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Schwarzenegger, The Last Stand and the politics of a Hollywood comeback

Post-Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to his first starring role in almost a decade in The Last Stand. In this new era of Arnie, how does the film represent his values as a politician?

He always said he’d be back.

Ushering in the post-Governator era with a lemon-eating grimace, a bothered schlepp and that familiar mangled Austrian drawl, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to B movie stomping grounds in Korean action director Jee-woon Kim’s junky shoot-em-up The Last Stand.

A brilliant psychotic Mexican drug cartel boss is on the run from authorities and headed straight for the border by way of a small town in Arizona. But it’s not going to happen on Schwarzenegger’s watch. He plays former LAPD officer Ray Owens, the Sheriff, a job title which leads to the inevitable grumble: “I arm da shereef.”

Schwarzenegger, now 65, hasn’t lost his one amazing gift for being a movie’s worst actor and best asset. In one CSI-esque moment, Sheriff Owens inspects a crime scene, deduces that the victim was killed outside and the body moved. “Eets arl connected,” he says, and suddenly two negatives become a positive. Awful writing made good by awful (albeit endearing) delivery.

Jee-woon, who sprayed a kaleidoscope of colour and SFX digital juice onto his 2008 neo-western The Good, the Bad, the Weird wisely opts not to pretend Arnie is a nimble-footed go-getter. Face planting on a diner floor after jumping through a glass double door, the nonplussed man behind the counter asks “how are you Sheriff?” Arnie’s reply — the film’s mercifully’s brief over-the-hill Kingdom of the Crystal Skull-esque note — is simply: “old.”

But in a cinematic sense age has taken the bodybuilder-cum-actor-cum-politician-cum-actor precisely nowhere. He’s back to the kinds of hokey blood-splattered plotlines that wooed audiences in the 80′s, in movies such as Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Terminator (1984) and Commando (1985). Only a fool would have it any other way. Remember Junior (1994)?

The Last Stand suggests Schwarzenegger’s near decade-long foray into politics (as Governor of California from 2003 to 2011), hasn’t resulted in the politics of his movies changing either. But it does provide interesting parallels to the ideology of the clunky rough-skinned star and the political party to which he belongs, and has now loyally served.

Hollywood celebrities are generally considered progressive and left-leaning. Schwarzenegger, however, has long latched onto values associated with American conservatism and has been a registered Republican for many years. His story is molded in the traditional US-style success story, where trite turns of phrase such as “anything is possible” take on actual gravitas.

At the 2004 Republican National Convention, Schwarzenegger explained what drew him to the GOP:

“I finally arrived here in 1968. What a special day it was. I remember I arrived here with empty pockets but full of dreams, full of determination, full of desire. The presidential campaign was in full swing. I remember watching the Nixon-Humphrey presidential race on TV. A friend of mine who spoke German and English translated for me. I heard Humphrey saying things that sounded like socialism, which I had just left. But then I heard Nixon speak. He was talking about free enterprise, getting the government off your back, lowering the taxes and strengthening the military. Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air. I said to my friend, I said, “What party is he?” My friend said, “He’s a Republican.” I said, “Then I am a Republican.” And I have been a Republican ever since.”

Disdain for big government swelters at the heart of American conservatism, associated with fear of authority figures encroaching on personal liberty. The deeper into the sticks you travel, the stronger the sentiment. The Last Stand cuts between the big city (Las Vegas), where agent John Bannister (Forest Whittaker) is crisis-managing his prisoner’s escape, calling the big shots in rooms filled with screens, desks, computers: the sterile surroundings of a decked-out headquarters. The place is a nerve centre of process and hierarchy, Whittaker’s character a representative of bureaucracy and big government.

On the other hand Owens’ sheriff office is modestly decorated, cluttered and creaky, the sort of coffee-stained low-fi HQ made familiar by innumerable westerns and small town dramas. When Whittaker calls Schwarzenegger, briefing him on the rapidly escalating situation, Owens is in no mood to take orders from a bigwig. He hangs up on the special agent not once but twice. Bannister, whose emotions are just that little bit more resonant by Whittaker’s gorgeous lazy-eye, reacts as if he’s been kicked in the groin by his best friend.

