"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Last Boy Scout

Shane Black's career has had a fascinating, meteoric rise and fall (and perhaps to rise again). The screenwriter hit the big time when his breakthrough screenplay for Lethal Weapon (1987) sold for $250,000. This kick-started a wildly popular action film franchise. He soon hit rock bottom with the heavily re-written (by others) modest hit, The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), the script of his which sold for a staggering $4 million). And yet, even his weaker efforts still contain decent action sequences and playful banter between characters. What seemed to be missing in Black's later films was depth and characterization – elements that made his screenplays distinctive. Perhaps this was as a result of meddling and script revisions at the hands of others. For Black, screenwriting came easy: “The fact that there were so few rules associated with it, so few actual structural maxims … you can just do what you want. So I played around and it was fun. I would just type to keep myself entertained. It turned out people liked that. They felt it represented an interesting way to go, but for me it was truly just typing to keep myself entertained.”

However, studio executives were only interested in using Black to write formulaic drivel. Determined to make it, he wrote Lethal Weapon. The script was a blast of fresh air and ended up being made into a big budget action film starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. This kind of thing almost never happens in Hollywood and it’s a testimony to Black’s skill as a screenwriter that he achieved this kind of success so early on in his career. Lethal Weapon grossed over a $100 million. In the best tradition of Hollywood, money talks and so in 1990, Black was paid $1.75 million (an unheard of amount at the time) for The Last Boy Scout script. The next year it was made into a 1991 action movie starring Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans and directed by the late Tony Scott.

The film starts off literally with a bang as a pro-football player (a pre-infomerical Billy Blanks) pulls out a handgun right in the middle of a play and shoots three opposing players in his way to getting a touchdown before killing himself. Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) is a private detective hired by his best friend (Bruce McGill) to protect a stripper named Cory (Halle Berry in an early role). The best friend is subsequently blown up in a car and the stripper gunned down by thugs. Her washed-up, football-playing boyfriend (Damon Wayans) hooks up with Joe to get some answers and some much needed payback.

"I had this period where I didn't think I was any good at anything and fought desperately to stay afloat," Black said in an interview with Creative Screenwriting magazine. And with that feeling in mind, Black wrote a movie that pushes the world-weary detective stereotype to then new, surreal levels. Willis' performance and Black's screenplay combine to produce a portrait of a guy who is so down and out that our first glimpse is a shot of him passed out in his own car while being harassed by snotty neighborhood kids with a dead squirrel. When we meet him he has a pretty simple outlook on life – a mantra, if you will, to start each day: “Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You’re gonna lose. Smile you fuck.” Willis, who has made a career out of playing world-weary tough guys, nails the defeated vibe that sticks to Joe like stink on dog poo. Joe’s actually a very disillusioned good guy, an ex-Secret Service agent who saved the President’s life once but got fired after he punched out a senator (Chelcie Ross) with a kinky streak. Throughout the movie, Willis delivers deadpanned one-liners while constantly getting the crap kicked out him. As a result, you can't help but root for him as he and Wayans send the baddies to their well-deserved violent deaths.

Willis plays a classic burn-out, sporting the traditional slovenly appearance of a down-on-his-luck P.I. complete with unshaven look and rumpled clothes that he slept in. And that’s the best he looks, from that point on it’s all downhill as his face takes on cuts and lacerations accrued from fighting numerous bad guys. Joe actually uses his disheveled appearance to his advantage, like when a random baddie takes him into an alleyway to kill him. Joe buys time by cracking jokes about the flunkie’s wife and then, when the guy lets his guard down, stabs him in the throat with broken bottle. The guy gurgles, “You bastard,” to which Joe curtly replies, “And then some.” Willis was born to spout Black’s dialogue. He’s the master of sarcastic comebacks and gets some real doozies in The Last Boy Scout. At one point, Jimmy chides him, “You read much?” Joe replies, “My subscription to Juggs magazine just ran out.”

Jimmy is also at an emotional cul-de-sac of sorts – popping pills to stave off chronic pain from football injuries he picked up as a player. Like Joe, he’s been disgraced from his former profession, kicked out of the league for gambling. He now spends time feeling sorry for himself by cultivating a drinking problem and nailing anything in a skirt despite having a super-hot stripper girlfriend played by Halle Berry (only in the movies!). Like Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon, Jimmy lost his family to tragedy and it taints his entire worldview. Life means nothing and solving his girlfriend’s murder is the only thing he has left. Wayans shows that he’s more than just a goofy funnyman in a scene where he tells Joe how he got kicked out of football. It is an angry tirade tinged with hurt and bitter resentment as he was basically chewed up and spit out by an uncaring organization. His speech touches upon the harsh realties of professional sports.

Scott populates his film with a fine collection of character actors, chief among them Noble Willingham as uber rich football team owner Sheldon Marcone and stand-up comedian Taylor Negron cast wonderfully against type as one of Black’s trademark polite, well-spoken sociopaths (see also Lethal Weapon’s Mr. Joshua and The Long Kiss Goodnight’s Timothy). Marcone is also a repeating motif in Black’s scripts. He’s an old, privileged white man who is greedy and corrupt. Think of the money-laundering retired general in Lethal Weapon and the war-mongering CIA boss in The Long Kiss Goodnight. Black clearly sees these men as the source of real evil in the world, pulling the strings that will result in death and destruction in the name of money. In all three films, the protagonists face insurmountable odds to do what is right regardless of the danger or risk to their own well-being.

