Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In Theaters: THE LAST STAND (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Kim Jee-woon.  Written by Andrew Knauer.  Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Luis Guzman, Eduardo Noriega, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford, Genesis Rodriguez, Harry Dean Stanton, Daniel Henney, Christiana Leucas, Rio Alexander, John Patrick Amedori. (R, 106 mins)

As much a review as an autopsy after a disastrous opening weekend that saw it land in tenth place, THE LAST STAND marks Arnold Schwarzegger's first starring role since 2003's TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES.  And it doesn't appear that many people care. Grossing just $6 million, this is easily Arnold's worst opening and there's any number of reasons why.  Wrong month, bad marketing (ads closer to the release date played up the comedy angle with co-star Johnny Knoxville), Arnold's dirty laundry being aired, or that memoir where he didn't seem to portray himself all that well. Or "the kids" just aren't interested in him or the adults were all seeing ZERO DARK THIRTY.  Maybe these action vets only do well in EXPENDABLES situations where there's a bunch of them.  Jason Statham is about one box-office dud away from going straight to DVD.  And it'll be interesting to see what happens with Sylvester Stallone's BULLET TO THE HEAD and Bruce Willis' A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD in the coming weeks. Or, for that matter, Arnold's proposed new CONAN sequel. And Stallone and Arnold are teaming up in the prison thriller THE TOMB, due out in the fall. THE LAST STAND is a lot of fun until it fumbles badly in a crucial point--more on that in a bit--but overall, it's a blast and it's great to see Arnold kicking ass on the big screen again.  Sure, maybe he's a shitty husband, but I honestly expected him to get a warmer reception than barely cracking the top ten.

Schwarzenegger is Ray Owens, retired L.A. supercop who's now enjoying a quiet life as sheriff of Sommerton Junction, a tiny Arizona town near the Mexico border.  There isn't much for him to police in Sommerton Junction, and his day off is ruined when Las Vegas-based FBI agent Bannister (Forest Whitaker) informs him that Mexican drug cartel kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) has escaped custody and taken a female FBI agent (Genesis Rodriguez) hostage, and to be on the lookout since they may be headed in the general vicinity.  Owens is already suspicious of a stranger (Peter Stormare) he's seen in town and when two of his deputies, Sarah (Jaimie Alexander) and Jerry (Zach Gilford) find a local farmer (Harry Dean Stanton) murdered, he knows there's a connection.  Sarah and Jerry find the stranger overseeing the installment of a narrow, temporary bridge over a small canyon divide separating the outskirts of Sommerton Junction from Mexico.  A gunfight ensues and Jerry is killed, and Owens figures out that the bridge is there to allow Cortez to flee the country.  Bannister warns Owens to step aside and let the Feds handle it, but Owens and his ragtag team of law enforcers--Sarah, Deputy Figueroa (Luis Guzman), newly-deputized Iraq War hero and now town drunk Frank (Rodrigo Santoro), and eccentric local gun nut Dinkum (Knoxville)--decide to take on Cortez and his goons themselves.

THE LAST STAND is essentially a modern western, right down to the deliberately Ennio Morricone-esque score and other genre staples like the retired city lawman who becomes a small-town sheriff because he's seen too much killing, the town drunk who puts down the bottle so he can help, the eager rookie who may as well be named Dead Meat, the comic relief sidekick, and the cackling villain.  It's a little RIO BRAVO, a little HIGH NOON, and a bit of a spaghetti western--with Noriega channeling a young Tomas Milian at times--and for the most part, it's entertaining and works very well.  Arnold looks a bit older but hasn't lost a beat. Andrew Knauer's script--with uncredited contributions from George Nolfi (THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU) and Jeffrey Nachmanoff (TRAITOR)--does give a little too much time to Knoxville and his JACKASS antics that are frequently distracting from the lean, mean action that constitutes the bulk of the film.

THE LAST STAND marks the American debut of South Korean auteur Kim Jee-woon, director of A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003), THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (2008), and the unforgettable revenge thriller I SAW THE DEVIL (2010).  It's an unlikely endeavor for Kim, but he brings an energetic sense of style and obvious enthusiasm to the film, from an imaginative car chase in a corn field to the violent showdowns in the streets of Sommerton Junction.  His handling of the actors is good, considering he doesn't speak English.  Where Kim--or the visual effects team--really botches the job is in the final confrontation between Owens and Cortez on the bridge.  To this point, the film has shown seamless and conservatively utilized CGI and practical visuals--the explosions and car wrecks look mostly real, the blood looks wet--but this showdown is a disaster.  Maybe the sequence was a hastily-assembled reshoot, but the greenscreen is bush-league, nothing in the scene--from the bridge to the landscape to even the actors--looks real.  I'm not even entirely convinced Schwarzenegger and Noriega were there at the same time or even there at all.  When we first see Arnold standing on the bridge, he's digitally composited into the shot so badly that his image seems to be hovering on top of the frame and his body isn't even the correct scale to the size of the bridge.  The whole sequence is shockingly and inexcusably sloppy, and doesn't even look finished.  How are professional filmmakers and visual effects teams still screwing up greenscreen and CGI?  It's 2013 and for the most part (unless it's by design--say, SIN CITY or SUCKER PUNCH), when it's used to simulate a "real" setting, this shit still isn't ready for prime-time. Get some crew people together and drive the actors to a bridge and shoot the scene.  Enough is enough.

But for the brisk 90 minutes leading up to what looks like a Photoshop job that even The Onion would reject, THE LAST STAND is a welcome return for Schwarzenegger, and he's been missed.  Regardless of how badly it bombs theatrically (and it's looking ugly), this will find an appreciative audience on DVD/Blu-ray and cable.  It's great that guys like Arnold and Stallone are still getting it done, but for how long?   Unless it's for a jokey, self-referential nostalgia trip like THE EXPENDABLES, audiences aren't really interested in geriatric action stars.  Even Clint Eastwood's movies were tanking in the late '80s before UNFORGIVEN turned him into a serious filmmaker in 1992.  Charles Bronson's late '80s offerings didn't exactly rake in the money.  Maybe THE LAST STAND bombing isn't such a surprise after all.  It just feels weird.  Arnold was always a box-office guarantee (even THE LAST ACTION HERO opened better than THE LAST STAND, and that was in 1993 figures).  He'll be 66 this summer, Stallone will be 67, and Willis is creeping up on 60.  How many more of these do they have in them--regardless of how in-shape they are--when even 45-year-old Statham is losing his box-office appeal?  Well...there's always THE EXPENDABLES 3.

The film's more recent one-sheet, emphasizing
the comedy element and, for some reason,
third-billed Johnny Knoxville.

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