Looking back at Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout

Our look back at the work of the late director Tony Scott continues with the 90s action flick, The Last Boy Scout...

Joe Hallenbeck wakes to a group of kids trying to steal his watch. He frightens them away, threatening them with his gun. He pulls himself up and assesses the situation. He’s hung over, he’s in his car and there’s a dead squirrel on him. Shit.

As far as character introductions go, Joe Hallenbeck’s in The Last Boy Scout is masterful. It’s a brief scene which is light on dialogue, yet it tells us so much about the character, and even hints at the kind of film we’re about to see. Shortly afterward, we get a similarly effective scene to mark the entrance of Jimmy Dix, a former American football prodigy turned coke-snorting washout. The screenplay for The Last Boy Scout earned writer Shane Black a record breaking $1.75m, and with scenes like these, it’s easy to see why. 

The script was subject to a bidding war, with Black allegedly turning down a significantly higher offer ($2.5m) in order to work with action movie super-producer Joel Silver again, the pair reuniting after Lethal Weapon and Predator, where Black featured as an actor. Also reteaming with Silver was star Bruce Willis, who had previously collaborated with the producer on Die Hard and Hudson Hawk. 

Director Tony Scott, however, hadn’t yet worked with Joel Silver. The Last Boy Scout is the only film Scott directed for Silver, with both describing the production as difficult.

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Renowned critic Roger Ebert described The Last Boy Scout (in a review that’s conveniently quoted right on the film’s Wikipedia page) as, “A superb example of what it is: a glossy, skilful, cynical, smart, utterly corrupt and vilely misogynistic action thriller”. It’s a hard statement to disagree with, although I’ll clumsily bungle through the issue of misogyny later on, as I feel it warrants a touch more exploration than this brief statement grants it. 

The Last Boy Scout really is a wonderful, big action movie. It’s got a worn out, world weary private eye forced together in an unlikely partnership with a troubled young buck. It’s got car chases, fist fights, shootouts, explosions, briefcases filled with money and bombs, helicopters liquefying airborne bad guys and a ginger cat hand puppet that’s as likely to cough up a bullet as a fur-ball.

The story that manages to tie all this together finds Joe Hallenbeck (Willis, obviously) hired to watch over a stripper with a secret (Halle Berry). While Joe’s briefly distracted, taking a moment away to get beaten senseless by a gang of surly mobsters, she sneaks away with boyfriend Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans). Hallenbeck catches up with them not long after, only to find her machine gunned to death and Jimmy in something of a jam. 

Jimmy and Joe slaughter their way out of trouble and set about unearthing a conspiracy relating to legalising sports gambling, bribing government officials and killing ever so many people. Along the way, Jimmy Dix must overcome the grief of losing his wife, child and now his new girlfriend, kick a coke habit and find a new direction in life after a drug suspension has put paid to his career as an athlete.

Hallenbeck must restore his dignity, win back the approval of his cheating wife, avenge the death of her lover, rescue his foul-mouthed teen daughter (played brilliantly by Halloween regular Danielle Harris), stop the really bad guys from killing the slightly less bad guys and foil the villain’s plot, which would see Joe framed for murder. 

With my synopsis duties all but shirked, let’s have a chat about Bruce Willis. Respected critic/feared editor Simon Brew said of Willis’ role, “Who else are you going to draft in if you need a weary, cynical, wise-cracking action star?”. Indeed, it feels like a role custom made for Willis, who can pull off dangerous, down-and-out and downright funny in a way that few others are able to manage. Perhaps the stand out scene of the entire film sees him hit all three of these notes, mocking a henchman while being beaten, threatening to kill him and then following through on that threat with a palm strike that renders the recipient both humbled and dead.

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Co-star Damon Wayans puts in a solid shift fighting to be seen alongside Willis, and does an admirable job sparring with him through Black’s snappy dialogue. Elsewhere, Taylor Negron is wonderful as the softly psychotic assassin Milo. There’s a degree of restraint to Milo, which in less assured hands may have implied a villain with limits. In Negron’s hands, though, the restraint is a demonstration of his control, exercised to allow him the pleasure of watching situations play out. It’s great fun to have a villain like this for Willis’ Hallenbeck to play against, and provides an extra payoff when the evil bastard finally gets his comeuppance, with Hallenbeck finally getting under his skin. 

You’ll no doubt find the influence of The Last Boy Scout peppered throughout action cinema (I’d love to know if Christopher Nolan is a fan, as the opening of this film features an action prologue that could easily be the blueprint for the ones we see in two of Nolan’s Batman films, and is an American Football action sequence, like we saw in The Dark Knight Rises). Perhaps the most overt nod to the film comes from the hyper-referential action comedy Hot Fuzz, which features its two male protagonists discussing post-fight quips, just as the closing scene between Hallenbeck and Dix did 15 years prior.

