Arnold Schwarzenegger casts a giant shadow in his first full-fledged return to the big screen, and Korean auteur Kim Jee-woon kowtows in turn, churning out the stylishly anonymous "The Last Stand," a hopefully-timeless throwback to the iron-jawed heroes of Arnie's yesteryear. The film that ends up on screen zigs and zags in fits and starts, only to come alive during a frenetic half hour that features a small-town showdown nearly worth the price of admission alone. It's the remaining hour and thirty minutes that drags the fireworks down — the leaden dialogue and morsels of character development do the film no favors, and when the pacing halts so that Forest Whitaker's Agent Bannister can deliver another bit of shameless exposition, "The Last Stand" begins to sag and sigh, not unlike the superstar at the heart of it.
Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) and his tiny contingent of deputies are keeping watch over the nondescript town of Summerton, when an escaped drug kingpin, barreling down the road in an experimental Chevrolet, decides to cut through town to make his way home to Mexico. Owens is having none of that, and despite Bannister getting a line in about a "maniac with a Batmobile," the sheriff and co. are prepared to stop the kingpin and his cadre of mercenaries, led by the delightful Peter Stormare. To do so, they'll need to recruit weapons nut Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) and make the most of what small arsenal there is. Long before the showdown though, comes a lot of hokum that strives to prop up thin characters — the inexperienced young deputy dreaming of making it big (Zach Gilford), the requisite female deputy (Jaimie Alexander, one of the two women who factor into the film; neither fares particularly well), and…Luis Guzmán, whose practiced shtick is guaranteed to score a few laughs.
Lest you forget this is Arnie's comeback, "The Last Stand" is smartly if not subtly geared to remind you that the superstar is delivering a very American type of picture. It's worth mentioning that a climactic car chase features a Corvette going up against a souped-up Camaro. It's also worth mentioning the self-knowing humor running through the film — at one point Owens dons a pair of eyeglasses to aid an investigator, a minor touch but one that speaks volumes when it's Arnold Schwarzenegger's eyes that need assistance. At 65, the former governor has all of his swagger intact even though he puts his fluency under lock and key to indulge the symbolic lawman who speaks rarely but always means what he says. When Arnold stands his ground and utters "This is my home," you had better believe he's talking about the America he's helped shape both in his political career and in several gung-ho action classics. Welcome back, Mr. Schwarzenegger, we're glad to have you.
Kim Jee-woon gets some room to play in his American debut, but the film feels strangely devoid of the auteur's specific touch, the same one that combined physical humor and a gliding camera in "The Good, The Bad, The Weird," and displayed admirable restraint in showing us the face of evil in "I Saw The Devil." "The Last Stand" at its best feels like a marriage between Simon West and Michael Bay, sun-kissed bombast dialed down a bit and improved by clean choreography that stays away from breathless editing. Plenty of moments are engineered to elicit cheers, and they did at the screening we attended, but the film rarely strays from the genre specificity that feels comfortable at best and dated at worst.
This is the kind of action film you've seen before done better, and while the technological aspects may be more polished than most, the theatrical experience still feels considerably small-screen. As a comeback vehicle, it's got just enough gumption to make it across the finish line but it certainly doesn't come roaring out of the gate. With a less iconic actor, this would be a toned-down VOD entry, but with Arnie earning top billing, well, expectations come with that, and "The Last Stand" delivers — up to a point. Keep those expectations reasonable and try not to be disappointed. [C+]