a critiQal film review Last Man Standing (1996)

  • DVD

Plot: John Smith (Willis) is an amoral gunslinger during the Prohibition era. On the run from his latest exploits, he happens across the near-ghost town of Jericho, Texas. When he discovers two rival bootlegging gangs fighting over the town, he sees an opportunity to earn some money by playing both sides off of each other...

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Bruce Willis, ever since strapping on John McClane’s gun for Die Hard (1988), has been known for his action flicks. But, among those big blockbusters, a couple have come along that haven’t done so well – Last Man Standing among them. Is their lack of success due to Willis falling down on the job, or is it something else? I decided to find out, thanks to the film’s availability on NetFlix® for instant viewing.

Bruce Willis plays rough-and-tumble well, and he doesn’t disappoint in Last Man Standing. While he does seem a bit clean-cut to be the gun-for-hire he portrays, he still delivers a cocky performance that will have fans rooting for him. Half of the fun in watching Willis face off with the bad guys is in his ability to take even the worst of blows from his opponent, do what needs to be done, then take a moment and relish still being alive.

Still, he contends to be an amoral gunslinger, born without a conscience, yet the film doesn’t seem to play that out. Sure, he doesn’t have a problem wasting bad guys, but he’s still a sucker for a damsel in distress – and how amoral can a person be who will put any gal he meets above himself?

The rest of the cast is rather uneven, providing Willis with surprisingly little back-up. William Sanderson (best known for his role as Larry on Newhart (TV)) is apparently supposed to be the comic relief of the film, but his joking is as haphazard as his acting. Christopher Walken, usually a pleasure to watch in anything he does, at first seems a solid fit for the feared gun-toter he is, but the movie never really seems to take full advantage of him, instead delegating him more to the sidelines than expected – especially after building him up quite a bit before he even appears on screen. And Bruce Dern’s corrupt sheriff isn’t much to shake a stick at either.

The two big warring gangs are comprised of surprisingly bit-part players, with David Patrick Kelly (a bit player recognizable from his role in Commando (1985)) and Ned Eisenberg (familiar, but not immediately placeable at all) leading the two gangs. Without strong leads, the gangs degenerate into the smaller threats they actually are, with only Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos” (TV)) standing out as someone to look out for – a twist that, disappointingly, never actually occurs.

So, with such an uneven cast barely supporting Willis, would director Walter Hill be able to deliver something worthwhile via the storyline for Last Man Standing. Unfortunately, no, as that seems to be as uneven as the cast. Starting out strong (a quick retribution for an attack is brutal and stylish), the film doesn’t seem to be quite sure where to go, and meanders around aimlessly among the town of Jericho for quite a bit, before finally coming back for it’s final climatic showdown – which turns out to be less involved – and a lot quicker once it gets going – than viewers would have liked.

The action is interspersed throughout, but with the viewer not really caring about any of the characters except Willis, it’s more like they are watching this gunslinger take pot shots in a shooting gallery of targets, and the viewer is about as emotionally involved in the film. It’s entertaining, but not enough to keep viewers from, say, switching the channel if the film was showing on TV.

The mood, on the other hand, seems a perfect fit for this type of film, as the dusty ghost-town feel of Jericho and Willis’ gun-for-hire seem to be an update on the gunslingers of the old west (depicted so well in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series) rolling into a dusty town on the brink of collapse. That imagery seems to be the perfect set up for a stranger playing two bootlegging gangs off of each other for money, but sadly, the rest of the film isn’t able to follow Willis’ lead, and plays out without the viewer caring what happens one way or the other.

Last Man Standing turns out to be a sad waste of time, especially after what seems to be a solid setup. While viewers probably wouldn’t mind seeing more exploits of Willis’ gunslinger John Smith (especially his mysterious back story), they will, like Smith himself, agree that the members of the two warring gangs are “better off dead” – after all, it’s not like they are doing much of anything to keep the viewer’s interest.

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