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The Last Stand

When you sit down to watch The Last Stand, it's hard not to worry that you're going to be in for a letdown. The last time we saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in a starring role, 10 years ago in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, it surely was a letdown. Actually, you could argue that he hasn't made a great action movie since Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 22 years ago. Since then, things have been a bust for Arnold: there was his governorship, which ended in approval ratings lower than the RottenTomatoes score for Jingle All the Way. His 2012 memoir Total Recall did nothing to help us recall why we cared about him in the first place. Add on what we've come to know about his messy personal life, and, well, it's hard to be bullish about anything the Austrian Oak does these days.

Which is why The Last Stand is such a thrilling surprise. Far from a letdown, it's a return to the Arnold we know and love. And a huge part of the credit for that has to go to Korean action director Kim Jee-woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird), who brings a taught, flinty sensibility to his first American film. The Last Stand is minimalist action-painting writ-large.

Schwarzenegger plays Sheriff Ray Owens of small-town Summerton, Arizona. It's the kind of backwater where the greatest recreation to be found is a cup of coffee at the local diner. The usual tasks of its lawmen are nothing more dangerous than handing out parking tickets. All of that changes when slick Mexican drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) confounds the FBI and escapes from death row during a prisoner transfer in Las Vegas. It's an eye-gorging getaway staged like a magic trick, involving a giant magnet, a zipline across two Vegas towers, orange prison jumpsuited decoys, an immaculately tailored Armani suit, and a Corvette C6 ZR1, which becomes one of the stars of the movie. Cortez speeds across the Arizona desert in his souped-up ride — oh, yeah, in addition to being a drug lord, he's a racecar driver — and heads for the border. Guess what hick town he has to pass through to escape the country?

Except the people in Summerton aren't hicks, and neither is their sheriff. A few snatches of dialogue establish that he was an LAPD narc cop and the sole survivor of a daring raid, an experience so scarring that he retreated to the tiniest little burg he could find to nurse his wounds. That's why he has one-man-army fighting skills that he can deploy against Cortez and the hulking thugs (led by Fargo's Peter Stormare!) the drug lord has hired to pave the way for his border-crossing. In addition to Owens' two stalwart deputies (Thor's Jaimie Alexander and Luis Guzman, whose arsenal of fighting skills seems limited to oafish comic relief), the sheriff recruits a motley band of followers to protect the town from the impending onslaught. Among them are Rodrigo Santoro as a burnt-out, possibly PTSD-suffering Iraq War vet, and Johnny Knoxville as a military antiques collector with an obvious Jackass streak.

The resulting showdown, straight out of High Noon or Rio Bravo — this is really Arnold's first Western — is agreeably low-tech, with the sheriff using the Knoxville character's antiquated weapons, including a Gatling gun, against the descending hordes. The implication is something that NRA head Wayne LaPierre would cheer: that the only thing to stop bad guys with guns is good guys with guns. But director Kim pushes The Last Stand out of the PG-13 gloss of so many contemporary action films, and serves up a truly brutal splatterfest. This is a hard-R actioner, where violence is meant to be felt and have consequences (good guys are injured, and a couple die), even if a number of its characters perpetuate the idea that guns are cool. Like Paul Verhoeven before him, Kim doesn't want to make an action movie better than those of his Hollywood contemporaries, he just wants to make more of one. He teases out the full Freudian implications of American cinema's love of guns by having two characters make out immediately after shooting some baddies, and he embraces the idea of "wholesale slaughter as joke" by having Arnold deliver so-obvious-they're-funny punchlines after blowing away enemies. The way the sheriff's maverick antics pay off, the way he completely dispenses with "by the book" protocol, the way he definitively proves the superiority of local law enforcement over the three-steps-behind interference of the Feds (represented by a scowling, trench-coated Forest Whitaker), are what make The Last Stand the closest live-action equivalent we're ever going to get to The Simpsons' McBain movies.

Still, in looking backwards to the Western and to Schwarzenegger's own action-movie legacy, Kim mines something progressive and forward-thinking out of an aesthetic that's traditional. The sheriff's objective in preventing Cortez from escaping to Mexico is exactly the opposite of that of anti-immigrant border patrolmen. The best exchange in the movie, period, involves Cortez and Owens riffing on the image each presents on behalf of immigrants. The Last Stand is a film made from the perspective of an outsider — Kim commenting on America the way he sees it as an immigrant. The same goes for Schwarzenegger, but two-fold. Having been absent from the movies for so long, he's now in the position of looking at his own burly cinematic canon with an outsider's eye, and trying to find a way to move it forward. Schwarzenegger kept his promise that he'd "be back," and we couldn't happier that he did.

Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt rated this film 4 stars.