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The Last Stand (2013)

The Last Stand

You can imagine how the pitch meeting went. The team goes in with a note on the back of an envelope. The bad guy breaks out of jail and makes a run for the Mexican border. The only thing standing between him and freedom is a battle-scarred veteran sheriff in a hick town no-one’s ever heard of. They talk about nostalgia for the 1980s shoot ‘em up films where lone heroes prevail against outrageous odds. But brought up to date, of course. Modern audiences, they don’t go for the simple-minded shit no more. This one’s gotta have heart. They talk about timing and the potential availability of a suitable geriatric action hero who can carry this type of film. Inquiries are made. He would be interested. They talk dollars and the film is green-lighted.

 

For films like The Last Stand (2013) to work, there has to be a script with good pacing. Strangely, the writing is left to a relatively inexperienced Andrew Knauer so it needs support. This comes from Jee-woon Kim as director. Although this is his first US feature film, he’s one of South Korea’s best directors having garnered praise, a few awards, and good box office on the Asian circuit for all his films. One, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) was remade by Hollywood as The Uninvited (2009). He’s a good choice to take a very simple story, string it out over 107 minutes and keep us entertained.

Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) not talking to each other

Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) not talking to each other

 

So this is a twin-track film. We need a slow set-up in Sommerton Junction, Arizona, next to the Mexican border where we meet everyone who’s going to feature in the battle at the end. We also need to establish the threat and meet the FBI team that’s going to be chasing the bad guy as he makes his break for freedom. In the boondocks, it’s another routine day of festivities as the local people celebrate the departure of their football team and most of the town in support. Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Sheriff, gets ready for the peace of the weekend, undisturbed by inconvenient people jaywalking on the streets or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. This doesn’t prevent him from picking up Burrell Thomas (Peter Stormare) on his radar as he passes through Sommerton. He feels wrong and, as we later see, he’s on his way to meet with the rest of the gang which has a vital task to perform.

 

In LA, Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is getting ready to move Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) the Mexican drug boss in what’s supposed to be a secret convoy. Not unnaturally, there’s a mole so, to produce the necessary trigger for the rest of the film, some of his gang are waiting for the convoy with one of these cranes with a convenient electromagnetic grab to lift the armored truck on to the roof of a nearby tall building. Exit drug cartel boss with an FBI hostage in the fastest thing on wheels stolen from a nearby motor show. The car itself is great fun and, although hilariously foolish, the way it takes out the two SUVs carrying the SWAT team is terrific fun. Indeed, this typifies a certain sense of inventiveness about the way the plot develops alongside the more routine moments of realism, e.g. the failure of the milk delivery alerts the town that the local farmer may have had a heart attack. Or could it be something more serious?

Eduardo Noriega behind the wheel in his getaway car

Eduardo Noriega behind the wheel in his getaway car

 

Unlike the films of the 1980s which were vehicles for Arnold Schwarzenegger to dance around the screen avoiding bullets and taking out small armies on the “other side”, this has him as a reluctant hero. He’s more afraid because he’s seen blood spilled and knows what’s coming. Fortunately there’s the usual weirdly eccentric guy who lives outside town who rescues the situation. Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) is a dealer in historic arms. Deputising him gives the defenders access to an impressive range of weaponry including a WWII Vickers machine gun and some mediaeval armour — just what you need when fighting off a well-armed gang. Trying to move the townsfolk out of the diner has humour as does the attempt to establish a barricade using whatever’s to hand. It’s a good set-up.

 

This is not to say the film is actually any good. As mindless entertainment, it keeps going well. But if you make any attempt to think about what’s happening, you could shoot the script full of holes. The ending is just extraordinary and not in a good way. It’s rare to come across such an array of poor contrivances to fill the last ten minutes or so as they drive around the corn field, manage to navigate to the bridge without GPS, fight without anyone waiting on the Mexican side to welcome our escapee, and then limp back to town doing the Lone Ranger bit with the wrecked car as the tired horse. To say the follow-up FBI investigation is a joke is an understatement. Indeed, the lack of chemistry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Forest Whitaker is embarrassing, and the final arrest is the capping moment of stupidity as, apparently, the FBI can hack Swiss bank accounts on demand. That said, The Last Stand is not pretending to be anything other than a popcorn special and, at that level, it succeeds admirably. So long as you’re not expecting anything special, you’ll enjoy it.

