Thursday, January 24, 2013

He's Back!

It’s been a long time since we’ve really been able to enjoy an “Ahnold” performance. After his last starring role in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, longtime Hollywood action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped away from the spotlight. For the time being, he was performing in a whole new capacity after the 2003 recall election named him the Governor of California in what was just the second instance of a sitting Governor being removed from power. During his two terms in office, Schwarzenegger rarely appeared on the big screen but for cameos, including the crowd-pleasing turns as antihero Trench in the fun and entertaining The Expendables and its sequel The Expendables 2. But for those who still get the giggles watching his classic titles, his return to stardom came this past weekend in the form of The Last Stand, the American debut of South Korean director Kim Ji-woon.

The action begins in Las Vegas, where dangerous criminal kingpin Gabriel Cortez (played to type by Eduardo Noriega) escapes the armored custody of the FBI and chief agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), takes another agent hostage, and escapes recapture in one of the fastest sports cars in the world. Easily evading law enforcement and blowing right through roadblocks, his escape across the border is all but guaranteed. The only thing standing in his way? Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger), whose small town of Summerton Junction lies directly in the path of the fleeing showcase Chevrolet. Despite being counted out by both sides of the law, Owens won’t stand aside and let this crime lord pass through the place he was sworn to protect.

Man, Thor really let himself go...

Like the aging action star comeback Expendables series, The Last Stand relies heavily on three aspects that make it work. Two of them, violence and humor, go almost hand in hand. The best action movies you will ever see, whether they earned their fierce R ratings or are the more family-friendly PG-13 type, will always mix quips and kills with exquisite precision. Too often action becomes the sole focus of the product, and while that might make for some pretty visuals, it doesn’t entertain as much as it should. Whether the humor is merely bad (Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, anyone?) or conspicuously absent (anything by Len Wiseman), many modern action films seem to forget that their job is to entertain an audience fully. The Last Stand delivers on both counts, the first served by gratuitous blood splatter via bullets, explosives and other weapons that probably shouldn’t be held by human hands in most circumstances. In the vein of classic Schwarzenegger films like Conan The Barbarian, Total Recall and Commando, Ji-woon doesn’t let up on the action, each scene a microcosm of condensed violence that elicits cheers from a suitably impressed audience.

Remember when this guy won an Oscar?

The second, that of humor, comes easy in Andrew Knauer’s screenplay. It’s far from a polished script, and most of the dialogue was written with the most cliched of individuals in mind. Then you have the acting, which involves the deliverance of lines by either hammy caricatures (Luis Guzman and Johnny Knoxville), legitimately talented actors who are given less than their worth (Whitaker, Genesis Rodriguez, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander), or Arnold, who appears to have more trouble with the English language than he did twenty years ago. And yet what they have to say actually works on a comedic level; clever quips (though not the best we’ve seen) feel relatively fresh without the glut of stupid action pics that swarmed the theaters in Schwarzenegger’s prime. When the violence is so over the top as to be cartoonish, it reminds you of the good old days. Overall, the humor in the movie simply works a lot better than it had any right achieving.

You don't get much more wooden than these guys.

The final aspect that The Last Stand needed to succeed is nostalgia. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been an industry icon almost since his debut in 1969. He’s played soldiers, barbarians, synthetic constructs, cops, and even a DC comics super-villain (badly). We’ve all secretly (or even overtly) loved hearing his often broken language skills stretched to their absolute limits, and that’s part of the appeal of seeing something like this. The actor plays a pastiche of his grittiest roles and something out of a spaghetti western, and while this isn’t nearly a stretch in terms of characterization, it’s still ultimately appealing to the audience to see this 65 year-old man kick ass and take names after so long an absence. That familiarity is the biggest factor to Stand’s success as a film, and is likely the biggest reason you should bother to go and see it.

The Sheriff shot you; not the Deputy.

Sure, you can find better fare just about anywhere. But this early in 2013 it’s the stupid, fun films that can serve as a counterbalance to the bigger, Oscar-nominated projects that are filling up theaters. If the choice is between The Last Stand or Zero Dark Thirty, the question you need to ask yourself is “how much do I want to use my brain?” While the latter is a pulse-pounding, high-thought masterpiece well worth its ticket price, The Last Stand is a rollicking popcorn film, an exposition of pure escapism that won’t disappoint your inner 16 year-old  boy. It also currently sits at #2 for 2013, not far behind the fun Gangster Squad. While there might be better stuff out there, that’s no reason to pass on this unlikely good time.

No comments: