Monday, 17 October 2016

Shit, we’re being beat up by the inventor of Scrabble.

The Last Boy Scout
(1991)

(SPOILERS) I only became aware of the production nightmare that was The Last Boy Scout in the last few years. It didn’t come as that much of a surprise, however, as although the movie was an instant favourite, it was instantly obvious that some extremely choppy editing had occurred, even for a Tony Scott movie, which couldn’t always quite make elegant sense of the action. It also didn’t come as enormous surprise as the other Bruce Willis would-be blockbuster of the year, Hudson Hawk, had been a much documented (at the time) production nightmare. This was at the height of Bruno’s stardom and accompanying compunction to cause difficulties in whatever project had his name above the title. Combined with pugnacious producer Joel Silver, the effect was doubly combustible.


I can’t necessarily argue with many of the points made by the movie’s critics, particularly on the subject of the picture’s not-so-latent misogynistic streak (Black’s movies are always hardboiled in attitude, but this one just comes across as plain reactionary at times), but it remains a hugely pleasurable repeat viewing experience and, outside of John McClane’s first outing, Joe Hallenbeck might be Willis’ most iconic screen role. So, to get through this, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t go really, really fast.


Jimmy Dix: You don’t like women much, do you Joe?

Black has always had a predilection for the self-loathing, misanthropic male lead character, and women in his movies often (as in the genre generally) tend to be imperilled or objectified or both, so you either surrender yourself to the gleefully tawdry vibe of his fiction or you run a mile. But here they fulfil the functions of both hookers and strumpets, and there’s something consequently rather uncomfortable about the takeaway, which try as I might I can’t really see as in any way ironic.


Chelsea Field’s role as Joe’s estranged wife Sarah was larger in the original script, but by the sound of it that didn’t make it better. Despite Joe being a dishevelled hollow of a man who undoubtedly drove his wife into the arms of other men, our sympathies lie firmly with the motor-mouthed Willis as soon as he discovers (his partner) Mike (Bruce McGill), not exactly an Adonis, hiding in their wardrobe. And Joe suspected all along. In the original, this is the third time Sarah has cheated on him. And in the original, she spends much of the third act naked, threatened with a chainsaw as part of one of Milo’s snuff movies(!) I’m not sure that particular rewrite was any great loss.


Jimmy Dix: I want to meet the bitch that fucked you up.

For his part, Black, who was “forced to do more rewriting on that movie than on anything else I’ve done”, understood Willis’ reticence over appearing in another movie where it was all about rescuing his missus (“He was reluctant, and rightly so”). Out went a third act mostly set on water too, although Willis would get a soggy bottom a few years later in Striking Distance. But the part that rankles is the reconstituted domestic bliss at the end, and the concordant picturesque restoration of patriarchy. As a clean-shaven Joe is supported by a dutifully contrite wife (“Darian, your father said watch your mouth. Now do it”) and even a daughter who has become respectful, having witness his masculine prowess. Along the way we’ve had Halle Berry’s stripper (not a hooker) mown down in a hail of gunfire and Damon Wayans’ Jimmy Dix managing to get over the loss of his girlfriend quite robustly (a silent tear will do).


The outcome for Joe and Sarah is a cruder echo of a subtext of Die Hard, where independent Holly Genero must be shown that, when it comes down to it, she really does need a man. The crucial difference being that Bonnie Bedlelia’s Holly is well drawn character, and Sarah is pretty much a cypher. And there isn’t even a suggestion that Joe must meet his errant wife halfway; he isn’t required to change (apart from his t-shirt and razor). This reassertion of the disenfranchised white male was something of a trend in movies of the period, a particularly grating example being the end of Falling Down (a movie that is frequently a lot of fun, but really needed a satirist, rather than a Joel Schumacher, to make the most from), where Robert Duvall’s cop assets himself, overcoming his downtrodden status by swearing and put his shrewish wife in her place.


Darian: The hell’s the number on the back of your head? Is that like a licence plate in case someone tries to steal it?
Jimmy Dix: No, it’s a football thing. It’s my school number.
Darian: So, when do you graduate?

It’s fortunate then, that we at least have daughter Darian (Danielle Harris), the first in a line of junior Black protagonists (Last Action Hero, Iron Man Three, The Nice Guys), and by far the least edifying in language, to offer a little balance. True, she winds up requiring dad to protect her while she’s reduced to a sobbing wreck, but along the way she proves to be one of the most hilariously objectionable elements of a movie that wears coarseness as a badge of honour.


