Last Man Standing

Last Man Standing

***

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Does the synopsis sound familiar? It should, because it’s also the plot of Yojimbo and A Fistful Of Dollars. Very big shoes to fill indeed – and while Hill’s gangster take on the story has its merits, it never quite succeeds in filling them.

The premise is old as story-telling itself – Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai classic drew part of its inspiration from Dashiell Hammet’s Depression-era thrillers Red Harvest and The Glass Key. And when making his seminal spaghetti western three years later Leone said he and Kurosawa should both acknowledge Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century play Servant of Two Masters. Basically, we’ve always been attracted to the idea of the super- smart, indomitable (and somewhat morally ambivalent) hero playing both ends against the middle.

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So what does Hill - one of Hollywood’s most proficient action directors and a screenwriter whose credits include everything from Alien to Peckinpah’s The Getaway – bring to the party?

Well, for a start, it looks stunning. The opening shot tracks a beaten-up 30s roadster across a sun-baked Texan landscape, with Willis’s blank-eyed, shabby-suited stranger at the wheel. As he explains in voiceover, he’s on his way to Mexico after some unspecified trouble in The Big City.

He spins an empty whiskey bottle at a fork in the road and winds up in the border town of Jericho, a sumptuously-realised ramshackle dustbowl of a place, run by two gangs – one Irish, one Italian - beating Prohibition by trafficking booze across the Rio Grande. The stranger decides to stick around and make some money by offering his services to whichever side pays best.

What happens next will be very familiar to anyone who’s seen the film’s illustrious predecessors. A bit of casual bullying by the Irish faction leads to a perfectly choreographed vignette where the stranger guns down the gang’s lead enforcer, signalling that there’s a new game in town – and reminding the audience that Hill has always been a master of well-paced, visceral action cinema.

Both powers vie for his services and he makes a pretty penny feeding them information about the others’ activities and occasionally utilising his gunplay skills. But his neutral, mercenary stance is gradually eroded as he sees daily evidence of their casual brutality towards the townsfolk – in particular an Indian girl (Karina Lombard) kept in virtual slavery by the besotted boss of the Irish gang.

Eventually he decides that they’d all be ‘better off dead’ and embarks on a one-man cleansing mission – but his task is complicated by the arrival of hitman Hickey (Christopher Walken), who may be more than a match for him...

The big difference is that Hill gives his protagonist a noir-style voiceover to explain his actions – and it’s also a big mistake. The power of the earlier films lay in the blank inscrutability of the ‘hero’ and the mystery of his sudden change of heart. For Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo it was a sudden realisation of morality; for Eastwood an enigmatic single line of dialogue hinting at a world of backstory. Here it’s an endless succession of Chandleresque aphorisms that teeter on the verge of self-parody.

The danger in doing American Noir is that it can seem overly-mannered and the actual dialogue – so hard-boiled it must have needed six minutes in the egg-timer – doesn’t help. It also feels out of place in what’s really a Western at heart. Credit to Hill for trying to blend his two favourite genres, but the result is overcooked and unappetising.

And it doesn’t help that, after an impressive opening the one area where we should be in completely safe hands – the action scenes – also takes a turn for the worse. Hill had obviously been watching a lot of John Woo round about this time and where a tense, low-key approach or a bit of operatic slow-mo in the style of his mentor Bloody Sam would have worked best we get an endless procession of OTT bullet-fests; competently executed but lacking any reality or sense of genuine peril.

Willis drifts through it all with the mildly annoyed frown of someone who’s realised they’ve left the iron on. Mifune and Eastwood’s iconic turns are hard acts to follow, true enough, but he looks uncomfortable playing an existential enigma rather than the engaging Everyman of the Die Hard movies. Perhaps he was already tiring of the action genre (it came soon after his genuinely challenging role in Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys) but his performance adds to the general air of nobody quite having their heart in it. Even Walken – usually guaranteed to liven up a flagging movie – is a disappointingly uncharismatic Nemesis, seemingly content to do a Burt Lancaster impression.

There are some spiky turns among the supporting players (watch out for a pre-Sopranos Michael Imperioli as a hotheaded youngster sent south on the Mafia’s equivalent of a Work Expreience programme) while long-time Hill compadre Dern at least seems to be having some fun as a cheerfully corrupt sheriff. Lombard (then best known as Tom Cruise's seductress in The Firm) is suitably otherworldly as the damsel in distress, giving Hill a chance to ladle on the Catholic imagery (stereotypes of old Mehico are never too far away) and providing an interesting counterpoint to the more typically noir-ish dames in the supporting roles.

Ry Cooder’s score is nicely menacing and atonal, while the sets, landscapes and costumes continue to look stunning throughout. If you’re a Hill completist you may want to check it out again. But The Long Riders and Geronimo are better Westerns; 48 Hours and The Driver better thrillers. As Brucie bursts into yet another room and unloads his automatics into yet another group of anonymous heavies you’ll find it hard not to think that this has all been done before – and better.

Reviewed on: 13 Sep 2011
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Last Man Standing packshot
A mysterious stranger arrives in a small town and begins to play two rival gangs off against one another...
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Director: Walter Hill

Writer: Walter Hill

Starring: Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern, William Sanderson, Christopher Walken, David Patrick Kelly, Karina Lombard, Ned Eisenberg, Alexandra Powers

Year: 1996

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Festivals:

SSFF 2011

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If you like this, try:

The Driver
A Fistful Of Dollars