The once clear definition of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chiseled features has a patchy, weathered quality now. Limping through the idyllic small community of Sommerton Junction, the domineering presence associated with Schwarzenegger is somewhat muted – the uncompromised visage of hypermasculinity has finally begun to show signs of vulnerability. Not to say the figure is no longer an intimidating force, but rather the time apart from the actor (it has been a solid decade since he has been in a starring role) has afforded him the set of opportunities that provided John Wayne his best roles in the twilight of his career. What Kim Jee-Woon’s The Last Stand does is extend Schwarzenegger his best role since Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film, Total Recall, and enables the actor to give perhaps his best performance to date.
While Kim Jee-Woon does not match the thematic density or bold formal dexterity of Veroheven’s film, his ability to adapt the traditional Western narrative for contemporary purposes is admirable. A troublesome script from Andrew Knauer lays out concerns of globalization that are absent from similar like-minded films like Fred Zinneman’s High Noon, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, or even John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. The components to the picture are paced intelligently, even as other aspects of the script, most notably the dialogue, flounder. But what the film has going for it, aside from Schwarzenegger’s presence, is Jee-Woon’s impeccable knack for framing action sequences and some exquisite set pieces.
As displayed in his previous films, The Good, the Bad, the Weird and I Saw the Devil, Jee-Woon’s ability to amplify tension through violence (rather than utilizing violence as a means of establishing tension) provides The Last Stand an unexpected kinetic quality. As a group of novice officers and deputized townspeople defend Sommerton Junction, a palpable anxiety looms throughout much of the final act. Astutely aware of the almost overwhelming tension, Jee-Woon deploys moments of both the comic and introspective to maintain his well-carved structure and pacing. A cornfield chase sequence is among the picture’s highlights, an incredible scene that is beautifully lensed by Jee-Woon’s cinematographer Kim Yi-Yong.
The value of a film like The Last Stand is in its simplicity. Even as I appreciate a subversive action film like Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, few other films since and prior have been able to adopt established action tropes, modify it for contemporary purposes, and actually made it work. The growing dependency for films to utilize “shaky cam” or 3D effects as a means to toss the audience into the action ironically displace the viewer from ever connecting with the images on a primal level. Devoid of pretension and admirable for its simplicity, The Last Stand begins 2013 on the right foot.