It’s here too that we first have a minor labelling their parent a “fuck-up” (see also The Nice Guys), and Darian manages to be incredibly obnoxious as soon as she opens her braced mouth; as Jimmy observes, having been thoroughly character-assassinated (above), “Joe, she’s got your winning personality”. When “Nancy-fucking-Drew” teams up with Jimmy, it’s a recipe for traded barbs that she (“Kiss my ass!”) inevitably wins (“little brat”). Best of all is her invitation to “Eat shit, you fucking redneck” when threatened by chief villain Sheldon Marcone (Noble Willingham).


This being a Black script, though, pretty much every character is served at least a small portion of memorable dialogue (another reason Sarah stands out in a bad way). He sold the screenplay for a then Hollywood high of $1.75m, but any notion this afforded it hallowed status was quickly disabused. According to Silver (whom Willis opted not to work with subsequently, a tack also taken by Arnie a few years earlier), it was this screenplay that yielded the title for Die Hard. The producer has maintained a good relationship with Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys), but that didn’t find him respecting this material in a Tarantino-Weinstein sense, as he and Willis ploughed into it while Scott (who also deigned not work with Silver again) was left picking up the pieces.


Until it got into the editing suite, that is, and supremo fix-it man Stuard Baird performed a painstaking salvage operation (he previously enacted similar surgery on Tango & Cash). Composer Michael Kamen reportedly hated the first cut (pre-Baird). While his score is casually proficient, by this point he’d been rather overused by Silver; you can hear those Lethal Weapon-esque action beats and squiggles everywhere, and it encourages the feeling that this is now just the generic action form accompaniment.


Also frequently found in a Black script, The Last Boy Scout is notable for its raucously inventive set pieces. The picture opens and closes at an American Football game, with an absurdly jubilant Bill Medley singing how “Friday night’s a great night for football”, before the even more absurd sight of player Billy Cole (Billy Blanks) greets us, ploughing across the field for a touchdown, using a handgun to waste any of the opposing team who get in his way before falling to his knees and blowing his brains out with a resigned “Ain’t life a bitch?” (having been instructed by henchman Milo to throw the game; one thing about Black’s screenplays, owing to his love of detective pulp fiction, they do largely make sense, even if the actual mystery often ends up buried beneath the colourful dialogue and elaborate action); one might see it as a punchy little critique on the perils of a game that Concussion took nearly two hours to labour.


The finale isn’t so effective. While it has its moments (Jimmy hurling the ball to “winning” while riding a horse, Bruce dancing “a fucking jig” and the hilariously grim plunge of the about-to-be-diced Milo into waiting helicopter blades), it really does feel like it was thrown together with sticky tape and not-so-silent prayers in the edit. And it’s evident here that, as the action takes over, so the all-important snappy patter is thrown into relief. Because elsewhere it’s the dialogue that not only punctuates the movie, it drives it, makes it stand out and ensures it is endlessly rewatchable.


Joe Hallenbeck: Why did Mr Milo cross the road?
I don’t know. Why?
Because his dick, was stuck in the chicken.

Perhaps the most (justly) celebrated set piece is the shootout in the woods, as Joe and Jimmy prepare to meet their maker at the hands of Milo (Taylor Negron), only for Darian to appear, with Furry Tom (this movie may be the only documented incident of Chekov’s Furry Tom). What follows is a marvellously unlikely and inspired sequence of events, as Joe regales Milo’s goons with gags at the head goon’s expense before the hand puppet suffers a fur ball of the explosive kind… leading to the extraordinary sight of Willis, in slow motion, beating a retreat, firing from a cat glove puppet. Yes, this really was that halcyon era when a Bruce Willis movie could guarantee you laughs (and references to reindeer-goat cheese pizza).


Elsewhere, Joe similarly joshes his way out of danger in crude fashion, as he nearly kills a “big pimp lookin’ motherfucker with a hat” with laughter before actually nearly doing for him with a broken bottle, as he delivers a series of lines about his wife being so fat “he rolled her in flour and …” Well, you get the idea (as such, the gags-as-gags standard here is frequently at a very low, almost Bernard Manning level, since we have already heard about Mike’s finger scale, and old familiars about his tripping, slipping on the floor and accidentally sticking his dick in Joe’s wife; lest we think this is merely Black educating us in the baseness of male camaraderie (and there’s probably a bit of that), it was he who reeled off the “my girl’s got a big pussy” gag in Predator (the Predator certainly found it funny); of course, his character was the first to die there, so maybe there are consequences for such macho bullshit). Cumulatively, however, it goes back to the concerns over the representation of Sarah’s character.


Joe Hallenbeck: Touch me again, I’ll kill you.

