Last Man Standing - Dir: Walter Hill, Starring Bruce Willis
There has undeniably been a trend in recent motion pictures to feature violence with a certain sheen and glamour that it comes off as being more akin to an Ashton
ballet than street brawl or blood ridden battle. The Matrix is a prime example of this, as was Desperado. And both films drew criticism for giving savagery such a pristine finish in post-Columbine American culture, for embellishing brutality with the glossy sparkle of a Nagel painting and draining it of its blood spurting, bone shattering, flesh charring reality. Perhaps that is why we need more films like Last Man Standing. It manages to merge elements of art/violence and gritty gore in such a perfect way that you can marvel at the fireworks as you watch Bruce Willis lob off several rounds from a 45 and still feel the agony as said bullets scrape their way into bullish thugs who grunt and fall over into the unholy contortions of a villainís death.
Last Man Standingís plot is almost a straight retelling of Akira Kuwasawa's Yojimbo, though Bruce Willis in the lead role makes the character a bit more morally vacant than Mifune's protagonist. A stranger comes to a town of warring factions (In this instance, Irish and Italian mobsters in prohibition era Texas.), plays both sides against each other and the obligatory violence and death ensue. Of course there really is never any doubt how this will end. John Smith (Willis' nom de guer) will kill everyone, not because he is noble, not because he is righteous, but simply because he is better at killing than they are. Sure the bad guys ('bad guy' being somewhat of a relative term in this film) get their shots in (at one point torturing Willis with uncomfortable realism) but ultimately, the film makes no pretense about disguising the obvious ending (really, one needs look no further than the title.). With no reason to pursue plot originality, director Walter Hill funnels his energy into creating some of the most artistic and satisfying scenes of action/violence in recent years. The gunshots donít have the weak snap of a 38 fired in an old Starsky and Hutch episode but the thunderous applause of a Napalm blast in Apocalypse Now. When thugs are shot they don't slump over dead but fly across the room as the force of the slug sends them through a window and out into the dusty Texas night. And their pained cries are not the "Arghs" and "Uhhhs" of a campy Bat-Man episode, but rather desperate pleas to a forsaken lord, begging for rectification of their misspent lives. This is violence at its best: primal, real, but glowing with something beyond real, an almost holy glaze that the Pope himself would have to appreciate.
The film also fermented in my mind Willis' place as the king of schlep heroes. Balding and lumpy, he's no athletic Van Damme
or handsome Will Smith. He doesn't win the day because he's a highly trained fighter or commands James Bondian gadgets, but because he knows how to draw strength from hatred. Willis doesn't reject the urge to return to man's animalistic tendencies in the heat of battle. And he simply has more willpower than the guy he's facing. (Beneath almost all of Willis' recent films, be it 12 Monkeys or the Die Hard series is an epitaph that could fill a Hallmark card - "Never Give Up!") Though, I found his character on Moonlighting annoying and his early film roles lacking, I have to admit, he's come along way towards building a film characterization that owes more to Edward G. Robinson than Cary Grant.
Though Last Man Standing will undeniably become a cult favorite among the Tarentino crowd, it must be given credit for creating its own distinctive mood and balance. You could probably count the spectrum of colors used in the movie on one hand (all of them being a shade of brown) and find precursors to every character in the movie in earlier cinema epics (some might even accuse the roles of simply being stereotypes.) but Last Man Standing does grasp at some originality. While you could argue that every Western is a samurai flick in disguise, not every Western draws from the iconography of Chicago era gangsters. (I say Chicago era assuming that the readers will not dispute that Chicago's heyday was the thirties.) And considering how bloody each of those genres - Samurai, Western and Gangbusters - are on their own, it's quite easy to see that the results of a combination would prove wonderfully lethal.