Posted: 10/06/2000

 

Last Man Standing

(1996)

by Del Harvey



Bruce Willis is the eternal loner in a surrealist Western that drips more testosterone off the screen than any Monday night at the World Wrestling Federation.


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A bitter feud exists between rival gangs in a Southwestern border town during prohibition. Into this feud wanders an individual who becomes the catalyst that will change this scenario and affect the lives of everyone in the town. In a series of ultra-violent ballets, the loner plays one gang against the other until both are like the famed statue of Ozymandias, their dust drifting away on the wind.

Last Man Standing is based upon a Japanese film, Yojimbo, by the great Akira Kurosawa. Writer/director Walter Hill (48HRS., The Getaway, Supernova as Thomas Lee) has adeptly Americanized the story while managing to retain the mythic proportions of the original. His version is a surreal Western in Grand Guignol style, reflecting the pathos and desperation of people in desperate times.

The loner as played by Bruce Willis is without self-concern, lacks faith in the goodness of his fellow man, and dispenses death like the Grim Reaper. In this testosterone-rich landscape, he carries the biggest stick while speaking softest - all the more confusing to his enemies. In this role, Willis is all his tough guy characters in extremis, and thus the toughest anti-hero in American cinema. He shows a softness for the females in this film (there are three, although it is often difficult to remember), and to the few townspeople whose lives offer no alternative to such pitiful existence. To these sad people who have had enough of the bullying and repression of the gangs, Willis is their savior, dispensing payback in ways they can only dream about. As the anonymous “John Smith,” Willis’ two-gun tough guy is the epitome of American machismo, outwitting and out-gunning the bad guys.

The gangs are the extensions of rival mobs from big cities like Chicago and New York. They are run locally by thugs and crooks like David Patrick Kelly as Doyle, head of the Irish gang, and Ned Eisenberg as Strozzi, head of the Italian gang. They have very nasty henchmen and extremely violent enforcers like Christopher Walken as Hickey, a psychotic with a legend and the demeanor of a rhino with a broken horn. All of these people exist in their own limited worlds of greed, abusive power, excess, and thus become easy prey for a half-smart tough guy with a vicious sense of right and wrong and an ax to grind.

The basis for their existence in this region of the world, to smuggle booze across the border, is built upon fact that remains true, although slightly different, today. The biggest change is the commodity, but the transportation and protection of these goods across the border is still a business, just not in the extreme that such filmic purport would have us believe.

In Last Man Standing, Walter Hill has managed to gather a cast of competent actors and draw from them the very best of team efforts. William Sanderson (Dale on Bob Newhart) as Joe Monday, proprieter of the last independent bar in town and Willis’ sidekick (one wonders where Joe gets his alcohol from under such circumstances). Town Sheriff Bruce Dern (The Great Gatsby, After Dark, My Sweet, The King Of Marvin Gardens) is a man whose frustrations with an emasculating situation have nearly driven him over the edge. In spite of himself, he cannot but help Willis in his Quixotic mission.

The three actresses are all relative unknowns and here director Hill scores big. Each of these actresses all turn in fine performances. Alexandra Powers is the town’s girl with a heart of gold, Leslie Mann is the prostitute who is used as a ploy to trap Willis, and Karina Lombard is Felina, a beautiful Mexican-Indian woman who has suffered Hell through the hands of the gangs and is something of a religious icon in the greater morality play of the story.

Last Man Standing is Hill’s best effort. A fan of suspense and the Western film, he seems to have found the perfect vessel in this film. Often compared to the great John Ford for his methodology and ability to draw greater performance from any character actor, Hill is at the top of his form here. Last Man Standing is not a film for all tastes, but on many levels it is an excellent piece, as powerful for its mythmaking as it is for its technique.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and is a veteran of Disney, Lucasfilm, and the Directors Guild of America.



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