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Ethan Visits the Set of Schwarzenegger's Return in 'The Last Stand'

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January 14, 2013

The Last Stand

By now, the big screen return of Arnold Schwarzenegger has only been seen as a supporting role in The Expendables 2, but the veteran action star will be back as the star of his own film The Last Stand, the English language debut of director Jee-woon Kim (of I Saw the Devil, The Good, the Bad, the Weird). In December of 2011, Lionsgate invited me to to Albuquerque Studios to check out the set. And when it comes to seeing the man from such films Terminator, True Lies and Predator in action, you just can't say no. And so I headed out to the normally sweltering state of New Mexico, but the weather isn't so warm in the winter, and that particular day, it forced what was supposed to be an on-location fight scene to a green screen set.

Snow, ice and rain forced the production (originally scheduled to shoot near  the Laguna Indian reservation) inside for our visit, and upon our arrival on one of the soundstages, we see a partial bridge elevated in the air and surrounded by green screen. For the time being, stunt doubles were on set acting out a fight scene that takes place between Schwarzenegger and the film's high-speed villain played by Eduardo Noriega. At least that's what we were watching on the monitors with Schwarzenegger's stunt double joining us as we looked upon the scene. But then suddenly, in a moment that called for a double take, The Governator himself showed up with a simple, "Hi, I'm Arnold." As if we needed to be told.

With hand shakes around, Schwarzenegger's charm and energy just shines, and it's clear he's glad to be back home in the movies. It won't be until later that we'll have a chance to sit with Schwarzenegger for a chat, but as he goes to get ready to shoot the next scene, we have a chance to speak with the director responsible for Schwarzenegger suiting up as a small town sheriff. But first, for those who haven't yet figured out what exactly is going on, here's an official trailer for The Last Stand with the plot synopsis:

Action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger makes his much-anticipated return to the big screen in Korean director Kim Jee-woon’s hard-hitting U.S. directorial debut, 'The Last Stand.' After leaving his LAPD narcotics post following a bungled operation that left him wracked with remorse and regret, Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) moved out of Los Angeles and settled into a life fighting what little crime takes place in sleepy border town Sommerton Junction. But that peaceful existence is shattered when Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), the most notorious, wanted drug kingpin in the western hemisphere, makes a deadly yet spectacular escape from an FBI prisoner convoy. With the help of a fierce band of lawless mercenaries led by the icy Burrell (Peter Stormare), Cortez begins racing towards the US-Mexico border at 250 mph in a specially-outfitted Corvette ZR1 with a hostage in tow.

But how does a film that feels inherently American fare in the hands of a South Korean director. Will one aesthetic overpower the other? Has he found it hard to make the transition from Korean films to American films? Jee-woon Kim explained through a translator:

"Obviously, I've made several films in Korea, so I'm very well accustomed and acclimated to Korean filmmaking. To say that I've needed a point of transition to get accustomed to it goes without saying. I feel that there are strengths and weaknesses to both styles of filmmaking, so I've been able to find the best of both and I believe the result will speak for itself.

It is sort of a hybrid. It's tough to say whether it's going to be more of one side or the other, but if I were to make a comparison, it would be an American canvas with my colors on it… Just as a man and a woman from different backgrounds meet, they need a time of adjustment, but eventually they learn how to get along and they have a baby."

The director is essentially making another western, but Kim is honing in on a certain theme, and one particular film served as inspiration and reference for The Last Stand. He says:

"One of the earlier films that I've referenced was 'High Noon. In 'High Noon,' you have a man who really puts up his life for something that others perceived as wasteful. It's not necessary and it has no value, but it's a man who has his own morals and principles and he's sticking by them no matter what other people perceive. America is a country that, even with all its flaws, has been able to flourish because there is a certain ideology about fighting for what you believe in."

Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura (of movie franchises like Transformers, RED, G.I. Joe) talked with press later and confirmed that Kim is jumping into Hollywood with flying colors. He compares the film to the Lethal Weapon series with a blend of action and comedy, and affirms Kim as the right man to get behind the camera, even if it seems like a risk for the studio:

"It's so hard to find a director who, when you look at their body of work, you like everything, I have this really crash and burn philosophy where we're going to try. If it's going down in flames, it's going down in flames. But we're gonna try. If we don't succeed, we're not surviving. If you go in with a quality director, you have a much higher probability of finding that."

Normally, I don't go for action films like this unless they're meant to be over-the-top (a la Simon West's The Expendables 2, a vast improvement over the first action ensemble), but after watching The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Jee-woon Kim's style brings some respectable panache to this potentially silly action flick. And when we're shown some footage with di Boneventura providing some context, I'm not entirely convinced, but it's certainly entertaining with a supporting cast that includes Jaimie Alexander (Thor), Genesis Rodriguez (Man on a Ledge), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Peter Stormare (Fargo), Johnny Knoxville (Jackass), Rodrigo Santoro (300) and Luis Guzmán (Boogie Nights).

