The question with “The Last Stand,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen (not counting “The Expendables 2”) after being the governor of California and at the heart of a messy marital scandal, is this: Does he pick up where he left off as an action hero or is it an embarrassment, hurtling him down the road to cinematic obsolescence?
The answer falls somewhere squarely in the middle. For sure, “The Last Stand” is no “Terminator” but it is a fun, if predictable, action-thriller that has no problem gently reminding you how old he is – 66 – while simultaneously having him give the world’s most dangerous drug-cartel kingpin a brain-banging beatdown.
Schwarzenegger is Sheriff Ray Owens, who presides over his small, sun-baked Arizona border town like a caring dad. So when it seems most of the city takes off for an away high-school football game, Owens is expecting a quiet weekend, leaving what little there is to do to his well-meaning but inexperienced deputies: work-shy Mike Figuerola (Luis Guzman); newbie Jerry Bailey (Zach Gilford, “Friday Night Lights”); and no-nonsense Sarah Torrance (Jaimie Alexander).
Little does he know that, miles away in Las Vegas, Mexican gangster Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) has made a daring, highly choreographed escape from federal custody. He is on the lam in a modified Corvette ZR1, reaching speeds of up to nearly 200 mph as he races toward the border. Cortez, with the help of some his cronies, plans to smuggle himself back into Mexico over a secret bridge his associates have been constructing near Owens’ town.
Angry federal agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), who seems to have had a long obsession with capturing the slippery Cortez, calls to warn Owens that the dangerous felon is headed his way. So it’s up to Owens and his ragtag, ad hoc crew — which also includes well-armed town eccentric and comedic relief Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) and ne’er-do-well Frank Martinez (Rodrigo Santoro), the only occupant in the town’s tiny jail – to keep Cortez from making his escape to Mexican soil.
South Korean director Jee-woon Kim (“The Good, The Bad, the Weird”; “I Saw the Devil”), working from a script by Andrew Knauer, Jeffrey Nachmanoff and George Nolfi, keeps things moving quickly in his Hollywood debut. Cortez’s breakout on the streets of Vegas at the film’s start and a car chase through a corn field near the end show off a keen visual eye.
That helps distract viewers from the story’s outbursts of improbability. (No one even suspects that a large bridge, not hidden by foliage and easily seen from the air, is being built by a criminal gang near their town? Really?)
Certainly, Schwarzenegger moves a bit slower than he used to. There are a couple of moments when you almost hear the bones creaking. But he can still deliver the hurt to some bad guys.
That’s the main thing anyone going to see this film cares about. With “Terminator 5” announced and a fleet of other Schwarzenegger’s movies in the pipeline, those afraid “The Last Stand” indeed would be Arnold’s last stand can breathe a sigh of relief.
He’ll be back.