'Last Man Standing' Swims With Violence.
By Stacey Richter
I GUESS MAYBE you'll have to kill me," the thug says to the tough guy. "It'll hurt if I do," the tough guy replies. Then there's a bang, bang, bang, etc. The thug falls down and the tough guy watches. Thus the violence begins in earnest in Last Man Standing, Walter Hill's homage to Akira Kurosawa's 1961 Yojimbo, which was itself influenced by Hollywood westerns of the day and based on Dashiel Hammet's Red Harvest. (Sergio Leone also did a version in 1964, A Fistful of Dollars.) Bruce Willis swaggers and sweats as John Smith, a 1930s version of Kurosawa's wandering Samurai, and a not-very-veiled reference to Leone's Man With No Name. With no objective other than to be tough, he rides into the dusty little town of Jericho (it inexplicably looks like the set of Gunsmoke) and gets himself into some hard-boiled trouble.
Let me repeat this: Willis, dressed in '30s suits and talking like Bogart in The Maltese Falcon ("Crossing me was nothing personal. She was just trying to make a living in a world where big fish eat little fish") finds himself in an old west town, where he gets involved in a gangland war between rival bootleggers. And this bloody, machine-gun fueled plot is drawn from a film about a 19th-century Samurai in the Japanese countryside. A good question to ask now would be: Is this a joke?
I'm really not sure if Hill intended for Last Man Standing to be a comedy, but it's hilarious. It has something in common with those forgotten '70s movies on TV on Sunday afternoons, where all the good guys have wide lapels and all the kids complain about being hassled by the pigs--it's a perfectly serious movie, but it's so stylized and absurd that it's funny at the same time. Everything about this movie is over-the-top, from the tough-guy dialogue to the stereotyped characters. The Irish gang sits around a table, eating from a big dish of potatoes. The Italian gang sits around an even bigger table, eating from a big dish of spaghetti. One of the female characters has been won in a card game. And John Smith shoots 'em all up, no matter what. (Well, not the ladies. He has a soft spot for the skirts.)
Willis plays the part with a touch of irony (though he's no Clint Eastwood, or Toshiro Mifune either, for that matter), but it's Christopher Walken as Hickey, the toughest of the gang guys--he supposedly killed his parents as a child, then burnt down the orphanage where he ended up, and all the screaming little orphans with it--who gives the most interesting performance. It's always hard to tell if Walken is playing straight or making fun, and in Last Man Standing he's found the perfect vehicle for his complex, post-modern acting style. Ambiguity abounds. He's so stiff he seems partially frozen, and he enunciates his corny, heard-em-before lines as though he's giving life lessons to a child. "You wouldn't shoot an unarmed man in the back?" he asks, with a hint of William Shatner in his voice.
In tone, Last Man Standing recalls Roman Polanski's layered, melodramatic Bitter Moon, especially in the stylized narration. But Polanski most certainly meant for Bitter Moon to be funny (at least in parts), while it's unclear if Hill intended for Last Man Standing to have comedic elements, or if he's simply seen so many movies and lived so ensconced in the Hollywood tradition that he's come to believe movie clichés are somehow meaningful rather than ridiculous. Even the relentless violence in this movie has a double character. It's Peckinpah-style violence, but Peckinpah as filtered through the cartoon-like lens of Hong Kong action movies via Quentin Tarantino. Thus, we have the now obligatory scene of two men training guns at each other at once, shooting with crossed arms; scenes of one man killing five men, 10 men, you name it--John Smith can kill it, and he won't really care.
Maybe it's simply this "whatever" attitude that prevents this movie from being compelling on its own terms. None of the characters are particularly likable, or realistic, so who cares if they're turned into human sieves with machine guns? No one's ever particularly disturbed to see a cartoon character go. Very little of the violence in Last Man Standing even seems real. It's just big fish eating little fish, sweetheart.
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