Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern, William Sanderson, Christopher Walken, David Patrick Kelly, Karina Lombard, Ned Eisenberg, Alexandra Powers, Michael Imperioli, Ken Jenkins, R.D. Call, Ted Markland, Leslie Mann, Patrick Kilpatrick, Luis Contreras
Written by: Walter Hill, based on a story by Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima
Directed by: Walter Hill
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong violence and some sexuality
Running Time: 101
Date: 20/09/1996

Last Man Standing (1996)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Cowboy Up

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For Last Man Standing (1996), the great, old-school action director Walter Hill pulled together threads from all over film history. To start, he adapted Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), which itself was borrowed from a Dashiell Hammett story (though Kurosawa and his co-writer Ryuzo Kikushima are the ones that get credit here). Likewise, the story was used as the basis for Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964). But rather than make a detective story, a samurai story, or a straight Western, Hill decided on this combination of gangster movie and Western. That is, all the conventions of the Western are in place, except that the characters wear fedoras and drive cars.

Lastly, Hill fit his movie into the action era of Quentin Tarantino and John Woo: his hero, John Smith (Bruce Willis), shoots double-fisted, Woo-style. And the cast features two Pulp Fiction veterans, Willis and Christopher Walken. Moreover, Tarantino had already given Hill his "cool" endorsement by listing Hill's The Driver (1978) as one of his favorite films.

As for the actual movie, it's tough and fairly no-nonsense. Following Hill's usual "trespass" theme, Smith rolls into a dusty little border town near Mexico, presumably with some kind of hidden past. He glances at a beautiful woman (Karina Lombard), and incurs the wrath of a local gang, who shoot up his car. He learns from the meek local bartender (William Sanderson) that there are two gangs in town, each jostling for possession of the illegal booze trade. Smith decides to get even, and perhaps make some money, by hiring out his services to both gangs, and then playing one against the other.

But as the crooked sheriff (Bruce Dern) predicts, Smith's downfall will be a "skirt." When he tries to save the woman, his act of kindness comes back to bite him. As with the other versions of this story, the character doesn't have a big, clean showdown. He takes a horrendous beating and must recover before facing off with his enemies (Willis looks like raw hamburger here).

In the era of Tarantino, Last Man Standing might have benefitted a bit from some humor or self-awareness, especially since it's already playing with and paying tribute to various genres, but Hill simply doesn't work that way, and the movie is a straight-ahead action fest. It can get confusing at times -- as this plot normally does in all its variations -- and it can also get a little glum, but on the whole it's awfully cool. I saw it when it was first released and didn't think much of it, but it plays much better in 2013 on Blu-ray.

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