With THAT’S NOT ROTTEN, Sean picks a movie deemed rotten on Rotten Tomatoes and illustrates why it’s better than thought.
One of the great advantages of this column is not having to make the case that a movie is a great, or even good. The extent of my argument has to be that this film is not, by the metric of Rotten Tomatoes, rotten. Of course, the metric of Rotten Tomatoes is flawed. Hypothetically, you could have Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, André Bazin, and Roger Ebert give rave reviews to film loathed by 96 critics of middling virtue, and the film would sit at a 4% rating. Not that there’s a single film that any of those great film critics would agree, nor should there be. With Last Man Standing, I can’t argue that it is a good film, but I can argue that it’s an interesting film, one where you can see where extensive alterations were order from on high. So while Last Man Standing isn’t a good film, there’s a dark cloud of studio interference that hangs over the film, turning it into a cautionary tale about the nature of studio filmmaking.
Last Man Standing is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which was already remade as Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Before the film has even started, writer-director Walter Hill had already placed his film in the shadow of two highly influential classics. But Hill isn’t the kind of filmmaker to avoid challenges, likely seeing himself as one of the rough and tumble characters that populated his most popular films like The Warriors or The Driver. Hill transposed the story’s setting once again, placing his version in the dusty Texas town of Jericho during the Great Depression and Prohibition. And stepping into the lead role would be Bruce Willis, one of cinema’s biggest action stars. With a classic story, a wildly popular action star, and one of the most influential action writer-directors, you’d think that Last Man Standing would be, at the very least, an unheralded cult classic. Except it isn’t, nor should it be.
The story is familiar: A lone enters a lawless town controlled by two violent gangs battling for position and influence. Before long, the stranger ends up working for both sides, playing each side against each other in hopes of destroying both corrupt gangs.
One of the greatest assets in Last Man Standing is its cast. Willis, naturally, is closer to Clint Eastwood than Toshirô Mifune. He’s neither electrifying nor sleepwalking. Most of the film’s flavor comes from the supporting cast. There’s Bruce Dern as the sheriff unwilling to risk his neck for the town’s safety; Michael Imperioli as the loud, cocky Italian gangster; David Patrick Kelly as the hot-headed, Cagney-esque Irish mobster Doyle; and Christopher Walken as Doyle’s right-hand man, the menacing and brutal Hickey. There are a handful of women characters played by Karina Lombard, Alexandra Powers, and Leslie Mann, but they’re all either the Madonna or the Whore. So while there are some intriguing, well-acted characters, they’re reserved exclusively for the violent brutes of the male persuasion.
As far as the visuals in the film go, Last Man Standing is really quite phenomenal. The cinematography by Lloyd Ahern II gives the dusty town of Jericho a textured look. There’s an orange tone that hangs over the town, like it’s in perpetual dusk. The shootouts that occur within the film are stylized and exciting, though it’s not at the level of vintage John Woo. There also a number a shots that are perfectly framed, filling the entire screen with relevant information for the viewer.
But for all the things that work in Last Man Standing, the turmoil behind the scenes finds its way to infringe on the film as a whole. Throughout the film, Bruce Willis provides a voiceover narration which is obviously added as an afterthought. As the film keeps going, you can find more and more instances where heavy edits were made. The first half of the film moves at such a quick pace, moving from conflict to resolution to next conflict, allowing the voiceover to do all the work in tying it together. Scenes end by fading to black and the next scene begins by fading in from black, merely an attempt to make the missing moments less jarring. Aside from the voiceover, the biggest clue as to the sheer amount of edits is in the final shootout between the Irish and Italian mobsters. It’s edited together as a montage of flames and bullets, though all the missing pieces before and during this scene rob the images of any impact.
According to the trivia section of IMDB, Walter Hill’s cut ran a little over two hours and the studio mandated that edits be made. And according to Box Office Mojo, the film’s budget was a whopping $67 million, though it must be said that I’ve found no correlating evidence for either besides these sources. It’s possible to see how Hill’s 2-hour cut would undoubtedly be a richer, more coherent film that its finished version. It is also possible to see how the studio was desperate not to turn this into a massive bomb – shorter running times means more showings –though their efforts were in vain as it was a massive bomb regardless. It’s impossible to say that Last Man Standing is a good film, but it’s a film where you can actually see the conflict between art and commerce. Unsurprisingly, commerce beat art in this round, mutilating the art in hopes for quicker profit. There are no guarantees that Walter Hill’s cut of Last Man Standing would be a good film. But since the theatrical cut was this bizarre, disfigured work that left very few satisfied, there’s no demand for a director’s cut. As it stands, Last Man Standing is a prime example of the power of editing.