It’s astounding, the sacrifices that are made in the name of genre. Although it’s fairly well known that Arnold Schwarzenegger is not now and never has been a decent actor, he has nevertheless been immortalized as an action hero; I strongly suspect it was on this basis alone that he was cast in “The Last Stand,” a full-blown action comedy in which he gives his first leading-man performance in ten years. If this is the case, then it’s truly disheartening. It would seem that director Kim Ji-woon, who has officially entered the world of English-language filmmaking, is willing to compromise his movies by casting genre-specific stars that are clearly not qualified to be in them. Schwarzenegger’s iconic status notwithstanding, he has no place in a movie like this. He’s much better suited for the “Terminator” franchise, since playing a cyborg doesn’t require a believable emotional range.
To be as fair as humanly possible, Schwarzenegger isn’t the only reason why “The Last Stand” doesn’t work. For one thing, two of the main actors were also miscast – or, perhaps, horrendously misdirected. Let’s begin with Peter Stormare, who plays a goon with a distinctive Southern drawl. He shouldn’t be allowed to accept such roles unless and until he hires a very expensive dialect coach, one that forces him to practice several hours a day for at least five years; I don’t know if his Swedish upbringing is to blame, but the accent he uses for this movie is so glaringly phony that it’s liable to embarrass or even offend authentic American Southerners. Now let’s examine Eduardo Noriega, who plays the main antagonist, a Mexican drug lord. While genuinely Hispanic (he’s from Spain), he heightens his vocal performance to the point of parody. It’s almost as if he’s channeling a white man faking a Hispanic accent.
Leaving the actors out of it altogether, the film is an atmospheric disaster, as no one could find the right balance between comedy and drama; one minute we’re listening to Schwarzenegger and his fellow cast mates make wisecracks, and the next we’re watching them weep sincerely over a fallen comrade. It’s also excessively violent, every shootout scene inundated with graphic shots of blood spraying from gaping wounds. In one instance, a man is shot with a stick of dynamite, causing his body to explode and limbs to rain down. And as has been the case with several recent films, it’s disturbingly trigger-happy. Apart from the fact that I’m personally uncomfortable with filmmakers trying to pass off shootouts as entertainment, there’s only so much footage of them I can take before they become annoyingly repetitive.
Schwarzenegger plays Ray Owens, the sheriff of a tiny Arizona border town where nothing much happens. This is actually the way he wants it; he saw enough death and bloodshed during his years as an LAPD officer. Steadily but surely, his relatively quiet life is interrupted by events that are out of the ordinary, not the least of which is the murder of the cantankerous old rancher (a cameo by Harry Dean Stanton). As Owens tries to piece the clues together, and you should know that he’s apparently the only cop in the area with actual investigative skills, convicted drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Noriega) makes a very elaborate escape during a prison transfer in Las Vegas, takes a hostage, and begins rocketing his way to the Mexican border in a specially outfitted Corvette capable of going 200 mph. The crossing point will, of course, be Owens’ small town. FBI agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) desperately tries to keep track of Cortez, whose hostage is a fellow agent named Ellen Richards (Genesis Rodriguez).
Once Owens finally gets wind of the situation, he’s determined to prevent Cortez from succeeding on his mission. He recruits two deputies, one a clueless young man (Zach Gilford) who desperately wants to leave town and see some action, the other a young woman (Jaimie Alexander) who acts tough but in reality is just as frightened and uncertain as Owens is. Also at Owens’ side are: His older but equally clueless deputy (Luis Guzman); the young woman’s ex-boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro), who was locked in a jail cell before being officially recruited; and the local ammunitions expert (Johnny Knoxville), a man so odd and mentally defective that he really has no business having an entire arsenal at his disposal, least of all a vintage machine gun from World War II. At this point, the film devolves into a repetitive series of shootout sequences, which are filled with opportunities for the cast the point guns at the camera and say something annoyingly badass.
That there are audiences for this kind of filmmaking, there can be no doubt. That they will make the effort to see this movie and respond well to it, there can also be no doubt. For audiences like me, who want to be thrilled by action movies rather than bombarded with grotesque displays of testosterone, it will be tiresome, stale, and in some cases, disturbing. Has it really come to the point where shooting people and watching their blood splatter is the only way for an action movie to be deemed entertaining? Is there no room left for intriguing plotlines, characters we’re made to care about, and actors that are actually qualified for their roles? I’m all for escapism, but even that deserves to be taken seriously. I recognize that “The Last Stand” did exactly what it was intended to do and that it was made with a very specific audience in mind, but that doesn’t mean I automatically have to like it.