rating: 3After a decade away from the big screen, chipping away at the political arena and teasing us with several enthusiastic cameo appearances, it appears that Arnold Schwarzenegger is back for good. His first starring role since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines sees the beloved action star at arguably his most self-aware, a savvy move which allows skilled South Korean director Kim Ji-woon (A Bittersweet Life, The Good, The Bad and the Weird, I Saw the Devil) to stage several kinetic firefights around the actor without causing him to stand out as some of his old-school contemporaries tend to in films such as this. Primarily geared towards those old enough to have been reared on a healthy diet of the actor's golden run of action movies during the 1980s and 90s, The Last Stand might not do much for younger audiences, but for those prepared to give in to nostalgia, it is a welcome return for an actor who still has the screen presence to deliver a satisfying pump of the shotgun accompanied by a ridiculous one-liner. Naturally, Arnie plays Sheriff Ray Owens, a committed law-man who presides over a sleepy town next to the Mexican border. After hearing that an international drug lord, Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), has escaped FBI custody and is heading towards the border in a car faster than a chopper, he teams up with his colleagues, Sarah (Jaimie Alexander), Lewis (Johnny Knoxville), Mike (Luis Guzmán) and also Frank (Rodrigo Santoro), a crack-shot felon he reluctantly deputises, to ensure Cortez doesn't make it past the border. While the FBI races to the scene, led by Agent Bannister (Forest Whitaker), Cortez has enlisted Burrell (Peter Stormare) and his gang of mercenaries to assault the town and ensure his safe passage to Mexico.
It's fair to say that those expecting an all-out Arnie blast-fest will find themselves a little fidgety during the first half of The Last Stand, which primarily introduces us to the characters and delivers set-pieces occurring far away from the reach of Sheriff Owens. However, the film drawing attention to the actor's accelerated age and cracking wise about it softens the blow; it's simply a joy to see Schwarzenegger's statuesque frame filling the screen once again, oozing a grizzled level of cantankerous charisma that might remind viewers of some of Clint Eastwood's later-day action roles. Half-way, things shift, and Arnie finally gets to pick up a gun, blowing away the foes in a way that feels only scarcely implausible, generally surrendering his creaking joints and lack of mobility compared to his assailants. Ji-woon smartly keeps most of Arnie's tustles confined to gunfire; there aren't any mano-y-mano fistfights with a man half his age, thankfully (Stallone, take note). The real fun comes in the film's final third, as the titular stand against Cortez and Burrell's gang occurs, complete with Arnie manning a gatling gun - a fun reference to Terminator 2 - and ripping the bad guys to shreds. It's all shot through with a frantic enthusiasm by Ji-woon, who takes relatively generic material and imbues it with plenty of manic energy, even if his fans will argue that he's ultimately held back by it.
Picking the plot apart isn't advisable - and given its simplicity, there really isn't much to pick at - though the amount of time the film spends building up Cortez's car, only to have Owens effortlessly catch up to it in an inferior vehicle later on makes all the fuss seem rather pointless; it's as though scribe Andrew Knauer wrote himself into a corner and couldn't find a way out. What makes the film worth watching is its action-packed finale and the likeable characters; Schwarzenegger is obviously the main appeal as the rugged, over-the-hill Sheriff, but Thor's Jaimie Alexander again proves herself capable of playing a kick-ass femme who also happens to be extremely attractive, while Knoxville and Guzmán are well-cast as the comic relief guys who can handle themselves surprisingly well. Peter Stormare is clearly having a lot of fun as the idiosyncratic baddie, and like most people in this film, it's clear that he signed up purely to have a blast working with one of action cinema's most indelible figures. Forest Whitaker meanwhile mostly sleepwalks through his role as an FBI agent, but then he's given next to nothing to work with anyway. Expect wall-to-wall thrills and you might not be too taken with The Last Stand, but those prepared to simply soak in Schwarzenegger's presence at first will be rewarded later with some cracking action. A suitably lightweight comeback for Arnie, The Last Stand does just enough to please his legion of fans, and proves the action icon still has charisma to spare.
The Last Stand is in cinemas tomorrow.