Walter Hill’s combination Western and gangster pic should grab a fistful of dollars in its opening week, but looks to burn out fast, though couch potatoes who enjoy lotsa shooting and nothing to think about will look forward to a speedy video release.
Bruce Willis’ one-note performance and the monotonous plotting doom this New Line venture, despite the director’s typically virile staging of the numerous gun battles. Hill’s screenplay is based on the Akira Kurosawa classic “Yojimbo” (1961), which toplined Toshiro Mifune as a wandering sword-for-hire in medieval Japan who stumbles on a town dominated by rival factions and proceeds to play both ends against the middle.
Pic spawned a successful sequel, “Sanjuro” (1962), and was unofficially remade by Sergio Leone in Italy in 1964 as the seminal spaghetti Western “A Fistful of Dollars,” the pic that made a worldwide star of Clint Eastwood. Plot also bears a resemblance to the Dashiell Hammett tome “Red Harvest.”
In this new screen outing, the seemingly surefire ingredients fail to generate much heat. Hill retains the bones of the original story, but updates the action to the dusty one-horse Texas border town of Jericho during prohibition. The Mifune/Eastwood character has now become John Smith (Willis), a big-city guy who drives his Ford jalopy into Jericho en route to Mexico.
For unexplained reasons, he’s seeking a place to hang out before he heads south of the border. Jericho has been taken over by rival bootleg gangs who are running booze across the border. There’s an Italian mob led by Strozzi (Ned Eisenberg) and an Irish gang run by Doyle (David Patrick Kelly) and his sinister, scarred sidekick, Hickey (Christopher Walken.) The local sheriff (Bruce Dern) has given up trying to impose law and order, honest citizens have been fleeing the place, and the two gangs exist in an uneasy truce.
Smith initially makes the mistake of eyeing Doyle’s Mexican g.f., Felina (Karina Lombard), and is threatened by a couple of the Irish mob. He responds by gunning them down, and is promptly hired by Strozzi, who sees in him a useful ally. But Smith, who has come to the conclusion that these small-town bad guys pose little serious threat (“I’d seen the real thing, and these guys were a long way from it,” he intones in voiceover narration), decides to make some easy money by selling himself to both gangs.
What follows is as predictable as it is perfunctory. The numerous gun battles in most of which Willis, a weapon in each hand, blasts away at seemingly dozens of villains, all of whom go down while he remains unscathed quickly become boring.
Characterization is minimal, making it impossible to identify with anyone. The relationship between Smith and Felina, for whom he ultimately risks his life, just isn’t on the screen, and fine actors like Dern and, especially, Walken are given far too little to do. Other femme roles, enacted by Alexandra Powers and Leslie Mann, are superficial in the extreme; this is strictly a boys-with-guns pic.
For a while, the tart one-liners, the snappy period design (most of the characters wear three-piece suits and fedoras) and the expectation of some genuine suspense hold the interest; but suspense is one element Hill signally fails to provide, and inertia soon takes over.
Even Hill’s references to classic Hollywood Westerns (in one scene, Bruce Willis occupies a chair on the town’s main street exactly as did Henry Fonda in “My Darling Clementine”) only serve as reminders that this sort of thing used to be done with a lot more imagination and depth.
Cinematographer Lloyd Ahern provides some dynamic widescreen framing, but the burnished, dusty look eventually accentuates the dreariness. Ry Cooder’s score is serviceable but unexceptional. Other credits are up to scratch, with the armorer and stunt director certainly earning their pay.
Muted reaction of the Venice audience suggests that, even in Europe, where this sort of mayhem often finds a sizable audience, “Last Man Standing” may face an arid response.