The Test of Time: The Last Boy Scout (1991)

Say, what’s your favorite Bruce Willis role? No, not your favorite movie he starred in, but actual character he played in the past? The easy and obvious response has to be his two-decade run as John McClane, with that pugilistic badass Butch in PULP FICTION coming in a close second (he’s hella funny in FOUR ROOMS by the way). But you know what? My favorite Willis character can be seen as a quasi-compendium of both. Yup, I’m talking about the gruff, laconic, ultra ass-kicking tough guy Joe Hallenbeck in the eminently entertaining Tony Scott action classic THE LAST BOY SCOUT. Damn I love this movie, and I love Willis’ performance more than any other. It’s the kind of role that cemented Willis’ onscreen persona, the very one that has persisted all the way up to next week’s release of Eli Roth’s DEATH WISH. Just as there was only one Charlie Bronson, there’s only one Bruce Willis. THE LAST BOY SCOUT indeed!

But here’s the concern. We know the character of Hallenbeck holds up, we know Willis has fostered this distinct image for three decades now, but what about the movie as a whole? How does THE LAST BOY SCOUT play today, 27 years after its release? Has the future caught up with what, at the time, was a stylistically prescient action-template – break-neck pacing, witty banter, hyper-violence, incendiary set-pieces, etc. – or has the film fallen behind the times a bit? All this and more gets put on the table below as we pit THE LAST BOY SCOUT up against The Test of Time!

THE STORY: Coming off the wild success of LETHAL WEAPON, prized scribe Shane Black was paid a whopping $1.75 million for THE LAST BOY SCOUT screenplay. Uber action-producer Joel Silver quickly attached himself to the picture, locking up action star de jure Bruce Willis, hot off of DIE HARD 2, to star in the film. Ironically, DIE HARD was the original title of THE LAST BOY SCOUT, and it was Silver who asked Black back in 87-88 if he could use the title for a project he was working on called NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. He agreed, and DIE HARD became what it is, the rest is history. This is just one of many overlapping trivialities with THE LAST BOY SCOUT, DIE HARD and LETHAL WEAPON. Perhaps we’ll get into some others, but first, the gist of the plot…

Joe Hallenbeck is a disgraced L.A. private eye clinging to his glorious past as a wounded secret service member. As the flick opens, he learns his wife Sarah (Chelsea Field) is cheating on him, believes his daughter Darian (Danielle Harris) hates him, and if that wasn’t enough, his partner Mike (Bruce McGill) is suddenly blown up in a car outside his own house. Determined to find out what happened, Hallenbeck reluctantly joins forces with Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans), a washed-up pro quarterback whose personal demons include an addiction to pain killers and the loss of a wife and child. Together, Joe and Jimmy slowly uncover a much larger conspiracy involving the murder of Dix’s girlfriend Cory (Halle Berry), a web of criminality that goes all the way up to a corrupt politician named Shelly Marcone (Noble Willingham) and crooked pro football team owner. Doing Marcone’s dirty work is a creepy blonde dude named Milo (Taylor Negron), who proves to be a nasty thorn in the side of Joe and Jimmy up until the end!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: As Tony Scott and Shane Black would admit many years later, the script to LAST BOY SCOUT was far better than the final film. Not sure I’d buy that, but if that is the case, I’d love to read that script, as I fully believe the entirety of THE LAST BOY SCOUT still towers tall today (speaking of towers, notice the Fox Tower – aka Nakatomi Plaza - in the background at about the 7 minute mark in the film). THE LAST BOY SCOUT is a first rate slam-bang action eruption with nary a dull moment. I’ve said this before and it bears repeating: I think Tony Scott may be the most entertaining director of all time. His preternatural skill and deft understanding of how to shoot and cut a film to such optimally entertaining affect is second to who? Maybe only Spielberg? I already miss this guy’s movies a great deal. He was one of my all time favorites.

