Wednesday, September 4, 2013


International filmmakers have exerted great influence on American movies.  When Hollywood runs out of fresh ideas, the major studios often turn to foreign films for inspiration.  Sometimes, a moviemaker appears who can adapt a foreign film in such a revolutionary way that audiences sits up and pay attention.  Writer & director Walter Hill manages this ambitious feat in his cinematic version of the 1961 Japanese samurai epic “Yojimbo” by the brilliant director Akira Kurosawa.  Incidentally, “Yojimbo” translated means “bodyguard.” In the 1950s and 1960s, Kurosawa emerges as one of the few Asian filmmakers who commanded the respect of American audiences.  His film grew popular in the West.  Moreover, Kurosawa translated profitably in western s.  His films have served as the basis for John Sturges’ 1960 classic “The Magnificent Seven,” Sergio Leone’s landmark Spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), and now Walter Hill’s “Last Man Standing.”  Hill recycles the venerable Kurosawa tale as a Prohibition Era gangster saga, casting Bruce Willis as a tight-lipped soldier of fortune with two guns and an attitude.  The story contains all the subtlety of a hail of lead, and “Last Man Standing” erupts with the fury of an artillery barrage.

The remote setting of Jericho, Texas, exists in a moral vacuum.  The gangsters have scared away all the good people and paid for the law as they have bought most of the women.  Women decorate the periphery of “Last Man Standing’ in minor roles as hostages, whores, and mistresses. These unhappy females are trapped in Jericho as male playthings and the consequences of defiance carry a high price as one girl learns.  When John Smith (Bruce Willis of “Die Hard”) wheels his Ford into the dusty, rundown town of Jericho, he is searching for a quiet place to lay low before he vanishes into Mexico.  What he encounters are two greedy Chicago bootlegging clans competing for supremacy over the illegal whiskey trade. Like Clint Eastwood in “A Fistful of Dollars,” Smith smells money galore in “Last Man Standing” so he hires out his guns to the highest bidders.

Smith plays the Italians and the Irish skillfully against each other in a suspenseful game of cat and mouse.  When he helps a young woman held hostage by the Irish, Smith finally pays for his interference.  The Irish gang, headed by Doyle (Daniel Patrick Kelly), captures and stomps our protagonist until he resembles a bruised tomato. Somehow, Smith endures this horrible beating and gets away.  Furiously, Doyle massacres the Italian leader, Strozzi (Ned Eisenberg), and his gang at a roadhouse where the Irish believe Smith has filed for protection.  Instead, Smith holes up out of town in a church to recover his strength.  Jericho’s corrupt sheriff (Bruce Dern of “The Cowboys”), decides to help Smith out by loaning him two guns. Smith takes the hardware and challenges the Irish to a Wild West showdown.  

As his own scenarist, director Walter Hill has kept most of the original story intact.  If you’re looking for comparisons, you might find it easier to correlate “Last Man Standing” with “A Fistful of Dollars” rather than “Yojimbo.”  As the writer, Hill fumbles in making the evil, Tommy-gun toting Hickey (Christopher Walken of “The Anderson Tapes”) a henchman rather than the boss, as the corresponding character was in “A Fistful of Dollars.”  He is the only match bullet-for-bullet with Smith. As Hickey, Christopher Walken adds another despicable villain to his cinematic gallery of rogues, playing second fiddle to Doyle.  Hill generates minor suspense when lesser characters refer to Hickey’s character and the hellishness that always follows in his wake.

“Last Man Standing” is a raw, hard-bitten, little, B-move shoot’em-up with A-class pretentions that pays homage to not only Kurosawa but also stylishly imitates the excessive violence from recent Hong Kong crime thrillers.  If you want to compare it to one of Bruce’s American thrillers, the Tony Scott directed bullet ballet “The Last Boy Scout” (1991) is the best example.  Hill the writer doesn’t waste time contriving an elaborate plot that hinges on small but crucial details.  When characters are not performing tasks on-screen, they are deployed off-screen in plot related activities.  This is one who where what the characters do off-screen is of integral importance to what others do on-screen.

cCompared with Clint Eastwood who played the Man with No Name in “A Fistful of Dollars,” Bruce Willis here is the Man With Anybody’s Name.  As he reveals to the Italians, he is simply John Smith from back East.  John Smith is a taciturn fellow.  He doesn’t make a big deal out of most things unless he finds his expertise challenged.  If you’re a Willis fan, “Last Man Standing” isn’t Bruce as usual.  He is neither “Die Hard” Detective John McClane nor is he David Addison from “Moonlighting.”  He is a man of few words and fewer wisecracks.  Smith is an unrepentant hardcase who admits as much without remorse during his opening narration.  Here Willis delineates the character of Smith more out of what is left unsaid.
The film amounts to a genre mash-up: a period crime drama crossed with a western.  In it, the Old West is a dying dream.  The New West, suggests Hill, is being taken over by business suits from back East with hardware.  Nevertheless, that Wild West justice might be out of sight but it’s not entirely out of mind.  Altogether, “Last Man Standing” qualifies as a loud, bloody shoot’em-up that shouldn’t disappoint action fans.

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