Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mr Universe goes to Summerton

Perhaps in some alternate universe it would be possible to watch The Last Stand as anything other than the vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback after a political career that you could call unlikely if it didn’t transpire in the state of California. But in that alternate universe there would be little reason to even watch a movie as dopey and conventional as The Last Stand, aside from some chuckles and whatever pleasure is supposed to be derived from watching bodies flail under automatic rifle fire. So let’s stick to reality here: it’s an Arnie movie. And not a memorable one.

I’ve defended Schwarzenegger in the past—not his acting chops, obviously, but his rightful place in the movies. But the roles we’ve needed Schwarzenegger to play have uniformly been extraordinary, superhuman, or nonhuman. Who else could be Conan? (Certainly not Jason Momoa.) So just whose idea was it to cast Schwarzenegger as the county lawman in sleepy Summerton, Arizona? Whether shooting the breeze with the local diner staff or drinking beer on his front porch, Sheriff Ray Owens seems to have been written as a man of ordinary, humble heroism. When did they sneak in the bit about Owens having spent five years working narcotics in Los Angeles? Was it before of after they added that line, delivered near the film’s end, that cryptically acknowledges the fact that this Owens is, like his Sinaloa cartel overlord opponent, a foreigner? Was Owens written for Tommy Lee Jones and then later retrofitted for the Terminator? Or was Owens always meant to be a massive bodybuilder with an Austrian accent who looks awkward trying to answer the phone and pour a cup of coffee at the same time?

Maybe it was all a joke from the beginning. But if that’s the case the joke is a pretty limited one, however many laughs The Last Stand might generate from our sheer awe at witnessing the return of this singular mega-star. He always said he’d be back, but now that he’s back he actually seems stiffer than ever, with line readings that make it seems like he’s hypnotized, and lines that are anyway so baldly expository as to defy belief. “Someone needs to stay and keep the peace,” says Owens in the first scene. Turns out he’s quite serious about that. Even when an impossibly wealthy criminal organization, trigger-happy and armed for megadeath-overkill, invade his town of senior citizens, Owens won’t back down, even though he's only got three bright green deputies and almost no firepower. And he’s totally immune to corruption, even when the Mexican sleazebag villain offers him $5-million to look the other way. (Though really, doesn’t sleazebag know what this guy takes home on a single picture?)

The supporting cast is mostly overqualified and underused: Harry Dean Stanton shows up to put on a farmer outfit and say “Get off my land” for three minutes; Forest Whitakker plays an ornery fed and chews scenery like an underfed dog; Luis Guzmán gets to fire big guns, make a few jokes and wear a ten-gallon hat. Korean director Kim Jee-woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) keeps things fleet enough but hardly seems interested in the story. In short, it’s just a paycheque for all involved—though no one’s cheque is likely as fantastically large as Arnie’s. Here’s hoping his next movie is a lot more fantastic too. IMDb has him slated for another half-dozen within the next 12 months.  

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