Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Friends Can't Be Perfect

If anything, I’ve tried to keep my mind open through the years, stay open to the possibilities of what I’m going to respond to in films whether we’re talking about high or low art, inscrutable elegance or sleaze-filled nastiness. There are some people out there who seem to feel that the films they like are the films they like and they’re so set in those ways that they have long since passed the point where they can waver in those beliefs. Therefore, anything that goes against this dogmatic viewpoint is simply incorrect. Wrong. Bad. I disagree with this way of thinking at least partly because it indicates a certain closed-off mindset but also because it seems to completely suck out any enjoyment of movies. It’s good to analyze films, it’s good to break them down, leading to a fuller appreciation of what they are and what they can be. But there also needs to be pure enjoyment out of it all which is what sometimes seems to get forgotten. This leads to my honest admission is that I haven’t always been a fan of director Tony Scott through the years. Not that I don’t appreciate a good joke about TOP GUN but in my younger days I found his style of visual overkill not a little joyless and downright pummeling. But when TRUE ROMANCE came out in 1993 I found myself not only loving the film for Tarantino’s script but the mix of that with the style Scott brought to it all that seemed absolutely right. As the years went on I continued to find myself admiring some of his films including CRIMSON TIDE, ENEMY OF THE STATE, with MAN ON FIRE in particular thrilling and undeniably powerful in its intensity, a huge step forward for him. Even going back to the very beginning of his feature career, some of the best moments in THE HUNGER remain vivid in my mind years after the last time I saw it. And UNSTOPPABLE, which turned out to be his last film, was an absolute blast and compelling in all the right ways. And then in August of this year the director left us through horrible means that remain baffling and truly sad.
The funny thing is that Tony Scott and his filmmaking style have become so ubiquitous in what has become common cinematic language that even if I haven’t always liked it I’ve gotten used to it so by this point it’s safe to say that it’s ingrained in what I expect from the modern day action film. In the wake of his death I rewatched BEVERLY HILLS COP II which I’ve never really liked and in all honesty still don’t but I’ve just gotten so used to whatever it is--a flashback to the Simpson-Bruckheimer 80s, a reminder of Brigitte Nielsen, memories of a childhood spent seeing movies at Yonkers Movieland, whatever, I’m just kind of glad it’s there in case I need a hit of that particular brand of cinematic crack. Because to be completely honest every now and then I kind of do. And I’ve more than come around on THE LAST BOY SCOUT which I also was hesitant towards way back when, film school-era snobbery I suppose, preferring the DIE HARD/LETHAL WEAPON end of producer Joel Silver’s oeuvre, then such a major part of pop culture (recent news that his long association with Warner Brothers ended made me sad, it really did). I like it more than I did then, but still do have some minor issues and maybe as insane as the film is I almost wish it could be crazier or maybe just cut loose from the expected action formula even further than it does. But in all this mixture of Tony Scott/Joel Silver/Shane Black/Bruce Willis/Michael Kamen that is gloriously violent and profane in all the right ways…ultimately what is there not to like? Can’t I just enjoy myself? Head or gut? Ask me how fat your wife is. Turn up the volume. Cue the explosions. Let’s have some fun.
Private detective Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) hasn’t even started his new job when he discovers the one who recommended him, best friend Mike Mathews (Bruce McGill) sleeping with his wife which is shortly followed by being killed when his car explodes. And then he’s barely able to begin his assignment of protecting stripper Cory (Halle Berry) who believes someone is threatening her when she’s brutally killed by gunmen in the middle of the street. And so Joe along with Cory’s boyfriend, ex-football star Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) team up to find out what happened to Cory leading to a conspiracy involving the owner of the Los Angeles Stallions owner Shelly Marcone (Noble Willingham), Joe’s own pre-teen daughter Darian (Danielle Harris), the Senator who former secret service agent Joe has a history with and a hell of a lot of gunfire.
More than anything when I think of Tony Scott’s films, whether I like them or not, it’s the undeniable energy that comes to mind, a determined force that brings unfettered life to the feeling that there’s a determination to get the footage needed for this film in the can at all costs as well as a sense of joy that, I don’t care what you say, has never been present in any of Michael Bay’s films. And when he’s faced with having to shoot something as ridiculous as Bruce Willis running down the middle of the street in slow motion firing two guns at once it’s like he just says, “Fuck it” and films it with every ounce of the most iconic gusto possible. In the best moments of THE LAST BOY SCOUT, it builds to a fever pitch of excitement through every bad joke and nasty comeback that gets spit out in a way that’s kind of glorious. It’s a style that also has its drawbacks—with all those long lenses and smoke there’s sometimes the honest feeling that even in close-ups we’re not necessarily getting a good look at anyone’s faces and there are moments where, yeah, I wish he’d just linger a few beats longer than he does. I sat down to look at THE LAST BOY SCOUT for the first time in several years in memoriam to its director and found myself almost thinking more about the film in relation to some of the people Scott was working with in collaboration, possibly not always that easily.
