I reviewed THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991) once already, 15 years ago. Though I think I described some things about it pretty well, I was at somewhat of a snooty wiseass stage in my critic’s journey, and I was more dismissive of it than I should’ve been. Despite that I remembered it being a pretty good movie, and I’d been wanting to rewatch it for a while, so this last November, when BWolfe asked in the comments, “Can you re-review this? I feel like you’d give it a much better shake now,” I knew he was right.
This Joel Silver production is a collaboration/clash between director Tony Scott (coming off of DAYS OF THUNDER) and screenwriter Shane Black (after being replaced on LETHAL WEAPON 2). Those guys making a Bruce Willis movie is about as all-star action as it got in 1991, and had Bruce and Silver known how the release of HUDSON HAWK was gonna go earlier in that year they would’ve been even more eager to sow they could still blow people through the back walls of theaters.
But by all accounts the production was a miserable and combative experience, with producer, star, director and writer all butting heads, the stars not getting along, Black constantly being made to rewrite it to be bigger or more different from DIE HARD or whatever someone wanted on a particular day. Editors Mark Goldblatt (director of THE PUNISHER) and Mark Helfrich (director of GOOD LUCK CHUCK), plus additional editors Conrad Buff (T2), Chris Lebenzon (TOP GUN), Michael Tronick (STREETS OF FIRE) and Christian Wagner (TRUE ROMANCE) had a torturous time trying to figure out how the fuck to make heads or tails of Scott’s why-not-shoot-everything-from-five-different-angles pile of raw footage, eventually requiring Stuart Baird (director of EXECUTIVE DECISION) to come in and recut the whole thing, as he had done with TANGO & CASH. Willis and Silver never worked together again, and Black, Scott and Willis all later said that the finished movie wasn’t as good as the original script.
But you know what? It’s not as messy as I remembered it, and whether or not it’s cohesive it certainly exhibits the Shane Black wit, the slick Tony Scott visual style and the Joel Silver over-the-topness, and those are all things I feel are worth exulting. It gives us plenty to enjoy. I don’t know what my problem was.
The opening scene is absolutely not fucking around. It’s set at a pro football game during a torrential downpour that would clearly cancel almost any sporting event. Luckily the L.A. Stallions play in the TSSL (Tony Scott Sports League), who require extreme weather for cinematographic reasons. (The TSSL is a multiple-sports league; The San Francisco Giants were briefly in it at the time of THE FAN.) Stallions running back Billy Cole (Billy Blanks, who had already appeared in BLOODFIST, THE KING OF THE KICKBOXERS, CHINA O’BRIEN II and LIONHEART) gets a threatening phone call before the game, so he takes some PCP and then, when he has the ball, pulls out a gun and shoots three other players (which is against the rules even in this league), then himself.
The scene introduces (but doesn’t exactly explain) the villains: sleazy Stallions owner Shelly Marcone (Noble Willingham, HIT!, BLIND FURY) will become important to the story, and his enforcer Milo (Taylor Negron, BETTER OFF DEAD) is the guy on the phone. But it’s a whole lot of Tony Scott bombast for a scene that not only doesn’t have that much to do with the plot, but kind of throws you off of the actual plot. “Why did this pro football player go on a murder-suicide rampage in the middle of a game?” seems like a mystery the movie would delve into, right? But it’s really not. This is more of a poetic statement that shit is fucked up.
By the way, I would like to honor the stylishness of the opening credits – fat letters with gradient and white outline that fly in dramatically, followed by the logo with “BOYSCOUT” (one word?) in green paintbrush font, then actor credits incorporated into the football broadcast on a 4.3 TV screen within the frame. In that other review I made fun of the football theme song, “Friday Night’s A Great Night For Football” by Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers, but of course it’s absolutely perfect fanfare for this horror show of Black athletes destroying their bodies and minds for cheap entertainment and the enrichment of corrupt white team owners. “Ain’t life a bitch?”
Into this living nightmare world awakens Bruce as Joe Hallenbeck, a private eye so garishly washed up he makes hung over John McClane at the beginning of DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE seem pretty pleasant. I’m not 100% sure this is Bruce’s only character introduced passed out in his car, but I’m confident he’s the only one who wakes up when neighborhood kids decide it would be funny to put a dead squirrel on top of him. Most movies don’t take it to the dead squirrel level.
