Stalemate

Last Man Standing
Directed and written by Walter Hill. Starring Bruce Willis, Christopher Walken, and Bruce Dern.

To those tired of trying to choose the lesser of two evils, the fantasy of razing both evils can be irresistible. That's the pull of the story invented by Dashiell Hammett in his 1929 gangster novel Red Harvest and revamped by Akira Kurosawa in his 1961 samurai movie Yojimbo and by Sergio Leone in his 1964 spaghetti western Fistful of Dollars (an unofficial remake of Yojimbo that at times follows it frame by frame). A stranger wanders into an isolated hellhole, sees that both sides of a power struggle are amoral and vicious, and plots their destruction at each other's hands. Without acknowledging Hammett, Kurosawa said that Yojimbo took shape in his mind when he envisioned a hero who "is able to stand squarely in the middle, and stop the fight"; ordinary folk (the rest of us) are "weakly caught" in the center.

When Kurosawa got around to making the movie, he learned what Hammett knew before him: that if corruption is universal the "hero" shares in it, too, becoming the bloody master of the revels in a jet-black comedy. At the end of Yojimbo, when Toshiro Mifune says, "Now there'll be a little quiet in this town," he reminds you of the Vietnam War policy of "pacification," destroying a village in order to save it. Still, Kurosawa convinces you that the villains deserve annihilation, and Mifune achieves his goal through swordsmanship and prowess that turn you on rather than bum you out. As Donald Richie put it in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, the director gets away with a protagonist "whose only virtue is a negative one: he is not actively concerned in being bad." And like Hammett's Continental Op (or later, of course, Leone's Man With No Name), Mifune's swordsman realizes himself completely in action, without gassing on about a warrior's ethic. He's a figure made for the movies -- and, one would think, for a director like Walter Hill, who approaches an ideal of pure action in contemporary classics like The Warriors and Southern Comfort as well as in disreputable cult films like Streets of Fire.

After a decade pockmarked with artistic fizzles (Crossroads) and brutal commercial undertakings (Another 48 HRS.), Hill has surged back in the '90s with some of his most ambitious and exciting work. He transformed a ruined cityscape into a Poe-like metaphor of entropy for the urban-siege film Trespass; deftly eddied among tumultuous flashbacks-within-flashbacks for his audacious, inside-out portrait of an American myth, Wild Bill (as in Hickok); and achieved an unusual, visceral dignity for his outside-in portrait of Geronimo: An American Legend. In many ways, he's become a more complex filmmaker than he was in his Warriors days, willing to face complicated attitudes and feelings that require dialogue and even that bane of film theorists, voice-over.

But in Last Man Standing, an official remake of Yojimbo that resets the action in a Tex-Mex border town overrun by bootleggers during Prohibition, Hill has made his most inert film since his 1988 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Red Heat. Presumably intent on avoiding any duplication of Kurosawa's dynamite ploys, he defuses the material. With Bruce Willis as a drifting gunman who wanders into the village of Jericho for gas and a rest stop and tangles with two rival gangs -- one Irish, one Italian -- the ingredients are set for a Hammett-like Molotov cocktail (Hill has long wanted to film Red Harvest). Unfortunately, Hill has conceived the ambushes and shootouts not in terms of escalating set pieces and catharses, but as blips in a violent reverie. He and his gifted collaborators, cinematographer Lloyd Ahern and editor Freeman Davies, know exactly what they're doing; too bad the conception didn't include humor or surprise revelations. Willis' voice-over verges on a run-on, a sorry replacement for dramatization; the action, lit in color that ranges from rum to dark cocoa (with an occasional splash of red), unrolls as a series of archetypal confrontations interspersed with tableaux, as seamless and impenetrable as someone else's bad dream. Reading Hammett's novel provides more kinetic pow than watching this film; as you put Red Harvest together in your head, you find your wits sharpening as the Continental Op treats "Poisonville" as a shooting gallery. In Last Man Standing Willis' opponents aren't moving targets -- they're dead meat.

We're supposed to experience this man-with-a-gun saga not as an amorality play out of Hammett or Kurosawa but as a Hillian morality play (like his underrated Johnny Handsome). At the start, Willis instructs the audience that there's a right or wrong even at the lowest depths you can sink to, and we see a beautiful mestizo woman (Karina Lombard) lighting a candle at a Catholic altar before she means anything to us (she never does). A righteous gal the Irish gang-leader won in a card game -- a wife and mother who aches to reunite with her family in Mexico -- she's the one who will soon get Willis stuck in Jericho. Before he learns that she's a mob boss' obsession, he looks at her too closely for the gang's comfort; after the mobsters wreck his car, he decides to get even -- to filch some of the gangsters' filthy lucre for himself, and (eventually) to spring Lombard. The moral landscape is as clear as black -- or rather, brown -- and white, with Willis on the side of the bruised angel and the bootleggers dragging everybody into hell with them. But that doesn't mean Hill has fleshed it out. In the past, one of Hill's strengths has been his ability to siphon classical and historical material into Hollywood genres, from 1979, when he poured Xenephon's Anabasis into the gang-film contours of The Warriors, to 1995, when he packed two decades of western lore into 98 glorious minutes of Wild Bill. Hill's love for archetypal storytelling, when allied with flesh-and-blood material, gives his movies a concussive clout unlike those of other action directors. They have a sinewy irony: They can express soaring heroic emotions while holding macho sentimentality in check. Last Man Standing, though, is a warmed-over metaphor -- an abstract and general retelling of a film that already was a flight of savage comic poetry. It's a cripplingly self-conscious action-art piece; the idea for a thrill or a frisson is apt to register more often than the thing itself.

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