A dusty town in the middle of nowhere. Two gangs, violent and callous, fighting over nothing that matters. Innocent people who are “weakly caught in the middle,” forced to choose between evils in the battles of bad against bad. And then: A drifter with a past we can only guess at, and a name we’ll never know, who stands in between.
If there’s a modern mythology, cinema’s “Man with No Name” is a part of it, another kind of hero with a thousand faces. Dashiell Hammett’s character, the Continental Op, first played two sides against each other in the novel Red Harvest in 1929. Fans of the samurai and Western genres know the works that followed: Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo translated the story seamlessly into a story of Japan’s Edo period in 1961, and almost immediately afterward, Italian director Sergio Leone set the story in the American West and used it to turn Clint Eastwood into an international sensation in 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars.
Plenty of movies and directors draw from this same well all the time. You can find a protagonist without a name in literally the last thing I wrote about, or, say, Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott’s 2013 film The Counselor. You could find a lone samurai go up against outlaws and a grim dude slapping leather against criminals in literally the same weekend in 2004 if you happened to want to see Kill Bill Vol. 2 and The Punisher. Very few films have made the attempt to do another retelling after Leone, though.
Last Man Standing, turning 25 today, is one of them. And while it doesn’t quite stand shoulder to shoulder with its influences, it’s still an endlessly watchable movie, and one that brings the story closer to its noir origins while also featuring Bruce Willis when he still cared and Christopher Walken havin’ a normal one. Both men smirk one-liners and spew tons of hot lead opposite a stacked cast until…well, consider the title.
Last Man Standing doesn’t quite adapt its influences shot for shot, but most of the plot beats and gimmicks are right where you expect them if you’ve watched Leone and Kurosawa. Willis’ nameless drifter comes to the same fork in the road that Toshiro Mifune’s wandering ronin does, but instead of tossing a stick to decide which way he’ll go, Willis spins an empty bottle of booze. When asked for his name, Mifune blithely makes something up (he is inspired by the mulberry field he happens to glimpse out a nearby window). Willis just says he’s “John Smith.”
What’s different about this take is the framing and the genre. There is a lot of it that is Western in feel—dusty streets and gun duels are constant features of the setting—but it’s told in the style of a noir right out of Hammett’s Prohibition-era milieu, complete with hardboiled narration courtesy of Willis. The criminal enterprise at issue is ostensibly bootlegging, but just like in every other iteration of this story, it hardly matters: The town of Jericho is a hole in the ground with maybe two or three citizens who aren’t pistol-packing outlaws. (One of them is the undertaker, who couldn’t be happier at Willis’ arrival.)
The narration would make you think we’d see more of the inside of Willis’ head in a way we didn’t get to with Eastwood or Mifune, but the truth is it doesn’t really make us any more privy to what he’s planning to do and why: Mostly it’s to set the tone. We know “John Smith” chafes against the exploitation and cruelty he witnesses, but not what it is about him that drives him to try to make it right.
Fortunately, Willis and his noir voiceover get to share the screen with a cast filled with some real character actor ringers. Bruce Dern is the hopelessly corrupt sheriff. William Sanderson (Blade Runner’s sad sack toymaker J.F. Sebastian) is the barkeep—they don’t pay much attention to Prohibition in Jericho. One of the warring factions is the Irish, led by David Patrick Kelley, bringing the intensity that’s made audiences love to hate him for decades. The other, the Italians, includes Michael Imperioli playing a character who one day will be reincarnated as Christopher in The Sopranos. Ken Jenkins (of Scrubs) even gets one scene as an improbably funny U.S. Marshal. As he bluntly explains to Smith, he’ll tolerate one gang, but if he returns to town to find two gangs, he will make sure there are no gangs.
If it seems male-heavy, it’s because the movie’s mistreated molls don’t get too much chance to make an impression. They are, unfortunately, busy getting slapped around while the boys either savage or save them. Karina Lombard is Kelley’s captive bride—we learn he blatantly kidnapped her from a husband and child in Mexico. She’s credited as “Felina,” but I can’t remember her name ever being spoken aloud. It’s a namelessness that’s not really on par with Willis’, in this case.
And then there’s Walken’s Hickey, a hulking psychopath with an itchy trigger finger and a typewriter, spoken of with fear and awe by the other characters before we ever see him, in a way that telegraphs his final duel with Smith.
The final selling point is the action, and it’s worth the price of admission. Kurosawa severed limbs and unleashed pressurized gallons of blood in his two Sanjuro movies. Leone tasked Eastwood and composer Ennio Morricone with turning gritty quick-draw duels into operatic tableau. Director Walter Hill goes for quantity instead. Willis packs a pair of automatic .45s. If the advice to change a gun’s barrel after it’s fired about 20,000 rounds is right, Willis sends enough lead down range in this movie to at least have his rifling looked at. Gunfights are as fast as in Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, but they just keep going, as Smith unleashes torrents of bullets into dozens of bad guys, his guns sending them cartwheeling through windows and doors. At one point, hilariously, Kelley looks upon one of Willis’ massacres and concludes it had to be the work of 20 guys.
There are no twists waiting to surprise you, and no unexpected beats if you know the dance steps. But, like hearing a bedtime story you loved as a kid, or a damn good cover of a song you didn’t think you cared to hear again, it’s satisfying. You know, when the bottle spins, where it’s going to take the ronin in the fedora. You know, when a pack of sneering crooks tries to intimidate Willis by busting up his car, that he’s going to go demand an apology on behalf of his mule.
Last Man Standing could’ve failed in any number of ways. If it’s a bit too afraid of straying from its source material, it at least got the most important thing right, a thing it would’ve been easy to get wrong even while sticking to the same plot: The hero isn’t a kind man or a good one, but one who believes two evils is two evils too many.
Kenneth Lowe doesn’t want to die in Texas… Chicago, maybe. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.