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IN SHORT: God, I love noir.
The Great Depression savages the Country. On a lonely Texas road the wind blows the dust up so hard that the man driving the battered Ford can taste it. At a fork in the road, he spins an empty bottle, the contents of which could get him arrested if the local Law given a damn about Prohibition. The bottle's decision made, the Lone Wolf drives his Ford down the road to Jericho which, like its Biblical forbear, will be a husk by the time Last Man Standing has finished.
Jericho, Texas is on its last legs. The bar is empty, the whorehouse is full and only the undertaker does any kind of honest work. Across the border is Mexico, where booze runs fast and is sold cheap. As with many border towns, bootlegging is the lifeblood of the economy.
"John Smith" (as Bruce Willis' character calls himself) is self-described as "born without a conscience." We know absolutely nothing about Smith; why he does what he does. Who he's on the lam from. His character is a slate upon which you can write whatever you'd like to see. Smith comes from nowhere on a journey to nowhere. In between he plays and orchestrates a symphony of violence.
When his car is smashed up by one of the gangs, Smith must wait out repairs. In doing so he thinks he can make a couple of bucks as an independent, working one side of the town against the other. He carries the tools of the trade -- a pair of guns with very large ammo clips -- and he knows how to use them well. Blood will flow, freely, when necessary. A lot of it will be his. Last Man Standing takes its root from a classic story, the film Yojimbo by Japanese Master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. As usual, Cranky makes no comparison to Source Material, though the credit "A Lone Wolf Film" sets off all sorts of associative memory synapses firing off in my brain. Specifically, to that of another classic Japanese work, the graphic novel called "Lone Wolf and Cub," by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. One of Writer/Director Walter Hill's friends says he "hijacks techniques from...comic books [and] film noir." Fine by me.
In "Lone Wolf and Cub", a samurai wanders the countryside with his infant son. The "cub" is not just there to be protected, he is also a weapon and diversion. Smith has no cub to protect, but he is drawn to and protective of the women of Jericho. The whore who has been forced to set him up; then busted for being a prostitute, is given bail and bus money out of town. The remaining pair of skirts are under the thumbs of the gang bosses that run the town. Felina (Karina Lombard) has suffered emotionally, from the Mexican husband that gambled her away to the Irish boss and from the isolation she endures because of the boss' possessiveness. The beautiful blonde Lucy Kolinski (Alexandra Powers), as worshipful of Mammon as the Italian mob she hangs with, becomes Smith's informant. Emotionally or physically, both will be damaged by the time they are set free by Smith. Smith's reward will be a broken nose, a mashed eye and a couple of broken ribs.
Last Man Standing is unsparing of the ultraviolence. The cacophony of gunshots and shattering glass almost numbs you to the physical violence, until the candle Smith has been burning at both ends reaches the middle and attempts to snuff out his light, too.
Bruce Dern is the Sheriff who sits and watches, because his bread is buttered on both sides. He sells information to the Irish gang at one end of town, and to the Italians at the other. When the good times come to an end, with a threatened influx of Texas Rangers, he does the right thing for perhaps the only time in his career. The bosses (David Patrick Kelly and Ned Eisenberg) are over-emotionally stereotypical, as are their mobsters. The joy is the performance of Christopher Walken as Hickey, the scarred Enforcer for the Irish mob. The stories told about him are outlandish -- committing patricide at age 10 and burning down an orphanage at 15, but they serve to substantiate a reputation as a vicious and clever killer.
That Smith, the new guy in town, and Hickey will come into conflict is a forgone conclusion. The outcome of the battle is not. Willis, as in all of his Die Hard movies is smashed up enough and Walken is sharp enough that there is a glimmer moment of tension. We know that Hickey is just out and out bad. But the conflict between the two men is not big enough.
So many bodies have been blown to bits by the time the two men face off (Cranky counted 31 dead by Smith's hand alone), that it doesn't matter. It is one of the few flaws in this otherwise well made film but, you know Cranky, story and character flaws count heavy when rating time comes along. Last Man Standing comes so close to the mark that Cranky walked out of the theater pumped. The sound work (credited to Lee Orloff) is exceptional, and composer Ry Cooder's Main Theme is very, very cool.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for Last Man Standing, he would have paid . . .
Smith comes. He stays. He kills. He moves on. Almost perfect noir.
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