Aside from some fleeting cameo appearances in the last two "Expendables" movies (and that incredibly brief walk through in "The Rundown"), Arnold Schwarzenegger has mostly been absent from movies. (His last leading role was 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.") Much of this had to do with his political career as Governor of California, a part most agree was almost as bad as "Junior," then there was that itty bitty sex scandal that threatened to derail his career even longer, but it seems it's all in the past and he's ready for his big comeback.
That comeback comes in the form of this week's hyper-violent, modestly budgeted "The Last Stand," the western debut of acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-Woon, which pits Arnold's grizzled old sheriff (and a team of ragtag locals) against a notorious escaped convict making his way towards Mexico. But is this the comeback we've been waiting for or further proof of the actor's craggy irrelevancy?
PRO: It Is The Perfect Comeback Vehicle
Arnold was very smart in choosing "The Last Stand" as his return to the spotlight. It's just the right kind of slam bam action flick that gets people excited, and it's one that doesn’t try to hide the fact that he's old as hell and maybe not the most badass on the block anymore. There's an easygoing charm that the actor possesses that is on full display here, and a willingness to play the senior role to a bunch of younger actors (they don't try and saddle Schwarzenegger with a love interest, for example). Arnold gets to run and jump and shoot people in the brain, but he also gets to take on a haunted world-weariness that he's never gotten to explore before, mostly because he was too busy throwing knives into people or piloting jets or terminating. As far as Old Man Arnold goes, this is the perfect role and the perfect project. By the end of it you will be very glad to have him back on the big screen, towering even mightier than he does in real life.
CON: The Villain Is Pretty Lame
The conceit is that the bad guy is really, really bad is reinforced throughout "The Last Stand," most notably by a monologue given by the senior FBI Agent (played gamely by Forest Whitaker), who describes him as the most vicious drug kingpin since Pablo Escobar. They even hide his face until the last minute, to give him an even more menacing aura. Except that when you see who it is, it's not anyone you recognize (unless you're a big ole nerd like me), and he's honestly not all that scary anyway. It's Eduardo Noriega, who starred in Spanish productions like Guillermo del Toro's Criterion-bound "The Devil's Backbone" and "Open Your Eyes," the movie that "Vanilla Sky" was based on. Quite frankly his goons are more convincingly evil, particularly Peter Stormare, who plays a white trash baddie posing as a truck driver.
PRO: Kim Ji-Woon Elevates The Material
Another reason why "The Last Stand" feels like such a perfect comeback for Arnold is because he's teamed with Kim Jee-Woon, a ridiculously intelligent, playful and talented South Korean filmmaker known for movies as diverse and brilliant as "Tale of Two Sisters," "The Good, the Bad, and the Weird" and "I Saw the Devil." The team-up feels very much like Arnold partnering with madcap European auteur Paul Verhoeven for "Total Recall" -- a mashing together of two distinct aesthetics that merge to create something new and visceral and exciting. The most noticeable thing about Jee-Woon directing this movie is his keen observation and sharp satirical barbs aimed at America's gun culture (something that is obviously very much in the public consciousness right now). There is something very knowing and probing about the way he dramatizes the citizenry's relationship with guns, and it is both funny and observant (while still being exciting). If there's something that elevates "The Last Stand" above casual B-movie status, it's Kim Ji-Woon's involvement (along with his frequent collaborators, cinematographer Kim Ji-yong and composer Mowg).
CON: Kim Ji-Woon Feels Somewhat Hampered
At the same time that bursts of "The Last Stand" feel exhilaratingly Kim Ji-Woon-y, there are also moments that reek of studio interference or someone dampening his wild, playful visual style. You just wish it had more of what the director is typically known for. There is, however, a moment towards the end where Arnold and the villain are racing through a cornfield that is so bizarre and visually striking that it borders on the hallucinogenic. It was a pretty clear moment when Ji-Woon got to go nuts, and you just wish there were more moments like this throughout the film.
PRO: It's Got A Great Supporting Cast
Surprisingly, "The Last Stand" is stocked with really wonderful characters in supporting roles, including Johnny Knoxville (channeling the "Weird" character from "The Good, the Bad and the Weird") as an outrageous gun nut; Rodrigo Santoro (from "Lost") as a perpetually intoxicated local (who also happens to be an Iraq vet and a crack shot); Luis Guzman as Arnold's loyal deputy; Jaimie Alexander (from "Thor") as another member of the police force; Genesis Rodriguez as an FBI Agent; Zach Gilford (from "Friday Night Lights") as a young policeman; and Harry Dean Stanton as a farmer. Not exactly superstars, but all really wonderful at what they do, gleefully adding some zippy color to the movie.
