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film review

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand.The Associated Press

On the simple surface of things, The Last Stand is an occasionally amusing, sometimes entertaining and surprisingly well-directed bit of fluff. That's one way of looking at it. But since the fluff stars A. Schwarzenegger in (minus a fleeting cameo in The Expendables) his starring return to the big screen, and since A. Schwarzenegger obviously totes with him a very hefty load of cinematic/political/personal baggage, and since most moviegoers are fully aware of that baggage's detailed contents, there's another way of looking at The Last Stand. Dig just a shade beneath the surface, trade in the text for the subtext, and a more interesting picture emerges – a little richer, sadder, almost poignant. Arnie is back again, yet now, as a storied immigrant nearing the end of his tale, he's become an odd sight to behold.

But, first, the simple text. Arnie plays (to the extent he can) a backwater sheriff in an Arizona border town, where there ain't much sheriffin' to do. His underemployed deputies – the young greenhorn, the chubby veteran, the bright-eyed gal – are the usual comic relief. By contrast, Cortez the drug lord (Eduardo Noriega) is a busy bad guy. A posse of FBI agents are transporting him to a federal prison, but, en route, he makes a slick escape with the aid of his private SWAT team, then hops into a souped-up Corvette to speed toward a certain sleepy Arizona border town. There, the rest of his gang have gathered to await his arrival and to facilitate his flight by (weirdly enough) building a bridge across a canyon into Mexico. Of course, Arnie gets wind of the approaching villain and waits too. The clock ticks down, High Noon is imminent.

So far, so fluffy. What mildly distinguishes it is the light and breezy pacing, a short but welcome appearance by Harry Dean Stanton as a cranky farmer cum early victim, another by Luis Guzman as the chubby deputy cum reluctant hero, and Jee-woon Kim. He's the Korean director imported for the gig, and right from the opening frame – a silent night on a two-lane blacktop under a canopy of stars – Kim brings to the action a clean precision that sets it apart from Hollywood's noise-and-chaos norm. You can see the difference in that slick escape sequence; in a follow-up scene across a police roadblock; and especially in a unique car chase through a corn field – a Mustang races after the Corvette until, hidden from each other by the tall stalks, they stop to engage in a quiet cat-and-mouse game, whereupon speeding gives way to loitering. The cliché gets a delightful twist.

The result: occasionally amusing, sometimes entertaining. Which brings us to the subtext, and to Arnie. Naturally (or unnaturally), no one will confuse his character for anyone but Arnie, not with that facelift and permanent tan and "Ahnode" accent. From body-builder to Terminator to Governator, Arnie has always played Arnie. The script does specify that the small-town sheriff was once a big-time cop in Los Angeles, yet only so a winking Arnie can coyly warn: "L.A.'s not all that you think it is." Later, when High Noon brings the confrontation with the Mexican-born drug lord, Arnie is also heard to say: "You make us immigrants look bad." Here, the script doesn't even bother to explain the immigrant reference. Hey, it's Arnie, we know already.

And that's precisely when the subtext starts to resonate. Arnie come to America, the Dream pursued, is obviously the classic immigrant's tale. Yet his realized Dream is classic not only in its success but also, just as emphatically, in its limitation. Ultimately, for all his accomplishments, Arnie remains the foreigner who can never quite melt into the melting pot. He earned riches and fame, but only by staying within his assigned role – the robotic Teuton with a robot's sense of humour. He married into American royalty, the Kennedy clan, where he pursued political office and other women exactly like the Kennedy men of yore – but, unlike them, paid a scandalous price. And like that other inferior actor, he made it all the way to the California governor's mansion – but, unlike him, couldn't even aspire to venture into the greatest and whitest house of all.

There, his American Dream was terminated, a victim of the very birthplace that prompted it. The rest is denouement, and that's where, rather poignantly, The Last Stand finds him – confessing to feeling "old," looking uninterested behind those squinty eyes, a funny-sounding Gary Cooper meeting the enemy on an uncompleted bridge to nowhere. So at the climax, standing at last not nearly so tall, marooned in a nothing town on the border of his adopted country, the immigrant cries out in his Ahnode accent: "This is my home!" But the cry, like his tale, cuts two ways: After all these years and all those dollars and all that celebrity, it's an assertion that still sounds like a plea.