Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) is a former Secret Service agent-turned-detective. Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) is a former football star dealing with an addiction to painkillers. Both men are damaged goods, counted out by everyone they know. But when Joe is hired by Jimmy's girlfriend, who dies shortly thereafter, the unlikely pair are forced to work together to find out who killed her and why. Following a trial of evidence and bodies, they end up discovering a vast conspiracy that forces them to confront the ghosts of their past.
The Last Boy Scout is a pretty typical example of Shane Black's style. While it has action, the story is basically a hardboiled detective story, and the people tasked with solving this mystery are not ubanebrains ala Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot; they are anti-heroes with weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans's characters fit this to a T.
The 'boy scout' of the title, Hallenbeck lost his job after he attacked a senator for beating a woman. He used to have ideals, but being punished for trying to do the right thing has turned him into an empty introvert who does not care about anyone. Jimmy Dix is a former football star who fell into depression and drug abuse when his family died in a car crash. Like Joe, he has lost the will to live, and survives on one night stands, drink and painkillers. Both of these guys are burnouts who have given up on life, and have been counted out by everyone around them. Like the heroes of Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys they are in need of redemption.
The best of the supporting characters is Darian, Joe's daughter, played by horror icon Danielle Harris. Acid-tongued and wise beyond her years, she sets the blueprint for the Black child protagonists we see in Iron Man 3 and last year's The Nice Guys.
The other great character is Taylor Negron's Milo, the villain's effete henchman. All of Shane Black's movies feature a strong antagonist who is a mirror of one of the heroes (think Mr Joshua (Gary Busey) in Lethal Weapon, Timothy (Craig Bierko) in The Long Kiss Goodnight or Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) in Iron Man 3). They represent what our hero could become - the thing that separates them is a sliver of humanity that they rediscover over the course of the story.
This is one movie where the action beats are less interesting than the showdowns that precede them:
- the 'fat wife' exchange between Joe and the hitman in the alley
- the scene where Joe and Jimmy are beaten up by the 'inventors of Scrabble'
- Joe with the hand puppet in the woods
- the final confrontation in Sheldon Marcone's (Noble Willingham) office
With a decade's distance, my feelings toward the film have mellowed a bit. The movie is still funny, and the characters (particularly Negron's Milo and Harris's Darian) are memorable, but there is a layer of cynicism and brutality over the movie which does not come across well. There is a mean-spiritedness to the film which is lacking from other Shane Black joints of this era.
The film had a tortured production, with endless re-writes, stars who did not get along (surprising considering how well they work onscreen), and a feud between Bruce Willis and producer Joel Silver that saw them part ways (delaying Die Hard 3 in the process). Black had to undertake a series of re-writes to include more action scenes, including the finale in the football stadium. You can still see the outline of Black's original concept under the pyrotechnics, and it is the character relationships and interactions which make the movie so watchable.
I love this movie, but of all the Shane Black movies that have been made, this is one where a remake might not be a bad idea.