CON: Arnold's Backstory Is Never Fleshed Out
At some point during "The Last Stand" you learn that Arnold used to work the drug beat in LA before becoming disillusioned after members of his team were brutally murdered. For the rest of the movie you're waiting for the revelation that the bad guy that's coming through town is the same guy that had Arnold's men killed, but it never comes. It's so bizarre. It would have raised the stakes emotionally and just seems like it would fit together, from a narrative perspective. Apparently not.
PRO: A Truly Awesome Title Card
Never underestimate the power of an amazing title card.
Earlier on Moviefone:
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) <strong>Small town:</strong> Wheelsy, South Carolina <strong>Big problem:</strong> alien parasites from outer space that infect the locals There are many movies involving a small-town being infiltrated by some sort of alien creature, but often the heroes are ordinary people rather than the local sheriff, who tends to be a difficult skeptic. However, in James Gunn’s cult favorite, the head lawman is actually a nice guy who is easily convinced by an old flame whose adulterous husband has been infected by a parasitic alien slug. Other locals and police officers are also infected and are linked to the husband-turned-monster through a hive-mind connection that spreads through the town.
‘Eight-Legged Freaks’ (2002)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Samantha Parker (Kari Wuhrer) <strong>Small town:</strong> Prosperity, Arizona <strong>Big problem:</strong> Giant spiders One of two notable instances with a female sheriff hero, this B-movie homage involves regular spiders that grow to enormous size after being exposed to toxic waste. Sheriff Parker leads her townspeople to the local mall, where they try to defend themselves, but the would-be fortress is soon breached by the giant arachnids.
‘Piranha 3D’ (2010)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Julie Forester (Elizabeth Shue) <strong>Small town:</strong> Lake Victoria, Arizona <strong>Big problem:</strong> Prehistoric piranhas Any other time, it might have been okay for an ancient species of killer fish to break free from an abyss and roam about a southwestern lake. Maybe a fisherman or two would wind up dead before the issue could be dealt with. But here it happens on spring break, and so Sheriff Forester has the bigger problem of hundreds of young tourists being ripped apart, mauled and eaten in what appears to be one of America’s bloodiest tragedies in history.
‘30 Days of Night’ (2007)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) <strong>Small town:</strong> Barrow, Alaska <strong>Big problem:</strong> Vampires Sheriff Oleson’s town is so far north that for 30 days each year the sun doesn’t come up at all. Such a dark place is obviously prime real estate for vampires, and unfortunately not all covens are as good neighbors as those in a certain other small town in Washington. The creatures that arrive in Barrow aren’t even economical when it comes to their feeding, either, and soon the population is almost completely wiped out.
‘Silent Night’ (2012)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> James Cooper (Malcolm McDowell) <strong>Small town:</strong> Cryer, Wisconsin <strong>Big problem:</strong> Killer Santa Claus It’s bad enough to have a serial killer on the loose on Christmas Eve, but when the murderer is dressed as Santa Claus, that’s cause for real concern (and it’s likely even harder to find him). This recent remake of “Silent Night, Deadly Night” is one of a bunch of holiday horror flicks dealing with either the actual Santa, who happens to be evil, or some naughty human costumed in the red and white. But none of the others have Alex DeLarge in a sheriff’s uniform ready to kick some Kris Kringle butt.
‘Canadian Bacon’ (1995)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Bud Boomer (John Candy) <strong>Small town:</strong> Niagara Falls, New York <strong>Big problem:</strong> War with Canada As sheriff of all of Niagara County, Bud Boomer isn’t technically a small town lawman, but he’s definitely depicted as such in this fictional comedy from documentary maker Michael Moore. When the President of the United States declares a new cold war on our neighbors to the north, Boomer and his deputy/wife go on the offensive (on a littering mission) and she winds up imprisoned. It’s a very different sort of bordertown movie than “The Last Stand.”
‘Blazing Saddles’ (1974)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Bart (Cleavon Little) <strong>Small town:</strong> Rock Ridge <strong>Big problem:</strong> Racism and a plot to level the town It would be a simple western plot to have a sheriff tasked with saving his town from a corrupt State Attorney General looking to get rich off their land. Throw in the idea that the sheriff is black and therefore hated by the locals and you have one of the greatest comedies of all time. First order of business for the newly appointed Sheriff Bart is to avoid being lynched, and then the second order of business can be to defend and protect those citizens who wanted to lynch him from a band of thugs.
‘Rio Bravo’ (1959)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> John T. Chance (John Wayne) <strong>Small town:</strong> Rio Bravo, Texas <strong>Big problem:</strong> An outlaw rancher and his gang want to bust his brother out of jail Of course, there has to be some real westerns in the group, and this Howard Hawks classic might be the prime example of a small-town sheriff trying to hold off an invasion of some kind. The kind here being your usual band of bad guys who come to terrorize the town center, and their motive being your usual attempt to jailbreak a member of the gang.
