In the course of shedding IQ points, Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout became something better: the action movie that KNOWS it’s completely psycho.
Released near the waning days of 1991, The Last Boy Scout represents a capstone to a golden age of cinematic excess. It was that odd moment when the gloriously dark and profane brushed up against the Big ‘Splosions, before being a blockbuster meant a PG-13.
Oh sure, the next decade would bring about the ascension of Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, and the strange mixture of visual awesomeness/pretentious bullshit of the Matrix cinematic cycle. But Scout was special. Sort of. What you had was a million-dollar screenplay that turned into a critically-reviled box-office bomb, and yet, everything that screwed up the original script somehow turned the movie brilliant.
I am not alone in this assessment. Edgar Wright, director of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim and oh yeah, Hot Fuzz, has repeatedly cited the brilliance of Scout, insisting that it is one of the first action movies to actively poke fun at other action movies. This opinion is not endorsed by Shane Black, the guy who, well, actually wrote The Last Boy Scout.
Black’s script, which sold for a then-record-setting $1.75 million (approximately $850 billion in 2010, give or take a few recessions), was, in his words, an homage to Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett. He’s never quite gone on record as to how the film was changed (he shares writing credit on the final product with Greg Hicks), but he’s hinted that what resulted from the changes were less darkness, more stunts.
Having recently acquired a PDF of Black’s original script, there’s an idea of what he originally intended in those electronically-scanned pages. The 166-page document still has Bruce Willis’ Joe Hallenbeck getting out of a jam by distracting thugs with “Yo Mamma” jokes and a kitty-cat puppet, and expressing bewilderment over $650 leather pants. But it’s a darker, tighter story that’s more about two men on the bottom rung losing what little they have left, and finding some hint of redemption.
The film is far, far stupider. But in losing dramatic stakes and IQ points, it almost becomes something better: The action movie that knows it’s completely psycho.
The joy of The Last Boy Scout comes from how it unintentionally comes across as almost a parody of the action film it was marketed as to the general public. It’s adolescent fantasy writ large; the Internet Movie Database helpfully informs us that it contains 102 uses of the F-word, and 31 incidents when one character hits another. Even the kids are hardcore profane.
And yet, part of what gives Scout its unique charm are the bad decisions that went into making this movie. Sure, Damon Wayans is horrifically miscast as disgraced ex-NFLer Jimmy Dix, but it almost seems to fit into this movie’s world.
Everything is blown up here, literally and figuratively. Scenes that should be intimate are shot in sun-drenched, expansive shots that make even a crappy neighborhood look like Walden Pond. The shootouts contain about 1.5 times more fireball than necessary, eschewing the story’s pulp roots in favor of something out of, well, Lethal Weapon or Die Hard.
It is, if you apply any thought to it, deeply illogical and just a wee bit nasty toward women and children. Roger Ebert’s appalled review for The Chicago Sun-Times called it “vilely misogynistic.” He still gave it three stars.
My adoration of Scout comes from its operatic level of over-the-topness – how everything from Tony Scott’s visual style to the actors’ riffing to Shane Black’s already-exuberant dialogue turn the sensory overload up to 11. Compounding this love is that fact that at its core, Scout is kind of… sincere.
From its earnest title to the insane monologues that attempt to explain its themes (oh, that’s why there was the opening with a PCP-crazed Billy Blanks blowing everything away, or the throwaway shot of the “Satan Claus” drawing!), this is a story that, at its heart, believes in fair play and honest values and family and quite possibly Rainbow Brite and the Care Bears.
Gosh darn it, the story ends with the grizzled PI clean-shaven and his foul-mouthed daughter contrite as she tosses the pigskin with the ex-football player and Pat Boone plays on the soundtrack! It’s almost wholesome!
Near-pornographic levels of violence and profanity aside, Shane Black’s scripts have a certain old-fashionedness at their core. They’re a throwback to the wee old days of storytelling, with characters whose rugged bitterness masks their desire to do the right thing (or as Jimmy Dix puts it, “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.”).
They’re classic tales, borrowing liberally from the tradition of pulp crime with their evocative titles and damaged protagonists battling the corrupt…est of the corrupt (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang straight-out takes its plot from Davis Dresser’s Bodies Are Where You Find Them, written under the name Brett Halliday).
Black famously broke through as a screenwriter at a young age, selling Lethal Weapon at 22. His scripts of the ‘80s and ‘90s are the films of a young man, and I mean that as a compliment. They’re the sort of movies you write in that confused pit of blackness known as the early 20s, when your head is filled with more popular culture than actual life experience (this line of maturity has now been moved to most people’s early 30s).
They’re the stories that come out of the head of someone who’s read hundreds of pulp novels and crime stories, and who sees the world through that filter. Being a man in these tales usually means getting the shit kicked out of you and existing one rung above homeless crackhead on the societal totem pole.
But it also means knowing that you’ve stuck to your guns, that even at your lowest, you still believe in something. That’s a far more powerful analogy for being young and confused than most so-called coming of age films. Plus, you know, shooting.
