A word of valuable advice that you can use in your daily life: never not be suspicious when a foreign director is set to make his or her US debut. Whenever we bring foreign directors of some note over here, we saddle them with some ol' bullshit, surely making them regret they ever came here. Remember when John Woo and Tsui Hark kickstarted a goddamn action movie revolution in Hong Kong then, upon invading the west, got saddled with crappy Van Damme movies and half-assed Phillip K. Dick adaptations*? Remember when Hollywood chewed up and spit out Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Oliver Hirschbiegel, Tom Tykwer and even resulted in Wong Kar-Wai's worst movie? I even have my doubts about Chan-Wook Park's Stoker, despite all of this.
So when I found out that Arnold Schwarzengger's potentially glorious return to action cinema** was directed by Kim Ji-Woon — who helmed A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil and The Good, the Bad and the Weird — I was conflicted. I want Ahnuld to be back, but it looked like a movie anybody could direct. I'm not sure how much of a director who specializes in more frenetic, stranger fare than the average Schwarzenegger joint (Total Recall notwithstanding) we would see in The Last Stand, but shockingly it's not the chloroformed English language debut I dreaded.
The set-up for The Last Stand is gloriously silly: a major-league drug dealer Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) escapes FBI custody (Forest Whitaker) and starts gunning it, female agent hostage in tow, in a fast/furious Corvette all the way to the Mexico, where his right-hand man (Peter Stormare's preposterous accent) is secretly constructing a bridge across the border. All kinds of SWAT blockades have set up on the road, but our antagonist has his escape so meticulously planned that giant trucks show up to crash through the SWAT teams JUST as Cortez is ready to speed through. If you balk at that concept, we can't be friends.
Ultimately, the only thing standing between the bad guys and freedom is a quiet Arizona town that's named something like Sleepdale or Greenville or Sunny Falls, where the Sheriff happens to be a former LAPD badass — Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing a humbly named character whose moniker does not match the fact that he's a gigantic Austrian***. So he enlists his likable deputies — a steadfast fat guy (Luiz Guzman), a girl (Jaimie Alexander), a weiner (Zach Gilford), a handsome guy (Rodrigo Santoro) and a lunatic with a personal arsenal and a hat from The Good, the Bad and the Weird (Johnny Knoxvile) — to be basically the last line of defense for a situation that got dropped into his lap, and lots of people get shot in an attempt to stop an army of cronies and a guy with a car.
The Last Stand is very much an old school action movie, where the audience is meant to delight in Arnold Schwarzenegger shooting lots of bros via almost exclusively practical effects — bolstered by sharp filmmaking by Kim Ji-Woon and cinematographer Ji-Yong Kim, who thankfully know that shaking a camera isn't a substitute for well done action scenes. While the director remains mostly subdued as far as bringing his style to the forefront, the gun violence is punctuated with tons of squibs, which recalls some of the bloodier moments in his filmography (I'm mostly thinking of I Saw the Devil). It totally works, despite not holding a candle to his more notable work. I ain't no jerk, I'll take fun action movies if I can't get weird world cinema.
Schwarzenegger's return is as exciting as the nostalgics in the crowd might hope, though the film really delays the payoff of finally seeing Ahnuld blow holes in people again until the eponymous Last Stand has to happen, but it doesn't disappoint as shooting goes to car chasing to conclude with a deliciously brutal hand-to-hand fight scene where Schwarzenegger suplexes the shit out of a dude. He's still the same guy-who-can't-quite-act but who we love to see injure people who mostly deserve it, just a little more leathery. It's great to have him back, and it's a shame that, circa Collateral Damage, we thought the kind of movie he specializes in was passé. So, now that we have him again, let's appreciate him this time.
Suitably dumb, well-made and entertaining, The Last Stand is the best we can hope for when it comes to the return of an action star from those halcyon days of high bodycounts and low ideology. It may not alleviate the reservations I have whenever a good foreign director offered a chance in Hollywood, but it hasn't turned me into a complete pessimist. Then again, it's hard to be a pessimist knowing that Ahnuld is back where we need him most.
*Don't even get me started on Jackie Chan, and if Stephen Chow makes his way over here I'll probably be depressed forever.
**I moved to California in 2008 and for the following three years I occasionally had the absurd realization that the guy from Junior was running my state.
***PRETTY SURE the last time Arnold had a notable name it was "Conan." I don't really count "a Terminator" as a name.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.