On the set of the shoot-’em-up thriller “The Last Stand,” South Korean director Kim Jee-Woon and Arnold Schwarzenegger suffered from what we shall term a certain failure to communicate. They literally could not speak each other’s language, relying on translators to trade ideas thanks to Kim’s negligible English and Schwarzenegger’s heavy Teutonic accent.
Nonetheless, according to Kim, the inability to find common parlance with one’s star — or any cast member, for that matter — was hardly a stumbling block. Over lunch in Hollywood, the director went so far as to extend an inspirational message to other international moviemakers deficient in English-speaking skills. “Overseas directors who want to work in Hollywood, the language barrier is not a problem,” Kim said through a translator. “With the right talent, any director can be successful.”
In his case, that talent pool includes none other than the erstwhile Governator, making a return to the kind of genre fare that put him on the Hollywood map — an unprecedented politics-to-showbiz about-face after an eight-year run in Sacramento’s corridors of power.
If “The Last Stand” represents a gamble for Schwarzenegger, it’s also a $42-million crapshoot on a somewhat untested director.
Although Kim enjoys a nearly Spielbergian level of respect in his homeland courtesy of such Korean hits as the Sundance Film Festival-anointed thriller “I Saw the Devil,” the spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” and the American-distributed horror flick “A Tale of Two Sisters,” he was an untested commodity working within Hollywood.
“In Korea, the director is on top and the power flows down vertically,” Kim said. “On the set, I love to come up with ideas on the spot. But in Hollywood, if I were to come up with a certain idea on set, the idea had to be taken to all these different people who had to agree.”
This is why the director’s maiden voyage working in English, with an American crew and within Hollywood’s heavily unionized system, was not an altogether seamless experience.
“In the beginning,” he said, “I struggled a lot. Everyone’s concerned with efficiency and cost. I was able to adapt to this system. But in Hollywood, the director is lonelier.”
Producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura (the “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” movie franchises) explained why Schwarzenegger chose to re-enter the movie arena in a film directed by a Hollywood newcomer rather than, say, James Cameron, who gave the former Mr. Universe a breakthrough in “The Terminator.”
“Arnold felt he has to win audiences’ affections back. He’s been away and now he’s back,” Di Bonaventura said. “He didn’t have a sense of entitlement. He wanted to do a modestly budgeted film, because he started out with those kind of films.”
In “Stand,” a Pablo Escobar-esque drug kingpin named Cortez has broken free of an FBI prisoner convoy and is barreling toward the Mexican border in a souped-up Corvette capable of speeds upward of 250 miles per hour. The Mexican narcotrafficante — who also happens to be a mixed martial arts expert and an accomplished race car driver — is aided and abetted by a small army of mercenaries outfitted with high-tech gizmos such as rocket-propelled grenade launchers, night-vision scope assault rifles and a barricade-busting dump truck; they fairly jump at any chance to mow down law enforcement officers in hails of gunfire.
Schwarzenegger’s character — an L.A. vice squad veteran riding out his days as a small-town sheriff in Arizona — along with a ragtag band of podunk misfits including “Jackass” stunt comedian Johnny Knoxville and journeyman character actor Luis Guzman, are all that stand between the wealthy drug thug and freedom. Despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the five good guys attempt to hold their ground and bring Cortez to justice.
Costar Rodrigo Santoro, who portrays an Iraq war veteran conscripted to help battle the drug kingpin’s attack force, seconded Kim’s assertion that language was no barrier to creative idea sharing. To hear him and others on the production tell it, the director focused more on the energy with which the actors delivered their lines than the dialogue they delivered.
“We communicated by body language, beyond words,” the Brazilian actor said. “It might sound abstract, but we connected on a higher level. Sometimes, by just looking at each other. Sometimes, he would mimic what he wanted. Every actor on that set will tell you the same thing.”
The Governator never pulled rank and at one point defended one of Kim’s creative choices, insisting to the producers, “The director is an artist, he needs his time.”
“Now all he has to do is make a successful comeback,” the director said. “I was worried I might be a hindrance in that process. I was more worried than he was.”
— Chris Lee
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