The Last Stand, the 2013 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a dumb action movie. Dumb action movies can be great entertainment, they can be critical successes, and they can even become classics. Think of Die Hard, Lethal Weapon or Schwarzenegger’s earlier film True Lies: all dumb action movies, all excellent. Not every film needs to make a grand metaphysical point. Sadly, The Last Stand is a film without any kind of point at all.
Dumb action movies – or at least the good ones – are actually very clever. They are carefully crafted for maximum entertainment. It takes a good script, production, direction, acting and editing to create a film that’s fun, thrilling and engaging.
A good dumb action movie needs a few key ingredients: likeable heroes, hatable villains, and a simple dramatic arc.
Heroes are straightforward yet likeable
The audience has to respect the hero, but be able to imagine themselves sharing a beer in a bar after the action is done with. Our hero may not have book smarts, but they have street smarts. They may not have status, but they have skill. They may not be rich, but they are resourceful. Our favourite heroes are simultaneously the Everyman and the one-in-a-million.
Bruce Willis as John McClane in the first Die Hard film is the perfect example
It sounds easy, but it’s not. Veer a little too far either side of the perfect median, and our hero can become cocky, or cold, or incompetent. We need a well written character, but most importantly we need a charismatic leading actor who is visibly enjoying himself in the role.
Bruce Willis as John McClane in the first Die Hard film is the perfect example. He doesn’t have a lot going for him, but his fish-out-of-water underdog story coupled with a cheeky lop-sided smirk gets us rooting for him straight away.
Villains are clever and easy to hate
The audience has to believe that the villain is capable of out-witting most conventional forces of law and order. They must appear to have a plan and be able to execute it with slick efficiency. We want to see the police/military floundering in their wake, baffled at the criminal mind that has overtaken them.
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard is probably the best villain in any dumb action movie ever
But we have to hate the villain. Early in the film, they must quickly pull a move that establishes them as a total dick. Something like killing an animal, or casually ruining the lives of a whole bunch of people, or kidnapping a child (preferably someone in the hero’s family).
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard is probably the best villain in any dumb action movie ever, as he nails the clever-but-still-a-dick thing like no-one else. Other notable examples are Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege and Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon.
Action starts small, goes big, ends small
Fun, dramatic action follows a predictable curve. It starts small, with a single death, a single routine police patrol, a single firefight. It’s intimate but emotionally intense, and drags our hero slowly into the villain’s plot, allowing plenty of space for character development.
Then the action goes big, as big as it can possibly get away with. As our hero and villain trade witty one-liners and scalps are claimed on both sides, we escalate to bazookas, armoured cars, sniper rifles and crumbling buildings. If there isn’t at least one fireball, somethings gone very wrong.
Bonus points are awarded for dispatching the villain using an item or circumstance foreshadowed earlier in the film
But to get the real dramatic punch in there, it has to end small. It has to get intimate again, and personal. This is where the villain takes our hero’s wife hostage, or comes back for one last attempt on our hero’s life just when we thought it was all over. And our hero has to end it just as intimately, for example with a knife or a neck twist. Bonus points are awarded for dispatching the villain using an item or circumstance foreshadowed earlier in the film.
At the end of Lethal Weapon, Riggs fights Mr Joshua one-on-one in a brutal water-soaked tussle on Murtaugh’s front lawn, but Riggs and Murtaugh double-shoot Mr Joshua when he makes his last stand – a fine moment in the history of great bromances.
John reaches down and unfastens the watch, sending Gruber plummeting to the ground 40 floors below
But my favourite example is Die Hard, which finishes with Gruber dangling from the top of the Nakatomi plaza, hanging on to the watch around Holly McClane’s wrist – the ugly watch that Ellis (the smarmy coke-snorting “you-missed-a-bit” douchebag) gives Holly at the start of the film. John reaches down and unfastens the watch, sending Gruber (and that damn watch) plummeting to the ground 40 floors below. And yes, just when we think it’s all over, we get the bonus of Hans’s chief henchman, the psychotic Karl, seemingly rising from the dead only to be shot by the resurgent Sgt Powell in a moment of pure ecstatic redemption.
The Last Stand does none of this
So how does The Last Stand handle this template for the dumb action movie? Apparently by screwing it up and throwing it away.
Schwarzenegger plays a rather stiff sheriff in a small American town (population: ~10). Problem is, he’s not exciting or charming in the role. There’s just not enough in the script for him to work with. There are some flimsy shreds of backstory, but no family or friends or any sense of life to the character that might make him relatable. Having a beer with this guy down the pub would be an excruciating experience, enough to drive you to the darts board or the worn-out pub quiz machine.
They’re both just dumb thugs who seem to have a disagreement
Our villain here is a generic hispanic drug boss. Unfortunately, he’s more of a spoilt brat than a devilish criminal overlord. There’s nothing clever about him or his plan, no misdirection or manipulation, just a straight path of destruction between himself and the border to Mexico. There’s no asymmetry between the hero and the villain, one straightforward and the other twisted. They’re both just dumb thugs who seem to have a disagreement.
And the action, oh, the woeful action! There’s no dramatic up-and-down, no small start, big middle, small end. A small town setting gives plenty of opportunities for big, inventive action scenes – just look at westerns like The Magnificent Seven for examples. But here the setting is squandered, as a squad of heavily armed mercenaries just ploughs through main street in a straight line. Worse still, the hero’s empty character leaves no room for intimate action at the start and finish. Without anything relatable, like family ties, there’s nothing that the villain can attack that we would really care about.
It looks like a film trying to revive the spirit of dumb action movies. Unfortunately, all it has revived is the dumb.
The Last Stand was supposed to be Schwarzenegger’s comeback film, a return to form for the actor after a couple of cameos in the Expendables series. It looks like a film trying to revive the spirit of the dumb action movies we enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, all it has revived is the dumb.
PS: shame on you, Forest Whitaker
Forest Whitaker is also in this film. I won’t say anything about his performance, but damn, Forest, you should be ashamed. Ashamed. There’s a combine harvester in this film that puts in a more spirited performance.