starring Bruce Willis
So let’s say instead of being John McClane or somebody, Bruce was Joe Hallenbeck, a washed up, slightly overweight, cigarette loving, booze-sucking, wife-and-daughter-arguing, disgraced secret service agent turned low-life asshole private detective. Also, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Damon Wayans is Hallenbeck’s one-time favorite football player but his career was ruined in a gambling scandal and now he’s a drug addict dating a stripper (Academy Award winner Halle Berry, in a step up from her role as a crack ho in JUNGLE FEVER) who Hallenbeck was hired to protect by his former friend who he just found out was screwing his wife then saw get blown up by a car bomb and now Halle Berry has been murdered because she knew too much about a football team owner trying to blackmail a senator that Hallenbeck used to protect but punched out because he was torturing women and now they’re trying to legalize gambling. Also I forgot to mention that Hallenbeck once saved the president’s life, and some dudes are gonna set off a bomb at the football game, and there was this fucked up part at the beginning where an NFL player pulled out a gun on the field and started shooting everybody then said “Ain’t life a bitch?” (to be or not to be, that is the question) and blew his brains out.
Well shit, I really don’t know WHAT the fuck is up with this movie, but let’s just go with it. The director is Tony Scott, who you can always count on to make a movie that’s either not that bad or, more often, actually that bad. But the real auteur in this case is Shane Black, the disgraced former hotshot screenwriter who was the first to make $4 million just for writing a Renny Harlin movie. I feel like an asshole even bringing this up, but it’s probaly relevant to mention that this guy was between 26 and 29 when the movie came out (depending on which articles you trust) and he got paid $1.75 million for the screenplay. In other words, more money than you and I together earn in 15 years. In his twenties. For this.
The movie goes on Tony Scott’s not that bad shelf, mostly due to Mr. Black’s attempts to push this kind of crap in weird new directions. In many ways it’s just the same old crap but then he tries to make it darker and more fucked up and more smart assed. I’m pretty sure he was thinking ’80s action buddy movie meets hardboiled detective noir. Bruce doesn’t do any voiceovers, but he’s got the down on his luck, alcohol swilling, desperate for a case, in over his head private eye shit down pat. And he’s got the sometimes-witty dialogue going at 300mph from beginning to end. If anybody ever says anything, I guarantee you the other guy will have a smart ass answer to that, except in one case where Damon Wayans just says “fuck you,” and then Bruce says, “Nice comeback.” It feels pretty forced and self conscious at times but you get used to it and every once in a while there’s a pretty good one. Like when a bad guy uses the word “exuberance” and Wayans says, “Ah shit, we’re gettin beat up by the inventor of Scrabble.”
Black has the most fun when he’s beaning action movie formula in the back of the head with a curveball. (that was a metaphor I believe) For example, Hallenbeck doesn’t have your usual romance here. In the first scene with his wife, he pulls out a gun and shoots their family portrait. His wife is a crazy bitch who cheats on him with his best friend and then blames him for it. But in the twisted world of the movie, he’s still able to love her and reunite with her at the end, while saying, “Fuck you Sarah, you’re a lying bitch and if there weren’t cops around I’d spit in your face.” And they put that in a context where it’s genuinely supposed to be romantic.
Hallenbeck is ironically “the last boy scout” because deep down he actually has some small sense of honor, etc., but the guy really is an asshole. Insulting people, even his family and his heroes, is his number one skill and passion. He gets trapped by “bad guys” as he always calls them (this was the ’90s, everybody was a postmodernist) he starts doing a whole routine of fat jokes and I fucked your wife jokes to both distract and entertain them. Shane Black must’ve kept a journal of one-liners and snaps and dumped them all into this screenplay.
I don’t get some of em though. Like, “I’m trying to figure out which one of you looks like my dick.” What’s that mean? And there’s a part where somebody asks Damon Wayans if he’s alone and he says, “No, I got the Vienna Boys Choir with me.” They always got jokes like that in movies, but why is that a joke? In my opinion that is some weak sarcasm. Totally random and meaningless. It would make the same amount of sense to say, “No, I got a class of ESL students with me,” or “No, I got two meter maids and a dog catcher with me,” or anybody. It might as well be The Harlem Globetrotters or the Missouri State Senate or Run DMC or the surviving cast members of The A-Team. I mean what the fuck does Vienna Boys Choir have to do with anything? I don’t get it man. I wish there was some way I could return that line to Shane Black. It’s defective.
