Cal revisits a Tony Scott-directed, Shane Black-written outing for Bruce Willis. Does it hold up?
Despite being a standalone action movie, 1991’s The Last Boy Scout walks and talks like a Die Hard sequel, as it features a foul-mouthed Bruce Willis as a burnt-out cop who finds himself in an undesirable situation. Whereas the disappointing fourth and fifth Die Hard pictures were, ultimately, Die Hard in name only, The Last Boy Scout is Die Hard in everything except name, and will no doubt prove both refreshing and satisfying to any disillusioned fans of the franchise. Penned by the always-reliable Shane Black, the film suffered a troubled production period, with director Tony Scott and producer Joel Silver sharing a tumultuous relationship, and with Stuart Baird being recruited to heavily re-edit the picture to salvage it. Yet, none of these issues are apparent in the finished product – it’s an assuredly fun romp with sparkling dialogue and superb action sequences.
A former secret service agent who once saved the President’s life, Joe Hallenbeck (Willis) has fallen on hard times. Now a worn-out private detective, his daughter (Danielle Harris) despises him and things aren’t exactly happily-ever-after with his wife Sarah (Chelsea Field). Assigned to protect a young stripper named Cory (Halle Berry), Joe’s skills are tested when she is gunned down by a group of thugs. To resolve the case, Joe reluctantly teams up with Cory’s boyfriend, a one-time pro quarterback named Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans). Digging deeper, they uncover evidence of deep-seated corruption involving a crooked politician and the wealthy owner of a football team.
One of the more notable aspects of The Last Boy Scout is its sensational opening scene, which kicks things off on a high (and violent) note. Black was at the pinnacle of his Hollywood screenwriting career when he penned this movie, with Warner Bros. paying him a record-breaking $1.75 million sum for his efforts. Fresh off his success with Lethal Weapon, Black had devised a fascinating mash-up of classic film genres – this is essentially a contemporary take on the hardboiled film noir private detective story. Black’s Lethal Weapon experience served him well, as The Last Boy Scout is a buddy action movie that treads similar thematic ground. To be sure, the screenplay is comprised of several archetypal action movie chestnuts, but it’s the execution that shines. Indeed, the dialogue is a frequent source of amusement, with one-liners that remain side-splitting to this day. Black has a reputation for witty dialogue, and this skill is ever-present throughout the movie. Better yet, with an R-rating, profanity is permitted, which gives the bantering an extra sparkle. The final third of Black’s original script was retooled and the climax was altered, a choice that irked Black, but the movie still comes together. It works.
Although formulaic on the whole, The Last Boy Scout is enormously entertaining in the hands of the late Scott. In his latter years, Scott’s moviemaking revolved around quick-cuts and other gimmicks, but this is an old-school effort – the action is captured through a smooth routine of steady camerawork and masterful composition, courtesy of cinematographer Ward Russell. The Last Boy Scout also shines due to its graphic violence. This is by no means a sanitised PG-13 offering, as Scott relishes the chance to go nuts with blood squibs. It’s glorious, with the film emerging as both dark and thrilling. It helps that pacing is strong as well, with Baird’s editorial input clearly resulting in a smooth experience. Topping everything off is the soundtrack courtesy of Michael Kamen, who also scored the first three Die Hard instalments and various other classic action movies. Kamen reportedly disliked this film and only participated out of respect to Willis and Silver, yet his contributions are nevertheless strong.
Hallenbeck is, essentially, John McClane from Die Hard, only more bitter and depressed. The role is a perfect fit for Willis’ talents, finding the actor right at home with one-liners and insults. Willis cares less and less with each passing movie these days, but The Last Boy Scout finds him in fine form. It’s the good old Willis we all love; the reluctant hero who survives dangerous situations by cracking wise. Not to mention, it’s possible to care about Hallenbeck, as he has gotten the short end of the stick and tries to be a good dad. Wayans, meanwhile, makes for a sublime sparring partner for Willis – he’s a damn sight better than Justin Long and Jai Courtney from the latter-day Die Hard sequels. Together, Willis and Wayans are hilarious and kick a lot of arse. Also notable is Taylor Negron, who’s superb as one of the villains here. Negron is a threatening presence, and he’s given strong support from Noble Willingham as the shady Sheldon Marcone.
Years on, The Last Boy Scout holds up as a mightily enjoyable early-90s actioner, supported by strong performances, plenty of humour, and a generous serving of thrilling, violent action. It has real stakes and some sinister villains, yet it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s cheesy fun with insanely quotable one-liners, Halle Berry as a stripper, and Willis unofficially playing John McClane again. Fans of macho action movies from this period owe it to themselves to watch it.
- In a New Yorker profile, producer Joel Silver said that the making of this film was “one of the three worst experiences of (his) life.” Director Tony Scott also spoke about how miserable production was, largely because Silver and Bruce Willis took over the production, altered parts of Shane Black’s script, and made him shoot scenes he hated under threat of being fired and having to forfeit his salary.
- The card Jimmy Dix signs for Joe’s daughter is a Pro Set Superbowl Super Heroes card. That set, which was produced by the only card company ever fully endorsed by the NFL, was made only in 1991 and featured stars of the NFL’s biggest game. On that note, Damon Wayans has been asked for “Jimmy Dix’s” autograph in real-life… and given it.
- The line “No, we should just leave it for the neighborhood kids to play with” was also later used in Die Hard: With a Vengeance under similar circumstances involving an explosive device.
- In a interview with Scott, he mentioned a stray cat managed to get into Willis’s trailer and commenced to humping Bruce’s hairpiece. The piece was mangled but they managed to get it looking wearable again.