Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Last Boy Scout: Out of the Black

I watched this movie ten years ago, and fell in love. For two-three years, it was one of my favourite action movies. Written by Shane Black, it was my go-to movie when people would bring up his name (this was around the time that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang had come out).

Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) is a former Secret Service agent-turned-detective. Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) is a former football star dealing with an addiction to painkillers. Both men are damaged goods, counted out by everyone they know. But when Joe is hired by Jimmy's girlfriend, who dies shortly thereafter, the unlikely pair are forced to work together to find out who killed her and why. Following a trial of evidence and bodies, they end up discovering a vast conspiracy that forces them to confront the ghosts of their past.  
    When I first watched The Last Boy Scout, it totally blew my mind. Not only was it a great action movie, it was chock-full of great characters spouting a seemingly endless supply of one liners - it was like a Preston Sturges movie with scatological references. While I had seen a few Shane Black movies by this point, this was the one where I started to pick up on recurring elements.

    The Last Boy Scout is a pretty typical example of Shane Black's style. While it has action, the story is basically a hardboiled detective story, and the people tasked with solving this mystery are not ubanebrains ala Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot; they are anti-heroes with weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans's characters fit this to a T.

    The 'boy scout' of the title, Hallenbeck lost his job after he attacked a senator for beating a woman. He used to have ideals, but being punished for trying to do the right thing has turned him into an empty introvert who does not care about anyone. Jimmy Dix is a former football star who fell into depression and drug abuse when his family died in a car crash. Like Joe, he has lost the will to live, and survives on one night stands, drink and painkillers. Both of these guys are burnouts who have given up on life, and have been counted out by everyone around them. Like the heroes of Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys they are in need of redemption.

    With Black, theses archetypes are par for the course. It helps that they all feel like different, fully fleshed-out characters, but they do fit a type. What really highlights how talented Black is his an affinity for making even the smaller parts memorable. The Last Boy Scout is populated with great bit players: Joe's sleazy partner, Mike (Bruce McGill); the overly articulate henchmen; the guy Joe kills in the alley; and Kim Coates's over-eager henchman, who gets his nose shoved into his brain).

    The best of the supporting characters is Darian, Joe's daughter, played by horror icon Danielle Harris. Acid-tongued and wise beyond her years, she sets the blueprint for the Black child protagonists we see in Iron Man 3 and last year's The Nice Guys.

    The other great character is Taylor Negron's Milo, the villain's effete henchman. All of Shane Black's movies feature a strong antagonist who is a mirror of one of the heroes (think Mr Joshua (Gary Busey) in Lethal Weapon, Timothy (Craig Bierko) in The Long Kiss Goodnight or Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) in Iron Man 3). They represent what our hero could become - the thing that separates them is a sliver of humanity that they rediscover over the course of the story.

    This is one movie where the action beats are less interesting than the showdowns that precede them:
    • the 'fat wife' exchange between Joe and the hitman in the alley 
    • the scene where Joe and Jimmy are beaten up by the 'inventors of Scrabble'
    • Joe with the hand puppet in the woods 
    • the final confrontation in Sheldon Marcone's (Noble Willingham) office  
      The character interactions are what keep this movie in my rotation; the action is kinda rote. It needs to be there, but it never outshines the wordplay.

      With a decade's distance, my feelings toward the film have mellowed a bit. The movie is still funny, and the characters (particularly Negron's Milo and Harris's Darian) are memorable, but there is a layer of cynicism and brutality over the movie which does not come across well. There is a mean-spiritedness to the film which is lacking from other Shane Black joints of this era.
        I put it down to the movie's direction. Tony Scott gives the whole movie a sheen which robs the story of some of its gravitas: it feels too glitzy. He later went on record that he felt the script was better than the movie, and he's not wrong. In reading about this movie, it is clear that it was not really his fault.

        The film had a tortured production, with endless re-writes, stars who did not get along (surprising considering how well they work onscreen), and a feud between Bruce Willis and producer Joel Silver that saw them part ways (delaying Die Hard 3 in the process). Black had to undertake a series of re-writes to include more action scenes, including the finale in the football stadium. You can still see the outline of Black's original concept under the pyrotechnics, and it is the character relationships and interactions which make the movie so watchable.

        I love this movie, but of all the Shane Black movies that have been made, this is one where a remake might not be a bad idea.


         Shane Black

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