Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Last Man Standing (1995)

Hardassed cop Kurt Bellmore (Jeff Wincott) is in hot pursuit of a violent gang of bank robbers lead by Snake Underwood (Jonathan Fuller), but the criminals’ organization may be more expansive than originally suspected.

There’s a scene in Joseph Merhi’s Last Man Standing where our stalwart hero is driving his banker wife Anabella (Jillian McWhirter) to work.  No great shakes, as the scene tells us nothing other than that Snake and his cohorts are highly likely to hit Anabella’s bank that day (they do).  What’s interesting about the scene is that the protagonists are listening to a radio program where two talk show hosts are debating the effects of violent television shows.  Their conversation isn’t all that engaging (basically “is too,” “is not”), but what piqued my interest is that this conversation plays such a prominent part in the scene.  It isn’t just background noise (and if it is, it’s better than the conversation between Anabella and Kurt), and it got me wondering what the filmmakers were trying to do with the scene.  Nothing is solved on the radio show, but I think that the idea was to plant the notion in the heads of this film’s viewers.  While I like to think that the intent was to stimulate debate on the subject (and it may very well have been), in the context of this film it plays more as an excuse for the level of violence in it.  By acknowledging this debate, there is a sort of self-knowledge that understands that violent television (and, by extension, films) is something people may contemplate philosophically, but there’s no real harm because it’s all make believe, and you want it, anyway.  

So, I’ll indulge them.  My personal take on the matter is that constant barrages of empty sex and gratuitous violence do desensitize viewers to a point (how many slasher films have we cheered at where the killer gruesomely dispatches his hyper-amorous victims?).  Yet, it’s one thing to take pleasure in these types of things on screen and quite another to translate them into violence in the real world.  I do believe that the key lies in the ability to separate fiction from reality, and I think that this applies not only to people with mental issues but also to people who are reared on these actions with no frame of reference to the negative consequences of them in the real world.  I think when violent behavior is encouraged (or simply not addressed at all) as the only way to be “on top” (and there actually are parents/guardians/et cetera who think this way and pass it on to their children) and it’s reinforced through violent fictional images, then you get violent, amoral members of society.  You can read this more as a condemnation of certain modern “parents” (and society in general) than of violent entertainment, and you’d be right.  Of course, you could also go into a whole tangent with this argument about the effects of video games in recent years as well, but I’m not knowledgeable enough on that end of it to get into it (and besides, this is intended to be my general opinion in short), but I do feel it ties into it somewhere.  Feel free to discuss.

Last Man Standing follows the textbook for low budget action.  You have the virile cop who latches onto a case and won’t let go.  Things get personal when a character he has a deep attachment to gets murdered.  You have Kurt’s fellow cops who play the role of contagonists, harassing him and making his life more difficult.  You have a scene set in a garish strip club.  You have colorful villains whose comeuppance can’t come soon enough.  Nonetheless, the film veers enough away from the standard template to distinguish itself a bit from the crowd.  Kurt is married to Anabella rather than merely being in a relationship with her, a point that suggests that he’s less of a loner than is usual.  Kurt’s partner Doc (the perennially hangdog Jonathan Banks) lives at home with his elderly mother who serves him odd meals (she puts mushrooms in his breakfast cereal) and packs his lunch in a child’s lunchbox.  Snake isn’t as cool a customer as he could be, and his constant frustration with people who dun him for money owed gives him an air of believability (but just an air).  

More than this, Merhi’s direction has a visual flair that falls in line with some of the best action films from Hong Kong at this time.  The camera sweeps across the sets, accentuating the build up to the action and stylizing the action itself as it plays out.  The filmmakers are also not afraid to open the frame up and choreograph the action within a geography the audience can follow.  There are a couple of POV shots from inside automobiles as they flip and roll over.  The editing does get a bit dodgy, especially in the last few action sequences, but overall, it still stands up with films made for much more money.

It stands to reason, then, that the action in an action film needs to work well, and here it really, really does.  The film has several car chase scenes that impress, not only because of the level of the effects and stuntwork (lots of cars explode and fly through the air, and lots of other cars become collateral damage as the chase moves onto the highways of Los Angeles [and I have to say that I was amazed the filmmakers got permission to do a lot of the things they did on the actual streets, because this is some A-level auto carnage]).  The interpersonal action scenes also work quite well, with Wincott delivering some nice kicks to the heads of the baddies, and the mix of hand-to-hand and gunplay action is nicely balanced.  Further, the stuntmen in Last Man Standing fly through a lot (and I mean A LOT) of mirrors and panes of glass.  It’s almost a fetish.  And all of this work is practical, which gives it a grounded realism, even as things get nuts.  In the current era, where action films have largely become cartoons dissociated from reality in their overuse/over-reliance on computer-generated effects, it’s always refreshing (and I’ll be the first to admit it; it plays to my unapologetic sense of nostalgia) to be able to get involved in a film’s action scenes through the sense of verisimilitude that practical effects/stunts offer.  As my first experience with the world of PM Entertainment, I can confidently state that it won’t be my last.

MVT:  The stunts and the direction of same are magnificent.

Make or Break:  The opening heist delivers in every way you could ask for from an action film.

Score:  7/10      

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