Another reason Hallenbeck is an asshole, he hates funk, rap music, and specifically Prince. But to be fair the only Prince song you hear is “Gett Off” which is not exactly his masterpiece. Still, this guy should be thanking the lord he found a strip club that plays Prince and not 2 Live Crew or fuckin Warrant Cherry Pie type garbage. Plus, I don’t know if the characters in the movie are privy to the music played during the opening and closing credits, but JESUS FUCKING CHRIST. There is a song about football games on Fridays that makes the song on PUMPING IRON sound like Beethoven’s fifth in comparison. (or whichever one was beethoven’s best. I’m not up on that information.) It kind of seems like a joke but I don’t know for sure. Whatever it is I’d rather listen to “Gett Off” for three weeks straight than hear that shit again.
Anyway like I says, despite being such a fuckin prick, Hallenbeck’s got a code of honor. (that’s how Americans know he’s the good guy. Also, because he’s played by Bruce Willis.) They have him risking his life to save the guy who ruined his career and avenge the death of the guy who fucked his wife and tried to have him killed. Because it’s the right thing to do, like in that movie DO THE RIGHT THING. Unfortunately, they have to have Damon Wayans explicitly point out that Hallenbeck is risking his life for the people who fucked him. Because we’re retards. And later on there’s a bit where the bad guy steals the wrong suitcase, which is fine, but does Damon Wayans have to fucking SAY OUT LOUD that he got the wrong suitcase, five to ten minutes after we already figured it out ourselves? I guess if you’re payin a screenwriter millions of dollars, you’re not gonna want subtlety. Somebody might miss something and you won’t get your moneys worth.
Hallenbeck is a pretty good character. You sort of gotta like a hero who’s introduced passed out in his car, neighborhood kids putting a dead squirrel on his head. Damon Wayans doesn’t get that type of topnotch entrance though, and it gets kind of iffy when he learns from Hallenbeck’s tough guy ways and starts pulling phoney action hero maneuvers. When they’re at gun point he stages an escape that’s pretty hard to swallow. I’m not the king of action movie scripts like Shane Black was at the time, but if I was, I woulda made a declaration that no character is allowed to perform an escape that involves knowing for sure that throwing a bullet in a fireplace will cause two people to catch on fire. And if some Wayans brother or other DID pull that one off, they would at least be surprised and amazed that it actually worked.
Also the ending is kind of sad because Bruce and Damon walk off into the sunset talking about how they’re gonna be partners now, and you get the strong, uncomfortable feeling that Shane Black and company assumed America would fall in love with these characters and beg for more of their adventures for many years. I mean shit, I woulda taken a Next to Last Boy Scout before Bad Boys 2 any day, but still. It didn’t happen, and Shane Black disappeared after a couple years and only recently came back from the brink trying to face the demons and prove himself against great odds, just like one of his characters. But with less guns.
In a way I think Mr. Black’s screenplays were one a them self fulfilling prophecies the Lord sometimes tosses at a motherfucker. A Chinese finger trap. Shane Black was always writing about these middle age burnouts, alcoholics and suicidals, people who hate life and worry they will never recapture what they once had, before the movie started. IMDb says the guy wrote Lethal Weapon when he was 22 years old, but if I’m doing my math right he was more like 25. Either way the bastard’s just out of college, should be workin at a record shop or something, instead he’s richer than shit, getting flown around to meetings, people with fancy offices telling him he’s the future of Hollywood. Probaly doesn’t even know how to do his own laundry, let alone understand how a real police department operates. He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doin, he just does it. And I think with this movie and The Long Kiss Good Night he was trying to sort of rebel against the MILLION DOLLAR ACTION MOVIE KID slot that the Joel Silvers and David Geffens were shoving him head first into, maybe trying to justify it all to himself. So he makes the main character all fucked up and throws in some weird business like the NFL shootout, the hateful romantic climax, a little girl telling a guy to “eat shit,” etc.
Well none of Shane Black’s movies are an ingrown hair on DIE HARD’s shaved nutsack, but that don’t mean they weren’t influential. I think it’s safe to say that most non-kung fu Hollywood action movies today are poured into the jello mold of DIE HARD and LETHAL WEAPON. (At least, from what I remember. I haven’t watched that movie in years. That’s the one with the black dude and the white dude, right? The white dude’s all crazy and the black dude’s all uptight and you’re like come on black dude, be more like white dude, he’s crazy he’s gonna shoot everybody, why can’t you be more like him he plays by his own rules, don’t get tied down by the red tape let’s let the bullets fly and see where they stick, but seriously though you have a great family let’s be friends though I got all kinds of black friends I’m totally down bud.)
Anyway, I’m glad I went back and filled in this hole in my Bruce-watching. Not a great one but an interesting one anyway.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.