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Least Movie Standing


Walter Hill and Bruce Willis go through the motions

By Richard von Busack

THE PROMISING design of Last Man Standing--seen in the interesting advertising image of dapper gangsters transported to the desert--turns out to hide a disappointing and cruel actioner. The story has a history by now, and I probably won't be the only person to suggest seeing either the original 1961 Yojimbo or the 1967 remake, A Fistful of Dollars--or reading the hidden source, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest. Nothing in Last Man Standing conveys as much coolness and corruption as that opening image in Yojimbo of a dog trotting off with a human hand in its mouth; and nothing in Bruce Willis' sour, one-note performance as gunman "John Smith" matches the beguiling, chilly satisfaction of Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name.

Smith stumbles into the Prohibition-era Jericho, a Texas border town that's all dust and rotten boards. Jericho is divided between Irish and Italian gangsters from Chicago, who are using the place as a staging area for their competing bootlegging businesses. All the noncombatants have fled, and the sheriff, Ed Galt (Bruce Dern), refuses to take sides. Doyle (David Patrick Kelly) is the leader of the Irishmen; Fredo Strozzi (Ned Eisenberg) heads the Italian faction. Smith makes the mistake of glancing at Felina (Karina Lombard), Doyle's unwilling mistress, and gets his tires punctured and his windshield broken as a warning. Even after this cautionary reception to Jericho, he decides to stay put and see if he can hire out his services as a gunman to either side--or both.

The trick of the oft-told story lies in being a step behind the amoral antihero, not being able to guess his motives as he switches loyalties as easily as he crosses the street. Unfortunately, director Walter Hill leaves no room for guesswork. You are ushered through the story like a child. In his voice-over narration, Smith yammers away like a speed-freak all through the film, making Last Man Standing dully literal at the same time that it tries to blow us away with superior firepower.

"We have to make a choice between good and evil," Smith pontificates, and the camera show us a crossroads. "It was all right out of some dime novel," Smith intones, as we survey a gangster strutting around the sordid little town of Jericho. I wouldn't have been surprised to hear Smith telling us over a gunfight, "Without saying anything, I walked in and filled the bad guys full of lead."

Last Man Standing has a good 10 minutes of Christopher Walken playing the fearsome Hickey, the worst of Doyle's thugs. Walken sports a nice scar that makes him look like an egg cracked in the boil, and a raspy voice that's supposed to have been the result of having stopped an ice pick with his larynx. But 10 minutes do not a movie make, and Last Man Standing is as plain and featureless as its array of gangsters, all shot under the same dusty red light.

More puzzling is the insistence on the moral redemption of Smith, symbolized by a rosary passed around among the characters--another nugget of literalism this movie didn't need. The film's kinetic efforts are as inept as the metaphysics of that rosary. Last Man Standing is built like a video game. Smith points and shoots; his target falls down dead. Hill (Streets of Fire, The Driver) was once a minor master of the chase, but his action sequences here are pedestrian, as if he had lost interest in the genre.

The one sequence that persists in memory is a series of close-ups of shoes, the point of view Smith gets when he's stomped at the climax of the second act. The wing tips and brogues are as indistinguishable as the individual faces in the cascade of falling stuntmen.

Last Man Standing (R; 103 min.), directed and written by Walter Hill, based on a story by Akira Kurosawa, photographed by Lloyd Ahern and starring Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern and Christopher Walken.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of Metro

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