Shane Black knows his hard-boiled detective fiction. This last decade he showed this in his directorial debut, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, which referenced classic fiction—real and imagined—but he showcased his knowledge even earlier in The Last Boy Scout, a film directed by the 1990s’ Tony Scott: Scott before his compulsion to constantly shift frame rate and and perspective began in earnest, when the action was still on the screen—in explosions, chases, etc.—rather than of it. Within this Brucksimbaysilverian world of bad guys, worse guys and the explosive elements which serve to join and (permanently) separate them, at its heart, is a recognizable detective story.
For all his hits and misses and mediocrities from final movie standpoints, Scott generally recognizes and directs good scenes—sometimes they don’t coalesce so well, but when taken individually, his scenes do not lack for content and image. The Last Boy Scout begins with three such scenes, back to back to back, which are not only well shot (if somewhat cheesy—an unfortunate side effect of Scott’s tendency to embrace current fashions, both within a film world and throughout its construction), but which integrate the viewer into the film (another skill of Scott’s, one which is displayed, and abused, in the aforementioned shifting frame rates and perspectives, and in his high contrast imagery). The film starts with a fake ad for a football program, intercut with the film’s titles: football clips and a singer surrounded by flag-clad cheerleaders and a brass band, all in front of a giant American flag, accompanied by a song, “Friday night’s a great night for football,” and laser-inspired graphics with the cast and crew names. This scene is followed by a hyperbolically dark locker room to rainy-night football game in which a blackmailed football player does whatever it takes to score. Individually, these scenes introduce the viewer to a recognizable universe: we have advertisers playing to our internalized desires—sex and violence—and to our sense of patriotism—not only for nation, but for teams—making connections between these with images, music and lyrics; we have an exaggerated representation of what we see on television to ease us into what we’re about to see both through familiarity—there are commercials on my television, too!—and through superiority—I recognize how silly this all is, I see past your mind tricks; we see a football game, and we see the real violence of the movie’s world, and the people it affects. Together, these scenes effectively involve the viewer: the commercial tells the viewer that this might be real; the football game furthers this impression, then transforms it into dream, and we, the viewer, fall into a hundred-minute slumber. These scenes also serve to disorient the viewer, juxtaposing the familiar with the unfamiliar (for most), the bright and gaudy with the dark and dirty (both, however, retaining elements of sexy), the playful with the murderous, preparing us for a mystery, telling us what to expect (and introducing a Chekhov in the form of LA Colts’ owner played by Noble Willingham).
The third scene, finally, tells us how to expect the mystery: in the form of traditional detective fiction. Bruce Willis plays Joe Hallenbeck, a hard drinking private eye so devoted to his cases and his personal morality that his life is a mess. We first see him asleep in his car, denigrated by passing youths, but quick and aware of what’s going on even in his handicapped state. He does not awake when the three toss a dead squirrel into his car, onto him—an act which, though unpleasant, is neither morally wrong, nor relevant to him—but he wakes when they move to steal his watch, pulling out his gun before any physical contact might rouse him. We know he is observant when it is important, and that he is ready to take action at all times.
An exotic dancer (Halle Berry) hires Hallenbeck to protect her, fearful as she is that someone may be out to get her. Her boyfriend, an ex-football player (Damon Wayans) dishonorably discharged from the NFL, ends up joining Hallenbeck in his search for who is responsible for the evil deeds, and the two follow the typical (b)romantic arc of distrust => acceptance => like => stupid mistake/decision/misunderstanding => dislike => reconciliation => closer than ever. The first half/three-quarters of the film follows standard hard-boiled conventions, with blackmail, (seemingly) sexually-manipulative women (often more innocent than their past actions may imply), and a small case becoming much larger, involving wealthy, morally bankrupt characters only interested in serving their own interests, murders, betrayals, and plenty of opportunities for (our surprisingly resilient) protagonist to be beaten up, all ultimately revealing weariness at the world’s loss of innocence. The conventions on display are without a doubt familiar, and they probably come off as cheap for this reason to most. But for those who enjoy these types of characters, these types of story lines, for those who recognize that Shane Black is not only using the conventions, but he is referencing them, for those even only moderately familiar with Black’s milieu (such as myself) and aware that he returns to these because he enjoys them (rather than because they are popular), watching this familiar story unfurl is like listening to a band that you like homaging one of their influences, another band you like: it may not be as good as the real thing, but it is comfortable and easily enjoyable.
One risky choice made for the film was to make Willis’ character indefatigably awesome. No matter what he does, he does well. The introduction with the three kids and the watch is only one example (he knows what’s up when it concerns him, when it doesn’t, as with the squirrel, he is awesome even in his obliviousness), soon followed by his discovery of spousal infidelity, and escape from an inescapable situation (through comic timing!). And he is always ready with a pertinent quip, never suffering from l’esprit de l’escalier. When he errs it is either because someone else gets involved, or because it is something he legitimately doesn’t care about, i.e., something that doesn’t either morally outrage him, or involve someone/something he loves. This is risky because having too much awesome in a main character tends to alienate an audience; it’s okay if a supporting character is awesome (this includes mentor roles in ensemble pieces, such as SHIMURA Takashi as Kambei in Seven Samurai, who is likewise awesome), but a main character must balance that awesomeness with humility and/or restraint. As a tangent, this is why so many Nicholas Cage roles fail: he often plays characters who are awesome, but they are (generally) neither humble, nor restrained. Bruce Willis, on the other hand, has made a career of playing the restrained awesome. He is only sometimes humble (and even when not humble, his characters tend to be matter-of-fact neutral about it, rather than proud), but as John McTiernan (I believe) said about Willis’ Die Hard character, he is (almost always) reluctant. He does not parade his awesomeness, he uses it because he must: he’s like Bruce Lee or an ancient Master, only unleashing his ability for the good of others. Bruce Willis is why the risk pays off in this movie.
Where the movie fails, however, is in its gratuitous weltering in late-1980s/early-1990s violence. It is over-the-top, yes, and perhaps it is intended as some sort of comment, but when it is placed within a world containing Hallenbeck, a movie awesome with a hardboiled detective’s code of honor, it becomes inconsistent to try to both praise the abilities of his character, and to decry the consequences of his abilities. When you choose to present a world with bad guys who are absolutely, irredeemably bad, thus eliminating the subtlety in your movie world’s ethics, to try and make a comment on the evils of violence by presenting extreme violence as the best or only course of action by the “good” (read: less bad) guys becomes difficult if not impossible. Of course, that is if that is what this movie was trying to do, which I doubt—I believe this was, as mentioned earlier, an example of Scott sticking to the trends of the time. Thus, we are left with a skilful film (made by skilful people), characters we can like, a story and plot we can appreciate (if we enjoy detective fiction tropes), but an artifact of the past too filled with fads of the time to be timeless.