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Overall Rating

Awesome: 4%
Worth A Look: 20%
Pretty Bad: 24%
Total Crap: 24%

4 reviews, 26 user ratings

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Last Man Standing
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by Jack Sommersby

"An Underrated Walter Hill Effort"
4 stars

One of star Bruce Willis' and director Walter Hill's biggest box-office flops, but don't let that put you off for it's a decent movie worth taking a chance on.

It's easy to understand why Walter Hill's automobiles-instead-of-horses Western Last Man Standing has been derided by so many. It's not groundbreaking stuff in the context department, the characters are two-dimensional at best, the pacing is far from swift, and the look of it is largely monochromatic in medium to dark tans and with more dust blowing around than in practically all Westerns put together. It's set in the very small Texas town of Jericho (pop. 57) fifty miles from the Mexican border: there's an innkeeper/bartender, a sheriff and deputy, a caretaker, and a couple of women; everybody else belongs to either the Irish or the Italian gangs at war with each other during the Prohibition era. Bruce Willis stars as a loner calling himself John Smith who arrives to take a brief reprieve before going to Mexico for good; he's a criminal from the east and an ace marksman who carries two automatic handguns in shoulder holsters. After stopping his car to get a reading on the town, he makes the mistake of casting eyes on a Native American beauty passing in front of him on the street with three men accompanying her; after she's inside, the men come back out and tell him it's not a good idea to be eyeing their boss' woman, and they proceed to puncture his tire and smash in his windshield and headlight. The sheriff, who's bought and paid for by the gangs, offers no help, so Smith, after downing a couple of shots of whiskey at the motel, goes across the street, challenges the instigator, and shoots him down when drawn upon (the others, stunned by the expert shooting and risky brazenness, let him go). After getting the skinny of the situation in town, Smith, seeing some easy money to be had, offers his services to the rival gang; after doing some work for them, he then switches and gets taken on by the other gang. Pretty soon he's making a bundle selling his services to the highest bidder at any given time, giving them pertinent information and switching again and warning the other with more information he's picked up. Smith insists he has no allegiances, and not a conscience, either. Of course, this is tested when the women figure more into the equation: the woman from before and a good-hearted hooker (aren't they all in this genre?) who get into the crosshairs of the action. That's right, this man who doesn't take sides eventually takes one -- that of the side of righteousness when that supposed non-existing conscience is awakened. And it gets him into some serious trouble.

Hill, who did the screenplay and directed, has obviously modeled his movie after Akira Kurosawa's well-regarded 1961 Yojimbo, which Sergio Leone used as the basis for his 1964 A Fistful of Dollars. Some priggish purists will aver Hill had no business borrowing from such esteemed directors, but he's been responsible for such outstanding classics as The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs. and Red Heat, and has got just as much moviemaking bravado as Kurosawa and Leone -- his framing of action is just as expressive and sophisticated. In fact, he's taken quite the chance here in his willingness to tell a rather derivative tale without a lot in the way of visual vitality and hard-driving pacing: he's got a dogged fascination with how limited the characters have willingly made themselves with nothing but machismo empowering them. He views them as pathetic, locked into their ways as if they knew nothing else since birth; he makes them ill-defined to the point where they blur together, which is, as is fairly obvious, the point. Smith is motivated by greed, as well, but he's also got something of a loner personal code that distinguishes him from the rest -- he's won't allow himself to be subordinate to anyone, and it's this aspect that Hill seems to be embracing. As far as I can tell, Hill has never catered to studio interests in re-cutting a movie of his at the request of the unimaginative brass -- like Smith, he's extremely talented and knows this is enough to keep inferiors out of his hair. He could've easily dressed the supporting cast in contrasting wardrobes so they stood out from Smith (they all wear three-piece business suits), but he keeps everyone in the same visual tone -- it's Smith's (and Hill's) fertile mind that puts him above the villains (the studio execs). Oh, one can't completely endow Hill with unfettered admiration because the poetry of Last Man Standing is too muted and self-involved to bring itself out fully; and his handling of the female characters is pretty much lacking as always -- for all his movies, both big and small, he's never graced one with a lead heroine. But Hill's no fool, no naif -- he knows what he's presenting is severely limited and deliberately paced, and simply doesn't care. Given every opportunity to set the movie apart from others of this genre, he has the willingness to sustain an aura of hopelessness even though the ending is far from unpleasant -- the hero isn't going to shed his criminal ways, and financially he ends up pretty much where he started, but he's got a smidgen of self-respect for all his troubles.

Yes, the material is no great shakes and has zero scope (then again, when Hill tried for expansive scope in his 1993 Geronimo: An American Legend, the result was amorphous and awkward), but the movie is enjoyable in the undemanding way those old Jim Thompson pulp novels were with their vivid tough guys, various double dealings and double crosses, and oppressively seedy atmosphere. Unlike most noir, though, Hill doesn't employ suggestive shadows, rainy days and nights; working with his regular cameraman, Lloyd Ahern II, he goes the atypical route in giving us mostly daytime scenes where the sun is always out but somewhat obscured by all the blowing dust -- it doesn't have a blinding shine because it seems incapable of penetrating all the dirt (amorality) that's omnipresent. The movie's got more than its fair share of the brand of piquant dialogue that graced Thompson's works: early on, before a single bullet's been fired, when someone challenges Smith to a gunfight, Smith, with some light humor in his voice, responds, "It'll hurt if I do"; and the women also get some good lines and run with them (Smith: "Does your boss have a first name?" Lulu: "Only in the bedroom"). It was unorthodox to cast non-charismatic actors Ned Eisenberg and Michael Imperioli as the Italian leaders, and Daniel Patrick Kelly as the Irish leader, but after the midway mark, when characters like Bruce Dern's sheriff and Christopher Walken's sadistic go-to henchmen Hickey (who's talked about for forty-five minutes before first appearing) start having more screen time and showing some unexpected layers, we can see the canny calculation behind it. Also worth commending is William Sanderson, who plays the motel owner and Smith's eventual ally, and beautifully humanizes his character without attention-grabbing italicizing. And holding everything together, providing the story's crux, lending the proceedings much-needed gravitas in a hero characterization not exactly teeming with depth, is Willis, doing some of his best work. Looking spectacular in his period clothing and an attractive brush cut, and with a quiet yet forceful voice that never rises above a shout, Willis has been required to understatedly project both magnetism and mysticism (a tall order for any actor not wanting to come off the fool), and he delivers. He holds the screen through sheer concentration and the right quasi-mocking take on the dialogue --we take Smith seriously without taking him too seriously. It's the very definition of a "well-calibrated" performance.

