Somehow looking at once blankly inexpressive and doggedly determined, a 65-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a creaky but reasonably commercial comeback bid with “The Last Stand.” Tossing together spare parts from “Rio Bravo,” “Jackass,” NRA promos and vintage muscle-car commercials, this thin, jokey star vehicle elevates a back-of-the-bar-napkin script with a string of proficient and sensationally violent setpieces. Although devotees of Schwarzenegger’s pre-gubernatorial heyday and helmer Kim Jee-woon’s gonzo Korean thrillers will find neither man at his best here, this Lionsgate release should capitalize on hardcore-fan interest to eke out solid theatrical and ancillary biz.
Schwarzenegger’s first star vehicle in the decade since “T3: Rise of the Machines” takes its sweet time setting up a bullet-ridden standoff in Sommerton Junction, a small Arizona town that’s about to get an unwelcome visit from Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), a fugitive drug lord fleeing toward the U.S.-Mexico border. With the feds (led by Forest Whitaker) trying in vain to recapture Cortez as he barrels down the highway at 250 mph in a tricked-out Corvette, it falls to Sommerton’s sheriff, Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger), and his motley crew of deputies to protect their town and apprehend the escaped convict.
Andrew Knauer’s first-produced screenplay lays out this standard setup with much drawn-out toggling between the useless feds and the scrappy Sommertonites, an assortment of thinly drawn types including a fresh-faced deputy (Jaimie Alexander); a scowling old coot (Luis Guzman); a studly, sensitive jailbird (Rodrigo Santoro); and an eccentric illegal-arms dealer (Johnny Knoxville). They’re a resourceful bunch, but, as is made clear in a deadly early skirmish with Cortez’s henchmen (led by Peter Stormare), which effectively kicks the picture into high gear, they’re ill-prepared for the looming bloodbath, with one crucial and obvious exception.
“I know what’s coming,” Schwarzenegger grunts, “because I have seen enough blood and death.” He sure has, and the weight of that legacy lends this often broadly comic endeavor the elegiac tone of a career salute, a quality that intermittently distracts from the slapdash construction of the story and the incongruousness of the actor’s presence in this sun-drenched Arizona backwater. There are some brief references to Owens’ past as a Los Angeles narcotics cop, and the traumatic baggage that sent him into self-imposed exile, but fleshing out these points convincingly seems to be the least of the pic’s priorities.
What happens, in any event, is at once predictable and largely beside the point. Cars run into, over and around each other; blood spurts, sprays and sometimes explodes in clouds of red smoke; good and bad guys alike run around brandishing dangerous weapons and intimidating accents; various one-liners land with a wink and a thud; Knoxville wears strange hats and enacts reckless stunts that occasionally intersect with the narrative; and Schwarzenegger, when he’s not plowing his way through reams of semi-intelligible dialogue, proves he’s still capable of firing off a few rounds and pulling broken glass out of his leg.
The cartoonish nature of the proceedings is at times heightened and at other times mitigated by Kim’s forceful action chops, which were recently demonstrated in his spaghetti-Western pastiche “The Good the Bad the Weird” and his merciless revenge thriller “I Saw the Devil.” His Hollywood debut isn’t nearly as visceral or unhinged as those earlier efforts, though it does offer numerous examples of his skill at staging mayhem on a grand scale, as well as in closer, more dangerously intimate quarters. The helmer is especially good at integrating his New Mexico locations into the action, from a key combat scene on a bridge to a car chase that unfolds, with limited visibility, in a cornfield.
Kim’s handling of his first English-speaking cast isn’t quite as assured, although everyone more or less gets by; the strongest impressions are made by Zach Gilford’s touchingly inexperienced cop and Noriega’s diabolical-looking goatee. Ji Yong Kim’s sharp HD lensing, Mowg’s neo-Western-flavored score and Franco Carbone’s well-mounted production design round out a classy tech package.