AN INNOCENT WOMAN named Felina (Karina Lombard), is held captive by the vicious mobster, Doyle (David Patrick Kelly), in the Texas border town of Jericho. Every day she prays for deliverance. Late one afternoon, as if in answer to her prayers, a lone gunman, who calls himself John Smith (Bruce Willis), drives up at exactly the moment that she's on her knees in an abandoned church, looking into the eyes of the crucified Jesus.
Smith is an unlikely savior. Declaring, “I was born without a conscience,” he's a professional criminal, probably on the run, out to make a buck for himself wherever and however he can. His first instinct is to take advantage of the rivalry between the two Chicago bootlegging gangs who've taken over Jericho, playing one off against the other.
Last Man Standing is the story of this outlaw's moral regeneration as he learns to use his deadly skills to fight evil and protect the weak. Screenwriter-director Walter Hill (The Warriors and 48 HRS.) has based his film on Akira Kurosawa's 1961 samurai classic, Yojimbo, which, in turn, borrowed its premise of cross and doublecross from Dashiell Hammett's 1929 gangster novel, Red Harvest. Sergio Leone used these same plot devices in his 1964 spaghetti western, Fistful of Dollars, which made Clint Eastwood into an international superstar.
Kurosawa and Leone treated the material with a kind of tongue-in-cheek nihilism. Hammett fashioned a radical left political statement in defense of the labor movement. Hill's purposes are different. Each situation is developed to present his characters with the possibility of moral choice. “No matter how low you sink, there's still right and wrong,” Smith observes. “You always wind up choosing."
Hill inventively combines elements from classic gangster films and westerns to create a nightmarish, brooding vision of a town taken over by evil. The rival mobs’ continuous fighting, as they smuggle booze across the border, has driven almost all the decent people out of Jericho. The lawman who remains, Sheriff Galt (Bruce Dern), is completely corrupt, taking money from both sides. At first, Smith has no desire to make waves. But as a man of great pride, he doesn't take kindly to insults. When Doyle's thugs destroy his car after he stares too closely at Felina, he feels he must get even to save face.
Although it's the 1920s during prohibition and differences are usually settled by ambush-like shoot-outs in the manner of Al Capone and Eliot Ness, Smith's method of combat is the classic western duel. In fair-minded fashion, he challenges Doyle's side-kick, Finn (Patrick Kilpatrick), and then beats him to the draw.
Smith's chivalric code of honor sets him apart from the other hired guns. He considers them second-raters, stupid and slow on the draw. Only one man in town seems to be Smith's equal, Doyle's top henchman, Mickey (Christopher Walken).
When we first meet Hickey, he seems to be Smith's double. Both men are good with their weapons and seem to conduct themselves according to a Samurai-like code.
Neither stoops to the level of petty jealousy and emotional name-calling on which both gangs thrive. But then Smith starts to change. While Mickey remains a gun for hire, Smith develops a willingness to risk his life for others without thought of personal gain.
Smith throws in temporarily with Doyle's nemesis, the Italian gangster Strozzi (Ned Eisenberg). But before he can get too rich, Texas Ranger Capt. Pickett (Ken Jenkins) pays him and Sheriff Galt a visit and changes the rules of the game. Like an Old Testament warrior-judge, Pickett challenges Smith. “Do you believe in God?" he asks. “I believe in God."
Smith is exhorted to do the right thing and clean up the town before Pickett returns with a platoon of Texas Rangers in a few weeks. It's understood that Smith's methods are likely to be closer to the violence used by Joshua in conquering the biblical Jericho than the New Testament approach.
But before the righteous bloodbath can begin, Smith wants to help Felina escape to Mexico, having learned that Doyle won her from her husband in payment for a gambling debt. Through a combination of trickery and firepower, Smith sets Felina free without Doyle knowing he's responsible. The blame is placed on Strozzi. As thanks, Felina gives Smith, the man who answered her prayers, the crucifix she wears around her neck.
Hickey is suspicious, and when Felina's crucifix is found among Smith's clothes, Smith is seized and tortured. After a particularly brutal beating, Doyle dips the crucifix in the blood on Smith's face.
This gesture suggests how Jericho will become a kind of violent purgatory for its inhabitants. Those like Smith, who can be purified, are redeemed. Those who can't, perish. Smith perceives his physical suffering during the beatings as penance for the sins of his past, “Everybody's got to pay the price,” he observes.
Smith escapes, and with the help of Sheriff Galt and Joe Monday, owner of the town's deserted hotel, hides out at the same abandoned church where Felina used to pray.
Doyle annihilates Strozzi's gang, burning them to death in an apocalyptic fire. Still obsessed with Felina, the Irish mobster continues to search for Smith, certain that he knows where she is.
Joe is apprehended preparing food to take to Smith, and although cruelly tortured, he refuses to reveal Smith's whereabouts. Sheriff Galt, who's also beginning to develop a conscience, gives Smith his guns. At this point, if Smith were just a gangster like all the rest, he would leave town. But Joe's silence has saved his life. So Smith rescues Joe, and, in a final confrontation with Doyle, turns down his offer to get rich and become a partner. Joe shoots Doyle, and Smith kills Hickey in a final duel.
Smith leaves Jericho with no more money than when he started. But inside, he's a different man. The Last Man Standing is an action film with a higher purpose. It dramatizes how those who walk in the shadows can become soldiers of the Light.
John Prizer lives in Los Angeles.