Last Man Standing is one of the wordiest screenplays Hill's ever concocted, and this will surely be a deterrent to those going in expecting more action scenes than talking-heads ones, but when the dialogue is this well-written and spoken by an array of game actors relishing in the textured speak, this indulgence will be more than forgivable to those responsive to it and willing to stick with the proceedings. Even when Smith finds himself severely bloodied and beaten to a pulp (surely the most brutal butt-whooping since Kevin Costner's in Tony Scott's Revenge six years prior), rather than pouring on grandiose music to accentuate his innate toughness manly motivating him to get past it, Hill trusts his dialogue and Willis' solidity to provide this with a mere voiceover, "You just concentrate on holding tight to that little part right at the center. The rest doesn't matter. They're gonna take the rest, anyway." Don't get the impression that the movie is lacking in the action department, though. It's that when the action comes it's fever-clip fast and furious and is sometimes over before you know it. Smith doesn't have to reload two six-shot revolvers, and his enemies still carrying those are unprepared for the lightning-like delivery of the rounds; and he shoots them two at a time with plenty of spare magazines tucked in his waist. Where the usual movieland gunslinger in an oater, dressed in worn clothing and boots with spurs, had to be careful the number of varmints he took on in a standoff, the well-dressed Smith's quick draw is important, yes, and so is his dead-aim, but Hill elevates the shootouts to a new level we haven't seen since Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. As usual, he keeps the spatial logistics acute and clear, so we always know, no matter how fast the cutting, where one shooter is in relation to another; and each shootout is staged with variety in regards to distance and structure -- whether it's Smith and one opponent in a saloon, or Smith and five opponents in a multi-leveled motel (a Hill specialty for those who know his work), the staging and editing are simply incapable of being improved upon. Hats off, too (though not ten-gallon ones), to Freeman Davies, Hill's longtime editor whose work in the cutting room is just as stellar as his boss' work behind the camera. It took six editors to do the boxing sequences in Rocky II, yet Davies is the sole editor credited in Last Man Standing. It's safe to say he wields a mean splicer with as much precision and relish as Smith does with those awesome automatics.

Preferable to Willis' "Striking Distance" and Hill's "Trespass."

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originally posted: 12/13/11 11:03:28
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User Comments

4/05/14 raouljohn Drama At It's Best. What A Hoot! 5 stars
2/23/14 Marta Silberberg This film is so bad 1 stars
7/21/12 Sean Harrison An underrated gem. 4 stars
12/21/11 green O not much in to action movies 4 stars
5/02/11 action movie fan decent drama and very good shootouts help this movie along 3 stars
2/06/07 AJ Muller Bruce is knocked-out cool and Walken's psycho; add Hill's action scenes, we got a winner. 4 stars
9/05/06 Sepi53 flop 1 stars
3/24/06 Sugarfoot I say this with great authority, the most boring movie Walter Hill has ever made. 1 stars
1/31/05 Gary One of the worst films I have ever seen! Laughable! 1 stars
9/27/04 Archanist_101 The action scenes were great... Pity the story wasnt the same! 3 stars
8/17/04 john bale Bruce the killing machine does a Clint Eastwood, albeit not as well. 3 stars
5/27/04 R.W. Welch Mundane mob flick mostly misfires. Quite unconvincing. 2 stars
1/26/04 Eric Pretty much A Fistful Of Dollars remake.Willis and Walken made it worth watching 3 stars
12/28/03 Monster W. Kung Terrible! Hollywood has no shame. 1 stars
11/27/03 John pointless movie that just drags on - rent YOJIMBO or FISTFUL OF DOLLARS instead 2 stars
6/23/03 AD not as bad as people said some good shootouts 3 stars
6/09/03 John Smith This movie is cool, Willis is a badass, and so is Chris Walken. 5 stars
3/20/03 Jack Sommersby You want to like it, but it's simply to uninvolving and derivative. 2 stars
7/12/02 KMG BOOOOORING! 2 stars
11/27/01 sdfr stylish and posturing Peckinpah / Kurosawa hybrid should entertain fans of the genre 3 stars
8/14/01 Mr. Hat Mr. Pink, I would agree with you if you would leave you comment at the 1st 2 words. 1 stars
6/15/99 Dylan A little under-rated maybe. It certainly has its flaws-but it has its good moments too. 3 stars
5/07/99 Lucas Jackson It is a remake,there is no Eastwood,but there is still blood,guts,bullets and violence 4 stars
11/27/98 Mr.Pink Flawed? Absolutely! But not THAT bad. 3 stars
8/25/98 Pete Bah to remakes!! If studios wanna piss away money, at least do it on something new. 2 stars
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  20-Sep-1996 (R)



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