It’s safe to say that people who went to watch ‘The Last Stand’ fall into two categories – those who were exited to see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big screen comeback in a lead role, his first in 10 years, and those who were excited to see Kim Ji-woon’s English language Hollywood debut. A brief look at the user reviews on the likes of IMDB will tell you which category the majority of people fall into, with endless headers along the lines of “He Said He’d Be Back!” littering the lists of comments.
For myself of course, as someone who happily admits to Ji-woon being his favourite director, it could have been Arnie or anyone else for that matter, I’d be there! I was however a little late to the party, and was a little concerned that in only its third week of theatrical release, the movie had completely disappeared from the cities cinema screens, forcing me into a trip to the suburbs to check it out. Even then, the total audience members for the 7:00pm screening could sadly be counted on one hand. But still, it was a Ji-woon movie in the cinema, my third after watching ‘A Bittersweet Life' (달콤한 인생) in the UK & ‘I Saw the Devil' (악마를 보았다) in Japan, so I was a happy guy.
‘The Last Stand’ is inevitably drawing comparisons with Korea’s two other major directors who also have Hollywood movies recently release to critical acclaim – Park Chan-wook’s ‘Stoker’, and Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’, which I discussed in last years blogathon. In a discussion I’d had with some colleagues, we’d talked about why the anticipation for Chan-wook and Joon-ho’s movies seems to be higher than for that of ‘The Last Stand’. I’d said I thought it was because ‘Stoker’ & ‘Snowpiercer’ seem to represent Chan-wook and Joon-ho imposing themselves on Hollywood, while ‘The Last Stand’ seems to be Hollywood imposing itself on Ji-woon.
Now having seen the movie, and read various interviews with Ji-woon expressing his love for the Hollywood western movies of old, I can safely say I take back that comment. Perhaps a better way to put it would be Chan-wook & Jong-ho are making their own style of movie, it just so happens that their next one is in Hollywood. However the difference with Ji-woon is that he clearly wanted to make a Hollywood style movie, even down to him having no involvement in the script, it was a pre-existing one that had already been around for a while.
Indeed ‘The Last Stand’ does very much feel like a western, with all of the events taking place onscreen leading up to a show down on the main street of a border town. Before we get to the finale though, I sometimes felt like I was watching three separate movies all together. We have Arnie as Sheriff Ray Owens, keeping watch over the small town he has authority over with local characters played by the likes of Johnny Knoxville and Luis Guzman, and it’s these segments which give the movie its western feel. Then we have the bad guy, escaped criminal Gabriel Cortez played by Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega, whose vast majority of scenes comprise of him in a speeding customized car, recalling the likes of classic 70s chase movies like ‘Vanishing Point’. Lastly, and arguably the only parts of the movie which feel like they’re completely taking place in a modern day environment, we have Forest Whitaker and Daniel Henney ('My Lovely Sam-soon' 내 이름은 김삼순) trying to keep everything under control within the hi-tech FBI headquarters in LA.
Domineering over everything of course though is the presence of Arnie, last seen headlining a movie a whole decade earlier in ‘Terminator 3’, here he finds the right balance between an older and wiser patriarch to his deputies, while still finding moments to unleash mayhem and crank out his famous one-liners. The script as a whole makes all of the characters easy to relate to, we’ve seen them all countless times before – the country boy who wants to escape to the city, the bad boy with a heart of gold, the FBI guy who’ll stop at nothing 'till he gets his man – they’re all here and accounted for. Thankfully they all come across as likeable people, which stops us dwelling on the lack of originality on display, because the truth is there isn’t much that hasn’t been done before here.
The script itself has some very sugary moments, complete with a happily ever after ending straight out of a 1950s western, and it’s this slightly out of time feel that gives the movie its charm. For better or worse, Ji-woon has essentially created a 1950s western filmed with a 1980s action aesthetic, ably filmed by his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Kim Ji-yong. You’re not going to get anything more or anything less, ‘The Last Stand’ simply is what it is. A few people have complained in recent years that starting with ‘The Good, The Bad, The Weird' (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈) Ji-woon’s movies have lost their depth, and to a degree it’s true. The extra layers in the likes of 'A Bittersweet Life' (달콤한 인생) and ‘A Tale of Two Sisters' (장화, 홍련) are definitely not there in his more recent works, but that’s not to say they’re any less enjoyable.
‘The Last Stand’ delivers a solid half hour action finale, completely devoid of any CGI, and is even unashamed enough in its approach to have the bad guys put a bazooka to excessive use not once but twice during its runtime. Perhaps it’s best to look at is this way – ‘The Last Stand’ is Kim Ji-woon’s way of asking, is it still possible to make an exciting and well filmed action movie in the Hollywood of today? And the answer, based on everything I just witnessed, is a resounding yes.
By Paul Bramhall