What's one to make of the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the best thing in his comeback film, "The Last Stand?" Well, that the actor has learned a few things while being away for eight years, and the movie simply isn't very good.
South Korean director Jee-woon Kim, helming his first stateside feature after making a name for himself with "The Good, the Bad, the Weird," and "I Saw the Devil," executes the film's requisite action scenes competently, but the pace he adopts proves deadly as he takes far too long to get to the nitty-gritty — namely seeing Arnie kick butt.
Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) is the sheriff of Sommerton Junction, Ariz., a quiet blip on the map not far from the Mexican border. Getting cats out of trees and writing out parking tickets is about all the law officers of the town get to do, but that changes when they get word from FBI Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) that drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) has busted out of federal prison and might be headed their way.
Plot points from classics like "High Noon" and "Rio Bravo" echo throughout Andrew Knauer's screenplay as Owens is left high and dry and winds up relying on a motley crew of assistants, including reluctant Deputy Figueroia (Luis Guzman), frightened Deputy Torrance (Jaimie Alexander) and newly released prisoner Frank Martinez (Rodrigo Santoro). Private citizen Lewis Dinkim (Johnny Knoxville channeling Walter Brennan) is enlisted to help as well, as he has a private arsenal that would rival those of most Third World countries. Together, they fortify Sommerton Junction and wait for the arrival of Cortez and his crew, having figured out that they've built a temporary bridge over the Rio Grande, right outside of town.
Unfortunately, they, and the viewer, wait and wait and wait some more as Kim spends far too much time with narrative diversions that add nothing to the plot and needlessly delay the final showdown. We don't need to see them lay waste to a roadblock as they've already been established as bad guys, and a prolonged sequence showing Cortez escaping from the feds is agonizing to witness as it drags where it should blindside us.
Features such as this — make no mistake, this is just a glorified B-movie — should have no fat. They need to move at a breakneck pace, pausing only briefly for plot points between one imaginative action sequence after another. Schwarzenegger's films have always been about showing his audience a good time, and while "The Last Stand" eventually delivers the goods, it takes far too long to get there.
As for Schwarzenegger himself, he proves to be the calm in the middle of this storm. He has always had presence to spare, but the actor now seems more comfortable on screen, taking his time in delivering is his lines and reveling in being the veteran who commands our attention by simply being there. He has mellowed a bit and has come to realize what his audience will accept as possible for his aging characters that now have feet of clay. That the actor seems to be getting in touch with his humanity bodes well for his future features.
In some ways, "The Last Stand" resembles the actor's own experiences as, despite his name, Sheriff Owens doesn't seem to be from around Sommerton Junction, and while he has done his best to acclimate and has built a successful career, he is never truly of the community. He's the outsider who has come and realized the American Dream and seems content to live out the rest of his years, reflecting on his accomplishments, and willing to come out from the shadows from time to time to show the rookies how it's done.
The subtext may be a bit of a stretch, but when Owens says to a particular bad guy, "You give immigrants a bad name," I can't help but think that there might be a bit more to "The Last Stand" than car chases and blowin' up stuff real good.
'The Last Stand'
2 1/2 stars out of 4
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, Eduardo Noriega, Harry Dean Stanton, Jaimie Alexander, Christiana Leucas and Genesis Rodriguez.
Directed by Jee-woon Kim; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura; screenplay by Andrew Knauer.
A Lionsgate Release. 106 minutes. Rated R (strong bloody violence and language). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
Effective "Mama" undone by lazy storytelling. (2 1/2 stars out of 4)
On the basis of a 2-minute short, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth," "Hellboy") decided to produce director Andres Muschietti's debut feature "Mama." Based on the movie of the same name, which can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/mamathemovie , it's easy to see why.
No doubt, Muschietti has got the chops as he employs effective pacing, holding his cards close to his vest while steadily doling out clues to the film's horrific mystery and using minimal special effects to create an effective sense of dread during the film's strong first hour.
Unfortunately, the magic wanes during the movie's third act as inexplicable actions by its characters and desperate coincidences are employed, slowly deflating the suspense that had been so patiently crafted.
The financial meltdown of 2008 is the catalyst here as Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a desperate financier, does not take the downward turn in his fortunes well. After killing two fellow employees and his estranged wife, he goes on the run with his two daughters, Victoria and Lily (Megan Charpentier and Isabele Nelisse), only to crash his car in a remote rural area. After blundering through the woods, they find an abandoned cabin where they take refuge. Problem is, they aren't alone after all, and whatever it is that's lurking in the shadows soon kills Jeffrey but spares the little girls.
Five years pass, and the girls are found, having miraculously survived their ordeal. They are placed in the care of a behavioral psychologist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), and their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau, again) is contacted who, along with his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), is stunned by what they see when they meet the two sisters. They've both become feral children, with Lily gamboling about on all fours, while Victoria, though older and retaining some of her speech, also is more wild than civilized.
Lucas and Annabel are far from ready to care for them, but Dreyfuss offers to put the family up in a suburban home as long as he can continue to study the girls. They agree, and once they move in, a series of paranormal events occurs that suggest that Victoria and Lily aren't the only ones who have returned from the forest.
The visits by the title character are done with a degree of subtlety and cleverness that not only put the viewers on the edge of their seats but also have them anticipating the creature's next appearance. Of particular note is a scene in which we see Lily in her room with something that's playing tug of war with her — from which we are distracted — only to look back and see the girl somehow floating near the ceiling. It's a moment of great promise that Muschietti fulfills with one well-executed scene after another that steadily reveals Mama's origin and intent, all of which create a sense of anxiety that serves this material well.
Unfortunately, the spell is broken once Mama's background is revealed, and Muschietti rushes toward a bland, silly conclusion. Intelligent characters suddenly become as dumb as posts, and ridiculous coincidences pile up at an alarming rate, both of which ruin the credibility of the film. Also, Mama herself is a bit of a disappointment once she's on full display. This is a creature that works much better obscured in the shadows, and her full appearance is almost laughable at times.
This is too bad as Muschietti obviously has some talent, and the film is buoyed throughout by another fine performance by Jessica Chastain who is strong, sexy and fierce as a Bohemian stranded in the 'burbs. In the end, "Mama" winds up being a film of moments rather than a cohesive whole that succeeds in being as strong narratively as it is in tone.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.