For his debut Hollywood gig, John Woo scored in-his-prime Jean-Claude Van Damme. For making what was until recently the most expensive film in South Korean history, Kim Jee-woon netted a 65-year-old ex-governor who hasn’t had a vehicle in a decade. But Kim is an absurdly talented crosser of genres: wrestling comedy (The Foul King), creepy girl horror (A Tale of Two Sisters), assassin opera (A Bittersweet Life), lunatic spaghetti western mashup (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) and brooding revenge saga (I Saw the Devil). What could have been noticeably beneath him–like Woo’s JCVD picture, Hard Target–is, thanks to his flexibility, a welcome fit of squib-happy goofiness.
Newly freed from political prison, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the Austrian sheriff of an American border town who feels oddly compelled to stop a moneyed escaped con (Eduardo Noriega), plus an army of thugs (led by Peter Stormare, gesticulating even more Stormarely than usual), passing through en route to Mexico. Ah-nold’s motives for destroying his town to nab a single perp are fuzzy: Ostensibly, it’s about honor, as well as avenging a slain deputy. When villain and (weary, wheezing) hero are about to go climactially mano-a-mano, he offers another reason: “You make us foreigners look bad.”
Kim, a master stylist, goes easy on the first half, which toggles between rote police junk, symbols of Americana (cops eating donuts, Harry Dean Stanton) and small town laziness. It’s all building to a big showdown, which is when Kim finally fully reveals himself. The latently comic tone erupts in an ocean of cheeky bloodshed where every killing counts, as in each is inspired: If there’s a funnier joke this year than this one’s death-by-flare-gun, we’re in for a superb 12 months.
Adopting (although more accurately attempting) the role of Song Kang-ho in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, complete with a yen for funny headgear, Johnny Knoxville plays an arms hobbyist with an arsenal that would make Wayne LaPierre collapse into a fetal position. Released days after Obama’s call for strict gun laws, The Last Stand would seem to kowtow to the paranoid fantasies of NRA members. Except “fantasy” is the word: There’s never, to its immense credit, a remotely realistic moment, none crazier than the image of a man older than my dad bodyslamming one one of Spain’s more dashing specimens.