Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Stormare is coming.

The Last Stand [***] / Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters [**1/2]
While there is very little doubt that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is as anachronistic as movies can get, it's tougher to say whether the same can be said of The Last Stand. Stand is a film rife with the excesses of an 80s action picture and I think the desire to label it as anachronistic stems from the fact that it actually works as a relic from that time and not as a vague notion of what makes those kinds of movies appealing [cough]The Expendables[cough]. It boasts a star who understands his appeal both inside and outside of iconic characters and a director who respects the art of action and the clarity needed to make action art. So again, there is a second hash mark for why The Last Stand feels so out of time and place. And it also flopped...bad. I guess no one knows what to do with an action film when you do it right and it doesn't have superheroes.

The plot is simple stuff: Arnold is the Sheriff of a sleepy Arizona border town who along with his deputies and a couple of local ne'er do wells must defend the town from villains led by Peter Stormare, who are paving the way for their boss' daring escape into Mexico. A couple of things about this scenario are cool: 1) the boss is driving himself from Vegas to Arizona, 2) the FBI agent played by Forrest Whitaker is kind of a big shot, but he's not a prick. He just thinks that with more resources at his command, he knows better of what he speaks. But when Arnold dares to disagree with him he doesn't really go pulling rank. He just happens to be at an advantage as it regards resources and technology. He's also grateful and non-dickheaded at the end.

The action scenes are clearly and crisply shot by director Kim Ji Woon, an Asian action specialist, the man never shies away from headshots or violence in general. A shootout in a stairwell is one of the film's action highlights. It's a tightly enclosed space but there's just enough room from the vantage point of all the participants that any one of them could come out the victor. It's the best usage of such tight space since Iko Uwais hid in the crawl space in The Raid: Redemption. My only wish is that The Last Stand had one more hand-to-hand tussle. Perhaps Schwarzenegger is limited by his age, but it was a nice display of submission holds, punches, stabbings and power bombs. I suppose this is exactly the mentality that one develops when they're finally seeing a new player in action cinema emerge and then an icon decides to saddle up with the right people and do it right.
If there is one arena in which The Last Stand could have taken a cue from Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters it would be in trimming the fat off of an already lean premise. The Last Stand feels about ten minutes too long while H and G remains blissfully unfettered in that regard and many others. As you may have guessed, after killing a witch as children Hansel and Gretel find that they have a natural affinity for it and continue doing so in their adult years. What you may not have known is that they have at their disposal crossbows, machine guns and muskets to augment their pursuit of justice. They also have a surprising command of modern day profanities and exclamations. In particular, their usage of fuck, which serves as a middle man to cut exposition and/or save the audience the trouble of having to be audibly exasperated. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to say this disparagingly, but it'll sound that way. I appreciate that the film knows what the audience will say or is thinking and decides to meet you there while ultimately giving zero fucks how serious you are or aren't taking it.

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton make no attempt at sounding German (this is a brothers Grimm story after all) or even vaguely European. In fact, they both sound like non-descript Americans. But they aren't being lazy, they're just having fun killing witches and Arterton in particular gets to break Peter Stormare's nose and hang out with an awesome/adorable/murderous CGI troll named Edward. I can only hope that in the sequel that Edward and their young charge/ reporter Ben (Thomas Mann) are able to turn their affections for her into a love triangle. It won't make sense but it will be awesome. Renner isn't given quite as much fun stuff to do as Hansel, but it is always interesting to see him be incredibly chaste and modest in front of beautiful women. Until he murders someone in front of them, then he tends to get a raging boner. For both Arterton and Renner the film seems like a working vacation, they have fun without straining themselves to do so and the results are pleasant.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters shares yet a few more similarities with The Last Stand because they both employ Peter Stormare, who, unsurprisingly, hams it up like a boss, does a lot with a little and dies awesomely. It also serves as an example of a premise done right. This film's director Tommy Wirkola previously missed the mark with the Nazi skeleton zombie comedy Dead Snow, yet here he nails absurdity of tone and premise. Both films ultimately live as examples of getting more right than wrong and making movies in January a bigger blast than you might have rightly expected.