Black supposedly wrote the script after two years brooding over a breakup, and he seems to have channeled all his feelings of bitterness and failure into this character. Hallenbeck doesn’t get along with his wife Sarah (Chelsea Field, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, EXTREME JUSTICE), and his daughter Darian (Danielle Harris, who was about 13 or 14 but had already been in HALLOWEEN 4 and 5 and MARKED FOR DEATH) openly despises him for it. Additionally, when he comes home and his detective skills tell him his wife is hiding a dude somewhere (toilet seat is up) so he threatens to fire a gun into the closet until the dude comes out, said dude is his best friend/agency partner Mike. And worse than that, Mike is played by Bruce McGill (INTO THE NIGHT, A PERFECT WORLD, MATCHSTICK MEN).
To Mike’s shock, Hallenbeck still takes that job they’d been talking about, to protect a dancer named Cory (Halle Berry, who had only done JUNGLE FEVER and STRICTLY BUSINESS, both released that same year) who’s being threatened. (Also Mike’s car blows up – an enormous explosion, thank you Joel Silver – but when Sarah runs out she’s calling Joe’s name. True love.)
I should mention that Hallenbeck is a disgraced former Secret Service agent – the honorable kind of disgraced where he got fired for punching a senator (Chelcie Ross, ABOVE THE LAW, RICHIE RICH) he witnessed torturing a woman. Coincidentally (and this is a pretty big coincidentally) Cory’s threats come from her possession of an incriminating tape of that same senator, in relation to bribes from Stallions owner Marcone and legalizing sports gambling. So there’s a whole detective novel style conspiracy there.
This is, of course, a buddy movie. The buddy is Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans at pretty much his peak, since he was in the midst of In Living Color), who is a disgraced former pro football player. He was the quarterback for the Stallions until he got banned from the league for gambling and drugs, but his entrance into the movie is kind of like Hallenbeck’s reason for getting fired: seeing a current player assaulting a woman in a hot tub, Jimmy nails him with a perfectly thrown football. Still got it.
Jimmy is also Cory’s boyfriend, and gets jealous when Hallenbeck shows up to talk to her at the strip club, but (SPOILER) Cory gets killed, so they start working together to go after the culprits. That lasts until Hallenbeck catches Jimmy doing drugs in his house and throws him out. Only then does Jimmy learn from little Darian that Hallenbeck was his biggest fan and was so disillusioned by his downfall that he stopped watching football entirely.
With the star and producer of DIE HARD and the writer of LETHAL WEAPON and the director of TOP GUN (or BEVERLY HILLS COP II), obviously there were expectations of a HUGE. FUCKING. ACTION MOVIE!!!, and they definitely make some attempts to fulfill that (apparently leading to some of those rewrites). But it’s clear that Black is more interested in a neo-noir sort of feel, with this hard boiled, hard drinking, fucked up private eye with the marriage problems, getting to the bottom of a convoluted mystery with blackmail and corruption and sexual deviancy and a scary guy with henchmen (including Kim Coates – INNOCENT BLOOD, SINNERS & SAINTS, THE LAND) that keep coming after him, and confrontations in mansions. At the time Black was just the LETHAL WEAPON guy – it makes much more sense now that we know he’s the KISS KISS BANG BANG and THE NICE GUYS guy.
And neo-noir means if not an anti-hero you’re at least looking at a flawed character as the protagonist. And I gotta be honest, this guy has some very serious issues that make it hard to get behind him at first. How can I put this in a way so as not to offend or unnerve? The man says he doesn’t like funk, claims that the way to make him scream in pain is to “play some rap music,” and complains that his daughter likes Prince. You might as well have him blow up St. Jude’s in the opening scene – what kind of a monster hates Prince?
The “funk” he refers to is also Prince – he doesn’t like that the strip club DJ (movie debut of Eddie Griffin, URBAN JUSTICE) is playing “Gett Off” by Prince and the NPG, from Diamonds and Pearls. That song makes me laugh because of how Tony M. (the corny rapper guy) keeps saying “23 positions in a one night stand.” Maybe I’m telling on myself, as they say, but I don’t think I could come up with 23 distinct positions if my life depended on it. I’d have to be like, okay, for this one I’m holding up a peace sign with my right hand, so that counts as a different position. Okay, that’s four. But the thing is, I know Prince wouldn’t cheat like that. Prince definitely really knew 23. He’s Prince.
