This is the action superstar's first leading role in a decade, having left acting to serve as the governor of California and whatnot, and while it may not have occurred to you to miss him during that time, it's still surprisingly good to see him on the big screen again.
He is not exactly pushing himself here. Korean director Kim Jee-woon's American filmmaking debut turns out to be an extremely Schwarzeneggerish Schwarzenegger film, full of big, violent set pieces and broad comedy. He may look a little creaky (and facially freaky) these days, but Arnold proves he's still game for the mayhem as he fires off rounds and tosses off one-liners, and the movie at least has the decency to acknowledge that it knows that you know that he's old.
The script also feels a bit old - "The Last Stand" is essentially an amped-up version of "Rio Bravo," with some "Jackass"-style hijinks courtesy of Johnny Knoxville himself. But Kim keeps things moving briskly and the members of the strong supporting cast don't seem to mind that they're playing flimsy types. Everyone's just here for a mindless good time.
Schwarzenegger stars as Ray Owens, sheriff of the tiny Arizona border town of Sommerton Junction, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and the locals sit around the diner trading folksy jokes. That's why the sheriff is immediately suspicious of some visitors sharing a booth over breakfast one morning - they clearly don't belong there. Andrew Knauer's script makes some passing mention of Owens' past career as a highly decorated Los Angeles police narcotics detective, which is intended to explain why this mild-mannered guy with the thick accent is such a bad-ass.
Turns out these new folks (led by Peter Stormare) are there laying the groundwork for Mexican drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), who's just escaped federal custody in Las Vegas in elaborate fashion. He's headed straight for the border at Sommerton with a hostage in the passenger seat in a stolen, souped-up Corvette that can reach speeds of 250 mph. While FBI agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and his crew try in vain to chase Cortez, the sheriff and his makeshift posse set up a barricade. And they wait.
His team consists of the innocent newbie (Zach Gilford), the grumpy veteran (Luis Guzman), the pretty and capable female deputy (Jaimie Alexander), her screw-up ex-boyfriend who happens to be in the town's lone jail cell (Rodrigo Santoro) and the wacko with an arsenal who gives his weapons pet names. That would be Knoxville.
The shootouts and showdowns are muscular, high-energy and consist of an insane amount of gunfire, although there are some bursts of squirm-inducing, creative carnage. Much of the hand-to-hand combat is shot and edited in a way to obscure what Schwarzenegger is actually doing while creating the illusion that he's kicking all kinds of butt. Far more effective is a clever, intimate car chase through a cornfield that's alternately thrilling and quietly suspenseful.
That this scrappy band of underdogs can take out the more technologically advanced villain and his crew should come as no surprise. It's as predictable as Arnold saying he'll be back, and making good on that promise.
"The Last Stand," a Lionsgate release, is rated R for strong, bloody violence throughout and language. Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.