An early scene in The Last Stand finds three of its characters firing a giant handgun at a huge slab of beef. It’s an apt snapshot of a movie that fetishizes the use of firearms and places little value on human life. At this time when pundits and policymakers are considering the impact of movie violence, here stands Arnold Schwarzenegger in a role he could have played in the 1980s, a rogue cop who ignores federal authorities, defending his community with little more than his honor, a massive amount of firepower, and a well-timed quip.
Schwarzenegger stars as Ray Owens, former LAPD narcotics detective turned sheriff of Sommerton Junction, a small town on the Arizona-Mexico border. A series of plot mechanisms leave Owens and his team of deputies as the last line of defense against Gabriel Cortez, a Mexican drug kingpin who has escaped federal authorities and is planning on crossing back into Mexico through Sommerton. The irony of having a man with a thick Austrian accent play an American hero in what amounts to an anti-immigrant allegory is mostly lost on the filmmakers. Still, Schwarzenegger cuts an impressive form on screen, and while his acting may actually have gotten a little worse, he has not lost the ability to make a lot out of a little. In the film’s blood-soaked finale, he deftly completes each item on the action-star checklist – driving, shooting, and fighting – while offering a few of his trademark zingers.
In his battle to protect America’s honor, Owens is pitted against various enemies. Cortez does not arrive in town until the film’s final third, so in the meantime, the sheriff and his deputies battle the criminal gang Cortez has hired to clear his path in town. He also tangles (over the phone) with the federal agent (Forrest Whitaker) who allowed Cortez to escape in the first place. Whitaker is working far below his station on this film, and while he was brought on presumably to class up the joint, his presence actually has the opposite effect: he sinks to the film’s level and his character barely registers. Of course, it doesn’t matter. His character, and in fact every character, is merely a tool to get us to the action sequences and to promote the film’s conservative agenda.
The Last Stand spreads its conservative politics far and wide. The film is more than just an ode to gun-owners; it is a reactionary text that packs as many politically conservative ideas into a single film as possible. Its entire plot is a clever piece of anti-immigrant propaganda; the imagery of an Arizona sheriff protecting the border from a Mexican criminal will surely resonate with anti-immigration advocates, but the script makes his actions more palatable by having him stop a Mexican from leaving the U.S.
There is also a strong anti-government message, as Owens is forced to clean up the job that the federal authorities have botched; a reverent portrait of small-town American and its traditional, post-war values; and, of course, the dramatization of an urgent need for every law-abiding citizen to carry a gun. Jackass star Johnny Knoxville plays a gun fanatic whose comprehensive collection of firearms, only considered legal because he has cleverly registered his home as a gun museum, saves the day in the end. I imagine Knoxville’s character will be an audience surrogate for many: he gets deputized for the film’s final showdown so that he can destroy a ton of public property in the final shoot-out, while the local taxpayers get stuck with the bill.
As an homage to the period in which Schwarzenegger’s brand of individualistic heroism reflected the public mood, the film has its merits. With its mindless action, high body count, conservative politics, The Last Stand would likely have been a hit had it been released in the Reagan Era. But times have changed, and we now prefer our action movies to place their violence in a larger context. It’s why Schwarzenegger softened his image in 1990s as his thoughts turned to politics; he moved away from blood and gore, opting for more family-friendly films like Junior and Kindergarten Cop. As Arnold changed, so did America, and Reagan’s emphasis on economic individualism and massive defense spending holds little water today. In the post-9/11 era, American audiences now understand that it takes more than a big guy and a big gun to keep the country safe.
As he seeks to rebuild his acting career, it seems a colossal misstep to present the new Arnold as the old Arnold: reactionary and violent. Unsurprisingly, audiences so far have little interest. The opening weekend gross is predicted to hit around $14 million, a categorically weak debut for a film that figured to open big and have a steep drop-off. As such, The Last Stand does not bode well for a Schwarzenegger comeback. In other words, it’s not Arnold who has changed; it’s only the rest of the country.
My Rating: Skip it Altogether