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Film / Last Man Standing (1996)

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"In a town with no justice, there is only one law: Every man for himself."

Last Man Standing is a 1996 action film by Walter Hill, a cross between a Western and a hard-bitten Film Noir tale taking place in a dusty ghost town during Prohibition and effectively straddling the transitional period between the two.

"John Smith" (Bruce Willis) is a wandering gun-for-hire with few morals and a lot of ammo for his pair of .45s. The town, despite being a tiny speck in the middle of nowhere, is home to two fairly large ethnic gangs comprised of Doyle's Irish and Strozzi's Italians, as the town makes a convenient place to smuggle alcohol in from across the border. John immediately makes an impression on Irish gang leader Doyle (David Patrick Kelly) by blasting the hell out of his best man Finn (Patrick Kilpatrick), and he is soon deeply caught up in the bitter and heated gang war. His presence does nothing to prevent tensions from getting out of hand. He befriends the town's barkeep (William Sanderson) and forms a sort of working relationship with the already corrupt sheriff (Bruce Dern), determined to milk the situation for all it's worth, but in the process finds himself helping out the girlfriends of the two gang leaders. Eventually he's informed by a Texas Ranger (Ken Jenkins) that the law will abide one gang in town, but not two, and when he returns in a few days' time there had better be one gang or no gangs, but definitely no John Smith.

Things go downhill from there.

The plot is bringing the "Fistful of Rehashes" trope full circle to The Roaring '20s, being based on A Fistful of Dollars, which was a Setting Update of Yojimbo, which was originally inspired by Dashiell Hammett's 1929 Red Harvest. Unlike Fistful, however, it was an officially authorized remake of Yojimbo (which was one of the snags Fistful struggled with when it got released).

