When cars are exploding all around you, exotic showgirls are being capped off in the street and you find your wife in bed with your best friend, you might want to call it a day on that $500 job to protect Halle Berry (X-Men: Days of Future Past). But for ex-Secret Serviceman Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis – Die Hard), 500 bucks is 500 bucks. He’s gonna see this through to the end.
Back in the early 90’s my Dad was particularly keen on high-tech shit like VHS recorders, the first Apple Macintosh, high-fi’s etc. We were lucky enough to have three TV’s and mountains of videos to watch. While most were recorded straight from broadcast TV, we also had an extensive genuine Disney collection too. So it struck me as odd that my Mum and Dad only had two bought-off-the-rack VHS between them. One was the War of the Roses, a black comedy starring Michael Douglas (Black Rain) and Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone). Directed by and co-staring Danny DeVito (Batman Returns), it feature the two stars in bed together on the front looking angry at each other. While it’s actually a pretty decent movie, it certainly wasn’t something 8 or 9 year old Movie Bastard would be interested in.
The second tape was The Last Boy Scout.
Now, on it’s cover it had Damon Wayans (Major Payne) holding an American football and Willis in front with a six-shooter. Coupled with a tagline of “The Goal Is To Survive” my tiny childhood brain instinctively knew it was the business. While I never discovered why they only had those two VHS I do recall watching the opening moments of the Last Boy Scout with both of them. And for a kid it totally blew my tiny mind.
It’s a rainy, miserable half time at the fictional American Football LA Stallions game. Star player Billy Cole (Billy Blanks – Assault on Devil’s Island) is in the locker room looking shifty when he gets a call from a mysterious, well-spoken dude telling him he has to make something happen and win the game, otherwise he’ll be dead. Clearly annoyed, he pops some pills, grabs his helmet and heads out to kick ass. During the next play he gets the ball and just starts fucking running. People are bouncing off him like those balls you get in kids soft-play areas. One fella actually manages to get in front of him and seems set on stopping the Cole-Train. Neither he nor anyone else expect Cole to pop a handgun and shoot him down. Without opposition he makes the end zone. Dropping to a knee, the police, press and everyone else surround him. All he manages is “Life’s a bitch” before blowing his brains out.
When I first saw this I was mind-blown; I’d totally never even realized people could or would want to kill themselves. I asked my Dad, “Why’d he do that?”. He smirked, “Because he had no choice”. I didn’t get it at the time, but this was clearly one of my first inductions into the crushing misery of adult life. Now, I’ve never guzzled some PCP, scored a touchdown for an NFL team or shot anyone in the face, but I totally understand the crux Billy Cole was in.
Sensing that this film was probably a bit beyond my ken at the time, my parents turned it off. But it left an impression. I probably “borrowed it” several years later and watched it solo.
Following Cole’s game-ending play, we switch to some street in LA the following day. It’s early morning and two punk kids have found a piece-of-shit car with some wasted hobo asleep inside. But wait, that’s no hobo! That’s our man Bruce Willis – Joe Hallenbeck. The kids throw a dead rat on him for a laugh without effect. But when they reach for his wallet he’s up and raring to go. See Joe has mad reflexes. Throughout the movie he’ll catch punches like Ip Man or something. So while he’s a deadbeat ex-cop type who hasn’t seen a razor or a trouser press in at least a week, he’s still pretty badass.
Putting in a call to his office, he finds he’s been offered a new job by his buddy Mike (Bruce McGill – Law Abiding Citizen). $500 to watch the back of some callgirl/stripper called Cory (Berry). Hallenbeck, whose not just a bum but a degenerate gambling bum, can’t refuse. He needs the cash. But first he needs a shower and an early morning argument with his wife Sarah (Chelsea Field – Masters of the Universe) to properly wake him up. She’s surprised to see him though. He wasn’t due back from Vegas for another day. Curiously, the bathroom is full of steam but her hair isn’t wet. Plus the toilet seat is up. Putting the pieces together, like a good detective, Hallenbeck deduces that she must be boning some other dude, and considering the culprit isn’t under the bed (he checked), he could only be hiding in the wardrobe.
Of course it’s Mike who claims it just sort of happened. Hallenbeck retorts “What, sorry I just tripped over and stuck my dick in your wife”. Cutting. Regardless of his best friend screwing around with his missus, he’ll still take the job. Mike, apologetic, thanks him. It’s too little too late though as he’s blown to bits by some car bomb moments later. Luckily, Hallenbeck is only thrown in a flower bed. Relax.
Sarah comes screaming out, fearing her husband might be dead. See, there is still some flame there. She only slept with Mike to get a rise out of Joe, she claims. He’s been down on the canvas for years now and she’s sick of him living like a self-hating bitch. So what he got the sack from the Secret Service? She still loves him. He just can’t get himself out of this funk. To be fair, I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t do his psychological well being or feelings of self-loathing much good Sarah, but yeah, thanks for trying. He barely raises an eye brow though. Doesn’t even give her a “Fuck you Sarah” for the effort.
