Goes from Very Real to Somewhat Hollywood.
A movie where the lead character does everything that YOU would do in a dire situation – at least in the first two acts, before he must bow to Action Movie Protocol and shoot the bad guys, rescue the girl and take down a redneck meth lab all by himself…
LAST SEEN ALIVE starts off very compelling, as Will (Gerard Butler) loses his wife Lisa (Jaimie Alexander) at a roadside gas station in a small town. Will enlists the aid of a reluctant police department to find her, also taking matters into his own hands to track down her abductors.
It’s nothing we haven’t seen before (abducted wife, distraught husband, hillbilly antagonists – very much reminding us of Kurt Russell’s 1997 BREAKDOWN), but in this movie, writer Marc Frydman and director Brian Goodman employ a different approach with their lead character – though they’ve stacked the deck in casting Man’s Man Gerard Butler, he doesn’t suddenly go Action Man when the plot is ignited. Rather, Butler’s Will reacts in a very Real World manner; he does all those things that we would do in his situation – because in the Real World, there is never a sudden tip into detective/spy/vigilante mode, as your first reaction is believing that a person gone missing will simply turn up, with some mundane reason on why they “disappeared.” And so Will does, trying to keep his voice steady as he speaks to the store clerk (Michael Irby – Cristobal from BARRY!); as he circles the parking lot, as he leaves messages on her voicemail… a slow burn… as he calls the police, who reluctantly get involved; he drives to his in-laws’ home, in the hopes that Lisa has hitched or walked there (their stunned/worried reactions are right on the money as well – great performances by Cindy Hogan and Bruce Altman), and finally giving in to despair and anxiety, that would force his hand to Action Man…
That’s the key to every movie lead role: putting the viewer in the place of the protagonist and ultimately asking not what HE would do in a situation, but what YOU would do. And if the protagonist actually does what you might do, he becomes all the more relatable. It is especially satisfying when Will confronts the man who snatched Lisa, and punches down at his face, incessantly, while the man pleads to “Stop! Stop! Stop!” and with each “Stop!” another punch lands – unremitting, unforgiving. I was laughing at the fact that that is exactly how I would handle that situation; and how YOU would handle it as well.
Unfortunately, this realism cannot be sustained, as Will’s situation gets infinitely grimmer when he himself commits “crimes” to try to counter the crime of his wife’s kidnapping. The Man doesn’t see this as justifiable eye-for-eye resolution. In the Real World, Will would have faced numerous charges himself for becoming a vigilante, no matter it was in the quest to reclaim his wife.
The detective is played very naturally and calmingly by Russell Hornsby. And though they could have upped the stakes with Cop Accusing Protagonist Of The Crime, the movie steers away from this trope. Again, to its credit. Although by the Hollywood Happy Ending, the Detective has become non-real as he ignores all Will’s crimes for the sake of Will retrieving his wife from meth dealers. In any Real World situation, the detective’s “duty” would have overridden his sense of justice and he would have arrested Will for kidnapping himself (man found in trunk of his car), assault and battery (see: above scene), destruction of property (blowing up the meth compound) and murder (shooting dead the drug kingpin), amongst a trove of smaller crimes that they would have pinned on him. (Have the filmmakers been around real police at ALL?)
The antagonists are also played for realism. Usually, baddies are portrayed as unremittingly eeevil, laughing at their crimes and confident in their wrongdoing (that they regard as right), but here, many of the evildoers involved in Will’s wife’s kidnapping are as unsure of themselves as Will is as an Action Man. Because “kidnapping” is far above their pay-grade – the local drug kingpin wants nothing to do with it – and in essence, the kidnapping plot goes nowhere. Meaning, there IS no grand design – there was just an impetuous grab at potential ransom money with no plan behind it at all. The B-actor doing the grabbing? Ethan Embrey (that non-personality who is not even at the level of That Guy From That Thing – unless you mean THAT THING YOU DO, where he played a guy so faceless, he didn’t even have a name, even though he was in the starring band!). Here, he plays Knuckles, a guy so swamped in white-trash double-wide squalor he would resort to anything to make a quick buck. Just like Ethan Embrey.
So the movie’s own realistic plot is its downfall, in a way. We have been conditioned to believe that any event that drives a plot should have much more machination behind it. Instead, we get the plot equivalent of Ethan Embrey.