We are, as members of the human race, probably all connoisseurs of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies by now. For at least two decades – the 1980s and the 1990s, in case you were wondering – Arnold Schwarzenegger was a driving force in the American culture: an immigrant who made good, a muscle-crusted masculine ideal, and even, somehow, at his best, a sort of everyman for the modern age. As if he wasn’t elevated enough in the public consciousness, Arnold Schwarzenegger then got elected governor of California, although I suspect that may be because my home state does just about everything ironically. So his return to motion picture stardom, after a decade of “favor to a friend” cameos in movies like The Rundown and The Expendables 1 and 2, was bound to be something of an event. An event… that got dumped into January along with found footage horror spoofs and Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels. If there’s a clearer code for “lower your expectations,” I have never seen it.
And true enough, The Last Stand is no Terminator. It sure as hell ain’t no Terminator 2. If you were expecting the mighty oak to blast back into the popular culture with an instant, bona fide classic for the modern action movie age, you were being a smidge optimistic. But The Last Stand does deserve a decent place in Schwarzenegger’s impressive action movie canon. Come to think of it, if The Last Stand had the old Cannon Group logo on it, I would not have been surprised. It’s the sort of crazy b-movie action romp we haven’t seen from Schwarzenegger since the mid-1980s, and while it doesn’t exalt its star the same way Commando does, it at least affords him the opportunity to do high speed car chases in a corn field and jump off a building, shooting bad guys in the face all the way down.
But The Last Stand reserves most of its madness for the last act, when the film’s countless promises of wanton destruction finally pay off in non-stop devastation. Until then, Arnold Schwarzenegger appears to be starring in a wacky small town comedy, complete with comic relief sheriff’s deputies played by Luis Guzmán and Zach Gilford, and a too-brief cameo turn from Harry Dean Stanton as “old man so-and-so.” It’s the kind of quirky border town where the local psycho, played by Johnny Knoxville (because, well, obviously), can amass enough questionably legal firepower to level the community five times over and only interest the law enforcement community enough for them to take a few harmless potshots at a side of beef using Knoxville’s dirtiest, Harriest hand cannon.
If that sounds a little on the quiet side to you, The Last Stand agrees. That’s why, far away, a cartel kingpin played by Eduardo Noriega has escaped FBI custody, hopped into the fastest car in the world and started driving towards the Mexican border. Forest Whitaker, who let Noriega escape in the first place, is stuck in the war room, explaining that the bad guy is a race car-driving homicidal maniac with enough money, hired goons and imagination to do basically whatever the movie wants him to do and get away with it, because hey, there’s at least a hazy rationale for why the villain’s plans are stupid like a fox. As Noriega zooms ever closer to his destination – the action movie we all came to see in the first place – Schwarzenegger and a small supporting cast, which also includes Thor’s Jaimie Alexander and 300’s Rodrigo Santoro, prepare themselves for war.
It’s like director Kim Jee-woon knew we’d been waiting to see Arnold Schwarzenegger kick ass for a decade, and decided to wait until the very last minute to actually deliver as some kind of sick joke. But The Last Stand gets away with this degree of cockteasing because the cast is lovable enough to maintain our interest, and because when the fit finally does hit the shan, The Last Stand goes absolutely insane for a whole third of the movie. Luis Guzmán gets to fire an old-fashioned Tommy gun at Peter Stormare because, hey, it’s an image we genuinely haven’t seen before.
As for Schwarzenegger himself, he’s practically a visual effect here: the fact that we’re seeing him at all is a tiny wonder in and of itself. The Last Stand gives him the opportunity to flex his action muscles a bit, and while he goes through an unrealistic amount of punishment for a man his age by the end of the movie, the script also gives him an opportunity to crack jokes, impart wisdom and even express a modicum of vulnerability right when the stakes need to be raised. It’s not his finest role, but Schwarzenegger does at least prove that he still has a place in the pop culture firmament, and that he has a decent understanding of what audiences expect from him, as well as what they can realistically get from a 65-year-old actor with more precedent on his side than actual, plausible action movie ability. He's a big action star now because he was a big action star then, and it works, at least this time, because his very casting imbues the main character in The Last Stand with godlike abilities fueled by memories of Conan the Barbarian and Predator.
There’s a temptation within the hardcore fanboy community to list and rank and categorize everything we love like obsessive-compulsive hoarders, and I am no exception. The Last Stand rests somewhere between Eraser and Terminator 3 on Schwarzenegger’s resume: not bad, pretty damned entertaining in fact, but lacking in artistic significance and staying power. I totally recall better Arnold Schwarzenegger movies than this, but I wouldn’t say we got a raw deal either.