With the release of The Last Stand this week, a Korean wave finally reaches our shores. Much the way a trio of talented and mutually supportive Mexican filmmakers shook up Hollywood some 10 years ago, three South Korean directors are all poised to make their American debuts in the coming year. Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Bong Joon-ho (The Host) are waiting in the wings, but the first of them to reach our theaters is Kim Ji-woon, who previously made the hair-raising horror flick A Tale of Two Sisters and the swashbuckling Western The Good, the Bad, the Weird. The most conventional of the three, Kim’s virtues are the easiest to imagine translating to the American milieu. Then again, he wrote his own scripts for his best Korean work, but here he’s working with poor material from first-time writer Andrew Knauer. As a result, Kim’s maiden Hollywood effort is little more than another hack thriller.
Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays Ray Owens, a former LAPD narcotics detective who walked away from that job’s violence and chaos for a quieter life as the sheriff of a tiny border town in Arizona called Sommerton Junction. Unhappily, violence and chaos follow him there when a Mexican drug kingpin (Eduardo Noriega) is busted out of FBI custody and heads back to his homeland in a souped-up sports car traveling at 200 mph, aided by a bunch of mercenaries who are armed to the teeth. With the feds mostly helpless and with most of Sommerton’s civilians out of town for the weekend at a high-school football game, it’s up to Ray, his three deputies, and a couple of ragtag civilians to stop the fugitive in whose path their town lies.
This is Schwarzenegger’s first starring role in 10 years, the actor having taken an extended layoff to govern California, among other things. He is 65 years old, and the movie obliges us with some jokes about Ray’s age, but it’s the ill-fitting material that makes the star look passé rather than his years. Schwarzenegger is a throwback to an earlier era of action heroes who blasted away bad guys with gigantic guns and then celebrated by tossing off cheesy one-liners. As that generation aged out of the genre (and Vin Diesel failed to keep it going), we wound up with the current vogue for action heroes who brood like Hamlet over whether they’re doing the right thing. The Last Stand tries to bring Schwarzenegger in line with that by making Ray a reluctant hero, someone who says, “I know how this ends. I’ve seen the blood,” as he’s buckling down for the climactic showdown. In doing so, the filmmakers appear not to know who’s starring in their movie — Schwarzenegger has never been actor enough to put across something like this.
Of course, we’re all used to his limitations by now. This movie still could have been a nice action thriller. Yet the action sequences here aren’t memorable, nor are they even that competent. We lose track of key elements in the jailbreak sequence at the beginning and especially in the big showdown at the end, where we don’t get a sense of how the good guys are outflanking the bad guys as they shoot it out on Sommerton Junction’s main street. This is puzzling; Kim’s sense of action was impressively assured on The Good, the Bad, the Weird.
Forest Whitaker co-stars here as the leader of the FBI unit trying to recapture the drug lord, but his authority is undercut because the federal agents here are so inept. The romantic plot between one of Ray’s deputies (Jaimie Alexander) and a jailed war veteran who’s let out to fight the villains (Rodrigo Santoro) is a big zero. The movie also falls victim to a circumstance that’s not of its own making: Johnny Knoxville turns up as a weapons enthusiast who lends his arsenal to the sheriff and takes part in the climactic shootout wearing a medieval helmet and shield. The events of the last six months have made the local gun nut seem much less cuddly than before.
With its generally lackluster performances, The Last Stand is one of the bigger disappointments of the young year. I do have reason to think these Korean filmmakers will invigorate our cinema, but this boring action flick is a poor start.
The Last Stand
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Forest Whitaker. Directed by Kim Ji-woon. Written by Andrew Knauer. Rated R.