Last Man Standing provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Achilles' Heel: John can't stand to leave a woman hurting. The sheriff even lampshades this tendency when he sees it in action.
    Sheriff: You know something, amigo? I think I just spotted the chink in your armor. When you go down... it's gonna be over a skirt.
  • Anti-Hero: John is heavily implied to be a mob hitman fleeing a bad situation elsewhere in the states. He murders, steals, lies, and manipulates his way through the entire movie. But he has a soft spot for women and puts himself through pain and near-death to help them, and everyone he kills is corrupt at best.
  • Bang, Bang, BANG: Whenever John fires his .45 pistols they sound more like a pair of cannons than what a .45 handgun would actually sound like.
  • Berserk Button:
    • From how he reacts to the two times Smith tells him he's going to think about becoming part of his gang after selling them information, Doyle really, really hates people not jumping into the bandwagon he offers them (or just being undecisive in general).
    • John Smith, who is most definitely not a saint, decides that everybody in both gangs are better off six feet under after Strozzi cuts off the ear of the town's prostitute for mouthing off one time too many.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: John is definitely no saint, but at least he has some morals, unlike the gangsters he faces off against.
  • Blown Across the Room: The fate of many a mook. Exaggerated with the very first kill, when John draws and empties his two .45 pistols into a man who was standing inside a saloon. The resulting shots send him flying backwards out the door and into the middle of the street.
  • Bookends: The movie starts an ends with visually similar scenes and a character in the same situation: John, driving to Mexico without any money to his name.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Played with. When the scene is serious, John reloads realistically. However his guns have the unrealistic ability to fire 40-plus rounds before needing to reload. At one point John fires eight rounds from a six shooter.
  • Character Narrator: John Smith.
  • Coattail-Riding Relative: Giorgio is the son of Strozzi's superior in Chicago, which makes him very arrogant and pushy to Strozzi's visible displeasure.
  • Coitus Uninterruptus: The prostitute that Smith beds his first night in town keeps on talking about her life even as Smith bangs her hard. She does stop talking, and starts screaming, once the gunfire starts.
  • Dead Guy on Display: The coffin maker "Smiley" displays the first guy Smith kills in the movie in his shop window dressed up like a corpse at a funeral to attract customers. Throughout the movie, we see the bodies of various other casualties
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • John gets his car vandalized for looking at Doyle's girl. He responds by gunning down the man responsible. Justified as both men are establishing their badass credentials — the offense is irrelevant.
    • Strozzi, already angry at how the Mob War is escalating, reacts in rage (off-screen) at Lucy insulting him one time too many by having his men hold her down and cutting one of her ears off. Unfortunately for him, this act is what makes Smith decide all of the gangsters in town are better off dead.
  • The Dragon: Hickey to Doyle. No one thinks much of Doyle, but they're terrified of Hickey. (Considering he's played by Christopher Walken, this is just good sense.)
  • The Dreaded: Hickey is Doyle's nastiest soldier and everybody whispers nervously the horrible deeds he's performed since he was a child.
  • Dulcinea Effect: Women are definitely Smith's soft spot; he tries to get the prostitute he spent the night with out of town (even after she tried to set him up, though she did do that under duress), and Strozzi and Doyle's treatment of their respective girlfriends is what ultimately leads Smith to eliminate both gangs. Lampshaded by sheriff Galt, who remarks that whenever Smith eventually goes down it'll be over a woman.
  • Ear Ache: Strozzi had Lucy's ear cut off when she revealed her affair with Smith to him. It's implied this is when John decides to kill them all.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: John has no qualms about lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering, but he abhors violence against women, and "likes sinners a whole lot better than saints".
  • Everyone Has Standards: The senior Texas Ranger that comes to town and tells Smith to get rid of the gangsters makes clear he's okay with his fellow Rangers having some degree of corruption, but he is not going to tolerate any of them becoming a victim of a Cop Killer, no way, no how.
  • Evil Versus Evil: John pits the two ruthless mafia gangs against each other.
  • False Flag Operation: John creates a gang war by making hits against each one and putting the blame on the other.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: Smith's retaliation during an ambush against him when he is in bed.
  • Ghost Town: In light of the ongoing gang warfare, most civilians have left Jericho by the time Smith arrives; of the few who remain, all have stated their intention to leave by the end of the film. With the death of both gangs, Jericho is deserted.
  • Giant Mook: Jacko the Giant in Doyle's gang. When Smith shoots him, he keeps coming despite being shot several times.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Hickey has a pretty nasty long, vertical one around his right eye that partly goes over it.
  • The Great Depression: The film is set in 1932, at the twilight of the Prohibition era, and during the worst moments of the Depression.
  • Guns Akimbo: John Smith's style of gunplay.
  • Harbinger of Impending Doom: Doyle's girl tries to warn off John Smith when he arrives in Jericho, albeit in Spanish. Not that he's the type to listen.
  • Heads or Tails?: John chooses to take the road to Jericho by spinning a flask of whiskey, then going in the direction it points.
  • Hidden Depths: Sheriff Galt ends up assisting Smith by informing him that Joe was kidnapped and returning his guns in preparation for the final battle. Lampshaded by Smith:
    "It's a funny thing about people; one time out of a hundred they turn out better than you expect."
  • In the Back: Hickey prefers to feign surrender by turning his back his enemies and asking them if they would shoot an unarmed man in the back. Then he draws a pistol and kills them. At their final confrontation, Smith replies that he's done worse.
  • The Irish Mob: Doyle's gang of Irish-American thugs.
  • The Last Title: The title.
  • Lock-and-Load Montage: Smith narrating how he decided that both gangs are better off dead while loading multiple additional magazines for his guns.
  • The Mafia: Strozzi's gang. As lampshaded by Smith, while in the big cities the Italians are steadily winning against all other gangs, in Jericho they only had a small gang of mediocre gunmen as opposed to Doyle's considerably larger gang who also have Hickey as their enforcer.
  • Mob War: A central driver of the plot, between Doyle's Irish-American Mob and Strozzi's Italian-American Mafia. It's Lampshaded that while in the big cities the Italians are winning, in Jericho they're the weaker gang.
