fetish or a "strong female character." Alexander plays her with a surprising amount of nuance. The weak link in the cast is Schwarzenegger himself, who is admittedly self-deprecating about his age at points, but who seems a shell of himself even taking this into account. Politics has taken something from him. He no longer commands the screen like he once did. I found myself wondering during the end game if this wouldn't be a better movie with Jamie Alexander promoted into the lead. That would certainly add an interesting power (and possibly sexual) dynamic to the final confrontation between hero and villain. Given that Cortez is played by the still-handsome Eduardo Noriega, this could have been an interesting pas de deux. Instead, we get an over the hill, but still indestructible Schwarzenegger and a resolution that's never, ever in doubt. Still, it's useless to review a film that might have been. This one, it turns out, has its own pleasure.
Casting and story aside, this is amazingly well-made. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Korean film for the last decade. Film craft--and an almost neurotic fetish for clarity--is one of the hallmarks of contemporary Korean film. This tends to make hoary old cliches seem fresh. I mean, I don't ever need to see another car chase as long as I live, but there's a scene close to the end of this film that actually manages to add a new wrinkle to it: the two cars have careened into a corn field and at one point, they lose track of each other. At this point, the film conflates the car chase with the submarine movie, in which the sound of the enemy is a telltale that the two antagonists strain to hear. It's pretty cool. That's the flashiest piece of styling in this movie. Other pieces of styling are less overt, mainly consisting of placing the camera in exactly the right place and an editing style that is neither intrusive or anonymous. For a Schwarzeneggerian epic, this is easy on the eyes. But then, Arnold has always had a sharp eye for directors who permit him to shape his own screen anima while permitting the director himself to use that anima however he sees fit. Perhaps because of language and cultural differences, Kim sees in Arnold an old school Western star. That Arnold doesn't necessarily fit? Well, I guess Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun are still waiting for him when he returns to Korea.