Friday, March 21, 2014

Film Friday: The Last Stand (2013)

For the second week in a row, we talk about a film that I expected would stink. Today’s film is The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen. I did not expect anything good from this film, but it turned out to be quite an entertaining ride.

Plot

Our story opens with an introduction of someone we all know very well: Sheriff Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold is the Sheriff of sleepy little Somerton Junction, Arizona, a town that sits on the border with Mexico, just across an impassible ravine. Arnold was a big shot LAPD super cop until he walked away from it all after his team was all but wiped out in raid-gone-wrong. Now he lives the quiet life in podunk.

As Arnold prepares for vacation, we learn that almost everyone in town is leaving for a football game. As they go, the Mayor parks his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 in a fire lane and tosses Arnold the keys just in case Arnold needs to move it... or needs it to catch an escaped drug lord. Arnold also discovers that another local, Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) just happens to own a “museum” of high powered weapons... which could come in handy against an army of mercenaries looking to help a drug lord escape. Just sayin’. And in his drunk tank is a combat trained soldier who could be helpful, I guess.
Meanwhile, drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) escapes from FBI custody in Las Vegas using magnets and smoke and mirrors. He takes an FBI agent, Ellen Richards, hostage and he takes off south down the highway in a stolen Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1... not a Camaro ZL1 like the one Arnold has the keys to.

Anyways, as the FBI, led by Agent Forest Whitaker tries and fails to recapture Cortez, Arnold realizes that something is up and begins to prepare for an invasion of Cortez’s men... who just happen to be building a bridge over the ravine to Mexico. The rest of the movie is chase scenes, fight scenes, shoot outs and one-liners as Arnold and his ragtag band of misfits do what the FBI could not: stop Cortez.
Why This Film Worked

Before I talk about what worked with this film, let me start with what didn’t. The film opens with a fairly standard opening for any film: it introduces the characters by showing you a slice of their lives in which they and the characters around them give you a thumbnail sketch of the elements of each major character. This film does that and it does it in a painfully obvious manner. Indeed, the opening few minutes are full of dialog like, “Gee, we’re lucky to have a sheriff who has fought real crime and could protect us if a drug lord escaped the FBI and came racing through town.”
At the same time, the film ham-fistedly shows you the three elements Arnold will need to solve the movie. First, the unlikable Mayor parks his high-powered car in a fire lane. He even tosses Arnold the keys so that Arnold can move the car if it helps the movie. Now we have a powerful car. Next, Arnold goes to the drunk tank, where we meet the good-guy ex-soldier who just happens to be locked up for a minor charge. Now we have the deputy Arnold really needs. Finally, Arnold learns that one of the locals has a legal, but way over the top arsenal of weapons, which he claims is a museum. Now Arnold has all the fire power he needs to match the professional mercenaries he will face.

At this point in the film, I was ready to quit. This was so blatantly obvious as setups for what was to come that it made me doubt this film had anything to offer. In fact, it felt like the director was a beginner who was following a checklist with no sense of subtlety at all, and he put a huge red arrow on each item and wrote the word “FORESHADOWING!” on the screen. It was insulting.
But then the film became more interesting. First, you have an over-the-top “break our boss out of jail” moment, as Cortez’s people free him from the FBI. This wasn't clever, but it was fun to watch. And as Cortez races away down a darkened highway at high speeds, the film took on a pretty decent cat and mouse feel. This moment did several things well. First, it sets Cortez up as something special, i.e. a true challenge even beyond the power and expertise of the FBI. This sets Arnold up to do his larger-than-life thing because he must do what teams of the FBI’s best have been unable to do. Secondly, it establishes a ticking clock, which gives the film a sense of urgency as Arnold and his rag-tag gang of misfits must prepare for the defense of their town.

Next, the film does what all the good Arnold films do, and it was an excellent decision: it made Arnold the focus and let Arnold be Arnold. Thus, for the rest of the film, you have the still charismatic Arnold roaming the town, looking tough but always with a sense of humor, spewing one-liners as he kicks the butt of various Cortez mercenaries who come to town.
Even better, the director made sure that these mercenaries were simultaneously highly professional, while being led by eccentric characters. This breathed life into a very familiar concept and it kept the danger feeling very "real world" while simultaneously making it larger-than-life. This helped boost the film and made up for some of the spunk Arnold has lost over the years.
Finally, as the film zeroes in on the ending, it actually becomes rather unpredictable. You know there will be a car chase because the two cars have been shown to the audience and the idea of a car chase has been sold throughout. But when the chase actually happens, it takes a bit of a twist, which makes the whole ending feel fresh. Then, at the very end, the film ends with Arnold demonstrating both his sheer strength, and thereby confirming that he still has it, and a great sense of humor that reminds you why Arnold caught on so well with the public when other muscle men struggled.