 

The Expendables 2 (2012)

The Expendables 2

I come to The Expendables 2 (2012) as an innocent. For reasons that currently escape me, I neglected to see the first instalment. The idea that Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) should therefore get the team back together again is not something that fills me with excitement. Rather it’s apprehension. Forgive my literal mind but the whole point of people being expendable is that their lives are sacrificed for the greater good. This can be heroic or stupid depending on the mission, but ever since Odysseus persuaded those suckers to get inside the wooden horse and wait for pick-up outside the walls of Troy, there’s been a tradition for soldiers to take suicidal risks. Obviously they hope to come back alive but, more often than not, they don’t. So there’s something faintly suspicious about the title because it suggests the core performers are bulletproof. Once you accept the star actors are not going to die, whatever tension there might have been in the plot evaporates and all you are left with is carnage on an industrial scale for everyone else, explosions and silly jokes about death and destruction.

Sylvester Stallone still acting the tough guy

Sylvester Stallone still acting the tough guy

 

So where are we on this? It starts with the mandatory high action sequence as the cavalry rolls into a random position controlled by vast numbers of rebels/terrorists/armed insurrectionists. They rescue Arnold Schwarzenegger and a hostage, then fly out with everyone smiling. Once safely back home, the young Billy (Liam Hemsworth) announces he’s going to quit. This, of course, immediately marks him down for death (being Australian seals the deal). We’re given a backstory and, after we’ve wiped away the tears over the death of his dog, he has the good fortune to be killed by Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). If you’re going to go early in a film, at least ensure you’re offed by someone notable. Van Damme is notable even if it’s only for being over the hill like many of the others who appear in this parade of 1980s talent. This includes Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) and Booker (Chuck Norris) who are all still amazingly wooden when it comes to acting. Still having star power, there’s Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and Yin Yang (Jet Li — sadly only a cameo fight). Filling out the cast is Maggie Chan (Yu Nan), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) — notice the mandatory silly nicknames. Having meandered for half-an-hour, the plot comes down to two elements. The villain of the piece is out to steal some five tons of plutonium — not the easiest of loads to move around the countryside but, if it gets into the right hands, it can make lots of big dirty explosions. The rest of the team want revenge for the death of Billy. This fulfills the basic requirement that plots for films like this should be easy to understand.

Jason Statham the go-to-guy for a fight

Jason Statham the go-to-guy for a fight

 

In between the shooting and the conventional explosions, there’s some truly terrible dialogue veering wildly between mawkish sentimentality, silly jokes and suggestions on how to kill or avoid being killed. It’s better to nibble whatever’s to hand and take a pull on a stiff drink to get you through these filler scenes to the next action set-piece. That said, the arrival of the team in the mine where the plutonium has been stored must rank as one of the most absurd scenes of the last decade. I can imagine this being a sequence of images in a comic and fanboys thinking it was cool but, on the big screen, it just looks stupid. Everything else is standard shoot ’em up stuff except the personal fights at the end. I can understand Sylvester Stallone not wanting to risk himself, even in a fight with a pussycat like Van Damme, but it’s disappointing so much of it is shot in semi-darkness. That goes double for the final contribution from Jason Statham. When you keep losing the man in the shadows, there’s something seriously wrong. We pay good money for something vaguely credible. When corners are cut with the fight choreography, it’s a major disappointment.

 

Taken overall, I suppose we shouldn’t expect anything special from a film like this. It’s made to a formula and looking at the box office takings of about $300 million on a $100 million budget, it drew big audiences around the world. To me it’s not unenjoyable, but obviously I’m out of step with this niche in the market. This audience likes the action stars of yesteryear coming back and making fun of themselves (or not as the case may be). If your taste is action films, I guess The Expendables 2 is as good as it gets.

 

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