'The Last Stand' Stumbles Over Writing

The Last Stand -- Dir. Jee-woon Kim (Lionsgate) -- 2.5 Stars

“The Last Stand” opens with a policeman sitting on the side of a road at night eating a donut. This is not a particularly novel sight in television or film; cops eating donuts are an old trope. The issue with this flimsy initial scene, however, is the same problem that plagues the entire film. While covering well-tread ground is not itself a flaw, it can be a serious misstep without interesting characters or plot developments to make it more than just hackneyed. “The Last Stand” contains some competently shot action sequences, but its thin plot and shallow characters make it nothing more than a feeble echo of other films of its genre.

“The Last Stand” is set in the fictional border town of Sommerton Junction, the inhabitants of which include sheriff and shell-shocked LAPD veteran Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Law enforcement in Sommerton Junction is usually uneventful, but this changes when FBI Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and Owens learn that a fugitive named Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) plans flee to Mexico through the town. With major reinforcements too far off to intervene, Owens and his misfit crew must act as the final barrier between Cortez and freedom.

Schwarzenegger has been largely absent from cinema in recent years, but he is back to his old routine in “The Last Stand.” Sheriff Owens shoots big guns, beats up baddies, and delivers punchy one-liners. Schwarzenegger’s trademark stoic demeanor holds firm throughout the film, save for during a few emotional scenes that could have benefitted from him displaying more vulnerability. This is not an issue with Schwarzenegger alone; many principal characters lack complexity or nuance. As Agent Bannister, Whitaker does little more than bark commands to subordinates while making cartoonishly angry faces. Johnny Knoxville as Lewis Dinkum, a goofy firearm collector who provides weapons to Owens’s force, brings some laughs but seems only to be playing his “Jackass” persona with a Southern accent. Noriega’s Cortez delivers one monologue that seems to be the screenwriters’ attempt to indicate that he has a tragic backstory, but this is presented so briefly and abruptly that it has little impact.

It may have been easier for the actors to portray memorable characters if the film didn’t suffer from such poor writing. The trite dialogue could have been thrown together by anyone who has seen a hodge-podge of action movies, and some characters deliver baffling punchlines that would be better suited for an episode of “Full House.” Perhaps writers Andrew Knauer, Jeffry Nachmanoff, and George Nolfi felt that this ’90s-era humor would help Schwarzenegger channel some of his “Terminator 2” self, but for the most part, the jokes fall flat. There are a few genuinely funny lines and several somewhat moving scenes, but not enough to make the movie clever or touching.

The film also squanders a number of palpable opportunities to add depth or intrigue to the plot. Owens’s traumatic experiences as an LAPD officer are barely addressed. Cortez’s plan to escape to Mexico is at first mysterious and turns out to be rather ingenious, but it is revealed so nonchalantly that any mystique that the plot initially had vanishes without a payoff.

An action movie with relatively weak plots or characters can sometimes redeem these flaws with spectacular action, and “The Last Stand” has some impressive feats and striking sequences in the second half. But despite a few high points, there are blunders to be found in the these scenes as well. During a sequence in which the villain makes an escape from the FBI prison caravan, the camera flits wildly between different shots of police and the villains in a manner that is more disorienting than thrilling. Some of the action becomes repetitive and predictable; there are so many scenes centered on the souped-up Corvette ZR1 (identified by name and model by a character whose sole purpose in the movie seems to be doing so) that Cortez uses as his escape vehicle that one might begin to wonder whether the entire movie was conceived as an elaborate car commercial. This is particularly disappointing coming from director Jee-Woon Kim, whose films, such as “I Saw the Devil” and “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” have garnered him a reputation for captivating, tightly choreographed action sequences.

The few interesting stunts and funny moments in “The Last Stand” are ultimately insufficient to save the movie from its formulaic composition and unimaginative writing. In preparing for the explosive standoff between his police force and Cortez’s men, Owens, having dealt with similar situations in the past, solemnly warns one of his officers, “I know what’s coming.” It would be hard not to, sheriff.

—Staff writer Chiemeka Ezie can be reached at cezie@college.harvard.edu.

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