Korean director Kim Ji-woon is among the most gifted, versatile genre stylists in the world, with a wrestling comedy (The Foul King), an idiosyncratic horror melodrama (A Tale Of Two Sisters), a spaghetti Western/comedy (The Good, The Bad, The Weird), and a serial-killer thriller (I Saw The Devil) to his credit. But the Hollywood system has a way of chewing up foreign filmmakers, even those like Kim, who speak the language of Western cinema fluently. The Last Stand bears the additional freight of being Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first true starring vehicle since his two-term misadventure as governor of California, so Kim has to serve the aging icon as much as he can serve his sensibility. It’s a struggle at times, mostly because the action-movie clichés haven’t been weeded out of the script, but the film is cheerfully, irresistibly destructive—an old-fashioned, Rio Bravo shoot-’em-up with the hicktown spirit of Tremors, though it isn’t as good as either.
The warmed-over redemption story casts Schwarzenegger as a disgraced LAPD officer who takes a job as sheriff in a sleepy border town, where he hopes to forget a botched operation. Keeping the peace in Sommerton Junction isn’t much work for this overqualified lawman, but when a notorious drug kingpin (Eduardo Noriega) escapes from an FBI convoy and starts barreling toward Mexico at 200 mph, Schwarzenegger is called back into action. With just a few other woefully inexperienced deputies—including a prisoner (Rodrigo Santoro) and a local gun hoarder (Johnny Knoxville) granted a temporary badge—Schwarzenegger tries to fend off the kingpin’s army of mercenaries (led by a hilariously accented Peter Stormare) and keep him from slipping across the border.
Apart from a witty opening scene that doubles as a callback to I Saw The Devil, The Last Stand has trouble finding its groove in the early going, as it splits its time between generic FBI guys (led by Forest Whitaker) and the quirkier denizens of Sommerton Junction. Once trouble finally comes to town, however, Kim unleashes a squib-exploding bonanza of violence that’s complimented by a lightness of spirit from good guy and bad guy alike. Though Schwarzenegger keeps the groaning one-liners to a minimum, the film primarily aims to please: Redemption setup aside, The Last Stand doesn’t take itself too seriously. It scores laughs from its goofy, trigger-happy characters in the breaks between Kim’s thrilling flourishes of visual invention. For a lumbering old star like Schwarzenegger, with an image tarnished by his time in public service, it serves as a generous act of career resuscitation.