Thinking about The Last Stand is a little like watching it: After a moment, torpor sets in, and you find yourself wondering what’s happening, and why, and whether you’re really awake. I find myself struggling to rebuild the story in my head, only to realize that there’s far less to it than what wound up on screen. It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first leading role in a decade, and it’s embarrassingly boring. It didn’t have to be this way, either. There’s plenty of room in the world for fantastic smart-dumb action, like last year’s Lockout, the kind of movies whose playfulness and mayhem are reassuring in their predictability. But The Last Stand doesn’t have any spark of life, and certainly nothing in it to make it memorable. It feels very much like a movie made by a man whose time has mostly passed, and who isn’t quite sure how to catch up. Schwarzenegger’s most recent film appearances were in the Expendables films, goofy blow-outs that riffed on the kind of action vehicles that made Schwarzenegger famous in the first place, but his return to a starring role sees him almost castrated by a safe, quiet, dull action movie. The movie’s a disappointment not because it’s undemanding — this is still Schwarzenegger we’re talking about — but because it’s scared to go all the way.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s plenty dumb, too. The basic plot deals with a Mexican drug kingpin named Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), who escapes from federal custody in Las Vegas while he’s being transferred between secure locations. With the help of a team of interchangeable teammates and a heavily promoted Corvette ZR1, Cortez heads for the border with a federal hostage riding shotgun. His crossing point: Sommerton Junction, Arizona, where he’s already dispatched an advance team to prep the roads that will take him back home. However, Sommerton’s guarded by Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) and his stunningly inept deputies, so things won’t be quite as smooth as Cortez wants them to be, though they still go really well for a while. The car is low enough to the ground that it can nose up and flip other cars, and it can also outrun a helicopter. They actually say that it can, out loud and everything. Road blocks are also no match for the car, and because there are only apparently half a dozen working law enforcement vehicles in the southern United States, and no one thought to bring a spike strip, Cortez pretty much flies to Sommerton unimpeded.
Director Kim Ji-woon handles all this with a minimum of heart. Whether he’s limited by the script (originally by Andrew Knauer, then rewritten by Jeffrey Nachmanoff and “supervised” by George Nolfi) or just bored with anything resembling character is hard to tell. Ray’s given shades of a past — time with the LAPD’s narcotics squad before moving to Sommerton for retirement — but the rest of the good guys are hopelessly bland. More than that, though: They’re just so relentlessly dumb it’s impossible root for them. The deputies are bumbling, the feds (led by Forest Whitaker) are myopic, and the townspeople are cartoons of cartoons. The film can’t even muster the requisite suspension of disbelief for Cortez’s magic car because it’s impossible to see past the ineptitude of every single person on screen.
This is where the fear of commitment comes in. The Last Stand is resolutely afraid to do anything with any character, scene, or idea that would in any way feel fresh or interesting. It’s Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen, but it’s also a marked retreat into the kind of filler, mid-1980s action titles that marked his ascendancy. Those movies took advantage of his size to get a certain job done, but they were also necessary evils to let Schwarzenegger do better or more interesting roles, from the straight-ahead manhunt of Predator to the stellar Total Recall or the nice balance of action and charisma in Terminator 2. The Last Stand pales next to those not because Schwarzenegger is older, but because he’s given less to do. He’s boxed in here, held back from having fun or mouthing off or doing any real damage until the film’s final act. And until then, we have to endure a staggering amount of bad acting, worse dialogue, and endless expanses of time with the dumbest lawmen to ever walk in front of a camera.
The film also looks sadly cheap. Kim relies a few too many times on chintzy CG for pivotal moments, like a sniper shot that takes out a farmer in jerky animation or the obvious green-screen look of the final showdown between Ray and Cortez on the U.S.-Mexico border. What’s weird is that so often Kim seems to favor practical effects, like squibs to explosions, which pack a stronger punch. The result is that the film feels slapped together out of necessity, sewn from disparate pieces to make an ungainly whole.
I can already feel the film slipping from me. It’s impossible to describe how weird this is. This doesn’t happen with many films, or even with most of them. Good or bad, interesting or boring, offensive or bland: They almost all offer something to remember, or think about, or talk about. Gangster Squad was a genuine trainwreck, but it was the kind of wreck that gave itself naturally to discussion and examination. But The Last Stand is maddeningly vague, a sloppily directed and barely acted movie that doesn’t even feel like it’s happening as it happens, let alone hours or days later. It’s a bad movie, a lifeless action film, and an utter disappointment for Schwarzenegger. It’s actually the worst thing a Schwarzenegger movie can be, and a sad sign of what the man’s become: harmless.