An early scene in “The Last Stand” finds three of its characters firing an oversized handgun at a huge slab of beef. It’s an apt indicator of what’s to come for a movie that fetishizes the use of firearms and places little value on human life.
By Noah Gittell
An early scene in “The Last Stand” finds three of its characters firing an oversized handgun at a huge slab of beef. It’s an apt indicator of what’s to come for a movie that fetishizes the use of firearms and places little value on human life. At this time when pundits and policymakers are considering the impact of movie violence, here stands Arnold Schwarzenegger in a role he could have played in the 1980s, a rogue cop who ignores federal authorities, defending his community with little more than his honor, a massive amount of firepower, and a well-timed quip.
Schwarzenegger stars as Ray Owens, former LAPD narcotics detective turned sheriff of Sommerton Junction, a small town on the Arizona-Mexico border. A series of plot mechanisms leave Owens and his team of deputies as the last line of defense against Gabriel Cortez, a Mexican drug kingpin who has escaped federal authorities and is planning on crossing back into Mexico through Sommerton.
The irony of having a man with a thick Austrian accent play an American hero in what amounts to an anti-immigrant allegory is mostly lost on the filmmakers. Still, Schwarzenegger cuts an impressive form on screen, and while his acting may actually have gotten a little worse, he has not lost the ability to make a lot out of a little. In the film’s blood-soaked finale, he deftly completes each item on the action-star checklist – driving, shooting, and fighting – while offering a few of his trademark zingers.
In his battle to protect small-town America, Owens is pitted against various enemies. Cortez does not arrive in town until the film’s final third, so in the meantime, the sheriff and his deputies exchange fire with criminal gang Cortez has hired to clear his path through town. He also tangles (over the phone) with the federal agent (Forrest Whitaker) who allowed Cortez to escape in the first place. Whitaker is working far below his station on this film, and while he was brought on presumably to class up the joint, his presence actually has the opposite effect: he sinks to the film’s level and his character barely registers. Of course, it doesn’t matter. His character, and in fact every character, is merely a tool to get us to the action sequences and to promote the film’s reactionary agenda.
“The Last Stand” spreads its politics far and wide. It is more than just an ode to guns; it packs as many politically conservative ideas into a single film as possible. It’s a clever bit of anti-illegal immigrant propaganda; the imagery of an Arizona sheriff protecting the border from a Mexican criminal will surely resonate with certain audiences, but the script makes his actions more palatable by having him stop a Mexican from leaving the U.S. There is also a strong anti-government message, as Owens is forced to clean up the job that the federal authorities have botched; a reverent portrait of small-town America and its traditional, post-war values; and, of course, the dramatization of an urgent need for every law-abiding citizen to carry a gun. “Jackass” star Johnny Knoxville plays a gun fanatic whose collection of firearms, only considered legal because he has cleverly registered his home as a gun museum, saves the day in the end.
But the film’s politics aren’t the only problem. “The Last Stand” fails on some fairly basic narrative levels: it offers little backstory for its lead character until the end of the second act and a villain who exudes not an ounce of actual danger. Further, it spends far too much time building to what is obviously the movie’s only reason to: its bloody, inventive, and action-packed finale. The plot machinations that get us there are so hackneyed and clichéd it veers towards self-parody, often crossing the line into outright spoofery, although it’s unsure if the filmmakers intended it that way.
“The Last Stand” would likely have been a hit had it been released in the 1980s. As homage to the era in which Schwarzenegger’s brand of individualistic heroism reflected the public mood, the film has its merits. But times have changed, and we now prefer our action movies to place their violence in a larger context. As it is, “The Last Stand” is a guilty pleasure at best.
My Rating: Skip it Altogether