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Johnny Cobb (James Stewart) <strong>Small town:</strong> Firecreek <strong>Big problem:</strong> A gang of outlaws who are shooting up the place Another true western with a generic plot involving a sheriff defending his town against a gang of outlaws. Yet this and “Rio Bravo” are really nothing alike. It’s mostly because Sheriff Cobb, a part-time lawman who doesn’t like to fight, is the opposite of a John Wayne kind of hero. But he eventually has to step up when the bad guys start killing the locals. And unlike Wayne’s Sheriff Chance, Cobb can’t get much help and has to mostly do it alone.
‘The Wild One’ (1953)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Harry Bleeker (Robert Keith) <strong>Small town:</strong> Wrightsville, California <strong>Big problem:</strong> Bikers Like a (then) modern-day western, with motorcycles replacing horses, this iconic Marlon Brando biker movie has an old sheriff whose desire to not exacerbate things make him ineffective at maintaining order in his town. But what can he do to stop both the Black Rebel Motorcycle Gang, whose leader is acting out against whatever you’ve got, and their rivals, The Beetles? Eventually he does make it worse by letting his citizens gather to handle it themselves.
‘The Car’ (1977)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Wade Parent (James Brolin) <strong>Small town:</strong> Santa Ynez, Utah <strong>Big problem:</strong> A killer car At least with bikers, there’s a gang member to talk to, to try and reason with. However, in this cult horror film, the vehicle at the center of the trouble has no driver. When a mysterious black car arrives in town, committing deadly hit-and-runs, it’s up to Sheriff Everett Peck to take care of business. But the car kills him, too, and the job of sheriff and hero falls to Parent. And in case he didn't already have a duty and a personal vendetta, his girlfriend succumbs to the demonic Lincoln.
‘The Killer Inside Me’ (2010)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Bob Maples (Tom Bower) <strong>Small town:</strong> Unnamed West Texan town <strong>Big problem:</strong> A killer deputy It’s one thing to have to defend your little town against aliens or other kinds of unwanted outsiders like prostitutes, but it’s another thing to realize the biggest problem for your jurisdiction is your own deputy. Lou Ford is the very definition of a sociopath, seemingly an upstanding officer as clean as his crisp white shirt, who secretly is a sadistic murderer who brutally beats women and pins blame for his own crimes on others. Ultimately, he appears to be too much for Sheriff Maples to deal with.
‘Walking Tall’ (1973)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) <strong>Small town:</strong> Adamsville, Tennessee (and the rest of McNairy County) <strong>Big problem:</strong> Dixie Mafia and State Line Mob Pusser was a real-life sheriff who single-handedly went up against local crime organizations that were corrupting his hometown with moonshine, prostitution and gambling operations. The semi-autobiographical movie (and the 2004 remake with The Rock) depicted him as a retired pro wrestler who decides to run for sheriff and clean up the county when it seems nobody else will. It also avoids the true tragedy of what became of Pusser. Interestingly enough, Johnny Knoxville plays a deputy in the remake and again seems to fill the same role in “The Last Stand.”
‘First Blood’ (1982)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) <strong>Small town:</strong> Hope, Washington <strong>Big problem:</strong> John Rambo In the first of the “Rambo” films, Schwarzenegger’s action star rival, Sylvester Stallone, is an unstable Vietnam War veteran who seemingly steps into the wrong town. Sheriff Teasle doesn’t much care for long-haired drifters, and he arrests and abuses the ex-Green Beret. But this is the sort of revisionists modern-day western in which the outsider is the hero, and that is definitely a big problem for the villainized local lawman. Even bigger is the problem that Rambo is a trained fighting machine.
‘Cop Land’ (1997)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) <strong>Small town:</strong> Garrison, New Jersey <strong>Big problem:</strong> Crooked big-city cops This time Stallone is on the other side of the law as a half-deaf sheriff across the Hudson from the Big Apple. Much of the population he presides over are NYPD and their families, and when it turns out some of these more powerful cops are corrupt, he has to decide whether to protect his brothers in blue or help the investigation. His own loyalty is part of the problem at first, though eventually he realizes that his friends are too crooked to stand with.
BONUS: ‘Raw Deal’ (1986)
<strong>Sheriff:</strong> Mark Kaminsky (Arnold Schwarzenegger) <strong>Small town:</strong> unnamed spot in North Carolina <strong>Big problem:</strong> infiltrating the Chicago mob to help a friend get revenge Long before “The Last Stand,” Schwarzenegger played another small-town sheriff who is also a disgraced former big city lawman, but here the trouble doesn’t exactly come to his home. So, while the big problem doesn’t involve the small town, it does involve its leading lawman. Jumping at the chance to return to urban crime fighting, he leaves the rural setting to help a friend at the FBI go up against a mob boss from within the organization. In order to qualify this list better, Kaminsky should have ultimately led the bad guys back to his small town and defeated them on his new turf.