Beyond the superlative skill of Tony Scott, beyond the crackling dialogue of Black’s re-inventive buddy-cop screenplay, the things that still hold as strong as they did in 1991 include the waggish interplay between stars Willis and Wayans, the witty bon mots the trade throughout, the pithy one-liners and ball-busting barbs they exchange, the overall chemistry they share amounting to pure alchemical gold. So get this. Reportedly, despite their gangbusters chemistry, Willis and Wayans actually hated working together. Go f*cking figure! In fact, for as loveable as the film has become, there was a lot of hate swirling around on set. Word is Scott hated Joel Silver so much that he based the character of Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), the belligerently cokehead in TRUE ROMANCE (one of my top 10 all time faves), solely on him. Therapy through art, yo!

As for this unassailable quality of entertainment that makes the movie such a delight, mention must be made of three key actors in the film other than the two charismatic leads. First is the young Danielle Harris, who, by this time, knowledgeable horror heads would lovingly recognize from HALLOWEEN 4 and HALLOWEEN 5. Her shocking, obscenity laced tirades toward her father (while watching LETHAL WEAPON on TV you may’ve noticed) were not only flagrantly excessive at the time, they’re also, like most of the films dialogue, downright hilarious. So many genuine laughs can be found in this film it’s hard to believe the only thing more abundant than the humor is the violent action. The second person worth mentioning is the gorgeous 25 year old Halle Berry as Cory. Though her role is small, her sex appeal is gargantuan, even foreshadowing her CATWOMAN role via the line: “If I was a cat, I’d purrrrr.” Hell, I still, STILL have that bun-grabbing striptease saved as a GIF on my f*cking iMac. Hall of fame heat!

Of course, that brings us to Taylor Negron, to me one of the all time most memorable action baddies ever captured on film. His Milo is dainty and demure on the outside, ferociously violent on the inside, the combo of which making him truly frightening. I’ve always loved Negron as an actor (BETTER OFF DEAD, FAST TIMES), and I can say firsthand he was a true gentleman in real life. See, he was my sister’s next door neighbor at one point in Venice, California. I recall meeting him one day, and he couldn’t have been nicer or more genuinely interested in what I was all about. He didn’t have to take the time, but he did. He died six year later. RIP Taylor, I’ll never forget how charming and courteous you were in person!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Honestly, what blows now is what could have been then. Bear with us. The original screenplay for TLBS was drastically different than final film version. The most notable change was in favor of a far less violence. Brutal violence. Word is the Milo character also directed snuff films for Marcone in the original script, savagely slaughtering hosts of victims to capture on film. This subplot was to include the kidnapping of Sarah Hallenbeck to be killed on film and put in a snuff flick. Many other changes were made, but the other that really sticks out is the manor third act alteration from the original script.

In the OG, the final reel took place entirely on water. Water! A major climactic set-piece was supposed to see a fog-ridden chase and crash between a boat Joe and Jimmy were on and a helicopter Milo was flying, which would have been all kinds of f*cking badass. Honestly though, this undeniable entertainment value we continue lauding probably wouldn’t have retained its power if the original tone was as dark as initially intended. I believe the films lighter-hearted tone, paired with the brutal violence, is a major reason as to why the movie is, was, and will likely always be a paragon of action entertainment.

THE VERDICT: Having just watched it again last weekend, and I can tell you with the utmost confidence…THE LAST BOY SCOUT most certainly holds serve. Despite all the production woes, the alpha-egos clashing behind the scenes, the competitive big-sick swinging, the major script changes and all the rest, in the end, the writer, director, producer and star were too far atop their game to turn in a weak and withering film. Shane Black, Tony Scott, Joel Silver and Bruce Willis were simply too adept in their respective crafts in 1991 that, even when things didn’t go as initially planned, the end result still soared mightily. Throw in the supporting presence of Damon Wayans, Halle Berry, Taylor Negron and Danielle Harris, add in the blistering dialogue, action-crammed set-pieces and side-splitting humor…and yeah, you can see why Bruce broke out into a celebratory jig at the end. I love that shite! THE LAST BOY SCOUT, here is a wholehearted AITH salute to you!




Extra Tidbit: The conversation between Joe and Jimmy about the 650 dollar pants was taken from a deleted scene in Lethal Weapon (1987). Murtaugh's daughter is wearing an expensive dress for a New Year's Eve party and he asks, "It doesn't have a little television in it?" She says, "No", and Murtaugh mutters, "I am very old." (IMDB.com)
Source: AITH.com



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