The Reluctant Return of an Action Hero: ‘The Last Stand’ As Meta Comeback for Arnold Schwarzenegger

By  · Published on May 19th, 2013

You probably missed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback. Most people did. The Last Stand was supposed to be the former Governor’s mighty return to movies, but instead it grossed a paltry $12 million domestically and now marks Schwarzenegger’s lowest grossing movie ever (factoring inflation). It’s a shame, because those who (really should) take the opportunity to give The Last Stand the second chance it deserves on video will discover that it’s not just an enjoyable burst of Golden Age action cinema filmmaking, but a meta narrative that makes it far more intriguing than it appears.

Most comeback movies dutifully pander to fans’ nostalgic expectations by just giving them more of what ain’t broke. Exhibit A: The Expendables series, which recreates for its actors (including Schwarzenegger) the roles they’ve always inhabited while exhibiting an “Oorah! We still got it!” enthusiasm about bringing back its aging heroes. The Last Stand, however, isn’t interested in simply rebooting its star into his old plot and character archetypes. Instead, it offers Schwarzenegger a comeback movie with a character – Sheriff Ray Owens – with a comeback narrative of his own. What’s more, because it biographically grafts Ray to Arnold, The Last Stand turns its fictional character’s journey from former to restored hero into one that parallels the very re-ascension Schwarzenegger is undergoing with this film.

The Last Stand eagerly fashions Ray into Schwarzenegger’s biographical reflection. They’re both men who gave up action-packed careers defined by assault guns and shootouts (respectively LAPD officer and action star) for the lives of public servants (small town Sheriff and California Governor) defined by parking violations and politics. They’re both men who place greater value in their alternate careers; Ray admits to regretting his time being “part of the action” in Los Angeles, and Arnold has said his public service “was the most gratifying … thing that I’ve ever done.” Ray left the LAPD in 1993 because a shootout left him with five bullet wounds. Schwarzenegger sustained the worst (metaphorical) wounds of his career in 1993, compliments of The Last Action Hero. And for many, True Lies, which was in production at that time, marked the end of the Golden Age of Arnold. The Last Stand even has Ray, in a rare exception for a Schwarzenegger character, acknowledge his status as an immigrant.

The film lays out these synchronous backstories so that in The Last Stand Ray and Schwarzenegger are starting their respective returning acts in the same place, facing the prospect of having to return to the kind of action that was once their status quo. Except Ray is an atypical Schwarzenegger character. He has no interest in being an eager agent of violence anymore. His first words speak of an obligation to “keep the peace,” and when the film introduces early entry points into the action plot, Ray delegates to his deputies instead of acting himself, in order to preserve his day off. He’s happy to have left his old world behind and eager to sustain his current one.

When his younger colleague, Jerry (Zach Gilford), questions how he could ever have given up his formerly exciting life to “come to this place,” a place of quiet living, the sheriff explains that while he was younger he “wanted to be part of the action … but now, thinking back, I feel differently.” The audience of The Last Stand is put in a curious position of watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback movie where his character doesn’t actually want to come back to facilitate Arnold Schwarzenegger being able to do what he does best: action.

Ray’s inaction isn’t as out of place as it would seem, because it isn’t just his own. The biographical similarities the sheriff shares with his portrayer make his words reverberate past his own fictional life and into Schwarznegger’s real one. His admission of feeling differently about his previous career recalls a sentiment the star expressed while promoting The Last Stand: “I really didn’t miss anything about acting when I was Governor.” In that scene between Ray and Jerry an additional link between opens up, and the sheriff’s reluctance to be forced into the action film machine gearing up around him suddenly also becomes Schwarzenegger’s. Their shared parallel histories become a current predicament.

It’s a predicament The Last Stand is unwilling to indulge as Ray – and Schwarzenegger – are increasingly pushed to engage in the action a comeback movie and audience demands. But while the film adopts an “if they won’t come to the action, the action will come to them” strategy and stacks the decks against them, it doesn’t do so maliciously. It does so to make a point about what it actually means for an aging star like Arnold Schwarzenegger to return and force himself back into a world of genre violence. And it makes that point a melancholic one.

That’s never more effectively laid out than it is after one character is killed and Ray is finally compelled to engage, because in a Schwarzenegger movie when a comrade dies, something must be done. But while usually this would beget angry vengeance, here it begets reluctant duty. The sheriff is told to let it go and he resignedly sighs, “I can’t.” He says the line like he’s trapped, and the point The Last Stand is making is that he is. For Schwarzenegger to return, it means subjecting himself to restrictive narrative plot points, tropes and narrative obligations like this. His “I can’t” plays like a moment that broadcasts a sad realization of this – he and Ray know what movie they’re in, know that they’ve hit the point of no return, know the role they now have to play and that they can no longer escape.

That’s why what should be the moment in a typical Schwarzenegger movie where an audience gets excited about the coming violence is turned into something else: a moment of defeated acceptance and the resulting fear. Ray admits he’s scared. He confesses, “I’ve seen enough blood and death. I know what’s coming.” It’s the most tragic and subversive moment in the film, made all the more so by the fact that as Arnold delivers the line his face is in extreme close up, the eyeline such that it feels like the fourth wall is breaking and his resigned face is looking right at us, his heart-broken tone speaking directly to us. That moment plays as if he’s had enough, but he knows what he’s agreed to give us. He knows what’s coming: years after giving up action movies he’s right back here again, with potentially years more of “blood and death” ahead.

It’s no accident that after that moment of resigned acceptance of the course laid out before him, Ray’s reluctance dissipates. He returns to his former self and becomes proactive in facing his coming crisis. And by association, so does Schwarzenegger. As Rodrigo Santoro’s character says, “muscle memory lasts a long time,” and so Schwarzenegger engages in shootouts, car chases and mano-y-mano final fights while regaining his one-liners and his on-screen invulnerability. There’s certainly a rusty quality to it all, but he emerges victorious in typical Schwarzenegger movie fashion. Arnold Schwarzenegger is back, and there seems to be a budding ownership of his return to his old role and genre when FBI Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) says, “You don’t give up easy,” and the sheriff responds, “This is my home.”

The question remains whether Schwarzenegger’s return home will be worth it. At a press conference promoting The Last Stand the actor confessed that “when you have left the movie business for seven years, it’s kind of a scary thing to come back because you don’t know if you’re going to be accepted or not.” The box office results of the film seem to cast doubts on whether he has been accepted. The Terminator star does have several movies in production still, so time will tell how they do.

If they fail, it’ll be hard not to think about our first introduction to the town of Somerton in The Last Stand. A memorial statue reads: “Dedicated to the Fallen Heroes of Somerton County Sheriff Department.” If Schwarzenegger can’t find renewed career success, then that tragic fourth-wall breaking moment of resignation in The Last Stand will have been for naught, and that memorial’s fictional commemoration will have proven to be a prescient real one foreshadowing Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Fallen Action Hero.

The Last Stand hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, May 21.

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