Buddy Cops: The Last Boy Scout (1991)

Each week in November, the Deadshirt crew is partnering up for a look at cinema’s defining Buddy Cop movies. This week: Chuck Winters and Max Robinson face off against the sports corruption caper The Last Boy Scout.

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The Last Boy Scout (1991)

Directed by Tony Scott

Starring Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans

Max: The Last Boy Scout, on paper, sounds like it should be a slamdunk actioner. It’s Tony Scott directing a Shane Black script with Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans as the leads. In reality, the production was apparently a nightmare of conflicting visions and rewrites. Watching it now, it feels like the not-quite-there-yet prototype for what we’d see in Black’s later directorial efforts Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. Chuck, what’s your read on this?

Chuck: To be honest, I’ve got a soft spot for this one because this was one of my first R-rated movies, and there are parts of this I still quote to myself to this day, so my vaunted analytical mind might fail me here. In fact, my initial plan, before you told me you were of two minds about this movie, was to start out by asking the important question, “Why the hell don’t they play football on Friday nights? It’s a downright perfect night for football!”

But yeah, as much as I love this movie to this day, it’s easy to see the conflict on the screen here. I mean, it’s all over that first sequence, where LA football player Billy Cole pulls out a gun on a football field and blows away Cleveland’s defense line. It’s a ridiculous scene, total 90s movie bullshit, and Tony Scott shoots it for maximum atmosphere; lots of rain, lots of shadows, lots of slow-mo. Right off the bat, you’re getting a sense of him trying to balance two very different ideas of what this movie is (even though this scene was in Shane Black’s original script).

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Max: The opening is the best part of the whole film, as far as I’m concerned. Love that (by necessity since the NFL obviously wanted nothing to do with this movie) they come up with an original song and team names (the L.A. STALLIONS!). There’s something very shocking and uncanny about Cole, high on PCP, straight up blowing away other football players. The Last Boy Scout’s relationship with on-screen violence is ah…troubling, I’d say, but this was a helluva statement to open an action movie on.

Chuck: I’m gonna pull a total wuss move and back down from my “90s movie bullshit” statement, because I like how you described it better. It really is an insane power move to open a movie like that, so much so that I think even to this day it kinda catches me off guard and I think “Oh, that’s just silly.” But yeah, it’s a statement of how rough this movie intends to play, and while I’ll entertain arguments that it’s maybe a little too gleefully violent (the ending certainly comes to mind, I’m sure we’ll get to that later though), I happen to think Scott somehow manages to thread the needle here, balancing that darkness and self-loathing that Shane Black was immersed in when he wrote the script with Silver’s demand to feed the machine, so to speak.

BTW, fun fact if you haven’t read the original script: Billy Cole’s last words before blowing his brains out were “I’m going to Disneyland…” Don’t fuck with the NFL, but DEFINITELY don’t fuck with the House of Mouse.

Max: Let’s talk about our leads here, Bruce Willis’ “Joe” Cornelius Hallenbeck and Damon Wayans’ Jimmy Dix. I feel like Willis and Wayans show up here, but their characters feel surprisingly ill-defined given Black’s repertoire of usually colorful tough guy characters. They’re both crappy but ultimately decent men trying to figure out how to live in disgrace: Hallenbeck as a former Secret Service agent and Dix as a former football star. Admittedly it’s easy to say “Here’s where The Nice Guys did this better,” but a big problem for me in The Last Boy Scout is that Joe and Jimmy aren’t enormously sympathetic lowlifes. Are we supposed to be on Joe’s side when he threatens to shoot the guy his wife is sleeping with in their marital bedroom? When Jimmy intervenes to stop a former teammate from killing a woman, he pops the asshole with a football out of irritation more than anything. The movie never seems to examine their shittiness beyond the surface level.

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Chuck: Good points, though I think I saw more of an inclination to protect from Dix as opposed to just sheer irritation. I mean, he’s living in a complex (or seems to be living in a complex) staffed with other NFL stars, there’s probably some natural pressure to not rock the boat, which is why he tries to gently ward him off until the dude makes it personal, at which point he says, “Oh, okay. Oh wow, look at that, you’ve got this 100 MPH football stuck in your nose.”

As for Joe, yeah, he’s a much clearer asshole, and stuff like what he does with his wife’s lover is flat out indefensible. But I think the movie does do a decent job of showing you what’s going on, it’s just, well, it’s a Joel Silver action movie and it has to downplay that. There’s a scene where Joe is at home arguing with his daughter Darian, and she tells him about his mother referring to him as a “fuck-up” while on the phone with Darian’s Uncle Jay. Joe’s response is to flip his shit and claim that said uncle cheats on his taxes—compared to Joe himself, who has spent the movie so far being a complete bastard (and then some) to his wife and his partner.

But the taxes thing is key because it’s all about Joe’s state of mind: He saves the President’s life, then gets fuckbarrelled by Senator Baynard because he protected the woman Barnard was about to rape. He was a Boy Scout, and he paid for it with his career, and he’s seeing all the cheaters and pricks of the world get ahead while he’s holding onto his ramshackle PI operation. He’s bitter and angry to an unstable degree.

Now, if you want to argue that the movie could have done more with that? No doubt. But the motivation was there, even if there wasn’t much of a redemptive arc to it. Joe starts the movie as a bastard, ends it as a little bit less of a bastard because he got one win.