Ultimately, this isn’t a film that is going to set the world on fire. You’re not going to walk away feeling like you just saw Conan or True Lies for the first time again, but it will make you happy. This film is a total throwback to the kinds of films Arnold made in his prime updated for modern film styles. The end result is a good time, with traces of nostalgia, but with much more to sell than just nostalgia. To value this film another way, it’s not as good as Arnold’s best, but it’s better than most every other action film made today. Not bad for a washed-up actor who spent the last decade getting flabby working for the government.

Thoughts?

18 comments:

PikeBishop said...

I have actually never heard of this film. Wow!

tryanmax said...

I wonder how much General Motors put into the film?

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I heard about it, but quickly forgot about it. Then I saw it again. Like I say, this isn't going to set the world on fire, but it's a good time. :)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Good question. They definitely get their money's worth in this film. Both cars feature prominently and are used in really cool ways.

Have you seen the film?

Tennessee Jed said...

I haven't seen it either. One thing that seemed to be true about Schwarzenegger through much of his early career, at least from my own limited observation, was that he had a good sense about picking films that played to his strengths and were not stretches for him. He came on the scene after guys like Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott to play roles like Tarzan, Hercules, or Conan. Arnold didn't speak English without an accent, but he was very likable, and had a natural sense of humor. In that regard, I can't say I am surprised he picked a film that didn't suck.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Very true. If there is one talent Arnold really had, it was in picking films that didn't suck. His films always maintained a minimum level of quality and fun that kept them entertaining no matter how silly they ultimately proved. Here, he's done it again. This film does not suck. It is not a great film by any stretch, but it is a fun film and entertaining. It is a very typical Arnold film, only updated to modern story telling techniques.

Tennessee Jed said...

hey, the guy knew enough about self-promotion to marry into the Kennedy clan AND become the "governator". Although nominally a Republican, he managed to survive playing Clinton to Maria's Hillary.

tryanmax said...

I've seen enough to know GM took out ample ad space. I'll have to give it a proper sit-down.

Collin Chersi said...

The director is the same guy who did The Good, The Bad, and The Weird - a hybrid action/ spaghetti Western, which I've seen, and I Saw The Devil - a psychological thriller/ revenge/ crime drama, which I have seen. This is his first American film.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That he did, but I think his biggest talents were picking good scripts and projecting a very likeable personality that apparently wasn't really representative of a lot of his behavior.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I'm sure they did. I get the feeling that a lot of people watching this drooled over the two cars.

I should go back and see what car the FBI swat team is riding in. It doesn't fare very well.

AndrewPrice said...

Collin, I haven't seen those, though I did see an ad for The Good, The Bad, and the Weird. All I can say about the director is that he has a decent eye, but he's very hamfisted in how he starts the story. It really feels like it couldn't be more obvious how he sets up the film. But once the thing gets rolling, he's much better with the action and once he turns the screen over to Arnold, it becomes a lot of fun.

Kit said...

Good review.

Would you recommend this movie as a must-see or "watch it on FX if its raining"?

Anonymous said...

Dam good review Andrew,

I expected absolutely nothing when I first watched this movie, I watched it on night shift at work knowing it would be interrupted and not caring as it wasn't going to be very good anyway.

It started off to formula and I didn't hold much hope, but as it went on it grew on me and by the end I was really into it. As you said it let Arnold be Arnold and he was surrounded by a good supporting crew who added to the movie without ever over shadowing him.

It's not art or even a great movie, but it is fun and entertaining which is all I really want from a movie.

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Scott! That's exactly how I felt. I didn't expect much, it started poorly, but I really got into it. It's a fun movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I wouldn't say that this is a must see by any means, but it's worth seeing. So if you can find it on Netflix or whatever, check it out. I probably wouldn't pay to see it.

MadMup said...

I loved this movie. "This is the exact direction Arnold needed to go," I thought during/after it.

MUCH better than Stallone's terrible "Bullet to the Head."

AndrewPrice said...

MadMup, Exactly. This is Arnold playing to his strengths while managing to hide his age. This was a great choice for him.

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