The Last Stand. Directed by Jee-woon Kim. Written by Andrew Knauer. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, & Johnny Knoxville. Lionsgate, 2013.
Jamelle Bouie once tweeted that The Last Stand was the last great Schwarzenegger movie, and maybe it was April Fools’ Day when he said that, but I concur. The art direction makes every scene a comic book panel come to life. A dusty Western town has cornfields and dirt roads glow with sunshine; a diner’s recognizable decor invites through its brightness; the darker, bluish hues of an FBI unit losing a fugitive capture the stress of the situation. Attention to detail makes the action realistic enough. Police tactical shotguns can penetrate the body armor of hired guns, but stand no chance against their scoped, military grade weaponry in terms of distance and damage. The deaths in the movie are grisly and final, and the wounds make you wince. Still, there’s enough ridiculous, over-the-top sequences that one doesn’t forget why one came to the movies.
Certainly, Arnold himself doesn’t forget why he came to the movies. His sheriff in an Arizona border town is only a stand-in for him, but his performance is the heart of the film. People might make the mistake of saying that playing yourself is easy. It really isn’t, and I’ll prove it this way: when was the last time you genuinely tried to be yourself? Arnold’s sheriff, one Ray Owens, used to work in Los Angeles, with a narcotics unit trained in special tactics. One of his deputies in the sleepy small town of Somerton knows this, and pleads with Ray to help him get a job in the big city for action’s sake. Ray answers that Los Angeles is not all it’s cracked up to be, implying that there’s something genuinely good about a town where nothing happens, maybe one where people don’t even see movies.
It’s tough to believe Ray because Arnold is in front of us, acting in a big-budget film right in front of our eyes. Of course, the disproportion between being a cop who can impose his will on dangerous situations and a jacked-up action star makes his advice somewhat believable. If you want to be a policeman who gets the glory he deserves, you don’t know what you’re asking for only seems to strictly correspond to Ray, the sheriff. It can’t possibly have anything to do with Arnold the action star, can it?
But it has everything to do with Arnold the action star. Why do people want to master dangerous situations in the first place? What glory do they see in winning duels, crushing their enemies, seeing them driven away? Why is everything so violent? The villains in The Last Stand have all the bravado and superhuman feats of 80’s action stars. The mercenaries resemble Arnold’s fellow cast in Commando and Predator; the drug kingpin races cars, does stunts regularly, wears designer suits that stay flawless while performing martial arts, designs devious, outrageous plans. Arnold is at his most believable when he says he’s seen blood and death, that he knows what’s coming when the mercenaries plan to secure his town for their boss’ getaway. I submit the only way he can be so believed is that he’s aware of the responsibility he’s had in glorifying violence. As much as I love those stupid Fast and Furious movies, there’s no doubt they contribute a glamour to street racing that street racing doesn’t deserve. There are impressionable people in the world, and media does its best to prey on impressions, no matter how often we try to create things of value.
Arnold’s performance, though, doesn’t end on a tragic note. Throughout the movie he mentors, teaches, encourages. His hero warns the deputy of his ambition, speaks honestly to another scared deputy about fear, levels with the perfectly reasonable complaint that standing up to the cartels is a suicide mission, asks people to finish what they’ve started. It’s impossible in Trumpland to not see a glaring contrast between what no less than Aristotle would have proclaimed gentlemanly — read: political — virtues and the politics of conspiracy theory we have now. It’s impossible to not think that an actor, of all people, learned something reflecting on his career, wondering about what matters. The other performances in The Last Stand, for the most part, match that gravity. Forest Whitaker’s FBI agent, having what could be the worst day of his life, has it out with Arnold over the phone in an exchange made all the more tense because of each’s restraint. Jaimie Alexander’s deputy shows a vast range of emotion over a series of traumatic events: locking up one’s ex-boyfriend, finding a body, facing machine gun fire, seeing your partner die.
Only two things irritate me about the movie. Firstly, I could have used less of Johnny Knoxville’s Dinkum, a small-town eccentric in love with guns. He, like the diner waitress Christie, is an over-the-top caricature, and I fully understand why they have to be in the movie. I get now, in a way I didn’t before, that even the most serious scripts need secondary characters for whom the gravity of a given situation is almost a joke. Only by seeing a lot more of life did I realize that some people just don’t get what’s going on, or get what’s going on in a way most of us cannot recognize. Secondly, and much more seriously, I wish the good guys in this movie were much more diverse, especially Arnold’s deputies. There’s a lot of diversity in the casting, sure, but it did feel like it fell heavily on the bad guy grunt roles. The movie accidentally indulges the notion that small-town law enforcement, i.e. heartland values, and whiteness go hand-in-hand (to be fair, there is an ethnically Mexican deputy who is a fun character). It’s a dangerous notion to give any credence nowadays, though, and I know Arnold is someone who can see this problem a mile away. I suspect the reason why white nationalism is experiencing a revival in certain Christian circles is the inability to see people who are different as concerned with law, concerned with making a place a real home. Ultimately, “American” becomes confused with “white,” as if Martin Luther King Jr. is less American than Charles Manson. In addition to the small town value of not glorifying violence, not destroying people with style to proclaim one’s mastery, it would have been nice to see another value emphasized, that of welcomeness, of openness, of hospitality.