Friday, December 27, 2013

The Last Stand

At the climax of Kim Jee-Woon’s “The Last Stand,” the sheriff of a small town faces a Mexican cartel leader on a narrow bridge spanning a canyon. The Mexican bad guy has escaped from Federal authorities and, with an army of henchmen, has killed about a hundred American law enforcement officers in his escape through the desert Southwest to Mexico. If the cartel leader can cross the bridge, he will be south of the Border and so, presumably, beyond the jurisdiction of the United States. The sheriff is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and so, it is pretty obvious to everyone that there is no possible way that this bad hombre will make it to Mexico. Nonetheless, the somewhat scrawny, albeit handsome, cartel gangster gives it the old college try, valiantly attempting to force his way past the craggy man-mountain that is the ex-Terminator. First, of course, the gangster and Schwarzenegger have to exchange a few words, a little bit of dialogue before the gruesome fisticuffs: the cartel leader, resplendent in head-to-toe black says: “12,000 Mexicans cross this border going north every day. I’m just one Mexican who wants to go back to Mexico. Surely, you can look the other way.” This seems an eminently reasonably request but Schwarzenegger is offended. He tosses a ridiculously flimsy, girlish-looking set of handcuffs toward the rattlesnake-skin boots of the Narco and says: “I’m the sheriff. Put on the cuffs or I’ll make you put them on.” “Just say the word,” the bad guy replies, ”and I will deposit five-million dollars in your bank account.” (At this point, the audience cringes; only five million? Arnold S-- gets paid a salary ten times that sum.) Schwartzenegger declines the offer, muttering: “Your kind makes all of us immigrants look bad.” This is the best moment in the movie and the only reason to spend 100 minutes with this film. Until these lines are spoken, Schwarzenegger is so quintessentially American, so densely and totally identified with the American action film that it comes as a surprise to the audience to think of their hero as someone who has immigrated to this country. Indeed, up to this point in the film, we haven’t even noticed Schwarzenegger’s heavy accent and his weirdly alien features -- as he ages, Schwartzenegger sounds more and more like a beefed-up version of Werner Herzog, and, I think, he is even beginning to resemble the German filmmaker, who, in turn, now looks just like my (long-deceased) dour, tight-lipped Grandma Beckmann nee Zeilinger. Suddenly, we remember that the poor gangster is about to engage in hand-to-hand combat with Arnold Schwarzenegger, once the governor of California and the veteran of a thousand battles of this kind and the only logical response is to salute the gallantry of the poor bad guy about to get his ass royally and inevitably kicked. This perverse response -- that is, admiring the tenacity and courage of the doomed bad guy -- is emblematic of my topsy-turvy, upside-down reaction to the entire film. At the outset, an old codger is threatened by a suave heavily armed villain. The villain is polite and persuasive -- he wants to reason with the malevolent old coot played by an uncredited Harry Dean Stanton. The bad guy offers the codger money if he will help the villains erect the bridge across the Rio Grande canyon. The curmudgeonly old man draws a shotgun (everyone in this picture is heavily armed) and shoots at the villain’s feet. This is completely rude, uncalled-for, and barbaric. So, when the army of malefactors blasts the old man, we feel that this is somehow justified -- after all, the old fool pulled a gun first in the defense of his wretched property and fired the first wholly unnecessary shot. Later, the handsome and enterprising cartel leader stages a spectacular escape from federal custody -- he is facing the death sentence, a barbaric aspect of America’s medieval justice system. With his henchmen, great numbers of FBI agents are gunned down, and any rational person has to be rooting for the outlaws -- you can never kill enough federal agents in my view and it would be nice if the army of villains could also take on, for a good measure, the idiotic and sadistic waterboarding CIA and, maybe, the vicious NSA as well. Throughout the picture, you are hoping against hope that the charismatic bad guys will prevail against Schwarzenegger and his army of four (which includes the moronic Johnny Knoxville of “Jackass” fame as a 2nd Amendment crazy). Everything is turned the wrong way -- the Mexican hordes are trying to escape back to Mexico; the American hero is trying to keep them in this country. The film is reasonably entertaining so long as you don’t expect the action sequences to make much sense -- they are cut too fast and too incoherently and the big battle in the little border village, obviously derived from ”The Seven Samurai” (and “The Magnificent Seven”) doesn’t make any sense because no time has been allotted to introducing us to several villagers who play an important role in the combat and because there have been no establishing shots to define the geometry of the battlefield. The script is a mash-up of “The Fast and the Furious” -- there is a really fast car with magical qualities (it can go backward at a speed of several hundred miles per hour and rides smoothly over rough terrain as if on a cushion of air) -- and “Rio Bravo” (a drunk and disorderly Iraq war vet is freed from jail and deputized to help fight the bad guys.) About a dozen other films are ineptly cited throughout the movie -- there are overtones of “ Bad Day at Black Rock”, “The Road Warrior”, and various Walter Hill pictures. But nothing is quite right -- for instance, the big fistfight on the bridge to Mexico devolves into professional wrestling lunging and flipping and body-slamming (with a ”sleeper” hold and a move involving a leg-scissors grip on someone’s neck), combat choreography that is more embarrassing than exciting and every heroic gesture gets repeated a couple of times: twice, for instance, Arnold S-- has to pull a massive blade (glass in one case and a knife in the other) from the same blood-soaked thigh. I mean, really?

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