By Josh Oakley
Before the governorship, before the scandal and before the aughts, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a movie star. This is meant in its purest form; he was not an artist, a great actor or anything remotely transcendental. Schwarzenegger had a "movie star" magnetism, which is easy to forget due to the joke he has been (not completely unfairly) reduced to. But he's always had that special quality, and The Last Stand proves, against any pre-judgements, that he still does.
The return of the former terminator is, of course, the mainstream appeal of this movie, and he's utterly well used. Not only do simple pleasantries become laugh lines with Schwarzenegger's incredibly unique delivery, but the last couple of decades have taken their toll on the man who foretold his return. There are close-ups of his face, combined with delicately used makeup, that establish the wrinkles and wears he's absorbed over the years. While The Last Stand doesn't do anything thematic with a former action star showing his age, it's an important touch at giving the movie any ounce of gravitas that it may have (which is not much, but still).
The Last Stand's other draw isn't the center of advertisements in quite the same way, but is just as key in making the movie what it is. Kim Jee-Woon, a Korean director, chose this to be his first foray into American cinema, and his presence can be felt throughout. Those perfectly lit and textured close-ups of Schwarzenegger's face, and action sequences that maintain a steady push, knowing exactly when to build, and release, are Kim touches that are especially reminiscent of his excellent 2008 effort, The Good, The Bad and the Weird. The Last Stand doesn't quite have the mania of that film, but its explosive energy makes their relation quite clear.
You may notice that plot has not yet been touched in this review, and that mainly stems from its unimportance. When a powerful cartel leader escapes from the hands of the FBI, small-town sheriff Schwarzenegger and his deputies are forced to stop the drug lord and his crew from crossing the border to Mexico. There are subplots, including the FBI's misguided efforts to reclaim their prisoner; far too long is spent here, in what is easy the most uninteresting (and explosion-less) section of the movie. A romantic relationship between two deputies is wisely largely relegated to the background, popping up for plot necessity rather than unearned emotional payoff.
The Last Stand doesn't answer the question of whether Kim could be as great of a director in Hollywood as he is in Korea. The highs here aren't comparable to the masterful I Saw The Devil or even the aforementioned Good, The Bad and the Weird. However, most of the failings belong to the screenplay, and what Kim is able to do with it speak well to his future in America, should he choose to continue to make films here. Bursts of color are peppered throughout, including a scene-stealing performance from Luis Guzman who is a pro at that sort of thing. The reaction of townspeople to insane violence around them is often hilarious, and Johnny Knoxville is less obnoxious than one would think (an explosion he causes with a flare gun is easily the movie's highlight). And forcing Peter Stormare to attempt a southern accent is cruel for both the actor and the audience, until the kitsch value tips over into a positive territory.
While Kim's Hollywood future is yet to be seen, the movie definitively answers the question most audience members will be asking: can Schwarzenegger still pull off a leading role? By anchoring an only alright film, he's given the opportunity to shine past the rest of the cast, the dialogue, and even some of the action sequences. His mere presence is a pleasant reminder that once we all dial back our wretched impressions of the man, we can remember the thrill of hearing him say "I'll be back". Not anybody can make those words a catchphrase, but there's a reason that the obvious way to end this review would be a callback to a role that easily reminds us why his comeback is a big deal. And while The Last Stand doesn't come close to that film, it makes a good case for Sheriff Ray Owens joining the Schwarzenegger canon. He's back.