“I told you I’d be back,” Arnold Schwarzenegger says in the promo that introduces The Last Stand, the Governator’s first starring role since Terminator 3 a decade ago. Never averse to reusing his trademark catchphrases or characters, the 65-year-old slab of Austrian beef returns to the private sector with the very definition of an all-American action film — guns, cars and a sexy hostage — that happens to be directed by Kim Jee-woon, a South Korean. It’s an enjoyably old-fashioned shoot-out, if you can shake off the current headlines and sink in to a fantasy of hyper-violence that plays like an NRA vision of America the Beautiful.
(READ: Corliss’s 1990 profile of Arnold Schwarzenegger by subscribing to TIME)
At an age when many Americans make do as Walmart greeters, Schwarzenegger nimbly hulks back into the movie spotlight after two terms as California Governor. Through graceful aging and the wonders of medical aesthetics, his face has achieved a granite gravitas suitable for the Mount Rushmore of movie studs where he belongs. From his first big movie, Conan the Barbarian in 1982, he created a dual image of a comic-book superhero and its perfect deadpan parody: muscles on muscles, a grim visage and the Teutonic grunt of a Wagner aria as sampled by Megadeth. The franchises he launched have spun on with other actors for decades, in updates or remakes of Conan, The Terminator, Predator and Total Recall. Yet there’s nothing to match the original Arnold for grand-scale serious silliness, as amply displayed in The Last Stand.
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In Andrew Knauer’s script, Schwarzenegger is called Ray Owens — exactly the anonymous heartland name you’d give to the cyborg from another planet — and serves as the “pissant county sheriff” in the sleepy border town of Sommerton Junction. The locals take little heed of this judicious, soft-spoken Golem, leaving their cars in no-parking zones and ignoring his advice to be careful out there. Ray’s apprehension is on target. The Mexican drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Spanish heartthrob Eduardo Noriega) has escaped from maximum security in Las Vegas, taking a sexy FBI agent (Genesis Rodriguez) as hostage, and is headed back home in a souped-up Corvette ZR1 that can speed toward the border at 200 mph. From FBI agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), Ray learns that Cortez’s route is to pass right through Sommerton, where his gang has constructed a bridge across the narrow ravine separating the U.S. from Mexico. “I’ve seen enough bloodshed and death,” says Ray, who quit his job as an L.A. cop for the serenity of Sommerton. “I know what’s coming.”
(READ: Richard Schickel on Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland)
So do any citizens who’ve seen the movies The Last Stand is based on: the 1959 Howard Hawks Western Rio Bravo and John Carpenter’s 1976 sorta-remake Assault on Precinct 13. Both films spent their first two acts assembling the team that would stand strong against an infestation of villains. Same here. To stop Cortez, Ray summons a motley posse: his game but untested deputies Mike Figuerola (Luis Guzmán), Jerry Bailey (Zach Gilford) and Sarah Torrance (Jaimie Alexander), plus gun-museum owner Lewis Dinkum (Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville) and Frank Martinez (Rodrigo Santoro), Sarah’s erstwhile beau and a current resident of the local jail. Problem is that the small-town camaraderie here is perfunctory, short on dramatic juice. All the Sommerton stalwarts get too much face time, as if the movie were about human beings, not archetypes and artillery.
(READ: Joel Stein’s profile of Jackass Johnny Knoxville)
Slapdash in its character portraits, the movie is slambang in its action scenes; it springs to life whenever it promises death. Like an old Fred Astaire musical, Top Hat or Swing Time, where the dialogue scenes are feeble but the singing and dancing sublime, The Last Stand infuses its production numbers — the big chases, break-outs and face-offs — with a high thrill quotient. Cortez’s escape from Bannister’s FBI cortege in Vegas has the oversize showmanship of a David Copperfield extravaganza, as a giant magnet descends during a stop light and lifts the van to a tall building’s roof, whence the drug lord and three abettors ride wires across Las Vegas Blvd. to another building and vanish.
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Even quiet, amiable Sommerton is a place where someone is less likely to say, “Good morning,” than “Get the Glock.” A Cortez enforcer named Burrell (Fargo’s Peter Stormare, looking here like Louis C.K. doing a Timothy Carey bared-teeth impression) has come to town, commandeering a farm by blowing ornery Harry Dean Stanton off his tractor and into the next life. When Sarah and Jerry show up to investigate, Burrell douses the field lights and engages them in a firefight with night-vision goggles; it’s Zero Dark Thirty, Homeland Edition. The Main Street showdown has Ray blasting a bad guy’s brains out as the two men fall from a three-story building, then using the town school bus — fortunately without kids inside — as a barricade.
(READ: Massimo Calabresi on the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty)
After the home team fends off the visitors by the simple expedient of shooting straight when the bad guys don’t, Ray borrows an illegally parked car to pursue Cortez in his ZR1 through a mature cornfield. Think of North by Northwest but in hot rods, and with Korean composer Mowg scoring the chase with a Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock-movie theme. (Oddly, it’s from Psycho.) Eventually, Ray will throw away his weapons to confront Cortez in a WWE slapdown. Last week’s Gangster Squad climaxed with the same curious retrenchment to caveman fisticuffs. A man’s gotta prove he’s a man with a gun and then without.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Gangster Squad)
Kim Jee-woon made a bunch of vivid melodramas, including A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil and The Good, the Bad, the Weird, back in South Korea, where firearms are hard to come by. (The main character in A Bittersweet Life spends a good part of the film just trying to buy a pistol.) As the first Korean auteur to direct a large-scale American movie, Kim is ready to revel in the notion of a 24-seven gun show in a town with a larger arsenal than the director’s northern neighbor, Kim Jong-un. Everybody in Sommerton is packing, including a granny type who runs the antique shop. Among the cache stocked by Knoxville’s Lewis are all manner of assault rifles and a 1939 Vickers machine gun that he endearingly calls “my crazy little bitch.” When Ray flourishes the Vickers as Cortez’s men rumbles on to Main Street, he snarls, “Welcome to Sommerton.”
(READ: TIME’s brief on Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird)
This is where I’m supposed to tut a liberal tut and blame the movie and its ilk for raising gun love to a theology. But what I’m thinking watching this scene is: An Austrian-born star aiming a British armament at a gang run by a Mexican played by a Spaniard — in a picture directed by a Korean! For good or for ill, you decide, The Last Stand demonstrates that the U.S. film industry is more than just a prime exporter of our movie values. In calling on Schwarzenegger, Noriega and Kim (plus two of his compatriots, Mowg and gifted cinematographer Kim Ji-yong) and setting them loose in a Wayne LaPierre wet dream, The Last Stand functions as a global outreach initiative for American values: the United Nations of blowin’ stuff up.