When Bruce Willis played Joe Hallenback, the fallen hero of Tony Scott’s “The Last Boy Scout,” his image was already as tarnished and beaten down as the character. Willis had survived the summer of 1991, in which “Hudson Hawk,” his treasure pet project, had become a high profile flop and a pinata for movie critics. Suddenly, the star of “Die Hard” and “Moonlighting” was in a position where his trajectory into a major movie star was in danger. Not helping matters was “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” the other lavish, headline grabbing cinematic disaster that Willis appeared in the year before.
Although Willis’s talent and worldwide appeal was never in question, some wondered if his recent flops would turn him into box office poison. While “The Bonfire of the Vanities” wasn’t entirely his fault, the blame of “Hudson Hawk,” which Willis conceived of, starred in, produced and even wrote the title song, fell almost entirely on his shoulders. The man best known for embodying David Addison and John McClane, two men who would never be caught off guard was in a tough spot. It can be said that only Willis could have played Hallenback.
In his introductory scene, we meet Willis’ Hallenback sleeping in his car, unshaven and looking disgraceful. It’s hard to imagine a family man like Willis doing the same thing after the first round of “Hudson Hawk” reviews pulverized him but the image still sticks- the character and the main playing him were in need of redemption. Hallenback, a private eye with a sour marriage and a daughter who hates him, isn’t the only character in dire need of career and spiritual rehabilitation. There’s also Jimmy Dix (played by Damon Wayans in a rare straight turn), an NFL player whose career has been tarnished by a personal tragedy and a drug addiction that followed. Hallenback and Dix become partners after Dix’s girlfriend (Halle Berry) is murdered. The two become allies who wind up needing one another, in the same way the protagonists of “Lethal Weapon” begin as enemies, become friends and grow into brothers. Both “Lethal Weapon” and “The Last Boy Scout” were written by Shane Black, who gives this film a nasty, anything-goes distinction that marks his best work.
At the time of its release, “The Last Boy Scout” became famous for the $1.75 million Black was paid for his screenplay. It’s no wonder Warner Brothers spent so much money on it, as the film’s mix of sadistic ultra-violence, jaw-dropping action and a steady stream of hilarious one-liners made it read like an unofficial “Lethal Weapon” sequel. Actually, “The Last Boy Scout” is much rougher than “Leathal Weapon” and one of the most truly hard-R action movies of its decade. While the quasi-neo-noir detective story builds well and the characters are all colorful and are especially uninhibited at expressing themselves, the movie has a real mean streak.
At the time of its release, “The Last Boy Scout” was accused of misogyny and sexism. Looking at the film today, everyone comes off unfavorably and the movie rubs our faces in its urban rot, layers of corruption and vile criminals. The movie is funny and exciting enough to entertain but Black’s screenplay, as impressively flamboyant as it is, can be too scuzzy. Scott make the film as glossy, propulsive and kinetic as expected but the non-stop profanity and vile behavior on hand make it hard to enjoy for casual action fans. Scott’s following movie, “True Romance,” is equally rough, with its cringe inducing violence and despicable characters, but the comic relief and endearing central romance redeems it. While I can easily enjoy a movie where a car lands in a Hollywood hills swimming pool, Scott’s vivid carnage and Black’s relentlessly crass dialogue will make it an endurance test for some viewers.
Despite some unkind reviews, “The Last Boy Scout” wound up being a sizable hit. The film itself is one of the better spawns of “Lethal Weapon” and is loaded with funny dialogue and great action sequences (as well as a horrifying opening sequence). Its studio scheduled the film as counter programming and their gamble paid off big- by opening against Steven Spielberg’s “Hook,” Willis’ comeback gave Dads and action-starved teens an early Christmas present. If you’ve never seen “The Last Boy Scout,” it’s a flashy, exhausting ride but the R-rating isn’t a joke. Be Prepared.