Friday, June 7, 2013

The Last Stand (Kim Ji-woon, 2012)

When Arnie meets auteur


The Korean invasion of Hollywood is well underway, and the results are proving fascinating to watch. Park Chan-wook delivered Stoker - not the director's finest picture (mostly down to a rather haphazard script), but a damn fine piece of work that happily proved his unique directorial stylings had made the continental hop mostly intact. Bong Jo-hoon's intriguingly dystopian Snowpiercer is on the way, and Song Kang-ho - perhaps the central acting figure of the 'Korean Wave' - is along for the English language ride.

Naively perhaps, I found myself most excited about the American debut of Kim Ji-woon - the director responsible for some of the key films to emerge from South-East Asia in this young century. That hope was built on the belief that, more than any of the other talents flocking to the healthier budgets of Hollywood, Ji-woon operates most efficiently in a generic space, embracing the language of American cinema without foregoing a more personal perspective. His films are at once recognisable - trading in gangster, Western, horror, action or revenge film iconography - but also absolutely invigorating.  He's a genre deconstructer, dismantling clich├ęs while lovingly reassembling them to create a familiar yet unique whole. Forget that The Last Stand marks the come back of Arnold Schwarzenegger: what made this a production worth watching was the prospect of an accessible but cheekily experimental director being granted the opportunity to woo a mainstream English-speaking audience.

Such hope, I now realised, was (ahem) hopelessly misguided. Instead of being another exercise in adventurous genre filmmaking - the type we know Ji-woon can deliver - The Last Stand is instead a distressingly straightforward affair. It's an action film without that knowing wink, that hint of irony, that sense of loving deconstruction.

More on that anon. What The Last Stand does right is action - no small praise for an action film, you rightly remark, but when a director is capable of so much more than mere efficiency it's difficult to shake that disappointment. Nonetheless, there's a clarity and physicality to the film that has been lacking in many recent attempts to recapture the cheesy 80s action movie vibe. After The Expendables 2 rather remarkably failed to even keep the camera focused, this offers a modest but competent alternative, with Ji-woon thankfully entrusting A Bittersweet Life collaborator Kim Ji-yong with cinematography duties.

Even simple decisions like choosing to shoot so much of the film in sharp, crystal-clear daylight helps everything flow more coherently (although the highlight is a thrilling late night escape sequence in Vegas, featuring ziplines, magnets and such visceral shenanigans). The action is un-PC, knowingly ridiculous and amusingly physical. Also: squibs for life! Even the final duel - despite indulging in exceedingly shoddy green-screen work as two opposing forces punch the shit out of each other on a makeshift bridge - has a genuine to it. I hope you don't misunderstand me here: this isn't the blisteringly poetic ass-kickery of The Raid, nor do the setpieces match highlights from Ji-woon's own filmography (such as that brilliantly, hilariously epic chase through the desert that acts as the centerpiece to the delightful The Good, The Bad and The Weird). Still: The Last Stand is a film that has an actual sense of geography to its violence, a minor achievement that does however slightly separate the film from an uninspiring crowd.

Shame about almost everything else. Ji-woon's previous films had that same eye for action - albeit more fully realised - but they also offered smart, intelligent deconstructions of the very same genre they were operating in. This is pure, unadulterated action fare - and as solidly decent as it is in that regard, there's something deeply frustrating about knowing a director can do infinitely better than this. Even on its own terms, when the film isn't engaged in shoot-outs or face-offs there's nothing remotely interesting about it. There's a desperation and awkwardness in even the one-liners, and the cast - also featuring the likes of Johnny Knoxville, Forest Whitaker and Peter Storamare battling against a wafer-thin script - fail to make an impression in limited, purely functional roles.

The film's greatest mistake, though, is taking the guts of an hour to establish an inanely simplistic story that feels like it was sketched out on the back of a napkin. All this film really has to offer is the eponymous final stand, and there's a lot of flat material to wade through until, finally, a faction of outnumbered, outgunned action heroes faces off against a group of cartoonish villains. Trudge through the stream of inevitability - enlivened only occasionally with bursts of action - and there's dumb fun to be had, but the film is in so many ways its own worst enemy. If the likes of I Saw the Devil self-deconstruct, The Last Stand self-destructs.

Our Korean auteur does manage a slickly silly forty-five minutes or so of action - hardly his finest three quarters of an hour, but not purely incompetent either. That it all rings so absolutely hollow is undoubtedly a shame. Fool on me indeed for expecting an Arnie comeback vehicle to offer any degree of subversion, regardless of perceived talent behind the camera. Yes, we should always judge a film by its own merits. But a director's name always brings with it inherent assumptions and connotations, and Kim Ji-woon's reputation alone demotes a moderately enjoyable action film to a consistent disappointment. After all, there's few more frustrating sights than witnessing genuine talent wasted.

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