WHEN ACTION FILMS HAD BALLS: LAST MAN STANDING with Bruce Willis is a Great Little Action Film with Style to Spare (1996)

By: Anthony Francis

Welcome to a special section of Action Rewind called When Action Films Had Balls where we look at the action films of yesteryear that had their own set of rules and made no apologies while carving out their own violent niche in cinematic history.

Directed by master filmmaker Walter Hill, 1996’s “Last Man Standing” is certainly his most polarizing work. 

Hill’s retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Yojimbo” was a huge flop upon release and most major film critics trashed it. The late great Roger Ebert branded the film with his dreaded 1-star rating while Leonard Maltin gave the film his lowest possible, the dreaded “BOMB”. 

In cinemas, Hill’s film came and went within a few weeks. The studio gave it lackluster promotion and audiences stayed away. 

Be it good or bad, for audiences to immediately rebuff a film directed by Walter Hill and starring box office sensation Bruce Willis seemed strange. 

I saw the film on its opening weekend, like any obedient Walter Hill fan should.

It was a Saturday, and the theater was completely empty except for me and an old couple in the front. I knew the reviews were bad, so I was a bit nervous, even though I trusted Hill as a filmmaker and he has rarely let me down.  

As I watched the film for the first time, the whole thing felt a bit…off. I left feeling unsatisfied. When it hit home video,I saw it again and was still unsatisfied and racked it up as a loss. 

Ten years later, I revisited the film, and I began to find the merits held within. Eventually I would see it a few more times and began to like it much better. As of now, while it certainly is not perfect, I find it to be a really great little action film with style to spare. 

Bruce Willis is “Smith”, a gun for hire on the run from… something. He stops at the Depression era town of Jericho (the film’s original title before it changed to “Gundown” then finally “Last Man Standing”).

In Jericho, Smith inserts himself in the middle of two warring gangster clans, one Irish and one Italian. Using his wits, Smith plays both sides in a violent game of one-upmanship. 

Hill penned the screenplay (“based on an original screenplay by Ryuzu Kikiushima and Akira Kurosawa”). While nowhere NEAR the genius of Kurosawa’s film, Walter Hill knows tough guy filmmaking and is one of the great action filmmakers. His screenplay doesn’t have a lot of inherent “meat” but Hill directs the hell out of his film and crafts some of his most artfully edited action set pieces yet.

The proceedings are inherently silly. Why are two “city” gangs staying in the same small West Texas border town beyond their need for liquor being trucked in from Mexico? Why do the mob bosses allow this nonsense? Why does Willis, ever the lone gun, get involved in the lives of not one but THREE women? Why doesn’t he take the mob’s and disappear safely? 

Character development is not the point here. Atmosphere and style realign supreme in this universe. Hill’s film is all guns, sweat, and whiskey. This is very much a Western set in the 20’s complete with gun battles, crooked bartenders, whores, and lots of booze.

“Last Man Standing” is truly one of Hill’s most violent films and the director amps up the gun blasts to the nth degree. 

Willis carries two automatic pistols that, when fired, can throw their victims head over heels, and push them back a quarter of a mile. We are in Walter Hill territory and we allow for things like this to happen. The gun battles in this film are a wild sight to see. 

The cast is solid. Willis does well in the lead. His character is Stone-faced hardcore. Smith has been around. He’s seen things and killed many and is neither good nor bad,but he is a man who knows the right thing to do.

The great Bruce Dern is Southern smarmy excellence as a crooked sheriff caught between the two gangs and completely helpless, as he can only enforce the law (such as it is in Jericho) as much as the gang bosses allow. 

Christopher Walken is properly menacing as Hickey, a truly sadistic hitman. His character is set up well with a backstory of how he burned down the orphanage he grew up in. Hickey is evil incarnate and when Walken arrives, he proves this, as the actor oozes devilish danger.

Ned Eisenberg is quite good as the Italian leader, Strozzi but the performance of the film goes to David Patrick Kelley who brings a fierce menace (and a bit of soul) to his role as the Irish leader Doyle. It is one of the actor’s best roles and he crafts a character with dimension and depth.

The collaborations of Walter Hill and Ry Cooder are as important to cinema as the pairings of Steven Spielberg/John Williams and Alfred Hitchcock/ Bernard Hermann. Cooder crafted a fantastic, guitar-heavy, hard-edged score for this film that adds to the dusty, tough, and bloody atmosphere. Sadly, as of this writing, it was his last score for Hill, and it stands as one of their finest. The score is as badass and dangerous as the characters that inhabit the film.

Atmospherically, this film holds some of Hill’s best work. Cinematographer Lloyd Ahern II masterfully shoots the dust covered, dark orange, hues that makes the audience need a glass of water (or whiskey!). The town becomes a grim and gritty Hell in the desert.

Hill spoke of how he did not get along with Willis during production. (Does Willis work well with anyone?) However, the director praised his performance and stated how Willis’ tough edge probably came from the actor’s frustration during production. 

Hill also spoke of a longer and tighter cut that was over two hours and had a “more solid structure” than the released print. Much to Hill’s dismay, the studio made him cut it down to 1 hour and 45 minutes where there was next to no story left. 

“Last Man Standing” has moments when it is too downbeat at times but when the action scenes come, Hill’s film finds its mastery. 

This is a film that is all about violence. A bullet and whiskey soaked, Western, fantasy with balls-out action scenes. The women are lost souls, the men tough and ready to kill, and the violence hardcore brutal and viscerally exciting.

Far from perfect but a film that has grown in me over the years. Quite stunning in its design and entertaining in its well-crafted action scenes.

As the years go on, Walter Hill’s “Last Man Standing” has turned into something of a treasure.

About The Author: A long-time film connoisseur and son to a father who ran a movie theater, Anthony Francis rightfully grew up to be a journalist, filmmaker, writer, and film reviewer. His latest reviews/interviews/articles can be found at screencomment.com

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