Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout is book-ended by scenes of violence taking place in football arenas, time-honored spaces of an American pastime. In the opening sequence, a young player walks onto the field and opens fire – an ominous opener that seems especially bleak this far removed from 1991. In the showstopper climax, a sniper stationed high above the action on field is attacked by one of our leads, eventually gunned down by the police and – in the film’s Grand Guignol moment – then falls into the spinning rotor of a helicopter, rendering his body into a mere splatter of blood. In these moments, The Last Boy Scout feels most like Scott’s film, yet everything in between is explicitly from the pen of its writer, Shane Black. Only this time, Black’s war isn’t on Christmas. It’s on America.
The first half of our buddy duo in The Last Boy Scout is Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) a self professed “lowlife” private detective, fitting the mold of Black’s other PI characters – Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson) in The Long Kiss Goodnight, Holland March (Ryan Gosling) in The Nice Guys – who are self-deprecating, unlucky with women and, perhaps most uncomfortably, have a knack for casual homophobia. He’s also the only Black character to come close to the reckless abandon of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in Lethal Weapon with a disregard for life both his own and most of those around him. The second half is Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans), an ex-quarterback with a cocaine habit, a bad temper and a penchant for wearing $650 leather pants. While staging an interracial buddy pairing in all three movies, Black did not place the divisive issue in race but in age (Lethal Weapon), gender (The Long Kiss Goodnight), and class (The Last Boy Scout) as the aforementioned $650 pants stands like the elephant in the room being mentioned here and there.
It’s no secret that Black has a thing for Christmas, with the films mentioned above and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang all taking place on or around the holiday. The Last Boy Scout may be his least Christmas focused buddy film, with the only real calling card a drawing of and subsequent remarks about Satan Claus who can serve as a sort of blank face villain for the various real life bad guys strewn throughout the film. Whereas Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight have very clear antagonists who are exceptionally slimy characters, The Last Boy Scout has an ensemble of unsavory criminals ready to stand in line to have their noses shoved into their brains by Hallenbeck or be victim to an exploding shotgun shell courtesy of Dix. And it runs the classist gamut from “lowlife” street criminals, to hired assassins, woman beating politicians and corrupt sports team owners. Black isn’t at war with Santa Claus anymore, he’s at war with Satan Claus that stands for a level of corruption and violence that seems eerily prescient.
And this ultimately is Hallenbeck’s show. Willis portrays the character with a level of both pathos and zeal that could likely manifest if Hudson Hawk and John McClane from Die Hard with a Vengeance became one. He handles Black’s narcissistic and profanity-laced script deftly, with a comic timing not paralleled in a Black script brought to screen until 2016’s The Nice Guys. Working with dialogue that is intent to deliver a one liner or punchline with every conversation, Hallenbeck becomes the star of the show. The nihilist lowlife with an adulterous wife, a troubled kid, a dead partner and a new friend who may like him less than he likes himself, and he never passes up a chance to piss someone off when given the opportunity. Take this choice exchange between a potential assailant and Hallenbeck:
Potential Assailant: “You’re real cool for a guy about to take a bullet
Hallenbeck: “For fucking your wife, I’ll take two.”
And it’s this attitude that carries both Hallenbeck and the film itself. Absent is the vulnerability of Samuel L. Jackson’s Henessey from The Long Kiss Goodnight, absent is Ryan Gosling’s March’s humility in the face of danger. Both Hallenbeck and The Last Boy Scout are defiant, mean bastards that seem both out of time and place now as well as the time they are a product of. This is 1991 cinema for a 1970s audience.
By the time we get to the climax featuring the second wave of violence during a major sporting event, Hallenbeck and Dix have killed people, been framed for people they didn’t kill, watched others get murdered and have bonded over the perils of drug abuse, the state of American politics, the secrets of women – “Water is wet. The sky is blue. Women have secrets. Who gives a fuck?” – and have handled both six million dollars and a bomb meant to hurt a large crowd. Once our sniper at the stadium is dead, the most corrupt of the corrupt have accidentally blown themselves to pieces, and Hallenbeck’s marriage is potentially sorted out, there is only one thing left: Satan Claus. “Well, there’s not much more to tell than that. Water’s wet, the sky’s blue. And old Satan Claus, Jimmy, he’s out there. And he’s just getting stronger.”