  • Morality Pet: Doyle thinks his Mexican lover is this for him, and that he has rescued her from poverty for the sake of love. But it's obvious he thinks of her as his property, referring to her just as "the girl".
  • Mr. Smith: No one even pretends that "John Smith" is his real name.
  • Multiple Gunshot Death:
    • A group of soldiers of the Doyle gang is double-crossed by their hired Mexican police goons and machine-gunned without mercy within their car for a whole minute. John Smith finds the massacre gruesome to watch.
      John Smith: It was a massacre. Couldn't say I was real sorry... but it was a rough way to check out.
    • Also when Slim's Roadhouse was set on fire in the final attack by the Doyle gang, the Strozzi gang members who didn't burn are brutally shot, Giorgio being the worst example.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: John gets one from Jacko the Giant.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: John's decision to help Doyle's girl escape from her captivity comes back to bite him hard. Doyle's gang quickly discovers that he was the one who killed all the guards and allowed her to escape. Doyle's men then take him back to their hideout where they proceed to give him a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown.
  • Oh, Crap!: Hickey has a nice one when he figures out that his trick of bluffing people into not shooting him because he turned his back on them is not going to work on Smith. He still tries to beat Smith in a Quick Draw, only to get blown away.
  • One-Man Army: John Smith manages to slaughter entire roomfuls of adversaries, once by beating the whole lot to the draw and once by barging through the front door and blasting the whole lot of them as they come charging at him.
  • Overkill:
    • John never shoots someone just once.
    • Several members of Doyle's gang get massacred by double-crossing dirty Mexican cops that were paid by Strozzi to perform said double-crossing. Said massacre involves shooting them while they are inside of a car for a whole minute.
    • Doyle has his entire gang open fire on Giorgio.
  • Outlaw Town: The normal civilians have left Jericho, and it's run by the competing Italian and Irish gangs, with the Sheriff in their pocket.
  • Playing Both Sides: Smith is unlikely to make the cover of Loyalty Monthly, except as a warning.
  • Quick Draw:
    • John Smith makes an impression this way. John's rapid gunplay remains important throughout the film.
    • One of Hickey's favorite tricks (or so it appears), other than machine-gunning everything and everybody to hell and gone, is to bluff people into not shooting him In the Back and then quick-draw while they are thinking what to do.
  • Police Are Useless:
    • The local law enforcement of Jericho are completely apathetic to the crimes committed by the local mob and know better than to get in their way. The point is really taken home when at the beginning of the film Doyle's gang decides to trash John's car in clear view of the police. One of the gangsters then walks up to John and calmly tells him that the " sheriff's office is right over there in case you want to complain about anything". When John goes to the sheriff's office to tell what happened, the sheriff's words to John are : "Yeah I saw what happened. You wanna know what I'm gonna do about it? Not a goddamn thing".
    • However when a corrupt Texas Ranger is killed, their chief makes it clear that unless this problem is sorted out, he'll come back with an entire posse of Texas Rangers who will kill every gangster in town.
  • Psycho for Hire: Hickey. Up until he finally appears, every person that references him talks like he's some kind of rabid dog, with stories about how he killed his family and the orphanage he was sent to afterwards. It's implied there is some Shrouded in Myth going on, but Hickey is decidedly Trigger-Happy.
  • Recycled In Space: Yojimbo with Prohibition-era gangsters—whose liquor racket hews surprisingly close to the original.
  • Refuge in Audacity: If John Smith walked into a room and shot a dozen largely unaware mooks, and they died in anything vaguely like realistic fashion, he'd look like a monster. Since they fly across the room, crash out windows, and go rolling across the street, he just looks like a badass.
  • The Roaring '20s: The broader setting. Booze smuggling is how both bands make a living and the town is so far off in the boonies that nobody really seems to care about Prohibition, not even the Texas Rangers (the one that arrives to tell Smith to do something about the gangs before he comes back to kill them all is more pissed about Hickey's Cop Killer action than the fact the man was in bed with rum-runners).
  • Rule of Cool: This movie walks up to physics and shoots it in the chest, causing it to lift off its feet as it goes flying backwards, crashes through a window, and rolls all away across the street to die in the dirt.
  • Run for the Border: The film begins and ends with Smith driving towards Mexico; it's heavily implied that he's on the run from someone, but never confirmed who.
  • Ruthless Foreign Gangsters: On one side we have the Italian Mafia, on the other we have the Irish Mob. By the time Smith arrives to the town, everybody who could get the hell out of Dodge already did instead of risking becoming collateral damage to the gang warfare.
  • The Sheriff: Corrupt Sheriff Ed Galt. He's in Doyle's pocket, and does nothing to disrupt the uneasy truce between the two gangs.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Hickey. Whether or not he actually killed his old man and set an orphanage on fire is never said, but Hickey makes it clear he loves the mystique it brings him.
  • Sinister Southwest: The film is about dealing with gangs in a Prohibition-era Texas town.
  • Token Good Cop: A Downplayed example. Sheriff Galt, his deputy, the nearest Border Patrol officer, and the local Mexican cops all do jobs for one or both of the local bootlegging gangs (although Galt gets a Heel–Face Turn). Texas Ranger Pickett, while realistic enough to know that he can't just blot out organized crime, isn't personally corrupt and, as the gang war gets bloodier and takes out one of his own men, he issues an ultimatum that if one or both gangs hasn't left the area or been wiped out in ten days, then he'll bring in a Posse to wipe them both out.
  • Two Roads Before You: Happens literally in the opening scene, when John chooses the road to Jericho. The symbolism is lampshaded in the voiceover he's just given.
    John Smith: It's a funny thing, no matter how low you sink there's still a right and a wrong, and you always end up choosing. You go one way so you can try and live with yourself. You go the other, and still be walking around, but you're dead and don't know it.
  • Where I Was Born and Razed: The urban legend regarding Hickey's immense psychosis says that he killed his own father and later set ablaze the orphanage we was sent to, killing many children.
  • Wretched Hive: Jericho, the setting, is without effective law and order — but well up on violent criminal enterprise. There is, in fact, nothing left in town but the gangs, the sheriff, a bartender, a prostitute, a mechanic and the undertaker... and by the end of the movie, the prostitutes and mechanic are long gone, and the bartender, sheriff and undertaker are leaving.
  • You Talk Too Much!: The prostitute Smith hires tells him her life story, even while he's having sex with her.

Alternative Title(s): Last Man Standing