“Not in my backyard” is a phrase that has acquired a bunch of negative connotations since it came into common usage in the 80s. NIMBYism usually means that there’s something you benefit from or rely on to maintain your lifestyle, but you don’t want anyone to build one near where you live. As in, “Please clean my water for me, but do it somewhere over there where I can’t see you doing it.” It’s often rooted in class and race privilege, and a certain level of overall xenophobia. In The Last Stand though, I’d say Arnold Schwarzenegger reclaims “not in my backyard” for those of us who still think of it as a phrase with the potential to mean something good.
The Last Stand is the first American film by South Korean director Kim Jee-woon. His films have won a wide range of awards and spanned an equally wide range of genres, from the stylized gangster violence of A Bittersweet Life to the The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, an homage to spaghetti westerns set in 1930’s Manchuria. One of my personal favorites is The Foul King, where a bumbling bank clerk decides to take up professional wrestling, basing his character on a cheating villain called Ultra Tiger Mask who was his 1970’s childhood wrestling idol.
The Last Stand is a western/drug-cartel action/car racing combo that comes off a bit like Vin Diesel meets Clint Eastwood. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Sheriff Owens, a former LAPD officer turned small town lawman whose town ends up being the last thing standing between a drug lord on the run from the FBI and the border into Mexico. When the sheriff says ‘Not in my backyard,’ he means no taking advantage of good people and getting away with being an asshole in his town.
Owens moved to Sommerton Junction to get away from the action, and he tries to stay out of it until it’s clear the choice is stand up or stand aside. Everyone from the kingpin, Cortez, to the FBI sees his town as an easy mark, and all the other US law enforcement agencies write him off on the assumption that he and his team will be clueless. And honestly, his team isn’t really up to it. He has two inexperienced deputies, one of whom bears a certain resemblance to Deputy Dawg, and a senior deputy played by Luis Guzmán. To augment his ragtag team, he deputizes a former US Marine with PTSD straight out of one of the jail cells and an eccentric military history buff with an impressive arsenal of vintage weapons.
In addition to being a notorious criminal, Cortez is also a famous race car driver. He orchestrates his escape from FBI custody by having his henchmen heli-lift him out of a convoy and speeds off down the highway at 200 mph in an amped up Corvette C6. Forest Whitaker plays the FBI agent in charge of the manhunt, who doesn’t have the time of day for Sheriff Owens’ advice. Twice the feds and state police set up roadblocks to stop Cortez, and twice he blows right through them. All I have to say about that is after the helicopter jailbreak they really should have known better than to think a standard barricade would work. By the time he makes it to Sommerton Junction, it’s pretty clear that Arnold is the only one in the film who deserves to stop him.
The movie is worth watching for the actors and characters alone. Johnny Knoxville is basically a jackass with access to firepower through the ages, including typical Jackass-style antics like scaling a telephone pole that falls down. (Apparently he annoyed Arnold because all of his stunt training is about failing, so he actually sucked at doing his own stunts.) His character also gives a geeky little history lesson on military ammunition and firearms. He and Luis Guzmán are great together as comic relief. Arnold has to talk Guzmán’s character out of using a replica of Conan the Barbarian’s sword that he finds in Knoxville’s armory. And then there’s the bit part of Mrs. Salazar, an old lady whose version of not in my back yard involves pulling a shotgun and taking out one of Cortez’s henchmen from her rocking chair when he tries to use her window as a sniper vantage point.
There’s something hyper-American about The Last Stand, which is interesting coming from a director who isn’t. In that way it reminds me of German director Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, written by and starring Sam Shepard as an aging western movie star who abandons the set of his latest movie to drive across the plains in search of an old flame. It’s their second film together, the first being Paris, Texas in 1983, which inspired Wenders to create a book of the photos he took while location scouting and put them on exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France. It’s called Written in the West, and the images seem to encompass both the myth and the reality of the 20th century American West, where what it longed to be somehow shines out from the corners of what it had become.
Maybe seeing America from the outside allows artists like Kim or Wenders to distill it into a clear reflection. Maybe that vision of America just appeals to me because I see it from a similar angle up here in Canada. Being an outsider means you have to study what something is like rather than relying on your own memories and perceptions. Kim described The Last Stand as inspired by Die Hard and High Noon, so basically a movie about people being willing to put their lives on the line for something really important in a quintessentially American way.
Ultimately and satisfyingly, it all comes down to Arnold standing on a bridge, and you just know that Cortez picked the wrong back yard to take a short cut through.
alex MacFadyen would never try to cut through the Terminator’s back yard. Just sayin’.