The second most memorable Bruce moment is not so much a set piece as a devastating demonstration of the consequences of warnings going unheeded. Joe is held at gun point by a couple of thugs, one of whom (Sons of Anarchy’s Kim Coates) gets a bit too into laying into Joe, who casually warns him that, if Chet punches him again (instead of giving him a light), he will kill him. Chet doesn’t listen, at which point Chet gets his nose bashed into his brain.


Scrabble Man: Jake attacks his job with a certain exuberance.
Jimmy Dix: Shit, we’re being beat up by the inventor of Scrabble.

If Sheldon Marcone is simply a loathsome villain (or a fucking redneck), and Senator Baynard (Chelcie Ross) is pure scumbag, Black reserves much of his best broad stroke character work, as per usual, for his henchman. The first sign of this comes early on, when Joe and Jimmy have a run-in with Jake (Duke Valenti) and the soon to be self-evidently referenced (in the screenplay) Scrabble Man (Jack Kehler, Marty from The Big Lebowski). Joe appears to have the humorous upper hand to start with (when Jake calls Jimmy “fuckface”, Joe interjects “I’m fuckface, he’s asshole”). But when Kehler employs some extravagant vocabulary, it becomes very much his scene (“See, Jake, here’s a man who knows when a situation is untenable”; Joe: Good word).


Milo: Can we do a formal introduction here.
Joe Hallenbeck: Who gives a fuck? You’re the bad guy, right?
Milo: I am the bad guy.

It’s the slight, slightly effete Milo who really takes the plaudits, though, what with his habit of addressing his victims on a first name basis, without indulging any preferred, shortened forms (“He does that with everybody. He calls me Joseph”) and finessing carefully deployed witticisms as he murders policemen:


McCoskey: Good morning, gentlemen. Is there a problem?
Milo: Yes, officer. As a matter of fact, there is a problem. Apparently there are too many bullets in this gun.

Negron is definitely a superior class of villain; you want someone slightly urbane and unhinged, rather than simply an actor who will square off with our hero for fisticuffs in the final reel. When necessary, Negron can do very effective menacing (as when he surfaces from the pool, his car having extravagantly landed in it; his shooting of Rick Ducommun is particularly shocking).


Other memorable faces include Joe Santos (surprisingly enough playing a police chief; appropriately, The Rockford Files gets a namecheck), Clarence Felder (one of the possessed in The Hidden), Bruce McGill getting blown up after taking one to the gut, and Ross being thoroughly invidious. Field and Berry’s roles are fairly thankless, but they do their best (this was the latter’s breakout year). Oh, and Jimmy Carter. I mean Ed Beheler (I did wonder).


It’s the leads’ banter that makes The Last Boy Scout fly, though (no discredit to Scott, who provided some of the best Willis slo-mo action you will see anywhere). The two stars may have ended up hating each other, but said dislike affects their screen chemistry not one iota. Black has perfected the mismatched buddy movie by this point (although his Lethal Weapon 2 screenplay was left to languish), but rather than a reticent family man cop and a livewire, he constructs this one around a jaded deadbeat PI and a young upstart.


Hallenbeck is clearly written older (apparently Nicholson was offered the gig), but Willis had the kind of face that could play a decade older with ease; he’s only five years senior to Wayans, but you don’t for a second doubt the years when he calls him junior. That said, Hallenbeck’s status as an old curmudgeon, unerringly conservative in respect of his daughter’s dress sense (“You let her wear so much makeup, she looks like a goddam raccoon, I thought she was a burglar. I almost shot her twice”) and his clients (“Yeah, I’m your father. Go put some clothes on”), as well as his distaste for rap (“The screaming part I believe”), filters through a kind of out-of-touch cool when given to Willis rather than an actual gruff, past his best ne’er do well.


Darian: What’s wrong with his face?
Jimmy Dix: His nose is too pointy. His eyes are beady. His ears are too big. He needs a shave.

First up, though, Wayans. Who is currently playing Roger Murtaugh in what should, by rights, be a short-lived TV version of Lethal Weapon. Unless you count Earth Girls are Easy, it’s probably fair to say this is his best big screen showing; certainly his closest to a legitimate star turn. Hallenbeck is definitely the font of all the best gags here, but Jimmy’s is no straight man turn, showing a brasher and endearingly reckless streak when confronted by danger (“I can’t figure out which one of you looks most like my dick” he advises some heavies, before being thrown off a bypass. At which point, emerging mostly unscathed, he informs shocked drivers-by “There’s me, and then there’s Super Dave”) and adept with the put down (“Wow, an actual house. I was thinking a cave, with skulls and shit”).


Jimmy Dix: Think, Jimmy. What would Joe do? He’d shoot everybody and smoke some cigarettes.

