It’s hard to believe, but 2003’s tepid Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was the last time Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in a movie. The Austrian-born muscleman took Hollywood by storm in the 1980s and early ’90s with a string of massive hits (Conan The Barbarian, Predator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Total Recall, etc.), but saw his star fade as the big-budget flops (Eraser, The 6th Day, Batman & Robin, Collateral Damage) started piling up.
The big guy spent most of the aughts decade playing politics instead of action hero, and a few forgettable cameos (The Rundown, Around the World in 80 Days) aside, the former biggest star in the world was essentially retired from acting when his time in the California Governor’s mansion came to an end in 2011. Post-civil service, you could sense Schwarzenegger plotting his comeback with each new Expendables cameo.
Now comes The Last Stand, a lean, often-effective action picture that harkens back to Arnold’s early days while attempting to move the actor’s big-screen personae into the 21st century. I’m not going to pretend that The Last Stand is great art (or even great schlock), but it is a solid B movie that plays to the actor’s strengths, surrounds him with quality character actors who don’t appear to mind slumming it, and keeps things brisk if overly ultra-violent.
Schwarzenegger plays Ray Owens, sheriff of a tiny Arizona town right across a narrow canyon from Mexico. Ray used to work narcotics in Los Angeles, but the bullets and bloodshed drove him to seek the relative peace of life in the desert. As Last Stand begins, Owens is planning for a quiet weekend with most of the tiny town’s residents off at a far away high school football game. Unfortunately for him, there’s an escaped Mexican drug cartel kingpin (Edwardo Noreiga) fleeing the FBI (led by an agent played by Forest Whitaker) and making a run for freedom that will pass through Owens’ jurisdiction before heading south of the border.
There’s plenty of action in The Last Stand, much of it built on the fact that the drug lord is a race car driver in his off hours, and he’s now behind the wheel of the fastest Corvette ever made. (Chevy must have paid handsomely for all the product placement.) The set pieces — including an escape from Las Vegas, a confrontation between the escapee and an SUV-driving SWAT team, a car chase through a corn field, and the final Main Street shootout between cartel gunman and the small-town police force — are all well done, despite throwing logic (let alone spatial consistency or the laws of physics) out the window right from the start. The Last Stand is the type of movie in which every vehicle no matter the size — from the nimble ’vette up to a hulking school bus — will at some point do a high-speed, sliding, 180-degree turn as gunfire pours out the windows.
If that sounds terrible, consider yourself warned. Fans of early, high body count Schwarzenegger flicks like Commando and Raw Deal will eat this movie up, however. Many of the elements of those films are included, led by dialogue that usually doubles as catchphrase (“I’m the sheriff!”), a solid sense of humor, and enough people getting shot in the forehead to make Paul Verhoeven wince.
I’m not going to lie: Post-Sandy Hook, the violence in The Last Stand got under my skin. It’s partially the fetishization of firearms (including a fucking Gatling gun!), and partially the extreme level of violence, which in addition to the many forehead splatters, includes characters cut in half by gunfire and one poor sap vaporized into a cloud of red mist by the most ridiculous flare gun in film history. As the action played out I was torn between admiring the wit and skill of the filmmakers in producing these scenes and being repulsed by the content.
There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have enjoyed The Last Stand a little more before real-world violence made on-screen violence tougher to laugh at — but only a little. If the hoots and hollers from the audience at the preview screening I attended are any indication, I will be in the minority with these reservations.
As for Schwarzenegger, he does well in this comeback roll, integrating de rigor jokes about his old-man status with well-worn character traits audiences will remember from back in the day. I’ve long felt that the secret to Arnold’s success was the pairing of his enormous ego with an even larger need to be loved (this also explains the whole Governator thing), and The Last Stand is designed to appeal to the most middle-of-the-road, mainstream American audience it can find. It will succeed in this quest, for better or worse.
Now that Arnold has his comeback out of the way, I really hope he moves on to better material. (Work with James Cameron again, Arnold. I beg you!) Schwarzenegger has no less than five films in various stages of production — including another Conan the Barbarian flick (yawn), and the intriguing Ten from Training Day writer David Ayer — making it difficult to predict where this new phase of his career will lead.
For now, I’m digging Arnold’s return to the silver screen. That said, his next movie needs to be better than this one, or The Last Stand will end up being remembered as an especially prescient title.