The Last Stand - Cast on Set

As expected, Knoxville and Guzmán provide comic relief, especially in their handling of the arsenal available to stop Noriega from crossing the border and escaping authorities. Knoxville has a huge stash of weaponry from all decades as part of a small museum. From Gatling guns to magnums, and flare guns to warrior swords, this is without a doubt a ragtag team of law enforcement misfits (Alexander and Guzman taking on a ruthless criminal. While scenes with Knoxville and Guzman felt goofy as expected, the action scenes with their involvement were nothing short of entertaining and totally enjoyable. Di Bonaventura is a little more enthusiastic about the Jackass star's involvement, and thinks he brings something special to the table.

"I think Johnny Knoxville in this thing is a revelation. I think audiences that know Johnny Knoxville, when they see what we're doing, are going to want to come see this movie. It's that younger male audience that's younger than Arnold's audience. They're going to respond to how funny that character is. He makes you laugh. It's a crazy fucking character and this insane shoot-out. There's an echo of the fun that you can have with 'Jackass' in this character, but it is absolutely a different character and it's one created by an actor through his performance."

One huge action scene taking place in Sommerton Junction involves an old school stand-off, just with bigger guns, plenty of blood and a conveniently placed school bus. Knoxville shines as he fires away alongside Schwarzenegger, but it's not exactly anything special. The rest of the team brings the thunder trying to fight the bad guys waiting for Noriega's arrival.

The Last Stand - Cast on Set

But the real gritty fight seems to come from the scene that we watched repeatedly throughout the day. Upon a small suspension bridge, Schwarzenegger and Noriega are battling mano-a-mano, and while the buff action star shows his age, it's more part of his performance as an aging, tired sheriff then of the actor's ability as a 65-year old man. But what's it like getting back into action like this after sitting behind a desk in California and fighting politicians instead of criminals and other assorted bad guys, especially with a Korean director making his English-language directing debut? The actor says:

"[I]t felt like riding a bicycle. It comes back. You may be a little concerned when you step on the cues for the first run. You know that you're going to do it, but you're concerned. That's what I was when I first started. I was concerned with the translation. An Austrian trying to figure out from a Korean what a guy from Brazil is saying. But there are really experienced people here and the atmosphere was good. The catering's great. The hotel's great. Everyone's making a real effort. It has been a really terrific experience."

As for Eduardo Noriega as Cortez, this should be quite the breakthrough role for him. Though he doesn't take on Schwarzenegger until later in the movie, Noriega still sees plenty of action, especially the inside of a modified Corvette. The actor elaborates:

"I spend most of the movie in the car with Genesis Rodriguez. So I'm lucky. The car is crazy. I didn't know that these kind of cars were legal. You just push it a little and the whole care goes in a direction. I was so scared… Then I saw the scene editing and I'm like, 'Oh my god! I'm driving the car! I'm driving the car against Terminator!'"

The fictional automobile in the movie can hit 200mph, and outruns helicopters. Noriega couldn't do the driving himself, but he came as close as he could. For some of the scenes, a stunt driver sat in a rig built on top of the real car and steered while Noriega was able to sit in the real driver's seat, pretending to be behind the wheel. Even that proved to be a challenge as Noriega told the stunt driver not to hold back, and was surprised at how intense and unsettling being in a speeding car can be. However, that's not nearly as daunting as fighting Schwarzenegger himself. Noriega smartly comments, "The problem with fighting Arnold is that...he's gonna beat you. But I still think I can beat him – that's my goal.”

As for Schwarzenegger, in addition to beating the bad guy, he didn't just want to get back into action for the sake of action. He wanted his character to have a rich backstory and something to fight for so audiences are cheering for him not just because he's the hero, but because he stands for something (no pun intended). Schwarzenegger told us:

"I really wanted to convey that it's a fight of a man who's willing to fight for his town, his family, for what he believes in. He's willing to risk everything to uphold that... I think this is a perfect movie because we're not trying to outdo the other movies. That's not what this movie says. What this movie says is: 'I've moved forward with my age eight years since the last one.'"

After seeing the footage in New Mexico and the marketing from Lionsgate that has appeared since, it's clear that The Last Stand is both a reminder of the Schwarzenegger we used to love and a practical approach to the older man that Schwarzenegger has become. He's not just an unstoppable hero, but a man dealing with age and the occasional criminal. Thankfully, it sounds like director Jee-woon Kim has brought a little bit of Korean style to this familiar American tale of law versus anarchy, and the action and comedy should make for a good time at the multiplex, even if it's not a film going for an Academy Award this year.

Jee-woon Kim's The Last Stand arrives in theaters this week, starting January 18th.

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