Adi Tantimedh writes:
Slow week for pop culture after the finale of True Detective, not much going on in movies or comics that other people haven’t already commented on, not much to say about the cultural subtexts of Titanfall, which is the game everyone’s buzzing about this week. So I started browsing movies on Netflix and decided to watch The Last Stand, the first movie Arnold Schwarzenneger starred in after leaving political office and re-entering show business.
Guess what? It’s a good action movie. Perfectly good fun. It’s also a very well-directed action movie not getting enough credit.
The movie was a bomb at the box office probably because audiences had gone off Schwarzenneger because of his personal scandals. It was largely dismissed by the audience and also released at the tail end of the summer blockbuster season when the studios released genre movies they didn’t expect much success from.
The plot is a poppy, inoffensive, comic book-style take-off on High Noon. Ah-nuld plays the middle-aged sheriff of a small town where hardly anything ever happens until he’s faced with the imminent arrival of an escaped Cartel boss and his private mercenaries who will tear through the place as they try to flee to Mexico. Outnumbered and outgunned, with only his modest and quirky friends on his side, ingenuity and his own past as a bad-ass, he has to stop them. Mayhem ensues.
There are amusing if skin-deep themes about the can-do attitude and ingenuity of small town America versus the urban sophistication of big agencies and organized crime, and there’s a subtext about Ah-nuld being older, weary and looking back on a life of regrets and lamenting the violence he used to deal out in past movies, not to mention that age has actually given him a bit a gravitas and turned him into an adequate actor able to convey moments of vulnerability and fear. Yes, Ah-nuld can actually convey emotions now. Overall, it’s a fun, slick action B movie that you might not remember days later but won’t regret seeing. Its lack of pretentions is a breath of fresh air.
The biggest point of interest here is director Kim Jee Woon. Kim is part of the new generation of South Korean filmmakers Bong Jun Ho and Park Chan Wook who have been making a splash internationally. They all bring a technical and intellectual savvy to genre movies, infusing them with style and thematic weight. Kim has been slightly overshadowed on the international stage by Bong and Park because of the higher profiles of their movies like Old Boy, The Host, Memories of Murder and the upcoming Snowpiercer, but he actually has a larger and more varied body of work than either of them. His movies include social comedies like The Quiet Family (about an unlucky family running a country inn whose guests keep dropping dead, remade by Takeshi Miike into his wacky musical The Happiness of the Katakuris), The Foul King (about a loser who finds fame as a masked pro wrestler), gothic horror like A Tale of Two Sisters, off-beat existential gangster melodrama like A Bittersweet Life, Spaghetti Western pastiche like The Good, The Bad and The Weird, and dark serial killer thriller like I Saw the Devil, to name but a few of his movies.
Where Kim shares with his contemporaries an eye for quirky characters, farce, social commentary and off-beat comedy, his skills at orchestrating large, ambitious action setpieces not only surpasses theirs but might also make him one of the best action directors in the world right now. His coherent sense of physical space and moving people and objects on the screen almost makes him a pure action director in the way that a Hollywood action stalwart like Walter Hill or James Cameron are. The Good, The Bad and The Weird features some of the most ambitious and complex chase and action sequences in any movie from the last 10 years and you’d be hard-pressed to name ten Hollywood directors who could pull them off as well as Kim did. He brought those skills to The Last Stand, his first Hollywood movie.
It was incomplete analysis when Western critics dismissed the movie without acknowledging the context of the career of its internationally-acclaimed foreign director who has made great movies in their native countries. Even reviews and write-ups for Stoker acknowledged Park Chan Wook’s previous reputation for having made Old Boy or when they discussed John Woo’s American films. The Last Stand feels like a throwback to the way Asian directors made B action thrillers as Hollywood calling cards back in the 1990s: John Woo with Hard Target, Tsui Hark with Double Team, Ringo Lam with Maximum Risk (all of which starred Jean-Claude Van Damme) and so on.
The Last Stand is less ambitious than Kim’s previous movies. It won’t change your life or blow your mind, but its narrative efficiency and sheer skill in presenting action makes it a good teaching film for students of action cinema. As a cultural artifact it may not be much, but as a technical exercise in cinematic storytelling and action narrative, it’s top-notch.
The Last Stand can now be seen on Netflix and other streaming services on top of DVD and Blu-Ray.
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