The Way of the Gun

It's a quiet week, so Norm sees if Shout's new Blu-ray of LAST MAN STANDING can make some noise.

The Way of the Gun

Unlike all the other special editions of Walter Hill movies that have arrived in the last year or so, there are no supplements on Shout! Studio’s brand-new Blu-ray of Last Man Standing beyond the theatrical trailer. This isn’t a fancy Shout Select release; it’s just a catalogue title, newly remastered from a 2K scan of the interpositive.

And in a way, that’s exactly the sort of disc Hill’s meat-and-potatoes actioner calls for. Made in 1996, it’s an atmospheric, slightly stylized updating of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo that casts Bruce Willis in the role of the surly enforcer made iconic by both Toshiro Mifune and Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s remake A Fistful of Dollars. It’s curious casting but not bad casting; Willis was an A-lister, of course, and the mid-90s were a period when he used his status to push against the action-movie packaging the studios kept trying to build around him – doing a Die Hard With a Vengeance but then running off to do Twelve Monkeys with Terry Gilliam or Color of Night with Richard Rush or that Alan Rudolph adaptation of Breakfast of Champions no one talks about any more.

Last Man Standing probably looked like a pretty safe bet, a transplant of a classic action story to Prohibition-era nowheresville, with Willis as “John Smith”, a hard-boiled gunsel who rolls into the dying West Texas town of Jericho and finds himself in the middle of a war between Irish and Italian bootleggers.

The sheriff has long since stopped trying to enforce the law, the townspeople are fleeing in droves – except for the undertaker, who’s doing great – so the only logical thing for Smith to do is play both sides until he figures out how to bring them all down. And that’s precisely what he does.

The story goes that Hill didn’t want to make another Western out of Yojimbo – Leone had already done that – so he took on the remake on the condition that he rework the material as a gangster picture. But however he tries to gussy up the story with cars, telephones, tommy-guns and Willis’ noir-inflected voiceover, Last Man Standing is still a Western. The characters pretend to be civilized, wearing suits and ties and all that, but they’re still living in a frontier town, looking for any excuse to start shooting each other. (Seeing William Sanderson turn up as the pragmatic barkeep who becomes Smith’s only friend in Jericho, I realized this movie’s basically the blueprint for David Milch’s landmark HBO series – and, of course, Hill directed the Deadwood pilot.)

So is it a good Western? Kinda! It’s got Hill’s signature classical framing and balletic violence – really, who else takes so much pleasure in the sight of a stunt player bouncing backwards across a dirt road in a hail of bullets? – and a cast of beloved character actors staring each other down from under their hats. Okay, they’re fedoras, but still.

You’ve got Sanderson as the innkeeper, and Bruce Dern as the sheriff; you’ve got Hill’s lucky charm David Patrick Kelly as the Irish mobster Doyle and Ned Eisenberg as his Italian rival Strozzi, with Christopher Walken and Michael Imperioli as their respective lieutenants; everybody’s having fun waving their pistols around and snapping off insults, while Walken and Willis really enjoy their own little skirmishes.

Not all of the cast gets to enjoy themselves as much; Hill was never especially good at writing for women, and he did not make much of an effort here. Karina Lombard and Alexandra Powers are just there to be the mobsters’ molls, and Leslie Mann has even less to do as a sex worker who gets knocked around a lot as the plot requires.

In Hill’s defense, the male characters aren’t exactly deep either: John Smith is a deliberate cipher, a man with a special set of skills but no distinct personality, and he’s the most fleshed-out guy in the picture, though Hill gives Kelly a nice little thing where it turns out Doyle genuinely loves the woman he’s been treating as a possession – though the feeling definitely isn’t mutual. And of course Walken – with a delivery that’s almost a hiss and what can only be described as a big fuck-off scar running down his face – is there to do his thing.

There’s never any real sense of danger, but that’s okay; we’re just watching talented actors swagger around in gangster cosplay between shootouts. (I suspect the real reason Hill set the film in the 1930s rather than the 1870s was the opportunity to play with different ballistics than a Western would have allowed, while keeping the cinematic language more or less the same.)  And they’re really good shootouts, shot with verve by Hill’s new favorite DP Lloyd Ahern – who’d worked with him on Trespass and Wild Bill and would work with him on three more projects – and punchily edited by his longtime cutter Freeman Davies.

Shout’s remastered Blu-ray is detailed enough to reveal some intermittent scratches in the upper right corner of the first reel. Last Man Standing was meant to look like a tobacco-stained memory, and the sickly yellow look of the image is more accurate to my memory of the 35mm print than the version on the Warner budget Blu-ray that paired it with Tony Scott’s rather less classical The Last Boy Scout, presumably because both of them were Bruce Willis pictures with “Last” in the title. I admit I’m surprised that Hill’s film is the first to get a solo Blu edition, but I’m not complaining.

Would I have appreciated another commentary track from Hill expert Walter Chaw, and maybe some insight into Hill’s decade in the wilderness after Another 48 HRS tanked so hard? I mean, sure. But like I said up top, Last Man Standing isn’t exactly a movie that demands a deep dive; it tells you what it wants to do, does a pretty good job of it and rolls the credits before you can think too hard. It’s good to have it back in circulation, and it ain’t the last we’ll see of old Walter Hill this month; mere hours after I typed my out hopes for a 4K polish of Southern Comfort, the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome announced a full special edition of Hill’s bayou riff on Deliverance is coming later this month – and this one does have a Walter Chaw commentary. Maybe 2024 won’t be such a lousy year after all.

Last Man Standing is available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Studios.

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