A piece for The Telegraph on Tony Scott and Shane Black’s compromised action classic The Last Boy Scout.
It’s behind a paywall though, so here you go:
Who killed The Last Boy Scout? Bruce Willis, Shane Black and the making of an action masterpiece
Published in The Telegraph on 31 May 2016
In 1989, Shane Black had it made. The 28-year-old screenwriter’s first script, a whip-smart buddy cop thriller called Lethal Weapon, had been made into a $120 million-grossing hit starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover and was largely credited with reinvigorating the modern action movie. He hosted wild, star-studded parties in the swimming pool of his glass, light-drenched Beverly Hills house. And Warner Bros had bought Black’s next screenplay for the record-breaking sum of $1.75m.
On paper The Last Boy Scout must have seemed a sure thing: a bulletproof package of director, writer, producer and star. Tony Scott, known for his visual pyrotechnics and a series of successes for Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) would be behind the camera. Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver would once again team with his bankable Die Hard star Bruce Willis. And then there was Black, the writer with Hollywood at his feet.
But The Last Boy Scout was a near-disaster, and a nightmarish film-making experience for all concerned. It was enough to convince Black that he needed creative control of his own work, leading to a move into directing – first with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang in 2005, then with the 2013 Marvel blockbuster Iron Man 3, and now with the critically acclaimed Seventies-set noir The Nice Guys, starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.
Why did it go so wrong? “There was an overabundance of alpha males on that project,” recalls Assistant Director James Skotchdopole (these days a producer, recently of the even more difficult The Revenant). “Bruce was at the height of his stardom, so was Joel, so was Tony and so was Shane. There were a lot of people who had a lot of opinions about what to do. There were some heated, early-Nineties, testosterone charged personalities on the line. It was a ‘charged environment’, shall we say.”
Despite the hard-partying public show he put on, Black had actually suffered a debilitating crisis of confidence while writing Lethal Weapon 2; ultimately he took only a story credit on the film, and ceding the screenplay after his first draft to Jeffrey Boam. So The Last Boy Scout marked a creative breakthrough and a comeback of sorts for Black. Having not been “doing much except mourning my life and smoking cigarettes and reading paperbacks … I sat down and transformed some of that bitterness into a character, the central focus of a private eye story,” he said in 2014.
One of Black’s great loves is hard-boiled pulp fiction. He took all of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’s chapter headings from Raymond Chandler stories, but is equally fond of the more low-rent works of prolific hack authors like Ross McDonald and Lester Dent (he remains attached to a film version of Dent’s Doc Savage novels, of which there are more than 150). The Last Boy Scout, as a script, channels a similar scurrilous energy.
We follow the shambolic, washed-up LA private detective Joe Hallenbeck, once the all-American Secret Service hero who saved the President’s life, but since disgraced and forced to take “charity” jobs from treacherous friends. One such sees him assigned as a bodyguard to a stripper called Cory, girlfriend of former NFL quarterback Jimmy Dix.
When Cory is inevitably murdered (women generally don’t do well in Black’s screenplays), Hallenbeck and Dix follow the tangled plot threads leading to corruption, conspiracy and bribery, from the Mean Streets to the Senate.
Lethal Weapon casts a long shadow. It’s easy to see how The Last Boy Scout could have been mistaken early on for a similar sort of film – an odd-couple actioner with comedy elements, the genus of Silver’s early success 48 Hrs – but it’s useful to go back to Black’s original vision. An early screenplay can be found online, and while plot-wise it’s broadly similar to the finished product, the principal difference is of tone. “A lot of ‘big action’ evolved over time and bloated a much less grandiose blueprint,” as he put it to the Thrilling Detective blog.
While the plot beats are the same, the film’s set pieces are largely absent, and it concludes entirely differently, in fogbound boats around Long Beach. The true villain turns out, in a last-act reveal, to be Senator Baynard’s brain damaged son. Nobody rides a horse across a crowded football stadium, as Dix (played by then up-and-coming comedy star Damon Wayans) does at the climax of the finished film. Nobody gets blended in the blades of an in-flight helicopter. Nobody dances a jig.
“It read really well,” says Skotchdopole of that early draft, “but it was yachts and water and massive amounts of what we call ‘June gloom’ in Los Angeles. Replicating that would just have been impractical.” Despite the enormous outlay for the screenplay, it would immediately have to be altered.
A more standard series of car chases would ultimately be substituted for the boat sequence. The henchman Milo’s unpleasant sideline in snuff movie production would also be jettisoned completely, and with it the threat to Hallenbeck’s cheating wife Sarah. Chelsea Field ended up with the thankless, much-reduced role. Willis’s line, “Fuck you, Sarah. You’re a lying bitch and if the cops weren’t here I’d spit in your face,” remains, incredibly, the film’s warmest emotional moment. But at least Field didn’t, as Sarah does on paper, end up naked and threatened with a chainsaw.
