After years away from the film industry, '80s and '90s action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger has been easing his back into the genre that made him an A-lister. Growing roles in The Expendables' movies have paved the way to his first headlining vehicle since 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and The Last Stand is custom-fit for the now paunchy yet still undeniably intimidating star.
Set in the tiny and quiet town of Sommerton Junction, Arizona, which is nestled right on the American-Mexican border, The Last Stand has Schwarzenegger playing Ray Owens, a long-time sheriff who once worked in narcotics for the Los Angeles Police Department. After one particularly grisly drug bust left him the lone survivor, Owens purposely sought out a little town where he wouldn't have to face such carnage ever again. But the downside to being a small-town sheriff with only four policemen under your employ is that people tend to underestimate your capability in times of crisis, like for instance when a vicious drug lord freshly busted out of bonds is blazing toward your town in a specially rigged race car, gunning for the border.
You wouldn't think with his thick Austrian accent and massive bulk that Schwarzenegger would be a believable everyman, but the character of Sheriff Ray Owens is perfectly suited to him. Owens was once a man to be reckoned with, but years away from the deadly urban streets has made him soft. Similarly, this is not the Schwarzenegger from his prime. He's a bit slower, a bit world-weary, but this all adds weight to Owens' character, since after all he is underestimated by everyone, from the local who scoffs at his demand to remove his car from a fire zone, to the FBI agent (Forest Whitaker) leading the recapture effort, to the the menacing Mexican cartel leader, Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega).
It's almost sad to watch others scoff at Owens, except that we know Schwarzenegger will have his redemption. And he does, through several jaw-dropping action sequences and numerous one-liners that had the audience in I saw it with cheering and applauding. This builds to a climax where Schwarzenegger faces off against Noriega in a mano-a-mano fight that is utterly exhilarating. In fact, I'll say it: it's the kind of burly and brash violence I was hoping to see in the Bane versus Batman fight in The Dark Knight Rises. Frankly, this climactic battle alone is worth the price of admission.
Still, it's far from a flawless film. For one, surrounded by actors as talented as Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, and Friday Night Lights' Zach Gilford, it's clear Schwarzenegger is not so much an actor as he is a screen presence. He is mesmerizing yes, but with those around him displaying fear, anguish and rage, his performance pales in comparison. But who cares, right? It's still his movie. Except that it's not entirely.
The Last Stand marks the English-language debut of South Korean director Jee-woon Kim, who helmed the mind-blowing revenge thriller I Saw the Devil. And while Kim shows an impressive understanding of American culture—from our lust for impossibly fast cars to our conflicted gun culture—he doesn't seem to know to keep the focus on Arnold. Instead, the thriller bounds between the frantic FBI offices where Whitaker sets up one useless roadblock after another to Cortez's hours-long getaway complete with Fast and the Furious-style stunts, to various pockets of Sommerton, from its cantankerous farmer, to its chipper waitress, clumsy cops, and local gun nut (Johnny Knoxville)…oh, yeah and Arnold.
In the end, the movie is a bit overstuffed, and the pacing suffers because of it. But within its 107 minutes, The Last Stand offers insane action, solidly funny sight gags—courtesy of Knoxville and Guzman—and a welcome amount of Schwarzenegger swagger.