A great running gag in Kim Jee-woon's neo-noir A Bittersweet Life is that nobody in the Korean criminal underworld carries a gun. It takes the protagonist, a mafia enforcer on a quest for vengeance, 20 minutes and two protracted negotiations to wrangle up a measly beretta, which he uses to promptly slay a dozen of his almost comically unarmed colleagues. The Last Stand, Kim's Hollywood debut, inverts the joke: The punchline is that everybody bears arms, the backwater Arizona bordertown of Sommerton Junction that the film calls its central setting transformed through the power of democratic freedom into its own veritable well-regulated militia—a mock-serious celebration of second-amendment rights symptomatic of the film's genre-hewing conservatism. But the film's old-fashioned moralism extends only as far as its western roots dictate, which is to say that any tacit agenda, right-wing or otherwise, is simply the product of a now-unfashionable cinematic tradition. That the film's mores seem antiquated make its action no less modern or vital.
The rich cinematic tradition to which The Last Stand firmly belongs, of course, has a history of fruitful revision: High Noon's McCarthy-era cry for individualism produced a response of indignation in the form of Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo, itself later reimagined by John Carpenter as the radical state-force apologia Assault on Precinct 13. The formula lends itself well to modification and, perhaps more saliently, to modernization, which accounts for its continued popularity. Though the bar for a further remake hasn't been set particularly high, it's worth noting that The Last Stand represents the most successful attempt since Assault on Precinct 13 to adopt the basic High Noon framework and contemporize the milieu. It's also, much more remarkably, the best Hollywood action film in recent memory—and almost certainly the best Schwarzenegger outing since Terminator 2. The basic premise treads familiar ground: A small-town sheriff (Arnold Schwarzenegger) must enlist the help of a motley crew of locals—among them cadets, criminals, and honorary deputies—to defend their home from a small army of criminal intruders, whose arrival makes an impromptu battleground out of an otherwise sleepy Sommerton Junction.
Much has been said about Schwarzenegger's return to a starring action role after a full decade out of commission, but one of The Last Stand's best qualities is that it cannily avoids nostalgia for its star's now-distant golden age. Happily, this isn't the transparent victory lap many were anticipating (or perhaps dreading), and in many ways the film isn't even a straight-up Schwarzenegger vehicle in the traditional sense. Ignoring its star's broad foundation of self-mythologizing iconography in a bold attempt to establish some of its own, The Last Stand never forces Schwarzenegger to reprise a role for which he's simply no longer suited, instead easing him more comfortably into the kind of role previously reserved for an aging Clint Eastwood or, even better, John Wayne, to whom this small-town sheriff shtick is clearly indebted. The man still cuts an intimidating silhouette, but with age his face has taken on a shadow of weariness. There's a hardness to his eyes now, a faded quality he never had through the '90s; it's impossible to imagine him playing broad comedy or the family-friendly schlub anymore. It's a good look for him.
Kim, for his part, makes savvy use of Arnold as both a newly world-weary figure and, more frequently, the ever-reluctant hero, though he also knows to relegate his star to the periphery of the action when the narrative demands it. As in Assault on Precinct 13, the looming climactic siege promised by the setup is the culmination of two full acts' worth of exposition and tertiary action, the bulk of which involves the attempts of FBI agent Bannister (Forest Whitaker) to recapture a Mexican cartel kingpin, Gabriel Cortes (Eduardo Noriega), after his spectacular escape en-route to death row. This escape—framed as a kind of heist in which Cortes himself is the loot, extracted from an armored car with the aid of a crane and a very large magnet—is only the first of the film's many grandly conceived and elegantly executed set pieces, some of the most dynamic in recent memory. Several more occur when Cortes, continuing his escape in a modified car/deus ex machina capable (of course) of coasting at 200mph, hurtles toward the border with the feds in hot pursuit. That his destination is Sommerton, where members of the Cortes crew are already busy building a canyon bridge to Mexico, probably goes without saying.
Kim allows these gradually intertwining narratives to unfold as two discrete films in one, cutting from the Cortes getaway (and attendant car chases, each more absurd and wonderful than the last) to Schwarzenegger's procedural discovery of the bridge-construction plot and the handful of deftly handled skirmishes that pop up along the way. As he proved in his breathless revenge epic I Saw the Devil, Kim has a good feel for structure and pacing, never letting the standalone action of a set piece halt the forward momentum of the narrative, but also, more importantly, never letting that momentum prevent the film from savoring the moment. A sublime pre-credits sequence offers a taste indicative of the sensibility on display throughout: We open on a shot of the night sky—the Cowboy Junkies' great cover of "Blue Moon" on the soundtrack—which pans down, slowly, to a cop car idling to the side of a country road, just the stars and the slightest bit of dashboard light illuminating the scene. Another car with its headlights off, which we can hear but can't quite see, suddenly barrels by; the cop almost doesn't notice, but his radar gun registers a blip at 200mph. He assumes it's a low-flying jet.
Despite Kim's reputation as a master of Asian extreme horror, this kind of understated scene-setting is really where he most clearly excels; his command of mood, tone, and atmosphere make even the simplest gestures worth relishing in detail. Lensed by Kim Ji-yong, who also served as DP for the superb-looking A Bittersweet Life, works wonders with both the film's spare nighttime action sequences (an early standoff in a field lit by a row of floodlights looks stunning) and its central high-noon sortie, which has the golden sands and bright-blue skies of a classic Technicolor western. As seems to be so often the case, it takes the perspective of outsiders to show us the familiar American badlands as we've not seen them in years, rejuvenating the iconography of the west in a manner befitting Sergio Leone. (One hopes that Kim's debut inspires a Hollywood sojourn for fellow Korean countrymen Park Chan-wook or, even better, Hong Sang-soo.) But one of the most refreshing aspects of The Last Stand, despite its foreign inflection, is its acceptance of both western and action-film conventions on their own terms, refusing to regard itself as operating outside of or superior to the genre; it aspires instead to simply be a great example of classical genre filmmaking, a modest but nevertheless admirable goal. Would that more modern action films did the same.