The posters and TV commercials for The Last Stand pair a glowering Arnold Schwarzenegger (he's back from politics!) with a goofball Johnny Knoxville. Those ads make the movie look like some sort of warped buddy potboiler, but actually, Knoxville is in The Last Stand for all of 15 minutes (he plays a weapons nut who helps Arnold battle his enemies), and the picture is much better than its promos suggest. It's a crackerjack B movie worthy of comparison to such stylishly low-down, smart-meets-dumb, hyper-violent entertainments as the 1997 Kurt Russell thriller Breakdown, Clint Eastwood's infamous police bloodbath The Gauntlet, John Carpenter's original Assault on Precinct 13, and Arnold's own overlooked 1986 outing Raw Deal. The two Expendables films treated Schwarzenegger as such a cursory, throwaway relic that they made him seem...expendable. But The Last Stand, while it acknowledges Arnold's age and weary old action-movie bones, never reduces him to a joke. He gives a controlled and brutally charismatic performance that restores his dignity as a star. He proves and this is the last thing I was expecting that there's life after the Governator.
The film was directed by South Korea's Kim Jee-woon, and while too many Asian action specialists have come to Hollywood and belly-flopped, Kim proves an unusually disciplined and ingenious visual technician, with an organic feel for the American idiom. You can tell how good he is the moment he stages the escape of Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), a Mexican drug-cartel boss, from a fleet of FBI security vans in Las Vegas. A chopper lifts Cortez out of the pack, and he and his henchman scurry away and slide down tightrope wires attached from one building to the next a gimmick I've seen countless times, except that Kim's camera follows them throughout the drop-dead plunge and then descends, without a cut, to the ground below, which has a real how did he do that? bravura. Kim also stages every encounter between man and bullet with shocking speed, and with little jellied bursts of blood that give them the feel of zombie kills. The effect is far more authentic than we're used to, even as it heightens the action-thriller kick. In The Last Stand, death is fun because it stings.
The plot is your basic Vanishing Point-meets-Rio Bravo nihilist-Western mash-up. Cortez, in his natty silk suit, jumps into a Corvette ZR1 that's been modified to go 250 miles per hour, and with a comely, handcuffed police hostage (Genesis Rodriguez) seated next to him, he zooms down a two-lane blacktop, smashing through police barricades, and heads for Mexico. His plan is to escape through the tiny border town of Summerton Junction, where Schwarzenegger's Ray Owen has been the sheriff ever since he retired from the L.A.P.D. narcotics squad. As the FBI officer back at command central, who keeps sputtering with frustration at how this super-crook could have slipped away from him, Forest Whitaker does great, furious double takes; he knows how to act defeated and cool at the same time.
In The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a meanly noble brick wall of a man who is not so much over-the-hill as liberated from having to pretend that he's as lithe as he once was. The sheriff knows that he's technically outmatched, especially with a force of just four cops to back him up (they include the eternally scene-stealing court jester Luis Guzmán). But Knoxville's giggly Lewis provides them with a storehouse of weapons, including one of those ancient Vickers machine guns that could blow holes through Fort Knox. When Arnold and his team grab these devices and start to use them, they truly do some damage. Kim stages the action with what I would call an elegant mercilessness: a car chase that smashes through a dried cornfield, a mano-a-mano encounter on a suspension bridge that's all about Schwarzenegger reaching down to tap his inner cutthroat. Even before he went off to the California statehouse, he'd been fading into a kind of stolid indifference as an action star. Maybe he needed that break to rediscover the joy of being Arnold. A-