Written by Shane Black.
It’s probably the one thing you need to know about any of the movies he has ever been involved in. Name not ringing any bells? Well, it should, and it sure as hell will when his considerably darker and more personal Iron Man 3 returns the franchise back to the glory of the first chapter (the sequel reliant far too much on overblown stunts and effects to compensate for its shortcomings).
But you should already know his name. He’s one of the biggest reasons why the first two Lethal Weapon movies are better than the rest; he made Geena Davis into a cool assassin opposite the ever-reliable Samuel L. Jackson in The Long Kiss Goodnight; and he was one of the biggest contributors to the early stages of Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback within Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also Black’s directorial debut.
Despite the fact that he has been paid some record-breaking sums for his scripts he is notoriously sporadic with his work – taking an almost-decade-long hiatus between Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Long Kiss Goodnight – but hopefully Iron Man 3 will see the start of more regular output. Thankfully, in the meantime, there are some real gems in his back-catalogue, all of which deserve a place in your collection.
“I figure you gotta’ be the dumbest guy in the world, Joe. You’re trying the save the life of the man who ruined your career, and avenge the death of the guy that f**ked your wife.”
Disgraced Secret Service Agent-turned-Private Investigator Joe Hallenbeck is about to have a really bad day. Taking on the seemingly simple job of protecting a small-time stripper, he soon finds himself in over his head as a hit-squad takes out his client. Teaming up with the stripper’s boyfriend, a former high-profile Quarterback, they decide to investigate the matter further, and uncover a conspiracy involving illegal pro-sports gambling and an assassination plot against a US Senator. This mismatched duo are going to have to go all-in if they want to bring the bad guys down.
Perhaps one of the most easily forgotten and most unfairly dismissed of Shane Black’s writing efforts, The Last Boy Scout is a great little movie, peppered with snappy, almost entirely quotable dialogue, brimming with violent, adult action and boasting some fantastic chemistry between its lead stars. Indeed, despite the fact that it was made by the late Tony Scott, it’s seldom even remembered as part of his burgeoning film history – with everything from Top Gun to Man on Fire springing to mind first, and some of his most memorably-scripted films (Tarantino’s Crimson Tide, the snappy Robert Redford / Brad Pitt combo Spy Game and, of course, Last Boy Scout) falling by the wayside.
Thankfully Shane Black simply doesn’t write enough scripts for his fans to forget about any one of them, and The Last Boy Scout still has its long-term followers. Back in 1991, however, it barely broke even at the Box Office, and failed to be quite the hit that the Studios were hoping for, especially considering they paid Black a then-unprecedented $1.75 Million for the script. Perhaps Black’s trademark mismatched-pair story (evident in everything from The Long Kiss Goodnight to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) felt too much like it was retreading the perfection he had established in the Lethal Weapons; perhaps audiences were expecting Bruce Wills to less dishevelled and more John McClane following the massive success of Die Hard just a few years earlier – either way, The Last Boy Scout was barely a blip on anybody’s radar and its success (or lack thereof) ended the potential franchise debut before it even got started, further stalling Willis’s career and totalling ruining co-star Damon Wayans’s.
“Okay, what would Joe do at a time like this?... He’d shoot everybody and smoke some cigarettes.”
1988’s Die Hard had catapulted Bruce Willis from being a lightweight, more comedy-slanted Moonlighting TV star into being an international A-list action-movie front-runner practically overnight. 1990’s Die Hard 2 only furthered his star status, even though the story was largely just a regurgitation of the first film. The rest of the early nineties were not as forgiving on Willis though, with the likes of The Bonfire of the Vanities and Hudson Hawk proving to be both critical and commercial disasters. The Last Boy Scout was supposed to change all of that. It didn’t.
It would take a main role (written for Mickey Rourke) in Tarantino’s 1994 classic Pulp Fiction to turn around Willis’s career, after which he had a solid run of reasonably frequent hits, often both critically and commercially popular (Die Hard with a Vengeance, 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element). Yet, looking back over his career, few films were as underrated and unfairly dismissed as 1991’s The Last Boy Scout.
“Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You’re gonna’ lose. Smile, you f**k.”
Sure, audiences may have been expecting another John McClane-esque actioner from him, but Willis’s performance as grizzly ex-Secret Service Agent-turned Private Detective bum Joe Hallenbeck is note-perfect; his delivery of Shane Black’s inimitable lines is spot on – playing a modern-day Marlowe in what was essentially one of Black’s typical Raymond Chandler-esque detective mysteries – and his teaming up with Damon Wayans’s loudmouth ex-footballer was an inspired bit of mismatched buddy-buddy casting. Indeed, you have to wonder whether, if The Last Boy Scout had been regarded as well on release as it is now, both Willis’s and Wayans’s careers may have gone in a different direction at the time (Willis avoiding such duds as Striking Distance and The Colour of Night, whilst Wayans... well, he might have actually had a career).
Whilst the banter between Willis and Wayans would undoubtedly provide the biggest highlights of this piece, Shane Black’s script would permeate through into the mouths of almost all of the supporting cast, from the menacing and corrupt villain of the piece, Noble “Chinatown” Willingham’s Sheldon Marcone, to his considerably more memorable henchman, Milo, played by the irrepressibly creepy Taylor Negron (you wouldn’t imagine this guy would forge a reasonably successful career in comedy after this); from Hallenbeck’s ill-fated detective partner, played by Bruce McGill (Timecop), to Hallenbeck’s foul-mouthed teenage daughter, played by Danielle Harris (the child star of this and Marked for Death who went on to become an adult scream queen in the latter Halloween outings and the Hatchet horror movies). In fact Harris is probably the only female cast member who survives with her dignity intact; Black’s script does not really cater for strong female roles, with Chelsea Fields (Masters of the Universe, Dust Devil) getting a rough ride as Hallenbeck’s unfaithful wife and a young Halle Berry having one of her smallest roles ever as Damon Wayans’s character’s ill-fated stripper girlfriend – both walking clichés.
“What the hell is that number on the back of your head? What is that, like a license plate in case someone tries to steal it?”
On the action front, The Last Boy Scout delivered in several memorable setpieces, all well-staged by Tony Scott, and not with the flashy, wild-editing that we came to expect from him in the latter end of his career. From the alleyway hit to the run-and-gun ambush, from the forest execution to the third act mayhem; the action scenes were always peppered with Black’s witty exchanges and knowing one-liners, with a fine balance of genuine explosive stunt-work and readily effective slow-motion. Whether just shock moments of brief but punchy violence or more the protracted confrontations, the scenes were consistently handled effectively by Scott – from Willis’s excellent “touch me again and I’ll kill you” one-hit-kill, to the closing confrontation with Milo, a sharp knife and some rotor blades.
Tense, fast-paced, snappy, unremittingly violent, action-packed and driven by a superb, word-perfect script that will have you smiling, laughing and quoting throughout, The Last Boy Scout is one of those severely underrated gems from the early nineties, made before the classic-action-hero bubble burst, its standout script lost in the mire of subsequent inferior imitators. If you enjoyed Die Hard, Bad Boys and the early Lethal Weapons but haven’t ever given The Last Boy Scout a shot then I strongly recommend it.
“This is the ‘90s. You don’t just go around punching people. You have to say something cool first!”
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