If Bruce Willis had been a star in the ’40s and ’50s, he’d have been a staple of film noirs – the tough, smart-mouthed gumshoe with a code of honour hidden beneath corrosive cynicism. Sin City (opens in new tab) recognised this, casting him as detective John Hartigan, stoic and sardonic. But it’s 1991 action-thriller The Last Boy Scout – written by Shane Black, directed by Tony Scott – that supplies his perfect role.
“What about John McClane?” you ask. Maybe, if four variable sequels hadn’t left his record so stained; his vest looks pristine in comparison. And besides, I’ve always preferred Scout to the original Die Hard (opens in new tab).
Partly it’s the knowing noir touches, as Willis’ flea-bitten P.I. Joe Hallenbeck smokes and drinks and chases down a case involving an exotic dancer (Halle Berry), a dead partner, a couple of car bombs, a corrupt senator and gambling in major league football.
Partly it’s the glossy action (the rain-lashed football match that turns shockingly violent, the car in the swimming pool, the gun-in-the-hand-puppet shootout), masterfully edited by the best cutter in the action business, Stuart Baird.
But mostly it’s the crackerjack wisecracks batted between Joe and Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans), the disgraced former football star who finds himself riding shotgun on the case. “Danger’s my middle name,” Jimmy grins at Joe. “Mine’s Cornelius. Tell anyone, I’ll kill you,” comes the half-serious reply.
Whereas Die Hard is confined to the Nakatomi Plaza, Scout earns its rambling badge traversing LA: night-time alleys, all steam and neon, and sun-soaked streets. “Water’s wet, the sky is blue, women have secrets – who gives a fuck?” is Joe’s motto, but Scott, a master stylist, gives us orange sunsets and blue-filtered interiors.
True, there’s something quite sour about Joe’s female relationships – his wife is having an affair; his 13-year-old daughter regularly calls him “fuck-up” and “asshole” – but here, as elsewhere, the tone is one of self-conscious excess. Black and Scott are taking noir to the nth degree.
Think Bogie’s Philip Marlowe minus the Hays Code, plus double-fisted gunplay. Hell, the fact that the whole film is gloriously OTT makes it glorious, period. Or is it just me?
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