Throughout its 105 minutes THE LAST BOY SCOUT seems like a unique combination of what I always think of as the Simpson-Bruckheimer aesthetic as displayed in the ferocity of his visual approach mixed with what was then the house style of the Joel Silver excessive violence done in good time 80s pop-style stable, also represented here by the presence of Bruce Willis, Shane Black and even composer Michael Kamen who only worked with Scott this one time--the typical bombast that comes from his action music familiar from many of the films produced by Silver during this period seems oddly like an afterthought as if for the director the feel just didn’t go with his style so it was kind of buried in the mix.
As for Shane Black and his script (Story by Black & Greg Hicks, Screenplay by Black) the plotting is very much of the LETHAL WEAPON school—maybe a little too much, it could be argued—but, though part of the film’s reputation seems to come from how allegedly misogynistic it is there’s also the first thematic inklings later seen in his 2005 directorial debut KISS KISS BANG BANG’s exploration of how women can be treated by the men in charge in the noir-tinged city of angels. But as intriguing as this plays during certain moments there really are just a few inklings of this concept since the focus is ultimately on Joe, Jimmy, the corrupt world of professional football and the revelations of the gambling conspiracy they uncover, so maybe Black didn’t fully know how to address these thoughts burrowing in his brain at this stage, or in this particular storyline, to do something with it that would make people think of it all as more than simple misogyny.
Black’s LAST BOY SCOUT screenplay sold for what was then a record-breaking $1.75 million and it’s strange to be talking about this film that celebrated its 20th anniversary last year (released 12/13/91—after all, some of the best cinematic Christmas gifts to the world are the most violent) like it’s a piece of ancient history now. The pairing of Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans did decent business—while never becoming the sensation that LETHAL WEAPON was it also didn’t fall as short commercially as what happened with Black’s next big spec sale THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT several years later. More than any number of films made around ’91-’92, THE LAST BOY SCOUT has survived because of its humor and action and just general over-the-topness and, yeah, I like it more than I did then. I probably laugh out loud sitting in my apartment watching this more than I do with some outright comedies and when things propel forward at a nonstop rate once we hit the hour mark the combination of humor, action and incessant nastiness (“Touch me again and I’ll kill you”) feels like it all mixes together in the right way more than it doesn’t. Sure, some of the most memorable touches have more to do with Shane Black’s dialogue and no surprise how quotable some of these lines still are--there are plenty of lines that I could single out but in context ‘we’re being beat up by the inventor of Scrabble’ might be my favorite.
Thinking about all this also reminds me that maybe, like BEVERLY HILLS COP II, THE LAST BOY SCOUT reveals that directing scenes for comedy wasn’t always Tony Scott’s strong suit—for that matter, I still can’t quite get onboard with the broad satire in DOMINO but I’m open to trying it again one of these days. Watching COP II and SCOUT close together, each film at the very least containing similar establishing shots of the Beverly Hills Police Department, actually reveals how much stronger he already he was by this point just four and a half years later, pushing both the actors and action in a way that just feels more ferocious, more energetic, not as fixed in to whoever the star was and willing to go more towards the absurdly profane world he wanted to present. It feels like he’s moving away from being so much under the thumb of Simpson-Bruckheimer towards using that visual style for his own purposes as well as being an early example of not only populating his films with the strongest actors possible whether the size of the part warranted it or not, he makes those moments pop in a way that other directors aren’t always interested in exploring. And it’s a nice, nasty look at L.A. as well—in addition to making it seem like cars blowing up or getting punched in the face are just normal, everyday events the light shining down during daylight hours always seems to be that of a Los Angeles that has just been rained on, making it not as welcoming as it often seems.
Its presentation of a Shane Black script also reveals some of which elements he was interested in when compared to other directors working with that material—Richard Donner in directing LETHAL WEAPON (as well as its sequels which Black stepped away from) seemed to think nothing of basically stopping the plot for extended periods for no reason other than to let us just enjoy the characters. There’s no equivalent of Mel Gibson trying to talk a jumper down from the roof of a building and I’ve never read Shane Black’s script for THE LAST BOY SCOUT but if such scenes were in there it feels like the sort of thing that Tony Scott doesn’t have much use for, instead continually insistent on propelling the plot forward as fast as possible (or at least giving the impression of this) which prevents it from ever being dull and works just great when it comes to the action scenes—the propulsive nature of the car chase to the Coliseum framed from mostly low angles moves so fast that it barely even has a chance to announce itself as ‘the car chase’—but also makes me wish there could have been a little more breathing room, at least to build the relationship between the leads. The notorious attention-grabbing opening sequence doesn’t do much for the plot beyond grab the attention of anyone watching (still, it certainly does that) and Taylor Negron’s Mr. Joshua-equivalent bad guy doesn’t even turn up until over an hour in—of course, he’s the voice heard on the phone in the opening and considering how Gary Busey and Mitchell Ryan were presented in a ‘introduce the bad guys’ scene in their movie I wonder if one was originally here too.
