There has been an enormous sense of finality to the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, at least if you judge by the titles: “The Last Action Hero.” “End of Days.” “The Long Goodbye.” “The Terminator,” of course. But after all the mayhem, muscles and mangled dialogue, one should never forget the most famous Ahnuld-ism of all:
“I’ll be back.”
And so he is. This Friday, the onetime Mr. Universe, governor of California and recent target of the tabloids opens in a new feature, “The Last Stand,” which promises no more sense of conclusion to Schwarzenegger’s acting career than any other movie he’s done since 1969 and “Hercules in New York” (in which he appeared as “Arnold Strong”). In fact, the Austrian Oak, as he has been known, has about six films in the pipeline, including a rumored “Terminator 5” and another one with a funereal title, “The Tomb.”
“The Last Stand,” directed by the South Korean Jee-woon Kim — and shot in a manner that implies far more action than it actually captures — finds Schwarzenegger in a familiar role: gun-toting avenger and champion of goodness. His character, the Germanically accented Ray Owens, is the sheriff of sleepy Sommerton Junction, a town where almost everyone has left for the weekend and through which a ruthless South American drug lord/ FBI fugitive is planning to make a dash for the Mexican border (racing a customized Corvette C6 ZR1 in one of the more prolonged cases of product placement in movie history).
Alienated at first by the dismissive agent in charge of the case (Forest Whitaker), Ray decides to take on Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), even though he’s surrounded by a misfit crowd of imbecile sidekicks that includes the aptly named Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville), a local moron with a huge at-home arsenal.
“The Last Stand,” Schwarzenegger’s first starring role since “Terminator: Rise of the Machines” in 2003 (the year he was elected governor), isn’t likely to supplant any of the actor’s better-known films, which include “Total Recall,” “True Lies” and “The Running Man.” But it does provide an excuse to look back at one of the more remarkable careers in the history of the movies. Schwarzenegger was, after all, a heavily accented Austrian immigrant, a star in a sport usually subject to public derision (body building) and a physical specimen unsuited to most lead roles, and unknown to leading men. Despite a star quality (and ruthlessness) evident in the documentary “Pumping Iron,” no one knew what to do with Schwarzenegger — until “Conan the Barbarian.” After that, he didn’t so much adapt to Hollywood as bend it to his will.
“Conan,” after all, was camp: Part of the joke was that there was an actual human being who so closely resembled the Frank Frazetta illustrations that graced Robert E. Howard’s tales of the Hyborian Age. That Schwarzenegger wasn’t an actor didn’t matter; the whole thing was a good-natured joke (including Conan’s declaration about what is best in life: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of the women”).
And yet, little by little, one Stallone at a time, the nature of the action movie hero changed from being tall, dark, handsome and serious to being sometimes short, and definitely droll: The Schwarzenegger-style punch lines to what would otherwise have been dark scenes became de rigueur in action films (“Considah dat a divorce,” he tells “wife” Sharon Stone in “Total Recall,” after shooting her in the head; “Let off some steam, Bennett,” he tells Vernon Wells in “Commando” after pinning him to a boiler with a 10-foot pipe). The groaners, mixed with Schwarzenegger’s inflection-free delivery, changed action movies forever.
All the tropes are revisited in “The Last Stand,” although the action star isn’t quite up to the action; Kim does what he can to make Schwarzenegger appear limber, but he seems barely able to cross the street. There are long, Schwarzenegger-free stretches of story line involving that Corvette, the runaway drug lord, the pursuit by the FBI and a protracted car chase through a cornfield that could well involve anybody, not necessarily the kid who came out of Thal, Austria, to become one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
But don’t count him out. Or gone. It may well be time to say, “Hasta la vista, baby,” but the Governator’s going nowhere.