The Last Boy Scout’s Joe Hallenbeck is the pinnacle of that 90’s hyper masculine, anti-hero don’t-give-a-shitness. While Willis had explored these depths before in Die Hard, his John McClane character retained some personal dignity and passion. He’s fighting to survive yes, but he’s mainly there to save his wife. Here, whatever self respect he once had has withered and died long ago. He sort of slopes from one scene to the next, surviving on instinct alone. There’s a great moment where he’s captured and he asks one of his minders , Chet (Kim Coates- Black Hawk Down) for a cigarette. Chet agrees but follows up with a punch, much to his own amusement. Hallenbeck responds, “It seems I have dropped my cigarette…may I have another?”. Chet is incredulous. He nearly explodes when Joe adds, “and if you touch me again I’ll kill you”.
Naturally, Chet gambles and rolls snake eyes. Joe gives him the old knocking-the-nose-bone-into-the-brain instadeath move that was doing the rounds in the early 90’s. I’m sure you’ll remember this happening in a few films (I bet Seagal did it a bunch of times), so much so that some teacher at school warned everyone about punching people in the nose out of fear of replicating the feat. The furor died down a few short years later when people suddenly remembered we don’t have bones in our noses. Mythbusters probably did a show on it or something.
Willis is of course the best guy to play the roll. Maximizing the emotions of “I don’t care” or “I can barely be bothered”, coupled with a slow moving lethargy and speech pattern, he’s very different to Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon burnout, Martin Riggs. Riggs is genuinely crazy, or at least emotionally damaged enough to do insane things like jumping off a roof or eating dog biscuits, because he’s super devastated by the death of his wife. Joe Hallenbeck, on the other hand, just doesn’t care. If cynicism was cancer he’d be riddled with it. He’d be the epicentre of a black hole of cynicism. Everything drawn into it would be crushed by his weighty black bitterness, like being smacked in the face by an ocean of the blackest coffee. Even when bastard lieutenant Milo (Taylor Negron – Fast Times at Ridgemont High) has a knife to his eyeball he doesn’t flinch. One less eye for those none-existent tears to flow out of.
Giving the cops nothing, Joe heads out on the job. His brewskies and cigarettes aren’t gonna pay for themselves are they? He meets up with Cory at some standard titty club where she gives him some bullshit about some guy threatening her. Joe’s spider senses start tingling when she won’t go into much more detail. He knows this isn’t as simple as some rejected pinhead taking a shine to some babe in a strip club. But Joe is even more in the loop than Cory’s boyfriend Jimmy Dix (Wayans). Jimmy is a former pro footballer who had “the best arm in the league”, but got cut due a gambling/drug rap. He knows Cory is into some shit but not how deep, and is feeling mighty pissed that she’s hired some white Irish flatfoot to watch her back.
With Joe refusing to back down and Jimmy feeling insecure, he drags Cory off the stage mid performance. Outside they drive off leaving Joe to the mercy of some wise-ass goons. They knock him unconscious then pursue Cory, gunning her down in the street. They then turn on the former football star looking to leave no witness and tie up all the loose ends. Thankfully Joe is tougher than he looks and comes running to save the day. We get treated to a nice, brutal shootout (this was the era of big, cook-in-the-bag chicken curry style squibs) before the cops arrive. Giving the Five-O nothing again, the pair decide to team up to figure out what the hell is going on. But make no bones about it, that won’t be the last time someone out there tries to silence good old Jimmy Dix and the hard-to-kill Joe Hallenbeck…
Like some great, unexplainable entity, The Last boy Scout exists in the inter-dimensional space between Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. You’ve got the ever-so-popular white guy/black guy team up coupled with the crazy cop/good guy dynamic but only mixed around. So unlike Lethal Weapon, it’s Jimmy Dix who is the younger, cooler guy, though not as fast-witted as say Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours or Beverly Hills Cop. But that’s not to shit on Jimmy. Wayans is certainly cool and pretty handy too. After all, he did have the best arm in the league.
Naturally, Willis’ Joe laughs at Jimmy’s $900 leather pants and even his kid daughter Darian (Danielle Harris – Marked for Death) mocks him for having “13” shaved into the back of his head. But despite his slick exterior, he’s pretty cut up about Cory. I liked Wayans in this, and it’s a shame he didn’t parlay this performance into meatier action roles back in the day. Now for the scummier side of the buddy-cop coin, Joe is naturally another burnt out cop whom is mere steps away from being a full blown alcoholic. Like Martin Riggs, he has a militaristic background, only this time he’s ex-Secret Service. After saving the President in a foiled assassination attempt, he got booted out the service for punching a senator who was slapping around some hooker.
Like John McClane no one seems to take him seriously. He’s like an annoying fly who always seems to survive various attempts to kill him. Only this fly happens to fuck everything up for everyone the more people try to kill him. Like both movies, The Last Boy Scout is set in LA where we’ll visit seedy strip clubs and the mansions of billionaires alike. Before long cars will be driven into exotic backyard swimming pools juxtaposed against the dark underbelly of American football.
