By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Well, he always said he’d be back. And so he is.

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No longer the Terminator, no longer the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the movie screen in The Last Stand, an unpretentiously straightforward and effective action thriller.

Although he has popped up in a few cameo appearances, this is Schwarzenegger’s first starring role since 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

(2½ stars out of 4)

(2½ stars out of 4)

He plays Ray Owens, who used to work as a cop for the LAPD but who left his narcotics post in disgrace after a bungled operation that resulted in the crippling of his partner.

Now, Owens works as the sheriff of the sleepy little border town of Summerton Junction, Ariz., where crime is just about nonexistent.

Till now.

It seems there’s been an escape from an FBI prisoner convoy by drug cartel czar Gabriel Cortez, played by Eduardo Noriega, who is now speeding toward Summerton Junction with a gang waiting and a hostage in tow.

It’s there that US law enforcement, led by an FBI agent played by Forest Whitaker, must stop him before he crosses the Mexican border and gets away for good (and bad).  But they are more than a few steps behind Cortez and his high-powered car.

It’s up to Owens and his small, inexperienced staff, which includes Johnny Knoxville as one Lewis Dinkum, to stop them because a violent showdown is inescapable.

This is the first American film by South Korean director Kim Jee-woon, who works from a script by Andrew Knauer that has obviously been strongly influenced by American westerns.   As has the director of this modern western with cars instead of horses, indulging in cartoonishly chaotic action sequences that are meant to be amusing and exciting at the same time.

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Sometimes they’re both, sometimes they’re neither.  But the most memorable set pieces are the ones demonstrating visual inventiveness, not boring barrages of bullets.

In a way, the best thing about the film is the sense of humor that it sustains throughout, some of it raucous, some of it low-keyed.  Which is why the eventual bloodbath that ensues, the reliance on automatic weaponry, the over-the-top graphic violence that takes over the third act and swallows it whole is so disappointing.

And unnecessary.  The small-town characters on display are appealing and crowd-pleasing enough to dispense with much of the shoot-em-up stuff, which undermines rather than enhances the suspense.

The director would have been better off trusting the motley crew of characters and his game cast and toning down the frenetic action.  There’s more than enough as it is.

That said, Schwarzenegger — playing a role originally intended for Liam Neeson — acquits himself nicely, nearly acting his age and underplaying appropriately.

This will, by the way, not be a last stand of any kind for him, given that he already has several films in the pipeline.  He’s certainly lost a step or two, but he remains a commanding presence and is still able to display a sense of humor when he needs to.

So we’ll drive toward 2½ stars out of 4 for the passable actioner, The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s preposterous but refreshingly jokey and never boring star-turn movie comeback.

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