If you consider yourself an action film junky and don’t have an opinion on the work of Shane Black, you might not like action films as much you think. Shane Black puts those, like me, who believe in the Auteur Theory in precarious situation. A Shane Black script is just as identifiable, if not more so, than the visual trademarks of the film’s directors, like Richard Donner, Tony Scott, or Renny Harlin. Even working in the factory of Marvel, which churns out blockbuster cinema at a prodigious rate, sometimes at the expense of auteurist quirks, Black still made Iron Man 3 feel like a Shane Black movie. So many of his motifs made it into the finished film – voiceover narration, a Christmas setting, witty banter, and certain old noir attitude – that it gave Iron Man 3 a feel different than everything else in the Marvel Universe.
At one time, Black was the biggest screenwriter in Hollywood. After the success of Lethal Weapon, Black sold his script for The Last Boy Scout for a then-record $1.75 million. And while the film was among the top 25 highest earners at the box office in 1991, it was considered a disappointment. Directed before Tony Scott was the foremost filmmaker in Chaos Cinema, The Last Boy Scout is another Black gem. It’s an engaging thriller featuring some of Scott’s best directorial work.
Bruce Willis plays Joe Hallenbeck, a former Secret Service agent now passing the time between hangovers as a private eye. Hallenbeck is called by a friend, Mike Matthews (Joe McGill), who has a job concerning a stripper, Cory (Halle Berry), being followed. Before Hallenbeck can actually take the case, he finds Mike in bed with his wife, Sarah (Chelsea Field). Caught in bed with his friend’s wife, Mike gets into his car to leave in disgrace, but he doesn’t get far as his car blows up, killing him. That evening, Hallenbeck gets to work on Cory’s case, checking out the go-go joint that she works in. It doesn’t take long for the hard luck private eye to draw the ire of Cory’s boyfriend Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans), a once-great football player that was expelled from the league. Things take a turn for the worse as Cory is murdered in the streets, Dix and Hallenbeck arriving too late to save her. The two team up to get to the bottom the case that left a young woman dead in the streets of Los Angeles. The evidence points to a conspiracy involving professional football owners and members of the United States Senate.
The film opens with a shocking and memorable sequence. After the opening credits roll to a Hank Williams, Jr.-esque Monday Night Football theme, the film takes us to that evening’s game. Scott uses buckets of rain from the sky and blue filters to give the setting a highly stylized look, one that is imitated in a Key & Peele football sketch this year. Then a running back takes the ball on the next play. After a couple of evasive moves, the running back pulls a handgun and begins shooting his opposition. He then remove his helmet, says, “Ain’t life a bitch?” right before blowing his brains out. It’s really one of the great opening sequences of ‘90s action flicks.
With Lethal Weapon, Black ushered in the era of the modern cop buddy movie. Here he does something similar, except the two aren’t cops, they’re fallen heroes. Willis plays what is probably his signature character archetype: A world weary every man down on his luck; he doesn’t want to be the hero, but will become heroic if no one else takes the job. As Willis’ partner, Damon Wayans plays it straight, his humor relegated to snappy comebacks. This role is the first in the brief window where Damon Wayans was almost a leading man. An era that came to an unceremonious close when Wayans teamed with Adam Sandler in Bulletproof.
The climax of The Last Boy Scout revolves around a pro football team owner attempting to assassinate a senator and usher in an era of legalized sports gambling. Today this notion seems dated. First of all, this movie takes place in the long forgotten time when Los Angeles had a professional football team. Secondly, if a rich team owner wanted to purchase a politician, he could make a donation of any amount to a PAC. Finally, gambling has become more and more prevalent in our society. The fact that world has changed dramatically since the film’s release doesn’t negate the film’s impact. As a matter of fact, it shows that there has always been something dark and corrupt in the heart of sports ownership. Covering up domestic violence charges and ignoring scientific data as to the effects of concussions is just another in a long line of offenses. The corrupt nature of NFL ownership hasn’t changed.
I wouldn’t go as far to call The Last Boy Scout a great action movie, but it does have some great moments. It’s really just the type of film that they don’t really make anymore. As much as Scott stylizes the screen, Black stylizes the script with a kind of caustic moralism. It’s the kind of movie where a senator is saved from assassination and the good guy knees him in the balls before punching him in the face. It takes place in a world where all the good guys are flawed and have a blood alcohol content well over the legal limit. It’s not pretty. It’s not perfect. But, damn, it’s entertaining.