Writer Shane Black (Predator), who also penned Lethal Weapon (which is being watched by Darian at one point in the old Hallenbeck home), once again sets up what looks to be a routine drug hit on a hooker and somehow escalates it into a full blown conspiracy. Penned during the “Golden Age” of Hollywood scriptwriting, Black reportedly received $1.75 million for the script alone. Back then he and a few other heavy hitters were commanding top dollar for “spec scripts”. Sadly, this and the Long Kiss Goodnight both failed to reach the heights of either Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, and the days of auteur screenwriters being as powerful as the director or star soon ended.
So why doesn’t it resonate like those too movies? Why didn’t it pop and make hundreds of millions of dollars? Too many big swinging dicks on deck basically.
Back in ’91 it cost $75 million. And that was a wedge of cash back then. To put it into context, Terminator 2 released a year later, only cost $20 mil more. But you just don’t see it on screen in The Last Boy Scout. What you do get is a whip-sharp script from Black, Bruce Willis, direction from Tony Scott (who’d been smashing it with films like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Days of Thunder), and Joel Silver producing (again, another monolith at the height of his powers). So you get some pretty big playing pieces which, sadly just doesn’t translate onto the screen. It looks like it cost $30 mil less.
A horrendous production is rumored to have been the main culprit. Reportedly, the egos of Silver, Willis and Scott all clashed. One quote I read made me really laugh about the producer, from Sylvester Stallone (Demolition Man) of all people: Silver was “insane, with long, horrible fits of sanity”. Hahah. Plus, legend has it that Wayans and Willis absolutely hated each other. So all those snide comments to each other in the film weren’t just good-natured bro-joshing.
Another issue was Scott’s habit of shooting everything from every conceivable angle. The studio went through numerous editors who tried to put it together, with a few calling the experience “miserable” with others labeling it “a fucking nightmare”. Finally, Stuart Baird (another Die Hard/Lethal Weapon alumni) managed to wrangle it into the shape we have today. According to Black all this interference and bullshit turned what was once a dynamite script into something…lesser.
But that’s not to rag on Scott. People view him as the “lesser” of the two when comparing him with brother Ridley. That isn’t the case at all. Look at it this way. There’s a bit in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly where the Eli Wallach (the Ugly) meets his brother, Father Pablo. Now Wallach is a bandit, a thief, and a killer, whereas his brother turned to God. According to Wallach, these were the only too meaningful careers choices people of their ilk could pursue, and he then claims that he choose the harder of the two paths. This is the Tony and Ridley Scott dynamic. Ridley makes meaningful artistic Oscar winners, whereas Tony gutted it out in guns, explosions and the occasional pair of tits. But he lived the harder life no doubt. Moving from one project to the next whereas Ridley fosters some for decades. It was a huge loss to cinema when he took his life in 2012.
One element that does let it down in particular are some weak bad guys. The main bastard, Shelly Marcone (Noble Willingham – Independence Day) is a stetson-wearing, greedy football magnate. But his plot to legalize sports gambling to increase interest in his waning team just doesn’t blow my luxurious hair back. Me, like the majority of the populace of the world, know fuck all about American Football, let alone what points spreads are and what not. It’s just not…grand enough and a poor pay off for all the grueling beatings both Joe and Jimmy endure (let alone poor Cory).
Plus his lieutenant, Milo, just doesn’t sustain the creep/badass factor long enough. This guy’s tick is to call everyone by their full name, so Joseph for Joe etc. But he easily loses his cool and is just not as not as scary as Mr. Joshua from Lethal Weapon or Karl from Die Hard. First, there’s no “How badass is this guy moment” like where Busey (Point Break) holds his arm over a lighter for like an hour unflinchingly. Secondly, Busey is a big, thick guy. He looks like a triple hard bastard. Milo has a fringe and a little flick knife and nothing much else. Not even some “smaller-guy” kung fu. To be fair this is all made up for by an effective “he isn’t gonna come back from that one” death – by being dropped onto a helicopter rotor.
But hey, ignore all this shit. The Last Boy Scout is by no way a bad film. Hell no. It’s actually pretty great. It was one of those movies that caught on big time in the VHS and rentals market. It’s probably why my Dad had a copy. Peer pressure. But in all honesty it’s got some classic action moments, top one-liners, a sweet gun-assembly sequence (you don’t see those any more), loads of people spitting gob-fulls of blood out all the time and a decent enough story. Yeah it’s dark and cynical and violent. Yeah the only women in the film are cheating wives, hookers and babes in hot tubs. But we secretly love this kind of bleak, backward ass cinema. Like some outlawed junk food, we gorge on this shit because it’s bad for us and we know it. They really don’t make them like this anymore. So do yourself a favour, don’t touch Joe Hallenbeck if he doesn’t want you to, and above all, get this watched.