The Last Boy Scout [Tony Scott, 1991]

You may know The Last Boy Scout as the movie that climaxes with an NFL star taking PCP during halftime, then surprising both teammates and the opposition during a running play by killing three approaching tacklers and shooting himself in the head. If that’s what you’re expecting, you’re wrong, because that actually happens before the opening credits, as a sort of scene-setting exposition that illustrates what sort of a mixed-up universe cynical PI Joe Hallenbeck [Bruce Willis] and cynical ex-NFL star Jimmy Dix [Damon Wayans Sr.] are living in. The actual climax is far more sedate — Damon Wayans Sr., riding a horse down the sideline of an NFL game, throws a football at a corrupt politician to knock him out of the way of an assassin’s bullet, followed by the assassin falling off a stadium lighting stanchion into the blades of a helicopter, followed by the team’s owner getting killed by an exploding suitcase to the good guys’ rapturous laughter. The cold-blooded assassin is played by Taylor Negron, previously known to me as the awkwardly goofy Mexican layabout who marries Rodney Dangerfield’s daughter in Easy Money. The corrupt politician is played by Chelcie Ross, which makes sense.

In this blog’s first month I described Ridley Scott as “perfecting the art of filming dust particles in shafts of sunlight”. Tony Scott, meanwhile, perfected the art of making everywhere look like a hazy blue barroom. In this film’s opening scene both the L.A. Stallions’ locker room and the field of play somehow look like a hazy blue barroom. At one point an office filled with flames is hazy and blue. Unfortunately, actual hazy blue barrooms disappear from the film once Joe and Jimmy ally and Halle Berry is executed [in a “gangland-style” “professional hit” that involves three machine guns on a busy street]. Berry is the only virtuous character, and that includes Willis’s 13-year-old daughter, who calls him a “fuckup” after he responds to her calling him an “asshole” by opening the sliding door and throwing a half-gallon of ice cream out in the yard. I was struck as a child by Roger Ebert’s review:

It is some kind of a tribute to Tony Scott, who directed the film, and especially to Shane Black and Greg Hicks, who wrote the screenplay, that this material survives its own complete cynicism and somehow actually works. Watching it, I felt like some weatherbeaten innocent from an earlier, simpler time. My distaste was irrelevant.

This movie is the future. It assumes the average audience now has no standards except those of the mob.

The only consistent theme of the film is its hatred of women. The two heroes (Willis and Damon Wayans) have a wife and a girlfriend, respectively, who cheat on them – the wife with Willis’ best friend, the girlfriend by prostituting herself. Both men are at home in this screenplay, which hates women with a particular viciousness; the verbal violence begins by calling them bitches and whores and worse, over and over again, and the message is that a man can only really trust another man. The end of the movie is peculiar in the way it insists on this; the hero, reconciled with his cheating wife, embraces her and whispers vile obscenities into her ear. We are intended to read them as tender. Then he strolls off lovingly with his buddy.

He gave it 3 stars out of 4.

The cheating-wife [Chelsea Field is lovable in that thankless role] subplot is overpoweringly gratuitous. Shane Black’s script [I agree with Ebert that it almost deserved its record-breaking price, being exponentially wittier, despite its reptilian cynicism, than any other buddy-cop movie but Black’s own Kiss Kiss Bang Bang] keeps her alive just so she can apologize to Bruce Willis at the end. Halle Berry’s character is introduced as a foulmouthed stripper who sics goons on people, and as soon as she’s killed they find a trail of evidence that turns her into a saint.

"Yes officer, as a matter of fact there is a problem. Apparently there are too many bullets in this gun."

I enjoyed every minute despite all the douchebaggery. At least the good guys don’t off-handedly kill innocent people, a principle that has now been abandoned in buddy-cop projects, with Bad Boys II the turning point.  The pacing is perfect and the casting is perfect. Of any movie made in the last 50 years, The Last Boy Scout might have the best top-to-bottom lineup of sneering henchmen. There’s the big guy [Badja Djola] who tries to beat up Bruce Willis but gets distracted by yo-momma snaps, and the other big guy [Duke Valenti] and his weedy partner [Jack Kehler] who says “Jake attacks his job with a certain exuberance”. There’s the football owner’s gang of three, including Taylor Negron [above] as the cold-blooded metrosexual emotionless-and-methodical type, Kim Coates as the greasy-haired sadistic hair-trigger type, and Frank Collison as the awkward guy doomed to make a mistake. And then there’s “Main Hitman”, “Hitman”, “Ponytail Hitman”, “Cigar Thug”, “Granddad Thug”, and four people credited as “Marcone’s Goon”.

Quotes from The Last Boy Scout are compiled all over the internet. My favorite was Damon Wayans talking to himself about what to do.

Come on, think, Jimmy, think, think, think. What would Joe do? He’d shoot everybody and smoke some cigarettes. Don’t have a gun, can’t do that.

Kim Coates as another greasy thug in your favorite Pittsburgh movie and mine, John Landis's INNOCENT BLOOD (1992).

