Sunday, August 26, 2012

In Memoriam: Tony Scott's The Last Boy Scout

Continuing the theme from last Tuesday's post on Crimson Tide, I'll be covering another Tony Scott film in memory of his recent passing. This time we'll be examining something a bit more uncomfortable, a bit more confused, more violent and foul, but possessing a certain genius in calamity and cynical comedy. It showcased a character type that Bruce Willis would revisit many times AND features a rare great performance from one of the Wayans brothers.

Let's explore the trashy magnificence of The Last Boy Scout.


In talking about this film you pretty have to start with its screenwriter, the infamous and talented Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3). Black is a rare triple threat - a man who's acted, written, and directed. He co-wrote the cult favorite Monster Squad with Fred Dekker, was hunted alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator, and became hugely popular after writing 1987's Lethal Weapon. By the time he wrote The Last Boy Scout, he'd become the highest-paid screen writer in the business, and with his name on the script, the director of Top Gun, and the star of Die Hard, this movie was a huge story long before it opened. It actually generated huge amounts of hype before opening rather soft, disappointing at the box office as well as with the majority of critics. And looking at the film, it's somewhat easy to see why.

Black names the mystery novels of Raymond Chandler and as his inspiration for the story of down-on-his luck P.I. Joe Hallenbeck, and the film's mission statement is crystal-clear when the character is first introduced. Hallenbeck is thrown from quiet domestic purgatory into a protection job gone wrong. As an action film, this movie blends the 80's gloss of stylized violent action with the world-weary cynicism and pitch-black humor that would come to define many films of the 90's (and features prominently in Black's own work on a regular basis). Damon Wayans, playing a banned league quarterback, joins Hallenbeck to investigate hit men, corrupt sports officials, and an illegal gambling ring centered on the NFL. It's easy to see the inspiration of the noir detective on the story (also, Scott's visual aesthetic at the time is ridiculously well-suited to dark and smokey Los Angeles), and while the demands of also being a Bruce Willis action vehicle sometimes threaten to derail the better reflective side of the film, that never actually happens. Though it comes very close in the third act.

There's also the rather disturbing way the film treats women.

To put it delicately, Shane Black hasn't always demonstrated the most reliable politically correct sensibilities in his screenplays. To be brutally honest, the way he usually writes women is at best convenient and dismissive, and at worse outright misogynistic. The women in The Last Boy Scout fall into the following categories: 1) Victims who exist to be put in danger, 2) Fairly despicable bitchy harpies, 3) BOTH.

No, really.

And to be brutally honest again, this has been kind of a running theme in a lot of Black's work. He seems to have progressed into writing females as PEOPLE (at least if Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is any indication. . . though there's still a ways to go), but in this particular film, it really makes itself apparent. Willis' Hallenbeck and Wayans' Jimmy Dix smoke and joke and shoot and mug their way through a story filled with early 90's buzzwords and homages to pulp mystery stories. They survive getting shot, stabbed, and damn-near blown-up with their witty cynicism intact, always ready for more. Meanwhile, the women in their lives are threatened, assaulted, gunned down, cheat on them, are cheated on by them, kidnapped, or are just all-around unpleasant. And none of them are even cast as any of the film's "villains."

So yeah, not the most enlightened stuff.

If - and I realize this is a BIG "if" - you can get past that however, the film really is a slick-as-hell often bitingly funny and somewhat ahead-of-its-time noir-flavored action thriller. Yeah, it comes off at times as Tony Scott paying homage to himself (or maybe even slightly poking fun at himself, the guy was notoriously self-deprecating), but it is still a blast, especially in the proper frame of mind. Willis has played this brand of protagonist countless times now for a reason - he's really damn good at it. And here it's still a fresh enough type of character for him that he's obviously having a blast exploring the limits of the black comedy tone. And Wayans goes for broke as a washed-up ex-NFL player struggling with a lack of personal direction and drug addiction. Both characters are men looking for redemption, both actors sell the hell out of it, and Tony Scott's penchant for this particular narrative angle (played to the hilt years later in Man on Fire) is as well-served here as the film's visual demands.

I wasn't joking when I called The Last Boy Scout a trashterpiece. It is trash, a guilty pleasure that I genuinely feel a bit guilty for enjoying. It's also an excellent, polished, and oddly enjoyable example of trashy cinema at its "best." It overcomes its own inequities (mostly) to provide slick memorable entertainment from several larger-than-life personalities, and underneath the sexism and self-awareness there's a legitimately worthwhile "message" - if you will - to be unearthed.

The movie opines that there's an increasing shortage of but ever-present need for genuine heroes in the modern world. They may be scumbag bastards, but sometimes they're exactly what you need. Which, appropriately enough, ain't a bad way of looking at the film itself.

Now that we've wrapped up The Last Boy Scout, I'm about to switch this up just a bit. I've got a good working knowledge of most of Tony Scott's filmography, but next week I'll be doing something of an experiment. Instead of proceeding chronologically to Enemy of the State (a movie that would introduce a dose of the style of directing that would come to define Scott's later work), I'll be taking in a first viewing of the Kevin Costner-starring Revenge.

We'll see if it is really is best served cold.

. . . Sorry, couldn't help myself.

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