'The Last Stand' Review: Older, Wiser Schwarzenegger Retains Populist Appeal

'The Last Stand' Review: Older, Wiser Schwarzenegger Retains Populist Appeal

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tentative steps back into the movie business have consisted of glorified cameos in two Expendables films.

With The Last Stand, Schwarzenegger is taking a more serious approach to his comeback–by not taking his image or the film around him too seriously.

The former governor is front and center in Stand, a no-nonsense actioner with a hearty sense of humor. Schwarzenegger isn’t pretending to be young here, his age supplying an undercurrent of humility that cuts through the shoot outs and quips.

Can he reclaim his A-list status? We’ll know more after the opening weekend receipts roll in. At first blush it’s hard not to see why today’s movie audiences won’t take a liking to the older dude who can still deliver cinematic pain to those deserving it most.

Schwarzenegger plays Sheriff Ray Owens, who protects and serves a small Arizona town on the U.S. side of the southern border. It’s a sleepy job, one that lets him make small talk with cute waitresses without worrying about car jackings up the street.

The Last Stand takes time to show off both the eccentric locals and the town’s sly charms, a welcome note before the lead starts a-slinging.

Ray’s gig gets interrupted when an escaped Mexican drug kingpin makes a beeline for his Arizona turf. Ray doesn’t have the man power to fight the criminal’s small army, so he deputizes a guy cooling his heels in the town jail as well as a lovable gun nut (Johnny Knoxville) to even the odds.

One key to Schwarzenegger’s past success was how he shrewdly aligned with top-notch talent–think directors Ivan Reitman (Twins) and James Cameron (the Terminator series) as prime examples. The actor puts his comeback chances on the line with Korean director Kim Ji-woon of I Saw the Devil fame, a smart bet given the director’s ability to stage action and comedy with visual panache.

Stand is a hoot even before Knoxville’s character arrives, a loon straight from Comic Relief Central Casting. At times, the har-har bits overwhelm the chaos, but Ji-woon still delivers bare-knuckle action to satiate his star’s aging fan base.

The film also plays up Ray’s heroism, his unwillingness to take bribes and the honor he summons to defend his town despite the odds. That old-fashioned decency plays beautifully throughout the film, even when the story staggers in trying to juggle a few underwhelming subplots.

Schwarzenegger will never be a great (good? mediocre??) actor, but he’s comfortable in his own skin here and gives his co-stars plenty of screen time. At times you’ll forget you’re watching his comeback vehicle.

Fellow veterans including Luis Guzman, Forest Whitaker and Peter Stormare do more than keep our attention in between Ah-nold sightings. They flesh out this quaint hamlet as well as the forces closing in on our beleaguered Sheriff.

We’re still treated, or punished, by some boilerplate action movie dialogue, the kind we used to hear with regularity during the Reagan era. Some of the banter, though, works on more than one level.

“I’m probably more afraid than you are right now. I know what’s coming,” Ray tells his terrified colleague as they realize the drug kingpin is heading their way. It’s a reference to Ray’s past as an L.A.-based cop, but it’s also a nod to Schwarzenegger action hero past–and future.