Having worked with Silver previously, Black wouldn’t necessarily have been too phased by this: the $1.75m he sold the script for was actually less than he could have earned elsewhere, but he wanted the familiarity of Silver Pictures. He may have regretted that decision when the sheer volume of the required changes became apparent.
“I was forced to do more rewriting on that movie than on anything else I’ve done,” he told journalist Simon Braund recently. “There was tremendous pressure from the studio to get Bruce Willis and have this be a follow-up to Die Hard. He was reluctant, and rightly so: ‘This whole movie is about me saving my wife. I did that before.’ So they said, ‘Okay, let’s minimise the wife and, and while we’re at it, add a big finale. There was a general pressure to somehow make it bigger.”
Further impetus came, during production, from the bomb-like underperformance of Willis and Silver’s disastrous action comedy Hudson Hawk. They both needed another hit.
“Bigger”, of course, was entirely Silver’s wheelhouse. Superficially it would also seem a perfect fit for the surface gloss of Scott. But closer examination reveals that director and producer actually had very different sensibilities.
The ferociously driven Silver had a proven action formula to which he was passionately devoted. Action movies should be perfectly tooled machines, with a “whammo” moment every 10 minutes to keep the audience from getting restless. “Something dramatic and jolting must happen,” he explained. “The audience wants to feel the charge of that action. That has been proved to be a commercially viable formula. I’m proud of that. It’s entertainment.”
Silver had perfected that formula, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, through the likes of 48 Hrs, two Lethal Weapons, two Die Hards, Commando, two Predators and Road House, and his magic touch would continue subsequently through more Lethal Weapons and, biggest of all, the Matrix trilogy.
“He’s obsessed with what I call ‘all good parts’ filmmaking,” mused screenwriter Daniel Waters in a New Yorker profile of Silver. “What would be the climax in a normal movie is the next scene in a Joel Silver movie. His approach is, ‘Why do we have to set up so many building blocks to get to an explosive climax when you can have the explosive climax right now and have another one in the next scene?’”
“He’s insane,” said Silver’s Demolition Man star Sylvester Stallone fondly, “with long, horrible fits of sanity.” He compared Silver to a fighter pilot riding as a passenger. “As soon as you hit a little bit of turbulence, he’s right away going to throw the guy out of the window and take over the steering.”
Scott, by contrast, was more enamoured of the slow burn. That might seem like nonsense when considering his reputation for high-octane blockbusters: the widescreen action, techno-fetishism and permanent-sunset look of his Simpson/Bruckheimer films unquestionably paved the way for Michael Bay. But that was arguably a lucrative groove into which he’d fallen accidentally: his commercial eye serving him well.
His debut feature, 1983’s vampire horror The Hunger, starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and David Bowie, is dense with erotic atmosphere. “His forte was getting beautiful looking frames,” says editor Mark Helfrich. “Everyone smokes in his films, and he loved flaring the light off the lens, and billowing curtains, and having birds fly across the shot: anything to give his shots texture.”
Scott told Empire’s Adam Smith that his original vision for Top Gun was along the lines of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – “in the bowels of this aircraft carrier” – until he was disabused of that notion by his producers and realised it was about “rock n roll stars against blue skies”.
His frenetic experiments with form would reach an apotheosis in the berserk Domino in 2005, but his most personal projects saw him drawn to darker crime stories riven with nihilism. The Mexican-set Revenge (1990) recalls the gnarly late-period Peckinpah of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, as does the bleak Man on Fire (2004) in which the mayhem doesn’t kick off for well over an hour. Like Black, Scott had less of a taste for “action” than he did for proper violence.
“You need shock and impact and a genuine sense of peril whenever violence takes place,” as Black put it. “It can’t just be a crazy circus with no jeopardy.” The Last Boy Scout’s infamous, menacing “If you touch me again I’ll kill you” sequence, in which Willis casually kills Kim Coates by punching his nose up into his brain, is pure Black.
(Intriguingly, it’s also in the novelisation of Lethal Weapon, which was presumably based on an early draft of that script. We might surmise that, having failed to see the – actually not anatomically possible – nose/brain gag make it to the screen on that occasion, Black had saved it up for future use.)
Having worked with Simpson and Bruckheimer three times, Scott was obviously used to big-personality producers, but found his relationship with Silver very different. “There was a familial atmosphere between Tony and Don and Jerry,” says Skotchdopole, who worked with Scott nine times between 1990 and 2005 (“If his wife ever needed to know anything, she’d call me!”). “They were partners in a sense, whereas Tony and Joel were contemporaries in a way, but very different.”
