Scott: The Last Boy Scout (1991)

Since Tony Scott’s main signature was speed, most of his films asked one central question: how do you inject even more speed, or texture speed in more ingenious ways? Scott’s restless desire to keep experimenting with that question is what makes his body of work such a streamlined object in and of itself. While it often feels lost to time now, The Last Boy Scout played a critical role in keeping that oeuvre-flow going by forming a bridge between his early and classic period. The opening credits play like a statement of purpose, as Scott converges the plosive propulsion of NFL and music video in search of some as-yet-unformulated horizon of motion. We watch a group of football players move from a dim locker room to an even darker stadium, where they’re abstracted to a kinetic flow of bodies. In a further plosive addition, the running back is told he has to score touchdowns on pain of death, by any means necessary, in order to fulfil his obligations to a shadowy ring of sports betters. As the players charge up and down the field, we cut to a television interview, where a reporter asks the team coach if “we’re witnessing the death of professional football” as an all-American spectacle.

In these intense opening minutes, Scott identifies NFL as the most kinetic mass medium in American culture, even as he intuits that its hold over high speed spectacle may be waning. Sure enough, all the propulsive power of the game turns self-destructive, as the running back pulls out a gun, shoots the opposing players on the way to the touchline, then turns the barrel on himself once he scores. The game consumes him, consumes the team, and eventually consumes the credit sequence, which is playing out on a television-within-the-screen with the hyperactivity of MTV video, but ends abruptly as soon as the shots ring out. Scott thus sets himself a challenge with this credit sequence: to seize onto the most kinetic impulses of American masculinity as they start to migrate from football to a new digitally inflected sphere that can only be glimpsed, at this early point in the film, using the language of music video.

This project is all the more dramatic in that Shane Black provides Scott with a pair of protagonists who have long lost anything resembling speed from their lives. We cut to Joe Hallenbeck, a disgraced former Secret Service agent, asleep in his car, so dead to the world that only the most extreme hijinks from a group of local kids can wake him. Hallenbeck isn’t just slow, he’s emasculated at both home and work, as he discovers when he returns to his house to find his boss having sex with his wife. Even worse, he learns that his boss only assigned him his latest case, protecting a stripper named Cory, played by Halle Berry, because he had an inkling that it might get him killed. Instead, Hallenbeck’s boss gets killed, but it doesn’t take the edge off the humiliation for Hallenbeck of being betrayed by both wife and boss, as well as totally disrespected by his young daughter Darian, played by Danielle Harris.

Soon after, we meet Jimmy Dix, a washed-up quarterback played by Marlon Wayans. While he wasn’t directly involved in the football conspiracy we saw in the opening scenes, his trauma stems from the same general milieu, since he’s been barred from the LA Stallions for drug use and gambling issues. At the same team he was ejected from the team, his wife and son died in a car accident, fusing the crisis within the NRL with a broader crisis in masculinity that Hallenbeck and Dix set out to redress over the course of the film. Dix is just as passive and slow-moving as Hallenbeck, although his ennui is framed in a considerably more stylistic way – as an apotheosis of Scott’s 80s aesthetic, which couches his first appearance in a phantasmagoria of slatted lights and silky curtains blowing in an apparently endless breeze. It’s as if Scott has tacitly acknowledged that the baroque style that began with The Hunger only has limited buying-power when it comes to the speed he wants to evoke in the future.

When Hallenbeck and Dix meet, it’s in a bar, and at the very nadir of their masculine crises. The scene starts with a self-deprecating gay joke, and moves to Dix introducing himself as “nobody,” to which Hallenbeck responds “Shhh – don’t tell anyone.” What ensues is a kind of logical endpoint to the 80s black-white buddy cop film, which typically brokered masculine camaraderie across the racial divide at the expense of women from both races. Sure enough, the two men quickly bond over their shared distaste for women (“Water’s wet, sky’s blue, women have secrets – what’s new?”) and then add some edginess to their rapport by contesting who has ownership of Cory, the stripper played by Berry. On the one hand, Hallenbeck is hired to protect her, on the other hand Dix is dating her, and this contested zone quickly dissolves into an odd couple pairing when Cory is gunned down before their very eyes.

