The Last Stand, the first starring vehicle in a decade for onetime action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a dumb fucking movie, and there is nobody sane who could argue otherwise. But it is not dumb, I wouldn't say - others, undoubtedly, would, and that is why the first starring vehicle in a decade for onetime action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger has experienced a box office meltdown of titanic proportions - not in the way that an insulting, savagely awful thing like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is so all-encompassingly mindless, and so eager to rub your face in the muck of its own endless stupidity. The Last Stand is a sort of movie wherein, after it is over, one shakes one's head, smiles a little and says with a light, almost laughing tone, "God, that was dumb". It is fun dumb, a pleasing action movie that is memorable in no ways at all, certainly not up to standing head and shoulders with any Schwarzenegger film from the days that he was the god and idol of adolescent male Americans; but fun. You can't be choosy in January.
Schwarzenegger plays Ray Owens, the sheriff of a wee little Arizona town on the Mexican border, the kind where there are a grand total of four police officers and everybody knows everybody else on a first-name basis. Owens is looking forward to a relaxing day off, as virtually the entire population has driven five hours away to attend the high school football team's big game; but alas for lazy, aging sheriffs with unexplained Austrian accents, Sommerton Junction, AZ is about to be the site for a major criminal event: infamous druglord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) has escaped from FBI Agent John Barrister (Forest Whitaker) in Las Vegas, and is speeding towards Owens's little patch of heaven in a souped-up car - there is a two-minute scene detailing just how souped-up that functions as little more than a Corvette commercial - to meet up with the team of mercenaries building a bridge across the ravine separating the town from Mexico. And so, Owens, along with deputies Mike Figuerola (Luis Guzmán), Sarah Torrence (Jaimie Alexander), and Jerry Bailey (Zach Gilford), with smoldering petty criminal Frank Martinez (Rodrigo Santoro), Sarah's ex, and gun-crazed local fuckup Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville, who is thankfully not remotely as significant a presence as the advertising made him appear), prepares a trap for Cortez, using all the knowledge he gained years ago, when he was a narcotics officer in the LAPD, because what kind of movie would this be if Schwarzenegger wasn't a grizzled old cop who was just trying to get away from all the violence... until the violence came to him?
Character, plot; these are not things that The Last Stand needs, which is useful, given that it does not possess them. The closest it comes is that, for the most part, the roles are filled by actors who don't push too hard against the script and just let the thing be the lighthearted hang-out movie it secretly wants to be for the first two-thirds. Seriously, the script (originally by Andrew Knauer, whose version made the prestigious Black List in 2009, before rewrites came along) is so laconic and insubstantial, and the direction so utterly light, without the slightest interest in any kind of severity or viciousness or any of the things we associate, generally, with Arnold Schwarzenegger films and R-rated action pictures generally, that the film is practically a comedy: even after a mostly likable character dies in a not-terribly-surprising moment, and it's kind of a downer for a minute, by the next scene or so, things are right back up to the gentle, quippy norm.
This is not, then, the film that anyone was likely expecting, because of its star or because of its director, Kim Jee-Woon, the Korean genre chameleon behind A Tale of Two Sisters, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and I Saw the Devil. This is film is so much lower-key than any of those; not at all the English-language debut that you'd expect from that filmmaker of all filmmakers, unless you expected that he'd just try to skate by on fast-moving conversations, a few hyper-kinetic scene transitions, and a sun-bleached color palette that's hardly revolutionary, though it lacks the tacky candy colors of so much digital post-coloring and is thus disproportionately satisfying.
But even granting that, the film's charming enough and watchable enough to get by: Kim is still a pretty terrific director, after all, even when he's not being madcap and inventive, and the film dances by with unflagging energy, whether that's in the playful interaction of the cast (especially when Guzmán is involved, him being an actor whom I would happily, or at least tolerantly, watch in pretty much anything) or in the fleet-footed action scenes that make up for in a refreshing lack of visual chaos what they lack in intensity. Just the mere fact of seeing Schwarzenegger holding court for an entire feature, and not being obliged to humiliate himself as thoroughly as he did whilst cameoing in The Expendables 2 is, all by itself, warm and nostalgic and pleasing, even if the last genuinely good Schwarzenegger vehicle is closer to 20 years old than 10, at this point. And if you have no particular attachment to the actor's legendary action career? That certainly would make the whole thing a lot less pleasing, and I'm not sure why you bothered reading this far.
All of which doesn't add up to a movie that does much of anything besides be frivolously entertaining for 107 completely forgettable minutes, while raising the odd question of why Schwarzenegger chose this out of all conceivable projects for his grand comeback, given how little the tone first his personality and how much the character doesn't seem to have been calling out to be cast this way (the film really wants to have been made 15 years ago with Clint Eastwood). It is acceptable in a "random drunken Netflix night" way, a "channel surfing and decided, why not" way: in short, a "it's January, and at least it's not A Haunted House way". But since it is January, and this is not A Haunted House, that counts. Not for all that much; but it counts.