"The Last Stand" is an unpretentious, invigorating action flick that's extra-enjoyable whenever Arnold Schwarzenegger is on the screen demonstrating his flair for self-parody. It's made with a bright, quick, fresh touch by the Korean Kim Jee-Woon ("The Good, the Bad, the Weird"), whose scalawag humor and Spielbergian knack for staging imaginative action scenes earned him the chance to direct Schwarzenegger's comeback film. It's a gleefully audacious, visceral shoot-'em-up that shines a bit brighter arriving in the slow-movie month of January.
In sleepy Somerton Junction, Ariz., Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger), a onetime L.A. vice cop, directs a three-person team whose idea of excitement is rescuing the occasional kitten up a tree. It's an easygoing life, but trouble is headed their way at 200 miles per hour.
A murderous drug kingpin has escaped the FBI and is rocketing south in a supercharged sports car, with an advance contingent of thugs at the border town to facilitate his escape to Mexico. With the feds always several steps behind, it's up to the old lawman and his motley crew of deputies (plus a gonzo gun nut played by Johnny Knoxville and a jailhouse prisoner played by Rodrigo Santoro) to save the day.
It's simple, foolproof movie material, and Kim paces the film expertly, spoon-feeding just enough backstory and character points to make us care about the good guys. Schwarzenegger's spare acting works well for a role that is perfectly in his range. The bad guys, Eduardo Noriega as the drug kingpin and Peter Stormare as his chief henchman, are odious in distinctive ways, while Forest Whitaker humanizes his role as the FBI team leader.
Screenwriter Andrew Knauer wisely clears the battlefield, sending almost the entire population of this sunbaked Podunk to a neighboring town for a big high-school football game, so when the inevitable firefights begin there won't be any innocent bystanders in peril. When we're settled in and emotionally invested, the film kicks into higher gear, with muscular, kinetic action sequences.
The violence is electrifying and excessive, but sanitized -- often cheerful. Much of the bloodletting is staged for crowd-pleasing burlesque humor. The crimson splatter is as graceful as calligraphy. There are plenty of casualties, yet hardly any sustained suffering.
It's not all action-movie excess, though. There's no fat on this movie, yet not all the interesting edges have been shaved off. There's a fine comic set-piece involving Knoxville in a "Jackass"-style stunt with a light pole, and a tense game of automotive hide-and-seek set in a corn field that Hitchcock would admire. As Arnold's return to the screen and Kim's American debut, this is a big audience win-win.