This ushers in the main part of the film, as Hallenbeck and Dix set out to uncover the conspiracy that crystallised momentarily around Corey’s death – a conspiracy that quickly becomes synonymous with the film’s own anxious mission to absorb the NFL’s kinetic centrality before it migrates into more cutting-edge digital media. From the outset, the two men make it clear that they love football, and yet Dix no longer plays it, and Hallenbeck no longer watches it after Dix, his favourite player, was ejected from the team. Remasculation, re- acceleration and the rehabilitation of football all converge on the same plosive project, as Hallenbeck and Dix set out to rival the fusion of NFL and music video montage we saw during the credits. In the process, Scott produces the wittiest film in his career so far, and provides Willis with the closest he came to a classical noir role. Unlike so many other neo-noir exercises of the 80s and 90s, The Last Boy Scout recognises the genesis of noir wisecracking in screwball repartee, moving vertiginously yet fluidly between comedy and world-weariness as Willis effortless transplants the wacky one-liners of Moonlighting into more intensive crime cinema.

That screwball-noir flow becomes a critical buttress against the NFL’s own strategy for revitalising football – legalising gambling. Since “all the heroes” have left the pitch, Senator Calvin Baynard, played by Chelcie Ross, has spun a corrupt web of influence to not only turn California into a legal gambling state, but to legalise gambling across the whole country, in a riff upon the buildup to PASPA, the Professional and Amateur Sports and Protection Act, which was passed in 1992. From an Australian context where betting on sports (including American sports) is a common part of everyday fandom, this seems like a surreal non-issue, but being around sports betting also makes you realise how effectively it trickles off and distils the kinetic centrality of the sporting spectacle itself. The Last Boy Scout is terrified that sport (especially football) might be diluted in this way, setting itself against sports gambling as the worst possible outcome as NFL loses its kinetic pride of place in American masculine culture.

Since PASPA, which guaranteed betting regulations, hadn’t been passed when the film was released, Scott effectively sets himself (and the film) the task of saving football from itself, which means producing a series of set pieces that are so kinetic and exciting that they can pre-emptively eclipse the more banal dispersal of NFL into so many subsidiary gambling spectacles. They all come together in the third act, which feels like what the Beverly Hills Cop franchise was always meant to be – both hilarious and genuinely jaw-dropping, whether we’re watching a vertical chase down a sheer cliff, a shoot-out across several planes of space at a spaghetti junction, or the closing football game, which rapidly exceeds the credit sequence.

This football finale takes us to the brink of an even more potentially destructive outcome than the opening game, but pulls back right at that threshold so that Scott can finally converge the NFL and music video intensity of the credit sequence. On the field, Dix takes the LA Chargers moniker literally, riding a horse down the football field for an even more hyperbolic show of bravura than the homicidal running back’s charge. Meanwhile, Hallenbeck seeks out a sniper, Milo, played by Taylor Negron, who has positioned himself on one of the lights above the ground, amidst a miasma of netting and networked media images that flicker up on the enormous screens dotting the stadium. Between the plosive physicality of the field, and the dispersed media ecology of this netted network that hangs above it, Scott blends the intensity of traditional action cinema with a new digital disembodiment, fusing the two in the arc of the football, which absorbs the brunt of the sniper fire before it can reach its target. In the same moment, the sniper falls down to hit the blade of a helicopter, which hovers, like the film, in this mercurial zone between embodied hyper-masculinity and a new digital regime.

It’s the most dramatic statement of purpose in Scott’s career so far, Top Gun included, and paves the way for the classic 90s run that starts with True Romance. By converging and resetting the promiscuous spaces of NFL and MTV, The Last Boy Scout ends by resetting the borders of the white male body, tightening and loosening them in the same instant. We shift to Hallenbeck restoring hearth and home, as his wife profusely apologises for her indiscretion, and his daughter calls him “Sir” for the first time, while he throws a football into space, this time outside his own house, as if to keep the arc of that sniper-studded threshold between his physical and digital self in continuous play. Sure enough, this tightening of his paternal authority loosens into one more screwy exchange with Dix, which sees out the film on the screwball-noir note that characterised so many of its best moments. From Dix’s jig after killing the sniper at the stadium to respects for boy scouts, this is white masculine pride in particular, but it’s more dynamic than the white pride of action cinema, since it turns on vertiginous expansions and contractions of analog-digital space rather than traditional analog paranoia.

In that sense, The Last Boy Scout is the spiritual sequel to Top Gun, since both films are ultimately enthralled by a more expansive and possibly even inclusive white masculinity than what we see in the typical action film. To some extent, this film is hampered by the broader limitations of the black-white buddy cop genre, but Scott ultimately sidesteps them as elegantly as he exceeded the first film in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise. After experimenting with slow cinema in Revenge, and revising the speed of Top Gun in Days of Thunder, Scott has finally learned how to blend kinetic propulsion with slow-burning suspense, laying the bedrock for his 90s blockbusters, along with the more picaresque rhythms of True Romance.

About Billy Stevenson (793 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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