Taking the Last Stand

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Many people were curious about “The Last Stand” because it marks action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first return to the silver screen since leaving office as governor of California. However, I was reluctant to watch another film from South Korean director Ji-woon Kim, since I gave his gore-drowned film “I Saw the Devil” zero stars and consider it to be the Very Worst Film Ever Made (that I’ve seen so far, anyway).

Still, director Kim also made a zany, sometimes-interesting Korean Western called “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” and, bolstered by an encouraging trailer, I set off to watch his new film, which is Kim’s first movie shot in the West and the first with an English-language cast.

As it turns out, the presence of a (Korean) Western on Kim’s wide-ranging resume helped the director greatly. “The Last Stand” isn’t a Western in a strict sense — Schwarzenegger’s sheriff character, Ray Owens, rides no horse and the streets of his small town of Sommerton Junction, Ariz., has pickup trucks, school buses, and one sweet-looking Mustang, but no hitching posts.

But, to quote the well-known Western and action film director Walter Hill, “The Western is ultimately a stripped down moral universe that is, whatever the dramatic problems are, beyond the normal avenues of social control and social alleviation of the problem, and I like to do that even within contemporary stories.”

By this standard, then, “The Last Stand” easily qualifies as a Western.

For Ray Owens, trying to lead a quiet life in a sleepy town, the “beyond normal” problem arrives in the form of a Latino drug lord, played by Eduardo Noriega, who’s broken out of federal custody and is headed for the Mexican border in an impossibly souped-up Corvette. He’s heavily armed, has an FBI agent (Genesis Rodriguez) hostage, and, worst of all, he comes complete with a mini-army.

The desolate desert location fits an essentially Western motif, as does the principle (expressed best in the masterful Western “Rio Bravo”) of a small, rag-tag band of lawmen (and lawwomen) against a much larger, more powerful congregation of wrongdoers. Against Noriega’s small army, Schwarzenegger must contend with only a few loyal deputies and townspeople, among them the town drunk (Rodrigo Santoro) and the town weirdo (Johnny Knoxville, trying to carve out an acting career after too much bodily injury on the “Jackass” show).

Kim sets the scene and lets all hell break loose, even if longtime Western (and action) fans will recognize a few of his setups. A climactic charge of two vehicles through a seemingly-endless field of corn comes straight out of “The Hunter,” Steve McQueen’s last film. The final “stand” between hero and villain, respective posses forgotten, suggests, as must all such standoffs, the classic “High Noon.”

In the end, Kim’s movie is a Western at heart in one more crucial manner. Its heroes may be human, but they’re judged, ultimately, by how they manifest the finer ideals of humanity. They may waver — they certainly feel fear — but they must, in the end, stand up for justice, righteousness, moral correctness, and honor. Honor, which, Ray Owens attests, is not for sale.

Kim’s film wavers from the Western ideal in places. The excessive blood-spurt could have been curtailed, and like many modern action directors, he’s a little too fond of the impersonality in huge explosions. Characters, not big booms, carry the day. We watch Ray Owens the sheriff, and Arnold Schwarzenegger the man, take their lickings and (fortunately) keep most of their blood on the inside. (end)

“The Last Stand” is currently playing in several theaters in and around Seattle. Check local listings for prices and showtimes.

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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Photos on flickr