'Last man Standing' has been told better before Review: It's the one about the tough, silent stranger coming to town, and Bruce Willis is not the man with no name.

September 20, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Some stories are so good they're director-proof, but if, say, two of the three directors that give the story a shot are verifiably great, what's the poor No. 3 going to do?

In Walter Hill's case, following on Akira Kurosawa's 1961 "Yojimbo" and Sergio Leone's 1964 "A Fistful of Dollars," what he's done in "Last Man Standing" is inject the dark, cynical and funny tale with embalming fluid. It doesn't walk again, much less dance; but it doesn't quite stink either.

The story is clever macho bull, always inspiring to us pre-adolescents. A small town is riven with clan warfare; into it wanders a shiftless, loyalty-impaired warrior with exquisite fighting skills who adroitly plays both sides off against each other while pursuing his own narrow financial agenda. The rub is that he's not so cynical as he thinks, and he almost gets himself killed over one romantic hang-up -- a woman in bondage to a gang boss -- but then he recovers and starts killing again.

Think what a winner this has been. Set initially in medieval Japan, it not only made the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune a world star but it created the icon of the scruffy, grungy but oh-so-deadly samurai that John Belushi rode to fame and fortune in a comic mode many years later. Then it propelled Clint Eastwood to world fame when he re-embodied the role, this time as a gunfighter without a name -- another icon -- in a highly Italianized version of the American West.

Bruce Willis is already a star, so the question is not will he become a star, but will he stay a star? Can he fill the sandals or boots of the two who came before him? Well, let's just say he wears a hefty pair of brogues. Almost Kabuki-solemn, his broken nose and blunt bullet-shaped head communicating toughness, his darting eyes communicating cunning, he makes an intriguing character. Too bad Hill didn't give him more personality and less mythic resonance.

The movie, in fact, is a lot like Willis' performance: impressive in an iconographic way, but really not nearly as much fun as it should be. It's like watching a spitting contest between totem poles.

The setting is now Texas in the late '20s, primarily because that allows the actors to shoot tommyguns, wear fedoras and vests and still dodge sagebrush propelled by the dusty wind. This time the issue is hooch, smuggled north from the border a few miles away. But the real issue is simply the adolescent's vision of manhood as a bravado contest: Who's faster, who's tougher, who's smarter, who's left after all the shooting stops?

But that's the only real fun in the movie, which, unlike the two that came before it, doesn't have much comic subtext. It's so slow, glum and self-important it seems sculpted on bronze and set out to gleam in the sun. Even the great Christopher Walken, as a scarfaced Irish gunman named Hickey, doesn't bring a lot of energy to his role. Hill is never able to give him enough room to really create one of those brilliantly spooky Walken creeps. There's probably a special room in hell for directors who manage to make Christopher Walken boring.

'Last Man Standing'

Starring Bruce Willis and Christopher Walken

Directed by Walter Hill

Released by New Line

Rating R (Extreme violence)

Sun score **1/2

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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