It could be said that until Joe Hallenbeck is captured leading to the events that quickly spiral into the climax plotwise the second act doesn’t consist of much beyond the two of them wandering around looking for clues, finally almost bonding in the requisite hanging out before the tension between the two boils over. In other words, it almost feels like not quite enough happens for the friendship to build to the fadeout, that Scott doesn’t have the patience to hold on the two stars just bickering with each other for a few minutes. Richard Donner wasn’t always the greatest at tonal shifts (his films also have an incessantly cheerful pop flavor that, truthfully, makes me wonder how well they’re going to age) but he at least knew that it was sometimes a good thing to at least do that. When you are going to provide that energy in your films at the expense of every single other element sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes it isn’t. That’s just the way it is.
For Bruce Willis I suppose this film was considered a minor comeback after the response to HUDSON HAWK earlier in the year but since that film has a villain who proclaims “I’m the villain” and THE LAST BOY SCOUT has a bad guy who announces “I am the bad guy” so maybe they’re not that different after all. Either way, Willis slips into Hallenbeck with every ounce of contempt for everyone oozing through his stubble with a bitterness going beyond his smirk, a decent guy who’s lost his faith in a cynical world where heroes don’t matter anymore. I can appreciate an action movie hero who looks at himself in the mirror and says, “Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You’re gonna lose.” Just like I do every single morning. He makes it work. He and Damon Wayans play off each other all right but never seem to fully click, maybe because Wayans doesn't quite have the right weight for the part. This time around I found myself wondering how this would have played with Eddie Murphy sticking to the Shane Black dialogue. Chelsea Field of Blake Edwards’ SKIN DEEP and Danielle Harris of HALLOWEEN 4 & 5 spar well with Willis as Hallenbeck’s wife and daughter, each seeming more than willing to get in his face with their insults, but of course they’re now overshadowed by Halle Berry as Jimmy’s ill-fated girl Cory who’s in and out in just a few scenes. She’s raw in some of her line readings, but looking absolutely gorgeous she’s already clearly got something. Taylor Negron oozes his way across the screen as ‘the bad guy’, pulling off just the right balance of making it seem like he’s enjoying playing the bad guy and making it genuinely seem like he’s thinking the most vicious thoughts imaginable. It’s also fun to see some of the familiar character actors who turn up throughout like Bruce McGill, Clarence Felder and Joe Santos as Hallenbeck’s cop nemesis. He isn’t playing his ROCKFORD FILES character but, even so, I’m not quite sure what the difference is.
I think I could have had more fun back then. I’m referring to the first time I saw THE LAST BOY SCOUT on opening weekend but probably also to a lot of things as well. I’m more willing to now, especially because I’m all too aware of how much of a schmuck I am. Not to mention that it’s also nice to be reminded of an action movie that really is a fucking action movie. As well as being a movie that says you shouldn’t let the good part of you die in a cynical world. It’s a message that rings true today since, as Hallenbeck says at the end, ol’ Satan Claus is still out there. But thinking about it now I do wonder how those involved with THE LAST BOY SCOUT felt about the finished film. Tony Scott didn’t work with Joel Silver again, not to mention either of the stars—at that point he was still a few years away from hooking up with Denzel Washington for five movies. Silver and Bruce Willis, who struck gold with DIE HARD 1 and 2 then had to deal with all the HUDSON HAWK brickbats earlier in ‘91, apparently parted ways after this. Damon Wayans never became the big time movie star he seemed like he might for about five minutes and several years later co-starred with Adam Sandler in BULLETPROOF, definitely one of the worst buddy action movies of any kind ever made. THE LAST BOY SCOUT deservedly has its fans but maybe has fallen through the seat cushions a little as if it was a film made by certain people when they badly needed a hit and afterwards just moved on to other things. When Edgar Wright attempted to program the film at a festival and get Scott come to discuss it the director convinced him to change the selection to TRUE ROMANCE which, it should be remembered, features a Joel Silver-like producer played by Saul Rubinek. Maybe THE LAST BOY SCOUT is meant to be kind of the ugly stepchild of all this but it wears that badge with violently profane pride, an admirable and valuable piece of Tony Scott’s cinematic legacy. One that I may not always be able to embrace, but deep down have a certain amount of love for anyway.


Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

With this film, if Emily Blake approves then that's all the praise I need. Thanks very much, Emily!

Roger said...

"We’re being beat up by the inventor of Scrabble." Agreed, best line in the '90s.

I also thought this film was too dark/ ugly the first time I saw it, but it's become my favorite Black script and Scott film, where he began to understand style could contribute to substance (that bright, grimy LA landscape and freeways). The balance of humor, action, and Willis's detective is exhilarating. A celebration and a deconstruction of the action film.

Great work, keep it up.

Cheers, Roger

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I actually watched it once again just a few weeks ago and still loved it.

Thanks very much for the kind words all these years later.