Max: Ooo That’s a good point. Let’s talk about the villains for a minute. I thought the primary bad guys (Marcone and Senator Baynard) weren’t enormously compelling, but Taylor Negron’s Milo was like the platonic ideal of a great Shane Black goon. He felt like a genuine threat and he really commands each scene he’s in.

Chuck: Milo is probably Black’s greatest villain, full stop. This is one of those areas where my talents fail me because I don’t even know how the fuck you look at his performance and think “I don’t get what makes him number one to you.” It’s this amazing mix of cold swagger and deranged instability that just…ugh, God damn did Negron put on a clinic here.

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As for Marcone and Baynard, well, yeah, they’re bland, but in the least harmful way possible. They did the job insomuch as we knew there were power players pulling the strings here, and we were able to put names and faces to them. In Marcone’s case, he even picked up a nice little good ol’ boy edge courtesy of Noble Willingham that kept him from being completely bland. But while they don’t pop, they don’t really get in the way either, and that’s fine when you’ve got a character like Milo doing the heavy lifting.

Max: It’s fascinating looking at the conspiracy at the heart of The Last Boy Scoutthe bad guys want to legalize gambling—which is almost quaint compared to the NFL’s real life scuminess with stuff like head injuries. As with a lot of these kind of buddy action movies, I found the plot pretty hard to follow? Using a fake-NFL as the backdrop here is a genius but there’s probably a reason stuff like Die Hard or Commando run on super straight-forward plot threads that can accommodate character over a super nuanced storyline. What did you think?

Chuck: I was able to follow it well enough. I can see where it might have been too intricate; you make a great point about how something like Commando or Road House, often dismissed as “dumb action movies,” can leave a lot of room to develop character—which is, to state the obvious, what people usually gravitate to in stories. But there’s something about the convolution of this story: it plays to Black’s cheap detective novel fetish (and I refer to that in the most reverential possible way), and it makes everything feel unhinged. The moment you should know when the story works for you is probably when Jimmy sums it all up for Joe: “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 fucked your wife.” That’s when it hits home just how off the damn rails this train is (and coincidentally, that’s the moment that pins the complex plot DIRECTLY to character), and you’re either jumping for your life or you’re hanging on to see where this baby lands.

I wanna go back to the “conflicting visions” thing for a minute. This article is a pretty good summary of the nightmare that the making of The Last Boy Scout was, and it touches on a few things: Shane Black was in a really dark place when he wrote the script, coming off a nervous breakdown he suffered while he was writing Lethal Weapon 2, and that inspired the really bleak, burned-out tone of the original piece. (If you thought this was bleak and violent before, you haven’t read the draft where Milo makes snuff films or wipes out an entire family with machine gun fire.) Of course, Joel Silver (and Bruce Willis) wasn’t having any of that shit, and what you get is something farther away from the grimy PI novel Black wrote and closer to the buddy cop style that Joel Silver popularized.

Except Black was around for all of those changes. Nobody replaced him. He was on set, he was in the shit, he was taking the hatchet to his own screenplay. And I think you can see that aggression come out in little ways. Notice toward the end, as Jimmy is getting more in the game, Joe critiques his “Plastic keys—the kind that shred!” one-liner, and at the very end of the movie, offers some advice on how to deliver them in the future. (And it means something significant coming from the guy who made quipping your way through an action movie into an artform.) I think there’s an overt acknowledgement here that the game has changed, and you have to wonder, given the conflict and bitterness that’s up on the screen, if Black…I was gonna say “regrets it,” but I don’t know if the evidence explicitly points there. But I feel like there’s something here about the realization of some kind of rubicon being crossed.

Max: Absolutely. You really feel that something’s off with the ending, which you touched on briefly earlier. Like not only does evil football team owner Marcone get his just deserts with a big suitcase bomb death but our heroes WATCH his house blow up from miles away and cheer? It’s not so much half-assed as just extraordinarily weird.

Chuck: And it’s a HUGE explosion! It’s not a suitcase bomb explosion, it’s the damn gas station explosion in Zoolander! You could swear that Marcone’s poor (well, filthy rich) neighbors got fucked on that one too, and our heroes are laughing about it! RiffTrax SALIVATES over the joke potential of moments like that.

And that’s not even the worst part, although I’d like to preface this by saying that even though I recognize its awful absurdity, I love the scene unreservedly and am only pointing this out out of obligation. But c’mon. A football stadium just watched what might have been a would-be assassin fall from a lighting rig and get gooped by the whirling rotors of a helicopter, and ten seconds later, all eyes are on the guy that helped throw him off dance a jig on the Jumbotron. It’s a brilliantly over-the-top send-off for Milo, but if you’re going to complain about the film’s uncomfortable relationship with violence, I can’t pretend this scene doesn’t exist (though the problem is probably less about stuff like that and more about the more casual violence perpetrated against women and other innocent bystanders).

Max: As much as I criticized it, I think overall The Last Boy Scout’s a pretty decent action flick (if kind of unpleasant in parts). It’s not a movie you hear people bring up too much despite the pedigree of talent involved and it’s probably more famous for the behind the scenes drama between Silver/Willis, Scott and Black than the film itself.

Chuck: Honestly, as unpleasant as it can be, this is the Shane Black movie I keep coming back to more than any other (though The Nice Guys might overtake it at some point). It has a lot of Black’s most memorable lines and Tony Scott’s best pre-Man on Fire era scenes, and despite all the fuckery that enveloped the production, it manages to encapsulate a certain kind of swagger that got lost in Hollywood’s turn toward brand recognition.

And also, c’mon. Friday night’s a great night for football.

Check back next week for more Buddy Cops!

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