Scott recalled being “lower down the totem pole” than his producer and star, although Skotchdopole is dismissive of the widely Internet-quoted story that Scott was forced to film some of The Last Boy Scout’s hastily cobbled together scenes against his will. “Tony was such a strong-minded director, very clear in his determination and his vision, I would have thought it would be very hard to get him to shoot something he didn’t want to,” he says. “Even if they thought they were doing it their way … he would’ve never just photographed a scene to go through the motions. He would have fought to the very bitter end. And he did!”
If the shoot itself was fraught, the situation didn’t improve in post-production, thanks to Scott’s facility for filming excessive coverage with multiple cameras. On his previous film, Days of Thunder, he’d shot 1.6 million feet of film, of which 12,000 was ultimately used.
Similar figures aren’t available for The Last Boy Scout, but Helfrich – one of at least seven editors on the film – vividly recalls the Sisyphean task of sifting through mountains of raw material. His colleague Mark Goldblatt – renowned for his brutal quick-cut style – recalls it as one the most painful experiences of his entire career and declines to talk about it further.
“There was more footage shot for The Last Boy Scout than on any film I had ever worked on,” Helfrich shudders. He recalls with incredulity that the work of previous editors appeared to have been rejected, taken apart and put back into the daily reels: “there were still splices all over the place.”
Tellingly, the process was eventually completed when Stuart Baird was parachuted in. Baird had been Richard Donner’s editor through The Omen, Superman and the Lethal Weapon films (he’d also worked on Die Hard 2). Silver hadn’t come out of principal photography with a Lethal Weapon, but he was damn sure going to emerge from the edit with one. “Stuart came in as the General,” says Helfrich. “He had his orders to get it done. He was the finisher.” His arrival was so late in the day that, while he’s credited on screen, his name didn’t make the posters.
The Last Boy Scout reached US cinemas in December of 1991 (February ’92 in the UK), just six months after Scott finished photography and seven months after the release of Hudson Hawk. While not a massive hit, it made $60m at the box office from an estimated $30m budget, and performed well subsequently on video. To a muted extent, a victory – or at least a score draw – had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.
All concerned must have breathed a sigh of relief: it had looked like a potential disaster, but somehow they got away with it. Black and Scott’s personal visions of a hard-boiled noir may have been replaced by little more than a serviceable – if gonzo – actioner interchangeable with any number of others, but it wasn’t a bad movie per se.
Lots of people liked it. Lots of people still do. Edgar Wright said it was a touchstone for his genre spoof Hot Fuzz: “an action thriller framed by flaming air quotes”, as if Scott’s contempt for the mess he found himself helming was tangible in the celluloid.
Willis staggered a little immediately afterwards, with the ill-advised likes of the comedy Death Becomes Her and the erotic thriller Color of Night – as well as the pedestrian Striking Distance, in which he got to mess about in boats after all (“I edited that too,” chuckles Helfrich. “He still had that terrible hairpiece. He hadn’t accepted that he was going bald even then.”) A year or so later he’d enjoy something of a career renaissance, first with Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and then with Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. Both directors persuaded him to appear clean-headed.
“There were times when I was less than humble, yeah,” he told Playboy’s David Sheff in 2007, reflecting on his “asshole” years. “There were times I was less than gracious. There were years when I worked the entire calendar year just going from film to film, and I was moving fast and was unappreciative of the people around me. Maybe it was arrogance or defensiveness, and I was protected by a group of people who kept me walled in. My default mode now is to be appreciative that I’m here. But there were times when I wasn’t.”
The Last Boy Scout was his final film with Silver. When he came back as John McLean for the third Die Hard, it was without the series’ former producer. But it’s intriguing to note that their final film together did leave a legacy. While detractors were quick to denounce The Last Boy Scout as a Die Hard knock-off, the shabby John McLane of Die Hard With a Vengeance bears much more of a resemblance to Joe Hallenbeck than he does to his previous form.
Scott, too, never worked with Silver again, and his immediate next film was True Romance, scripted by Tarantino and featuring a film producer character, played by Saul Rubinek, who seems oddly recognisable. Rubinek claims he wasn’t deliberately doing a Silver impersonation in his audition, but it’s fairly clear why Scott might have warmed to his performance.
And Black went on to break his own record once again, selling the screenplay for The Long Kiss Goodnight for $4m in 1995. After a relatively quiet subsequent decade, he came back – with Silver as his producer – in 2005 with the noirish Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, the seeds of which are clearly visible in its immature predecessor.
“That was the movie that made me decide I should try directing myself someday,” Black says now. “Not because Tony did a bad job, but because there were so many things I wished had played differently. What you got was a movie that was occasionally sparked by the talents involved into brilliance, but overshadowed by the general sense of a project not reaching its potential. I thought, ‘Some day I’m going to take on a movie like this and fight to make it the way I want.’”
The Nice Guys is released in the UK on June 3
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