Shrug-Of-War

Last Man Standing

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          MAYBE THE ULTIMATE macho stunt is something I've always known of as the "Eskimo Ear Tug": two Inuit guys sit face to face, grinning hard, while each strains backward at a leather (whale gut?) loop around each others' ears. This challenge reduces the stronger-than-you test to its elemental nastiness: two inches from your opponent's cruel grin, you lose real bad if you don't end up winning.

          Hollywood wouldn't bother with such a pure expression of brute force; some embellishing fool would probably want to adapt it as a foreskin-ring tug-of-war. Or, he might take the less creative route and just give the guys lots of big guns. That's the option chosen for the last men who try to stand in Walter Hill's Last Man Standing. This retranslation of Akira Kurosawa's bitter samurai satire Yojimbo (already translated once as Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars) once again takes aim at the folly of macho competition in a limbo-like setting.

          The great gimmick of this story has always been that the central character manages to get two rival gangs to do away with each other. He's a good fighter, too, but he also manages to set up the deadly tug-of-war and watch it, more or less safely. Whatever the version, the samurai, lone gunman, and now Prohibition-era shooter (in a Model A, to boot) slinks into a forlorn frontier town and quickly asserts his own superiority by pretending to work for both sides at once. The role is written for someone who can use his weapons craftily if need be, but who also knows how to stoke the smoldering stupidity of his employers.

          Walter Hill got Bruce Willis to be this guy; he also brought in lots of other mean faces like Christopher Walken and David Patrick Kelly, probably best known as both the Hell's Angel of Flirting With Disaster and Jerry, the wacko brother of Ben, the hotel owner in Twin Peaks. Thanks to dimwitted bootleggers like these, things are already at a sick pitch in Jericho when Willis rides in. Thanks to a voiceover, Willis lets us know he's a ramblin' guy with a dark past, blah blah, and so it's clear that matters of conscience won't be a problem.

          Within minutes he's blasted away a guy who trashed his coupe. The fellow gangsters shrink away sluggishly, and the Bruce Dern-like sheriff, played conveniently by Bruce Dern, simply drawls some advice on the order of "Save your skin. Make money if you can. Get the hell out of town if you know what's best." Well, what the hell kind of movie would that be? We are in for some violence, naturally, and Walter Hill (48 Hrs., Southern Comfort, Wild Bill) sure knows how to do that.

          Bruce Willis does, too, except that--I can't believe I'm saying this--he doesn't do it as "Bruce Willis." The smirking, muscular wiseacre of Die Hard plays his "John Smith" role of interloper so sourly he's boring. Isn't this character supposed to be an ironic catalyst? Shouldn't we see the gears turning as he contemplates more money, better sex partners, tactical revenge, or just plain sadistic gratification? This doesn't happen; he does seem to fall for one gangster's woman, a "half-breed Indian girl," as the script poetically describes her, and a dim plot twist makes her absence responsible for much of his pain.

          Anyway, if a guy's going to be mean, you'd think he should show that he's having fun about it. I found it nearly impossible for so many men to be so angry with each other for such a long period of time--without any one of them getting just a little pleasure from it. This is not so much a defense of violence as a recognition of this movie's ancestry: just more gut-level machismo tug-of-war. Sure, Dern snarls a little about corruption, and Walken (his voice only one pitch higher than the seismological fuzz-bass of Ry Cooder's score) gets a delayed star entrance and a cool fettuccini-like scar down his face. But when all's said and done, not much has been said or done except that a morose traveler gets a bunch of noisy thugs to blast away at each other after they've roughed him up a few times.

          The trend in postmodern Hollywood has always been to Rework the Genre, and Walter Hill has the skill to do this in a serviceable manner. He's sometimes been able to make acceptable lemonade from lemons. But in this case he had a diamond and he's made sandpaper.

 
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