Friday September 20, 1996
"Last Man Standing," Walter Hill's stylish but extremely violent reworking of Akira Kurosawa's samurai classic "Yojimbo," looks sensational with cameraman Lloyd Ahern's desaturated images, sounds wonderful with its mournful, portentous Ry Cooder score and stars a well-cast Bruce Willis exuding calm, reflective authority.
Yet this handsome, carefully wrought film, with its highly atmospheric dusty western street set, finally leaves us feeling that we've seen its carnage too many times before and for too little reason. Hill is a droll storyteller, but as in his 1980 western "The Long Riders," he leaves us with an empty feeling.
Kurosawa has freely acknowledged the influence of American westerns upon his samurai movies, just as the late Sergio Leone openly admitted to stealing "Yojimbo's" plot for his "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964), which launched the spaghetti western cycle and made Clint Eastwood a star. Like Toshiro Mifune's sword-for-hire Yojimbo and Eastwood's Man with No Name, Willis' pseudonymous John Smith is a gun-for-hire who comes upon a small town in the throes of civil war.
Prohibition is in full swing, and two rival gangs have taken over the two hotels in Jericho, Texas, some 50 miles from the Mexican border and therefore ideally situated as a base of booze-smuggling operations. Nearly broke and heading for Mexico, Smith instantly smells the money to be made in playing the two gangs against each other, and has such breathtaking self-confidence that he's not fazed when thugs smash his windshield and puncture one of his tires because his gaze lingers too long on one of the gang leader's women. (Nothing like a bit of foreshadowing.) Since the local sheriff (Bruce Dern, shrewd and bemused) makes no bones about taking payoffs from both sides, he forthrightly tells Smith to expect no help from him and advises him to leave town as soon as his car is fixed.
Through lots of byzantine scheming with the gangsters, Smith lives up to his self-description of having been born without a conscience. But there are two other women, each in the thrall of one gang or the other. In respect to one woman in particular, Dern's Sheriff Galt detects "a chink in [Smith's] armor" and remarks that "a skirt" could bring him down. Maybe Smith is a guy with a Bogartian code after all.
In the nemesis department it's worth noting that one of the gangs has an exceedingly bad fast-drawing bad guy. Legend has him a throat-slitter by the age of 10 and an arsonist by 15, burning down his orphanage, and now he's survived a face-slashing and an ice pick rammed into his voice box; perhaps inevitably he is played by Christopher Walken.
Hill makes it more than clear that both gangs are nothing but the scum of the earth--and uninteresting besides--and he gives us the full impact of violence so we can't escape from it. But Sam Peckinpah already made that kind of comment on violence definitively with "The Wild Bunch," set less than 20 years before "Last Man Standing," way back in 1969. Hill, who brings considerably less humor to his film than Kurosawa did his, unfortunately hasn't anything new to add that makes it worth sitting through his blood baths, as skillfully staged as they are.
Last Man Standing, 1996. R, for pervasive strong violence and some sexuality. A New Line Cinema presentation of an Arthur Sarkissian production. Writer-director Walter Hill. Based on a story by Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa. Producers Hill and Sarkissian. Executive producers Sara Risher and Michael De Luca. Cinematographer Lloyd Ahern. Editor Freeman Davies. Costumes Dan Moore. Music Ry Cooder. Production designer Gary Wissner. Art director Barry Chusid. Set designers Paul Sonski, Barbara Ann Jaeckel. Set decorator Gary Fettis. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Bruce Willis as John Smith. Bruce Dern as Sheriff Ed Galt. Christopher Walken as Hickey. William Sanderson as Joe Monday.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun