Last Man Standing

Last Man Standing is not the ideal movie to see when you have a cold. You stare at the dust, and the light shining through the dust, and then the men in hats walking through the dusty light, and you wonder if this is a style or a Robitussin hallucination. The film is also big on dissolves, which usually denote the passage of time; here they’re used constantly, often within the same scene. Between the dust and the dissolves, this movie makes you feel drowsy and stuffed-up even without a cold.

Writer-director Walter Hill (48 HRS., Wild Bill), a veteran stylist and macho mythologist, borrows a story that has served two masters of epic action: Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars). Hill’s grainy images and snail’s pace suggest he’s aiming for an instant classic to be shelved alongside those two greats. What he ends up with looks (and moves) a lot like Heaven’s Gate, with frequent quotes from a contemporary action master, John Woo.

Bruce Willis clicks into monosyllabic mode as John Smith, a mysterious hired gun who drives into the dead-end border town of Jericho looking for a place to lie low. Instead, he lands in the middle of a shaky truce between two rival gangs — the Italian Strozzis and the Irish Doyles, who each want Smith to help run their bootleg booze and rub out the opposing gang. Smith’s plan is to play both sides against the middle until he is, as advertised, the last man standing.

This story worked well with Toshiro Mifune and Clint Eastwood, and yet it does not work with Bruce Willis, who has shown greater range than either of those effective but limited stars. Why? Perhaps because Hill has directed Willis to submerge his personality in tribute to the laconic icons Mifune and Eastwood. But a laconic Bruce Willis is less iconic than bionic.

Hill tries to spice up the movie with such dependable eccentrics as Bruce Dern (as a sheriff), David Patrick Kelly (as the Doyle gang’s leader), William Sanderson (as a bartender), and Christopher Walken (as a spooky gunman). But Hill drowns them in trite tough-guy dialogue, and Willis himself labors under needless hard-boiled narration that obscures the film’s one striking element: the score by Ry Cooder, whose work has graced some of Hill’s best movies (Southern Comfort, especially).

And if you’re looking for decent female characters, keep looking. That’s to be expected from Hill, who here deals us two stereotypes from the usual sexist deck: the innocent who must be saved (Karina Lombard) and the whore who must be punished (Alexandra Powers). Judging from what happens to the whore, I’d say Hill has taken a page (and an ear) from Quentin Tarantino, who will probably gush that this is “a great movie.” It isn’t. Oh, how it wants to be. But this is an airless and humorless dud — a folly that only a gifted director could have made. The film chokes to death on Walter Hill’s dusty artistry. Didn’t he know that Last Man Standing was already made a few years ago, faster and funnier and much cheaper, by Robert Rodriguez? It’s called El Mariachi, Walter. Rent it and weep.

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