I like the odd, sometimes random quirks that Black gives his characters, but I guess I’ll never wrap my head around that particular one. Is it to imply he’s got, you know, economic anxiety, so there’s more tension around teaming up with Jimmy? It doesn’t really seem like it.
Oh well. Otherwise, I enjoy all of Hallenbeck’s dirtbaggitude – normal stuff like being told he “looks like he just slept in his clothes,” but also I-can’t-believe-they-did-that touches like the mid-movie reveal that he has been making obscene phone calls. It’s also kind of similar to THE GAUNTLET in how it has a man and woman talking hatefully to each other to mask what we understand to be actual love underneath. Part of me is creeped out by it and part accepts it as a pulp novel subversion of romantic happy endings.
One part that definitely hasn’t aged well (or, actually, was bad in the first place) is the use of a homophobic slur. I think we’ve seen Black grow past that, but man… I really wish there was an E.T.-with-walkie-talkies version of MONSTER SQUAD just to take out those slurs because I have had so many conversations with parents looking for less obvious things to show their kids and I want to tell them that one but it’s too much disclaimer to get into.
It’s definitely the Shane Blackness that most excels in this movie – though I don’t disagree with some of my complaints in the old review about specific jokes, more often I find the back-and-forth witticisms laugh-out-loud funny. I don’t know why. Gilmore Girls and shit always annoyed me with everybody always having a snappy comeback for everything, but Black mostly makes it work for me.
I must also hand it to Silver or Scott or whoever is responsible for the Big Action Shit. There’s a part where a guy gets his legs smooshed between two cars and keeps firing his machine gun. A car flies off a ledge into a swimming pool, then explodes, then Hallenbeck fires into it and then takes a briefcase of money out. There is a great villain death where Hallenbeck punches him off of the stands at the stadium (we go full circle and end at another game) and the fall might be enough to take him out, but then the police shoot him a hole bunch of times in mid-air, and then also he gets chopped up in the blades of a low flying helicopter. Gotta respect that! (Though it speaks poorly of football fans that they don’t freak out too bad after seeing all this.) Also you gotta respect, obvious as it is, that Jimmy’s football throwing accuracy figures into the climax. Sometimes a movie has something like that loaded up and doesn’t fire it. This one gets the job done.
Note: The climax reminds me of things in both THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT and KISS KISS BANG BANG, so it’s not necessarily something that was forced on Black.
I also think that now that the movie is about twice as old as it was when I first reviewed it I have way more of an appreciation for that Tony Scott visual style. I think back then I associated it with some specific type of shiny commercial filmmaking that I didn’t like, but now I just enjoy its beauty. If a guy is gonna spend the time to get the exact right red or blue gel or reflection of sparks on wet concrete or sunlight shining through vertical blinds and bending across crumpled sheets draped over his wife Donna’s butt, then who am I to minimize that effort? Cinematographer: Ward Russell, DAYS OF THUNDER, LAWNMOWER MAN 2: JOBE’S WAR.
In the tradition of such classic Joel Silver productions as COMMANDO, ACTION JACKSON, ROAD HOUSE, RICOCHET and DEMOLITION MAN, it’s hard to tell when THE LAST BOY SCOUT is exemplifying the cinematic excesses of its era, and when it’s winking at us about them. It can be best appreciated as an enjoyable collection of well-worn action and pulp novel conventions dosed with extra lunacy. It doesn’t really matter if it’s trying to subvert the genre or just do it with more gusto than is normally considered reasonable. It works as both.
Note: Somewhere I heard this was a Christmas movie, and since it’s Shane Black it seemed to make sense, I figured I just forgot. It was released in the Christmas season, and the Michael Kamen score makes it feel more DIE HARD, but the only indication I noticed that it could take place near the holidays was that his daughter is in trouble at school for drawing a picture that says “Satan Claus.” I didn’t notice any decorations or anything like that.