In its script version, The Last Boy Scout hews closer to the blurb on the film’s poster describing “two fallen heroes up against the gambling syndicate in pro sports” (this was not the pithiest of tag lines). There’s still the football player blowing everyone away at the start, and most of the most insane one-liners are still present, but there’s the sense that this was intended to be more of an old-fashioned noir with something to say about overcoming self-destruction and personal setbacks.
Ironically, a lot of what I like about The Last Boy Scout is what goes against this small, almost intimate thriller. Tony Scott’s music video visual style has undermined some decent scripts (see also: The Hunger or True Romance), but the man knows bombast.
There are certain bits in the script that I like better. Among other things, Milo-the-assassin directs snuff films on the side. Let’s not just make him a drug-dealing murdering henchman for a corrupt sports team owner, let’s make him an auteur!
But the script delves deeper into the main characters, really piling on the idea of their miserable, fallen lives. In a key scene, Jimmy Dix talks about a son he had with a junkie wife who lived for all of 17 minutes, “enough for one dream,” just before he attempts to do coke in Joe Hallenbeck’s bathroom.
Afterward, when Hallenbeck throws him out, he has a long, soul-searing monologue about his inability to save his wife and son, the hypocrisy of being thrown out of the NFL for gambling, and his feelings of utter worthlessness. It’s a heartbreaking bit that deepens both characters and speaks to the darkness at the story’s core. However, the film’s better without it. Sure, it’s deeper and adds emotional context to the story, but it’s also, well, fucking depressing.
In some ways, the script’s even more misogynistic (Joe Hallenbeck’s wife cheats on him with not just his best friend but two other guys, is nearly sent to a Mexican snuff film, and gets her breasts manhandled by one of Milo’s goons). Also, Hallenbeck’s kid was even more foul-mouthed, but at least she actually helps save her dad and doesn’t spend half the film as a hostage. She’s almost a precursor to Kick-Ass’ Hit Girl!
The most interesting change between the script and the final film is the third act. In the original version, Joe Hallenbeck’s backstory as a member of the Secret Service is slightly altered so that instead of stopping a corrupt senator from raping a woman, he brain-damages the senator’s son after he kills a woman and child in a car accident.
As it turns out, the brain-damaged son is working with the gambling syndicate against his dad, who incidentally gets killed before the final confrontation. The corrupt rich kid gets killed by the end, while in the final film, the senator is childless and merely gets punched out by Hallenbeck again.
As far as thematic changes go, this perhaps parallels the change to the original ending to Chinatown, where John Huston’s corrupt billionaire was supposed to be gunned down by Faye Dunaway’s character as a cleansing rain poured down. This was a powerful, ironic, thematically fitting ending, and not nearly as effective as the more downbeat one with “Forget it Jake – it’s Chinatown.”
The original ending has Hallenbeck and Dix literally conquer their demons in the form of the men who brought them low – Hallenbeck gets his revenge on the senator’s son, while Dix is able to take down the football team owner who got him hooked on pain medication and threw him away. By the end, the two are so infused with righteousness that they even give away the two million dollars in bribe money they’ve recovered to a cancer foundation!
But it still doesn’t work nearly as well as the filmed ending. Black’s version has the fallacy of the late-entering villain – the son enters on page 144 of the script, and he’s dead by page 150. Compare that to the revised action-movie climax with Bruce Willis slugging it out with Taylor Negron at a football game, knocking him backward into some helicopter blades, then dancing a jig just as he promised earlier.
Ridiculous and over-the-top? Sure, but it doesn’t feel out of place with the insanity we’ve already experienced. This is a script where Joe Hallenbeck outwits the bad guys not once but twice by distracting them with dirty jokes. This is a story that still opens with a drug-crazed football player blowing everyone on the field away. How realistic do you want this?
Black’s script to the original Lethal Weapon has these over-the-top action sequences, but gets more tense and intimate as the plot heads toward the climax. Tony Scott takes the opposite approach. Instead of trying to ground Black’s words in any kind of reality, Scott drop-kicks reality out the window.
On the one level, this is a street-level story about a couple of guys who stumble onto a corruption scheme. But when you place this in the context of a big-budget action movie, the absurdity of the plot and dialogue is underlined in triplicate.
It’s possible to read levels into the film that aren’t there – my favorite is Edgar Wright’s take on the final dialogue between Willis and Wayans riffing on how to be an action hero in the 1990s, with Willis quoting the “surf’s up” line from Lethal Weapon 2 that Shane Black didn’t write.
I don’t know if that dialogue was added in a later draft or if it was Willis and Wayans just riffing, but it sort of sums up not only The Last Boy Scout, but the action genre of the late 1980s. It’s the 1990s now, Willis tells us, and now saying something cool when you hit a bad guy isn’t surprising, it’s expected.
The Last Boy Scout is an old-school noir script whose ironic, 1980s qualities are brought to the forefront by Tony Scott’s choices. In the process, it became something less and more than its original conception – a film that lovingly embraces the worst excesses of an action blockbuster.
On some level, it’s still about fallen heroes who find a reason to keep going, but on the other, it’s about dancing a jig and commenting on action movie clichés. But it’s a film that knows what it is, and loves it. Perhaps a deeper, even better film would have been made of The Last Boy Scout from Shane Black’s original script. But it wouldn’t have been as much fun.