Arnold Schwarzenegger may be back, as he likes to say, and he’s apparently decided to become Clint Eastwood. The Last Stand, the actor’s first actual starring role since 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (cameos in The Rundown and supporting parts in The Expendables don’t count), is one of the least Ahnuld-ian action films he’s made. It’s got none of the steely, robotic ethos of stuff like The Terminator or Predator or Commando or Conan — movies that felt like sci-fi even when they weren’t sci-fi. In other words, he’s not a killing machine this time. Far from it. Instead, The Last Stand starts off as a pleasant ramble, in which Schwarzenegger plays an aging small-town sheriff who, along with his raggedy deputies, has to contend with the ruthless killers who’ve invaded his town.
At first, the film is as interested in charting the offbeat relationships between Schwarzenegger and his crew as it is in setting up (and, eventually, delivering on) the good-guy-bad-guy stuff. This is what Quentin Tarantino likes to call a “hangout” movie, à la Rio Bravo, or Eastwood’s A Perfect World or Bronco Billy. If that sounds like Schwarzenegger might actually be called on to act this time, you’re right. And to his credit, this is the loosest the guy’s been in ages. His amiable banter rarely feels forced, and even the obligatory jokes about his age feel genuine. It also helps that Schwarzenegger has fine support from folks like Luis Guzmán, Jaimie Alexander, and Rodrigo Santoro — not to mention Johnny Knoxville as a local gun nut (ahem) who winds up being a big help when it comes time to build up an arsenal against the bad guys.
Said bad guys, by the way, are mostly an afterthought, which is a bit of a shame since they’ve got the great Peter Stormare and Eduardo Noriega leading them. The former plays the leader of a group of thugs who’ve come to Sommertown Junction, the sleepy village of Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger). They’re lying in wait for the world’s most dangerous drug lord (Noriega), who has just spectacularly busted out of FBI custody and is racing toward them in an experimental Corvette that can go at blinding speeds (I am not making this up). So you can basically chart the collision course, as this ruthless madman zooms along, headed straight for Arnold’s dusty border town. The movie’s affable demeanor, we understand, is about to turn murderous — and it does.
The Last Stand was directed by Korean auteur Kim Jee-woon, who specializes in surreal genre freak-outs like the epic The Good, the Bad, the Weird and the grisly I Saw the Devil. He can be a bit long-winded (and this one sags at many points), but he’s also a technical master up for a logistical and/or tonal challenge. He’s smart enough to not try to make Schwarzenegger an imposing presence; instead, this is one film where you realize how ordinary-size the muscleman turned actor really is. And when Kim shoots a gunfight or car chase, no matter how intricate, you always know where everybody is. This talent comes in handy especially during the film’s final act, as an elaborate, extended face-off between Ray, his deputies, and a clown car’s worth of baddies turns into a cavalcade of exploding heads and flying bodies. But even as the movie leaves its ambling early acts behind, there’s still enough goofy, offhand humor to distinguish it from the rest of the Schwarzenegger oeuvre. At one point during the violent final standoff, Ray busts through the door to a diner and the bewildered townsfolk inside ask how he is. “Old,” he sighs — and, to everyone’s credit, we believe it.