Growing up, I was a Schwarzenegger kid. You could keep your Stallone or Van Damme, Arnold was my guy. What was it about this hulking Austrian that made me and the rest of America fall for him? One thing was his choices. Arnold seemed to make more imaginative films than his muscle bound action contemporaries. He wasn’t afraid to be the villain early in his career as The Terminator. He chose mind bending sci-fi like Total Recall. Action with an edge like Predator. That was a film that demonstrated that bullets aren’t always enough to take down an enemy. Arnold had to get smart, improvise. and study his enemy. He freely embraced the fact he was different. A foreigner. He even used his outsider-ness as a source of comedy in Twins. Embracing his differences helped make him an underdog too. Not quite American, but uniquely American. An immigrant like all our ancestors once were. His films always relied on the unspoken conceit that this muscle man’s characters must have came to America to fight for our military, join our police force and in the case of Jingle All the Way, sell our mattresses. He loved this country in real life as well as on film… and we loved him for it. So much so that this man became governor of one of the country’s largest states!
With these warm feelings in mind, I was very excited to turn off my brain, escape high minded Oscar season, and watch Arnold in his first starring role in ten years in The Last Stand. Again he plays a uniquely American character. He’s a small border town sheriff who is willing to fight a ruthless drug dealer planning to use the town as a path to escape back to Mexico. It’s preposterous, silly, and a hell of a good time.
Director Jee-woon Kim (I Saw the Devil) is the first in a batch of acclaimed Korean directors to make their American film debut this year. He’s smart to, right off the bat, play up the fact that this is Schwarzenegger’s comeback role. Yes there are the “old man” jokes, but more than that, there’s a sentimental feeling to his character. The sheriff speaks of the past and why he enjoys his time living and working in this off the map town. For the audience that’s missed him it’s the “he’s been away and now he’s back in action” message.
However, it’s not just Arnold, but the whole feel of the film. Kim drowns it in nostalgia. It’s part 80’s action throwback. There are as many bullets fired in this film as there was in Arnold’s heyday. But the film is also part western, complete with a standoff between the black hats and the white hats in the main street of this sleepy town. Arnold is Gary Cooper in High Noon. He’s willing to stand alone if necessary to stop the scourge roaming through town. He can’t be bought. He can’t look away. He has to do what’s right.
But both Arnold the sheriff and Arnold the actor don’t have to stand alone. He’s surrounded by a top notch supporting cast. Luis Guzman and Johnny Knoxville add comic relief, Peter Stormare some slime, Forrest Whitaker some class, and it’s always just plain cool to see Harry Dean Stanton in anything. Arnold’s biggest ally turns out to be Kim. The action is setup in ways to hide how age has caused Schwarzenegger to lose a step or two. Always behind a big gun, marching into the street. His hand to hand fight during the climax of the film isn’t based on athleticism; Arnold doesn’t have to go diving back and forth. No, his fighting style is based on brute force. This sheriff is a brick wall and will not allow anything to get past him.
Ok… maybe I’m being a bit hyperbolic to compare The Last Stand to High Noon. This is not a “great film” by the standards of great films. Hell, even by the standards of actions films. There is nothing unpredictable about it. Even the “twists” of an FBI mole are seen from a mile away. The villain isn’t all that interesting. He’s just a drug kingpin in a really, really fast car. In fact, he’s barely ever out of the car. Obviously he’s no match for Arnold.
That’s one thing that has always plagued Schwarzenegger – lame villains. Really, besides the Predator and the T-1000, has he ever fought an interesting character? And neither of those villains was human, point being no human is tougher than Arnold. That said I can ignore all the problems. Ignore that Arnold’s deputies are cardboard characters that are given just enough hopes and dreams that we don’t want to see them die. I can ignore all this because the film feels like an old familiar blanket of blood and bullets that I can wrap myself up in. It feels like the return of an old friend.