At first glance, trigger-happy Lewis Dinkum — a man with a suspiciously Jackassian name played by Johnny Knoxville in The Last Stand — seems somehow off. Maybe he’s just lovably dim like Hugo the Abominable Snowman. After all, Hugo called his pets George. Lewis prefers Old Georgetta for his pet, a .50 caliber Magnum.
Then there’s Deputy Figuerola — played by the garrulous Luis Guzman — whose gift of gab Foghorn Leghorn would love. A prefab bridge over which murderous drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) hopes to escape to Mexico? Probably the centerpiece of the Acme Corporation’s 2013 catalogue. And one bad guy skitters around like Yosemite Sam before a notably eruptive demise.
Throw in a concept Corvette as fast as the Road Runner, and The Last Stand becomes a sturdily enjoyable live-action Looney Tunes episode. And don’t think Korean director Kim Ji-woon is just making up the notes of this merrie melody as they go.
Hollywood is regularly unkind to foreign filmmakers their first time out. (Exhibit A: The slice-and-dice treatment of John Woo’s Hard Target.) But Kim manages to sneak behind enemy lines and deliver a high-octane spin on High Noon with narrative patience, spatial clarity and physical wit his stateside counterparts often forget.
Even as Stand downshifts from Kim’s hellzapoppin rush of 2010’s The Good, the Bad and the Weird, he gives audiences an appealing lay of the land before scorching it. And the screenplay by freshman writer Andrew Knauer — with some credited rewrites and guidance from Jeffrey Nachmanoff (Traitor) and George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum) — maintains cartoonish subtext without turning scolding, snide or silly beyond repair.
Also like Looney Tunes, the movie has its own iconic front man who’s gotten decades of mileage from a three-word catchphrase — Arnold Schwarzenegger, now a leathery hide of a leading man at 65 and attempting a post-gubernatorial comeback in his first starring role since 2003.
Schwarzenegger looks like a Madame Tussaud wax rendering. But in the opening moments, he acts like one unexpectedly brought to life, uncertain how to use this gift humans possess called the power of speech. This early, embarrassing stiffness suggests his return may have been ill-advised. But eventually, he shakes off the cobwebs and finds a sweet spot between weary vulnerability and wily virility — cocking hammers when needed while also being helped up and helped out. Think Gran Torino meets Copland, in which only the roaring gunfire really resonates.
Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) is the sheriff of Sommerton, a one-horse town in Arizona just near the Mexican border. Yes, there are immigration quips, but Ray is less Sheriff Arpaio than Sheriff AARPaio. He’s comfortable. He likes the people. Sommerton is quiet, but after a turbulently violent LAPD career, that’s nothing he resents. Small as it is, he’s as much a calming presence to Sommerton as it is to him.
Knauer infuses enough of Ray’s genial nature and small-town pride into the story to generate a real rooting interest in the climactic standoff — in which Ray leads Lewis, Figuerola and other folks against Cortez and his advance team of thugs who have set up shop outside of Sommerton. (Boilerplate baddie Peter Stormare leads those thugs with an accent so willfully weird it seems intended to distract from Schwarzenegger’s usual Austrian mushmouth.)
After a daring escape from federal custody that pays homage to You Only Live Twice, Cortez heads for Mexico in a modified, 1000-horsepower Corvette ZR1 capable of pushing 200 miles per hour. Kim’s high-flash car-chase sequences couldn’t feel more appropriately, and awesomely, ’80s if Bob Seger’s “Shakedown” were blaring from the speakers.
With help from fortified trucks and well-armed mercenaries, Cortez blows through every checkpoint the beleaguered FBI Agent Bannister (Forest Whitaker) has set up. All that stands in Cortez’s way are Ray and some newly deputized denizens of Sommerton. But they also happen to be sitting on Lewis’s substantial stockpile of small arms — all of which is unleashed in a raucous final act that comes at you like the cowcatcher Cortez uses to barrel through roadblocks.
Kim uncorks with vertiginous swoops and expertly orchestrated chaos during an OK Corral-esque gunfight and a car chase in a cornfield. Only near the end are we asked to buy superhuman feats of strength from Ray from which someone 20 years his junior would have a hard time walking away. But by that point, when Cortez derisively calls Ray “granddad” in Spanish, you’ll root for him to suplex that SOB.
It seems fitting for a film whose script mentions the reliability of muscle memory to achieve some old-hat fluidity once Schwarzenegger works out his kinks. A legendary star back on his game. Clever humor. Hellacious setpieces. The smarts to not take things too seriously. When it comes to what you need for meat-and-potatoes action, ble, ble, ble, that’s all, folks.