On a more local level, the small town populace are equally reluctant to take orders — even, and perhaps especially — from their own Sheriff. When Owens informs a bunch of locals gathered in the diner that danger is on its way, they react with a collective “meh” and refuse to leave, opting instead for breakfast and lounging about. Owens smells his own and lets them be.

This is the sort of place where Schwarzenegger and his sheriff feel at home, where freedom of choice is paramount despite potentially gnarly ramifications. The plot structure of The Last Stand relies on Owens postponing the arrival of Whittaker and his SWAT team, so that the local crew — including gun-crazy Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) — can stage their own resistance.

During a press conference in 2006, the Governator talked tough on border control. He suggested California “close the borders” with Mexico to stem illegal immigration but — after the subsequent showering of outrage — back-pedaled the next day, claiming he flubbed his line because of a “language problem.”

“The bottom line is, I misspoke, and I’m sorry if I offended anyone,” Schwarzenegger said. “I meant ‘securing’ order borders, not ‘closing’ them.”

The idea of securing the border — “you shall not pass” style, with guns and muscle instead of a staff and grey hair — is what the storyline of The Last Stand relies on. The location of a final battle sequence is staged on a bridge connecting Mexico to America. It’s here we see a vision of the incorruptible American authority. Owens is offers hundreds of thousands of dollars from the desperate drug dealer, which he refuses with an Eastwood-like growl before dragging the reprobate back to town.

On the subject of gun control, one of the more sensitive areas on the conservative torso, Schwarzenegger’s moderate leanings are most obviously apparent. “I’m for gun control. I’m a peace-loving guy,” said Arnie in 2003, during the lead-up to his election. This of course came from the same actor who walked into a gun store in The Terminator and collected a 12-gauge auto loader, a .45 long slide, a phase plasma rifle and a 9mm Uzi, then shot the man behind the counter.

Unsurprisingly, Schwarzenegger is not a believer in a direct correlation between on-screen and real-life violence. He supported Bill Clinton’s Brady Bill, which tightened gun control measures, and the closing of gun show loopholes which allowed people to buy weapons without background checks. The Last Stand reflects the reverse: a “guns for all” ethos that borders on the fetishistic. There’s a scene near the end in which a bad guy admires a good looking woman. “Look at that arse,” he says, then, inexplicably, points a gun at it and prepares to shoot.

Knoxville’s character, a well-armed madman, owns and operates a sort of ad hoc gun museum — a huge collection of munitions, old and new, kept in his shed. When the shit goes down, the crew head there for supplies, and subsequent scenes play like a celebration of American gun history, from the Revolutionary War onwards, artifacts of America’s gun-toting past mingled with very modern visions — Arnie, for example, jumping off a building and clipping a bad guy in the face on the way down. He can do this sort of thing now he’s no longer the Governator.

Expect a smattering of Schwarzenegger action flicks in coming years.

He’ll star alongside Sylvester Stallone in The Tomb, from Swedish filmmaker Jan Mikael Håfström, director of the under-rated 2007 Stephen King adaptation, 1408.

He’ll take the leading role in Ten, the latest feature from Training Day (2001) writer and End of Watch (2012) director David Ayer.

Schwarzenegger will attempt to reinvigorate a flailing franchise in The Legend of Conan.

He’ll be the on-screen grunt and groan in The Unknown Solider, from Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, the thrash-and-burn guns behind 2012′s Act of Valor, a morally dubious high-octane war movie for which the US navy held final cut privilege.

Despairingly, Schwarzenegger will also star alongside Danny DeVito and Eddie Murphy in Triplets, director Ivan Reitman’s belated follow-up to his 1988 comedy Twins.

The Last Stand’s Australian theatrical release date: February 21, 2013. 

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