I don’t usually care to see the Hollywood films of Asian directors but I will occasionally take the plunge if I’m a big enough fan of the director. Which is why I watched Kim Jee-Woon’s “The Last Stand” (2013). I went in knowing not to expect a “real” Kim film because Hollywood studios control the creativity of directors in a very different way than in Korea. I was mainly curious to see how much of Kim’s incredible style would be able to squeeze through Lionsgate’s heavy hands, and I also had some neurotic doubt that I might be missing something worthwhile from one of my favorite Korean directors.
Since I had crankily ignored all the film’s news and reviews, I decided to approach “The Last Stand” like a game: I would try to guess what elements of the film were Kim’s own, and then later I would try to find out via the internet if I was right. Would there be any Kim elements at all or would Lionsgate squeeze the life out of him? And if there are some elements present, is my Kim radar good enough to spot them?
I won’t review the film but I’ll sum it up: “The Last Stand” is infantile stereotype garbage with some good moments. The screenplay by Andrew Knauer is one long ludicrous stale cliche. The characters are boring, un-funny cardboard cutouts (except for a villain played by Peter Stormare, who manages to be somebody despite the odds). The “humor” is not cute or funny, it’s embarrassingly immature putrefaction. I couldn’t stop thinking of The Onion‘s interview with the 5-year-old director of “The Fast and The Furious”. Everything – well, almost everything – is wrong with this film. The “not wrong” parts are where director Kim comes in.
There are definitely are some Kim Jee-woon elements in the film, and spotting them was a lot easier than I thought. There is in fact enough of Kim here to make “The Last Stand” recommended viewing for his serious fans and for cinephiles interested in studying “auteur” directors.
Here’s a run-down of the elements that make “The Last Stand” slightly different than most Hollywood smegma. First, the photography feels “Korean”. I guessed right that Kim had brought a Korean photographer (Kim Jee Yong – “A Bittersweet Life”, “Doomsday Book”) with him to Hollywood. The over-saturated glow of color, unique lighting and emphasis on texture that the director favors is very present and it feels unusual for a Hollywood action film.
The cinematography also accounts for the good fight photography and the not-very-good car chases. I’m not saying the car photography is bad, just that a film featuring a super-macho race car should include some super-kick ass car photography. And this is just average. Kim has never seemed to be as at home with cars as he is with close ups and gun fights. He did add the unique non-Hollywood corn field car chase though. This scene is easily identifiable as a “Korean” style scene but it still doesn’t quite work for me. It’s slower, more real-time, more experiential, and more thoughtful than the rest of the film. The pacing of this scene is quite different, so while it might be thought of by Korean film fans as “better” it just feels odd because it doesn’t fit in. Which says to me that in film making, uniformity of flow might be more important than bursts of quality. Kim can’t seem to win either way with “The Last Stand”.
Probably the best Kim element is the gun fights. They are long, violent and personal. Practical special effects are used more than CGI here, which creates a stronger sense of realism. Hollywood is waaay too politically correct to explore and enjoy the emotionality of gun battles, which is why their gunplay is usually so unsatisfactory. But in the final shootout of “The Last Stand”, Kim lets everybody just blast the shit out of each other in a nasty, cool way (and this is probably how violence should actually be depicted rather than the safe, emotionally empty Hollywood depictions). There is a very short and highly personal scene on some stairs between actors Rodrigo Santoro and Jaimie Alexander and a bad guy that practically screams “Kim’s own addition“. This little moment is really the closest to the stylish, extremely emotional violence that Kim has created in past films.
There is also in that final shootout a moment when an elderly housefrau blows away a bad guy with her shotgun. Unlike all the rest of the stagnant stereotype humor in “The Last Stand”, this moment is absurd and actually humorous. Once again, Kim’s own addition. I don’t think that American reviewers who were disgusted by what they view as Kim’s excessive violence should ever watch “A Bittersweet Life” or “I Saw the Devil” because the final shootout in “The Last Stand” is comparative child’s play. Childish humor aside, it is to me the only really engaging, entertaining part of the film.
“The Last Stand” might have been a good film if Lionsgate had allowed Kim Jee-Woon to actually direct it. He was not allowed to use camera angles that are deemed unsafe in Hollywood. He says in more than one interview that his creative input was repeatedly barred by the studio or drained by strict time schedules. He became depressed and was texting other Korean directors because he felt isolated and constrained. This is a damn shame. While the script is almost irredeemably shitty, I do believe that Kim could have fixed it up and delivered a tense, beautiful, kick ass action film.
But he wan’t allowed to. So there it is. Good photography and some cool out-of-place moments are the elements that Kim was able to bring to “The Last Stand”. Watch the film but remember not to hold it against him.