Other things that happen in this movie:

  • Someone gets hit in the nose with a football and starts bleeding from both eyes.
  • A villain’s office contains an opulent fireplace, which leads to the office being destroyed by fire.
  • A villain’s office contains an opulent fish tank, which does not lead to any mishap.
  • A car lands in a swimming pool and explodes.
  • Both Halle Berry and Damon Wayans spend possibly the majority of their screen time wearing fringed cowboy jackets.
  • Bruce Willis sees Damon Wayans popping pills in his [Willis’s] bathroom, and his [Willis’s] instinctive response, within a nanosecond, is to punch him in the face.
  • This leads to the only sincere moment, the football star’s impassioned speech justifying the painkiller addiction that got him banned from the league. Fans insist players play through injuries. The league treats players like machines by publishing injury reports “so the gamblers can have an accurate spread”.
  • Speaking of gamblers, the plot hinges on the fact that gambling on NFL games is illegal and therefore barely ever happens. Cartoonishly evil L.A. Stallions owner Noble Winningham stands to make a mint if it’s legalized, because for the first time gambling on sports will be a mainstream pursuit instead of something dominated by the Mob.
  • A cassette containing crucial evidence is destroyed when Willis plays it in his car stereo and Wayans pushes fast-forward. Willis blames Wayans for not knowing this would happen.
  • Someone says “Matthews was making Hallenbeck’s wife” – possibly the last time the sixtiesism of using the verb “to make” as a synonym for sex ever appeared in a film.
  • The suicidal running back in the opening scene is played by Tae-Bo impresario Billy Blanks.

From Jason Rugaard’s interview with Tony Scott’s cinematographer at the time, Ward Russell:

In your films ‘Days of Thunder’ and ‘The Last Boy Scout’, there is an abundance of fog, steam, or mist in almost every shot. Was this a part of the ‘look’ you and Mr. Scott were trying to achieve?

WR: That is something that the English brought over. They were used to foggy, overcast days and darkness. So they found dealing with sunlight strange, they didn’t know how to handle it. That’s why they used fog in buildings to create atmosphere. Then it became a visual element and we’d find ways to create smoke in the frame to add another level of visual interest.

* * *

To Live and Die in L.A. [William Friedkin, 1985]

Often has it been said, and I’ve said it myself, that it would be so great if there was a movie about a streetwise, charming, hard-working, hard-punching, fast-driving, fearless loose-cannon cop who breaks the rules, but does not in fact get results, because he isn’t f***ing omnipotent. 

Well, William Friedkin gave us elements of that in both The French Connection and Cruising, and the ultimate undermining of loose-cannon hero-worship is this movie from 1985, right in the middle of the Marian Cobrettis and the Dirty Harrys and the Rambos and the Axel Foleys and the Sonny Crocketts and the Martin Riggses and the Joe Hallenbecks and the John McClanes and the Spermwhale Whalens and the Jack Cateses and the Mason Storms and the Art Ridzics. Not only is William Petersen’s character all those things listed above, he also has been assigned a cowardly by-the-book partner [John Pankow providing a blueprint for Brian Benben’s performance in I Come in Peace], he also is trying to avenge his ex-partner’s death, and he goes by the all-American surname of “Chance”. Not every piece of music is by Wang Chung, but the pervasive eightiesness does add to the 21st-century viewer’s expectation that this guy is going to be unstoppable. And yet this is basically a noir plot in which Chance, our protagonist, is a morally ambiguous but likeable figure whose best intentions lead him into more and more desperate situations. I can’t think of a movie from the original noir era [an era more respectful of authority] that had a protagonist like that who was actually a cop, though TV Tropes suggests Where the Sidewalk Ends [Otto Preminger, 1950].

There’s very little snappy dialogue — people talk like they do in The French Connection or The Limey, giving nothing away and not trying to lessen the tension with levity. There’s very little romance — Chance does nothing more than exploit his cynical love interest Ruth [the tall and lithe Darlanne Fluegel], and the viewer is meant to be repulsed by the decadent canoodlings of the ruthless villain [Willem Dafoe] and the sensual ballerina [Debra Feuer, sister of Luton Town, Molenbeek and Los Angeles Salsa goalkeeper Ian Feuer]. Dafoe’s performance is practically a Thomas Harris character, albeit without the need to control other humans, and you share Chance’s desperate desire to defeat him as soon as possible and wipe that reptilian smirk off his face. Finally, John Turturro [four years before Do The Right Thing!] plays a key role as a potential informant, and even if you merely like Miller’s Crossing instead of ranking it your favorite film as I do, you need to watch To Live and Die in L.A. to see this modern-day variation on Bernie Birnbaum. Ten stars out of ten.

Bernie Birnbaum and Carl Cody

Thanks to Movie Screenshots and Automatic Screenshots for the screenshots.

Thanks to Internet Movie Firearm Database for being one of the best resources on The Last Boy Scout.

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