The above sounds about right; Black might not have been shooting people, but his post-Weapon 2 funk did find him smoking a lot (and reading a lot of that informative detective fiction). Admittedly, the rather anguished elements of The Last Boy Scout are less successful; Joe’s discovery of Jimmy abusing drugs, and his sob story about his unborn son, rather hang there (before Baird races on to the next scene), since the story doesn’t really afford him an arc the way, say, Lethal Weapon does Martin Riggs, but that isn’t down to Wayans’ performance.


Jimmy Dix: Hi, your nobody.
Joe Hallenbeck: Shh, don’t tell anyone.

Let’s be frank, though, this is all about Willis. Black has generally lucked-in with the casting of his movies; what’s off with The Long Kiss Goodnight is more down to the direction than Geena Davis and Samuel L Jackson, and his two non-Marvel directorial efforts are perfectly judged on balancing buddy rapport.


It’s probably fair to mark ’91 down as the beginning of the Willis tumble, though. Hudson Hawk was an outright flop, and The Last Boy Scout, while it did okay business, should have done much better given its price tag. He’d later regroup with the aid of Tarantino, Gilliam, Besson and John McClane, but for whatever reason (and particularly so after his impassive performance in The Sixth Sense) he started not trading off his best-foot-forward persona, the quick-witted smart mouth who had first surfaced in Moonlighting. As such, while there are traces of that guy in his later pictures, The Last Boy Scout forms something of a bookend to a six-year period of funny Willis (the biggest difference between Die Hard and its sequels is that McClane – and I’m not just talking the last two – isn’t nearly as funny).


Mike Mathews: You got plans?
Joe Hallenbeck: I’m thinking of smoking some cigarettes.
Mike Mathews: Can’t you postpone?
Joe Hallenbeck: These are pretty good cigarettes.

The fit is so good because, although Hallenbeck is strung out in a way none of Willis’ previous (popular) roles have quite reached (“Nobody loves you. Everybody hates you. You’re going to lose. Smile, you fuck”), it has that same “indomitable response to danger or disaster with glib stoicism” quality he does so well. Hallenbeck can turn almost anything into a comic gold, no matter how sordid (“I think I fucked a squirrel to death and I don’t even remember it” he tells Matt regarding what did last night). He’s entirely judgmental of others, in an old-school, cranky way, and uninterested in making friends (“I like ice, leave it the fuck alone”), but also entirely shameless about his own indulgent, cynical lot, still taking the proffered job (“500 bucks is 500 bucks, Mike”) and willing to pick cigarette butts off the street (“So I’m a lowlife”); he’s the glamorously unglamorous, gone-to-seed, heel PI that Black has perfected through devouring all that pulp fiction, personified in a ‘90s action movie.


Joe Hallenbeck: It doesn’t look like a bomb! It looks like an apple with lines coming out of it! Don’t go near the briefcase, it’s full of fresh fruit!

You think you’re so fucking cool, don’t you?” asks Milo rhetorically. At that point, despite Hudson Hawk (not my view, rather its popular reception) Bruce didn’t need to think so; he was, even when someone had just spilled his warm cup of piss.


Jimmy Dix: What else?
Joe Hallenbeck: That’s about it. Water’s wet, the sky is blue… and old Satan Claus is out there, just getting stronger.
Jimmy Dix: What do we do about that?
Joe Hallenbeck: Be prepared, son. That’s my motto. Be prepared.

The Last Boy Scout actually has some decent tunes mined across its soundtrack, in particular signing off with Pat Boone crooning Moody River. I say actually, because Scott wasn’t that renowned for his delectable soundtracks (True Romance may be from a Tarantino screenplay, but it definitely does not have his mix tape mentality). Scott may have had a really bad time making the movie, but for me it was his first since his debut that was worth a damn, and would signal an uptick during the rest of the decade that saw him turn in the most accomplished features of his career (The Fan aside).


Black was also disappointed, but it’s quite understandable that, being so close to what it was in his mind’s eye (or even just on the page), it didn’t live up to expectations. It’s a shame too, that it didn’t make another thirty million and guarantee itself a sequel (it debuted below a Hook in their first week of release, and I’m dubious that a week before Christmas was really the shrewdest time for it; Silver’s Predator 2 had bombed in a pre-Crimbo slot the year before); the set-up is perfection for such a continuance, and who knows, Willis and Wayans might have overcome their animosity if the lure of a franchise had beckoned. As it is, Black has made a career of partnership origin stories, but the only one he got a chance to follow up is one he unsuccessfully tried to kibosh (Lethal Weapon). Still, life may suck, but The Last Boy Scout definitely doesn’t.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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