Saturday, January 19, 2013
THE LAST STAND, ARNOLD, AND THE STATE OF OWNAGE
A few words on genre: some genres are eternal, like drama, which is often mistakenly called “non-genre” because there are no hobbits running around with lasers fighting Indians over who gives the best blowjobs (this was my controversial “lost draft” of Cowboys & Aliens, before that picture was rewritten into a steaming pile of banal derp). And the reason drama seems like it's not a genre is because it's, more or less, the stuff life is made of. Dramas don't always depict life as it actually is, but consider the fact that a lot of weird fucking shit happens in real life at times. Then there's comedy, because stuff's always gonna be funny, even if the particular things people find funny evolve over time.
But then there are genres whose vitality is finite. The most famous of these is film noir. “But wait,” you might demur, “how is that true when noir's influence is felt to this day?” Well, my dear friend made of straw, allow me to be that doctrinaire fuck who points out that the years 1941-1958 constitute the period of film noir proper, and that all films since that got their noir on have done so either as a comment on the noir of the classical period, or through employment of the techniques developed therein. Classical film noir was about immediate societal concerns of the age in which the movies were made, most particularly a general repression of shadowy impulses people liked to pretend they didn't have. When the impulse cat was let out of the social bag toward the end of the 50s, a lot of shit was demystified and thus noir stories and techniques passed into formalism.
So. A natural question at this point would be, “What the fuck does any of this have to do with the new Arnold movie?” And I'm glad you asked, because I'm finally (sort of) ready to get to the goddamn point. The action movie as we know it today came to be in the 1980s, with the advent of Sly Stallone's decadent period and the rise to grace of his rival and eventually clear superior Arnold Schwarzenegger. The purest expression of the genre was Arnold's first non-Conan, non-Terminator movie, Commando, which has its origins in Stallone's Rambo cycle but has a joyous, feverish absence of giving a fuck that carries it to legendary heights. There isn't a clearly definable end period—yet; when someone gives me money to write Ownage: A Comprehensive History I'll set one in stone after careful research—but at a certain point we were all self-aware and suddenly it wasn't enough to have a cartoonishly muscular man with the accent of the Austrian expatriate colony on Mars (why else would Arnold call his memoir Total Recall? Think about it), the action genre shifted to a more self-aware state in which cleverness, grace, and speed were as vital as brute force. Violence maintained, but increasingly action sequences in American have been features in movies that have at least one foot in other genres, with the closest thing to pure action cinema in recent mainstream American releases coming in the Bourne and Mission: Impossible series, both of which are nominally about espionage.
Arnold himself spent some years out of the game, most of them spent in the Governor's mansion in California. After a couple pop-ins with Sly's Expendables movies, The Last Stand is Arnold's return to a leading role for the first time in a decade. It plays as an homage by Korean director Kim Ji-Woon (making his American debut) to Arnold movies that utterly nails certain key aspects of them while exuberantly trying to do a little bit too much. The Last Stand isn't the blatant and incompetent attempt to make “fetch” happen that the Expendables movies are (fuck those movies suck), it's a noble effort by a good director, but it's a little too dumb to be as quirky as it tries to be (not to mention trying to be quirky is a reflexively self-defeating enterprise) and a little too smart to be the Commando-style ownage fest it also tries to be.
It's definitely got its moments. Peter Stormare adds another entry, perhaps his strongest yet, in his Bad Accent Hall of Fame career as—hold on, I have to finish laughing—an American. (Wait, still not finished laughing.) The thing is, at this point, I'm pretty sure when Peter Stormare gets a new script, his eyes get all big and he's like, “Oh, man, this movie seems perfect for this new terrible 'American' accent I was just trying out in the shower the other day.” He's awesome enough at being a flamboyant, scenery-chewing villain to earn the right to be cut some slack with regards to the fascinatingly godawful accents. And here, again, he's in top-of-his-game form as a dickbag who shows up in the small Arizona town where Arnold's sheriff with his flashy clothes and big-city ways, herald of ill portent.
There's a bit of awkward cross-cutting to some shit in Vegas where Special Agent Forest Whitaker of the FBI (who wrecks some dental work on the set in his own fucking right, trust) is getting ready to have an uber-baddie drug cartel kingpin who looks eerily like a shorter Pau Gasol (but who is actually Eduardo Noriega, the lead from Abre los Ojos all them years ago) escape in a thrilling, hilariously convoluted scheme that would fall apart in a second if any of Forest Whitaker's FBI dudes simply looked upward. But if Pau Gasol (sorry Eduardo Noriega, they really do look alarmingly alike) hadn't escaped there wouldn't be a movie, so in short order he's in an experimental thousand-horsepower sports car headed straight for Arnold's town. Plotwise the whole rest of the movie is: bad guy's on his way with a bunch of heavily armed dudes, Arnold has to stop them.
When the time comes and the ownage is finally upon us, The Last Stand is pretty fucking glorious. Arnold has the single greatest Ownage Face that has been or ever will be. There's a reason why he's Arnold. That's because he's fucking Arnold. (I'm the motherfucker that taut this ology, byetches.) And when Arnold cuts loose and fucks shit up it's as if he never left. Problem is, Arnold's acting is a little rusty; he'd gotten to the point where he was acceptable and even occasionally quite good back when he was doing it all the time, but in The Last Stand he's playing (I forget who pointed this out, but I wasn't the first) a guy who's more like a Clint character than an Arnold “character,” so there are a few moments where his timing just fucking blows.
The rest of the movie teeters similarly between fun/strange and derpily executed. It's not immediately apparent whether it's a script or editing issue but the chronology of the bad guy's approach is all fucked up. There's no urgency to it; put it this way, you should never, ever, ever say “fucking finally” when the stranger finally comes to town, and yet that feeling of “fucking finally” pervades the concluding act of The Last Stand. And the thing is, the impulse to set up the townspeople as charming, weird, and worth saving is a good one. They need to be worth saving. It's awesome that they're not stereotypical small town bumpkins (much as small towns ick me out personally, with everyone all up in everybody else's shit all the time just because there's only that tiny-ass group of you there, they deserve to be portrayed with honesty and empathy). And I'm not doing that “well, I would have done shit differently” thing, but there's totally a way to set things up in the town without making it feel like it takes fucking five hours to do so. You can even cross-cut to the whole Forest Whitaker derping it up in Vegas storyline. But the way it plays in The Last Stand is unfortunately inefficient.
What I'm wondering now is whether the problems The Last Stand has as a movie are merely its own or a reflection of the obsolescence of the action genre as a purely discrete entity from other genres. Just as film noir became something overlaid onto or incorporated into pictures in other genres, it may be that action has reverted to what it was before the Arnold/Sly period (and the second, broader tier dominated by Cannon Films, Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van-Damme, Steven Seagal, et al): an element in a movie, rather than its own separate genre. Maybe.
On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure the time is right yet to write an elegy for ownage, or for Arnold. The former is going nowhere. There's a bit of quiet pearl-clutching about The Last Stand having the amount of gunplay as it does at a time when America faces an epidemic of gun violence etc etc. I don't think that's the problem; Jamie Foxx cavalierly blows away every white (and white-haired, har har har) dude in Mississippi in Django Unchained and that picture's making a mint. Ownage will be with us as long as there's cinema. And Arnold isn't necessarily done either. When he's not floundering in the acting scenes, there's enough old-school Arnold clearly visible that Old Arnold is probably still a viable action lead. But it's his next picture where we're going to find out whether that's really true.