For me, the real star of The Last Boy Scout is Shane Black’s script. The term snappy dialogue was coined entirely so reviewers wouldn’t have to think when writing about his films. The action is inventive and fun, with a constant sense of escalation. Everyone is a character; in Black’s world, there’s no such thing as a simple henchman.

The Last Boy Scout is like a crude early version of Black’s directorial debut, the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with many commonalities between the two. In fact, we get a highway showdown with the bad guys in each that are so similar you’d be forgiven for thinking that Black was dissatisfied with the one in The Last Boy Scout (and it doesn’t quite work), and wanted to prove it could be done properly. 

For better or worse, the film feels very much of its time. It opens with a fun late 80s-style pop song advertising ‘Friday Night Football’. There’s also some uncomfortable homophobic language that you’d be unlikely to find in a modern action film (although, one of the things that separates it from many other buddy action films is that there’s not really a homoerotic tension between the two main buddies, with more of a father-son dynamic that’s common in Black’s work). The film feels very 90s, with lots of slow motion, big action sequences using practical effects that aren’t edited beyond comprehension, and a run time of under two and half hours.

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I suppose, coming off the previously mentioned homophobia, it’s time to address the accusations of misogyny made again the film. I’m not a huge fan of politicising every piece of media, searching for a potentially offensive interpretation and declaring every film and television show a corrupting force of evil thrust into our surprised angelic faces. Here, we can explain perceived misogyny by looking at characters and the world the story is set in; what kind of women would you expect these characters to know? How would these characters make women react? How do you think women would be treated by these people in these situations? On top of that, it’s hardly a film where anyone comes off particularly well, regardless of gender.

Unfortunately, this defense falls apart entirely in the last five minutes of the film. Hallenbeck’s wife is a character I was able to summarise earlier in this piece as a ‘cheating wife, and her entire story arc is: cheats on her husband, explains why she hates him, watches him be heroic, begs him for forgiveness and learns to support him. Yipes. Considering this, Joe’s regular anti-women catchphrases seem like less of a character point, and it becomes hard to shake that the women in the film are all in powerless positions and are subject to some pretty unpleasant abuse. It’s something that’s quite uncomfortable to reflect on. 

However, this might not be the case of a conscious or subconscious decision to depict women as awful trash bags. The original script had Joe’s wife a more active component in the plot. In fact, in the ending as originally written, she guns down murderous nutcase Milo and saves the day. The second half of the film is changed quite dramatically from the script (which some of you rascally internet types might just be able to find online), and it’s difficult to know who dictated the changes and why they were made.

Director Tony Scott said of the film “I think the script was better than the final movie” in an interview with Empire, and went on to suggest that he felt the film suffered because it lacked a single voice guiding the production. It seems that the director felt that this was a case of ‘too many cooks’, with Bruce Willis and Joel Silver having authority to make decisions, thereby hampering his own ability to control the film. In Scott’s words, “One person’s got to be calling the shots or it won’t make any sense as a whole”.

Further information on the shoot is actually difficult to come by (it’s a film that’s crying out of a Special Edition home video release with an in-depth making-of documentary). An interview with actor Taylor Negron seems to corroborate Scott’s description of at least Silver’s influence, referencing the producer’s involvement in decision making. For his part, Silver has described making the film as one of the worst experiences of his life.

Personally, I’d love to know who to blame for the end of film ‘jig’. As they gear up to battle the bosses, Hallenbeck swears to Dix that if they survive the big showdown, he’ll dance a jig. He references it again five minutes later and, ten minutes after that, the villains are felled and Bruce Willis is awkwardly dancing in front of a stadium full of drunk, traumatised sports fans. It’s a bizarre, ridiculous inclusion that entertains for the wrong reasons. 

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Of course, just because Tony Scott was happy to talk frankly about why the film didn’t achieve its full potential, this doesn’t mean the director is not due praise for his work on The Last Boy Scout. Scott achieves a really great noirish look, particularly in the first half of the film. The action is expertly handled, and the whole thing looks rather stylish. Some of the style does fall away as the film speeds towards its climax, but that’s difficult to spot as it zips along at such a good pace.

The Last Boy Scout has, over time, found an audience, although it was initially considered a flop. It pulled in around $60m in the US, which in fairness is only $5m less than the first Lethal Weapon film. Still, the amount paid for the script, and the expensive-looking effects throughout, suggest that Warner invested heavily and had high hopes for The Last Boy Scout. This box office performance combined with a less than enthusiastic critical reception put paid to any chances of an immediate sequel. However, with the current trend of reviving any and every franchise, and with the film’s cult status, a modern reprisal is not beyond the realm of possibility.

In an interview in 2009, Shane Black said he’d love to do another, so long as Willis was on board. That said, this was before the unfortunate passing of Tony Scott, and while his involvement in the first film seems to have been difficult, there’s a level of respect and good taste to be considered (even when considering a film such as The Last Boy Scout). 

So, The Last Boy Scout, then, is an interesting film made by some great people that perhaps didn’t work so well together. More than that, though, it’s one of the most overlooked, fun and over-the-top action films of its time.