After dipping into Hollywood again with his cameos in the two Expendables movies, Arnie isn't exactly pulling off a third act surprise twist by going back into movies full time again. But The Last Stand really does feel like he mumbled Germanically "Now, where was I?" and picked up exactly where he left off sometime back in the 1980s. As throwbacks go, it makes The Expendables - either one of them - feel like post modern meditations on our relationship with violence. The Last Stand is an unapologetically stupid 1980s style action thriller like I used to watch back in the days when I watched literally everything that opened in Dublin, no matter how bad. The baddies go down like ninepins, as do any police officers unwise enough not to have arranged for speaking parts. The heroes seem to be able to walk off almost anything, with the natural exception of the one plucky rookie who might as well have saved himself some time and shot his own self the moment that Arnie started acting like his kindly well-meaning uncle. Kiss of death, man! I muttered around my popcorn, and started the deathwatch clock. That was only the second most obvious gimme; the first prize goes to the assistant FBI agent who yelled "I'll go down the alley" during an early chase. There's the ringer, I thought to myself, and so it came to pass. No-one ever comes back out of the alley. Either they get schwacked, or they're in league with the villains.
Amazingly, this hackery is directed by Jee-woon Kim, and I order you to stop reading this blog right now, go find a copy of The Good The Bad and The Weird and watch it. I'll wait.
Now, wasn't that astonishing? Half Manchuria gets levelled, there's an insane train robbery cum running battle in a suddenly moving train, a whole village gets shot to pieces, and then for a climax there's chase involving horses, motorcycles, jeeps and field artillery. And it's all expertly played for laughs. Jee-woon Kim brought all that in for less than $10 million. The Last Stand cost $30 million, managing two car chases, the partial destruction of one main street and a roadblock and a pretty cool jailbreak involving a vast magnet and a crane together with a hot chick in a leather jumpsuit who is then unaccountably written out of the movie. It's great to see Jee-woon Kim get into Hollywood, but it just doesn't feel economically efficient.
Which is not to say that it isn't fun. It was more fun than Jack Reacher THE MOVIE, to pick just one example. Arnie's actually got worse at one liners, having had to spend so long speaking in complete sentences in his other job, but this is not one of those movies you were checking out for the dialogue. Thus, Arnie's reduced talking proficiency; not such a big thing. And it's sort of weird fun looking at all the better actors checking in for a quick pay check. That's your actual Forest Whitaker there, once again playing lead FBI agent in a stupid movie. That's Peter Stormare there, playing deputy chief villain, and managing to be both somewhat more creepily insane and quite a bit more efficient than his career defining turn in Fargo. And in the role of a man who gets shot off a tractor for no very good reason, that actually WAS Harry Dean Stanton paying off some overdue bill or other. Also starring Luiz Guzman, who I can never decide about; does he just keep getting asked to play the same overweight lazy but goodhearted Mexican because he was OK the last time, or is that the only thing he actually knows how to do?
The plot is, like all the best 1980s stupid movies, the kind of thing a four year old with a crayon could easily write on a bar napkin. I don't rule out the possibility that that's actually what they did, with the four year old now being about his mid thirties and finally seeing in Arnie's return his long overdue opportunity for the big time. Ernesto Interchangeable Drug Kingpin is being taken to death row from Las Vegas and breaks loose from the convoy. He lights out for the border in a supercharged sportscar which is - apparently - faster than a helicopter, and after the well-meaning but inept forces of law and order fail to stop him, it's down to Arnie's border town sheriff to thwart him and his battalion of thugs. Being the movie that it is, Arnie masterminds an all but singlehanded bad day for thuggery, and John Law shows up just in time to nod and say well done. And yes, it ends on a freeze frame. Not one detail of the template has been neglected. It's even Arnie's day off, though the chronology seems all over the place; at one level it seems like they're aiming for it all to take place in a single night and early morning, but either my fleapit shuffled the reels or Jee-woon Kim stopped caring about the Aristotelian unities, because there seem to be three separate nights.
It's impossible to resist the temptation to claw apart the stupidity in play in the unfolding of the plot. On the one hand, the villain mobilises a truly insane amount of manpower and firepower to break him out of the Black Maria and into his fast car to make his getaway, heading down a dead end road to the one part of the otherwise porous US-Mexican border which happens to have a gorge on it. Something more sedate and low profile, leading to a gentle wander across the vast open spaces of the New Mexico or Texas borders wouldn't have been more convenient? Over on the John Law side of things; the car is faster than a helicopter, which becomes an incredible problem, largely because the FBI - college graduates to a man, remember - put up a helicopter at night with no night-vision equipment, and despite being a federal law enforcement organisation don't seem to have any helicopters SOUTH of Vegas which might be sent to, I don't know, intercept the fast car instead of trying to keep up with it….
But it's core to this kind of movie that everyone is an idiot; the ridiculous confrontation in the climax wouldn't be practical if anyone else in the world had brought their brain to work that day. You don't grumble about the idiocies, you look to see if there's enough silliness on screen to distract you. And a lot of the time, there is. The Last Stand isn't high art, or its modern action movie cousin high camp; it's a surprisingly straight faced return to one of my guilty pleasures. I'm sure Arnie did it to feel thirty years younger, and for a couple of hours, so did I.