Like most buddy action movies, the relationship between Joe and Jimmy starts off with plenty of friction as the quarterback resents the private investigator watching over his girlfriend because that’s his job. They trade a few insults and then decide to team up when she’s killed. Black has fun playing around with the dynamic between two guys who basically hate each other but are thrown together due to extraordinary circumstances. At one point, Jimmy cracks a joke to lighten the mood between them only to be rebuffed by Joe. Jimmy tells him, “I’m just trying to break the ice,” to which Joe replies, “I like ice. Leave it the fuck alone.” There are all kinds of snappy banter between them as Wayans tones down his trademark goofy shtick and more or less plays straight man to Willis’ deadpan humor.

Unlike a lot of buddy action movies, Black allows for the occasional lull, like the moment where Jimmy looks at a photograph of him and Cory and you can see on his face how upset he is by her death now that he has a moment to reflect on it. No words are said, Wayans’ face says it all. Joe and Jimmy represent the last bastion of decency in a world that is corrupt and morally bankrupt, where best friends double cross each other, wealthy businessmen are blackmailed, and wives cheat on their husbands. The deeper our two heroes go into investigating Cory’s murder the more corruption they uncover.

The aforementioned alleyway sequence and Cory’s death are vintage Tony Scott moments with his trademark look: smoke, neon and rainy streets at night. Think of it as the director’s version of a neo-noir. He is equally adept at action sequences as he is with showdown set pieces, like the scene where a henchman repeatedly offers Joe a cigarette only to punch it out of his mouth. Joe has been captured and is unarmed and outnumbered but he still has the balls to threaten to kill the guy if he hits him one more time. There is palpable tension as we wait for Joe to follow through on his threat (or be killed), which he does with brutal swiftness. It is reminiscent of the famous showdown between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper in True Romance (1993) where a tense scene could erupt in violence at any moment.

Successful screenwriter Shane Black made headlines in 1989 when he sold his spec screenplay (written without a contract from a studio or a producer) for The Last Boy Scout to the David Geffen Co. for an unprecedented $1.75 million. He had wisely taken advantage of the boom of independent production companies that sprouted up in the late 1980s looking for big budget action scripts. It must’ve come as validation of his abilities after what he had been through.

After his meteoric rise with the success of the script he had written for Lethal Weapon, a sequel was inevitable. The studio gave Black first crack at it. Something had happened to the writer after enjoying a taste of notoriety and his first draft was even darker than what he had written for the first Lethal Weapon. For starters, he proceeded to kill off Mel Gibson’s character. Not surprisingly, the studio didn’t want to go that route and Black quit the project. Then, he lost the desire to write. A family illness coupled with the break-up of a long-term relationship rocked his already shaky confidence. For the next two years he did no writing and instead lived in fear of the next project and failing. Out of this dark period in his life came the script for The Last Boy Scout, which he wrote in five months.

For the script, Black drew on such influences as hard-boiled crime fiction by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald because they wrote about “personal integrity, morality, conflict, dealing with insanity, dealing with pain and death.” He wanted to write a modern private investigator story set in Los Angeles. He decided to set his story with the sleazy side of professional football as the backdrop because it matched up well with his take on a Chandleresque private investigator story. For Black, football “combines the spirit of the American hero with the spirit of American greed.” After finishing the script, he didn’t think it would sell because “it was weird” and “too rough for most people. It’s not a commercial formula; it’s a very raunchy, down and dirty detective film.”

Originally, director Tony Scott had a war movie taking place in Afghanistan set up as his follow-up to the Tom Cruise racing car movie Days of Thunder (1990). However, the script didn’t come together and he was given The Last Boy Scout. He liked it so much that he agreed to do it. Not much has come out of what went down during filming but what little has suggests a contentious shoot. With titanic egos like producer Joel Silver, movie star Bruce Willis and Tony Scott, they were bound to clash and they did as Scott later admitted, “I got caught a little bit between Bruce and Joel Silver … I was pushed in terms of the cast and in terms of how I was shooting it.” He also felt that Black’s script “was better than the final movie.” Of the experience, all Silver would say was that it was “one of the three worst experiences in my life.”

Not surprisingly, The Last Boy Scout received mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and called it “a superb example of what it is: a glossy, skillful, cynical, smart, utterly corrupt and vilely misogynistic action thriller. How is the critic to respond? To give it a negative review would be dishonest, because it is such a skillful and well-crafted movie.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman praised Willis’ performance: “Like Bogart, he plugs you right into his cynicism — then, in the middle of the most untenable situation (say, when a grinning thug keeps socking him in the jaw instead of lighting his cigarette), he'll drop a soft-voiced, grace-under-pressure remark that detonates like a neutron bomb,” and called the film “a guilty pleasure by any standard, but I've seen plenty of guilt-free movies lately that aren't this much fun.”

However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Mr. Scott directs the film as if he were trying to win a prize for demolishing a building in record time.” The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Wilmington called it “a dirty-mouth Walter Mitty fantasy, product of an age where naiveté and cynicism are locked in promiscuous embrace. It's also macho daydreaming with a vengeance.”  In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe criticized the film’s view of women: “In this cast of dumbly conceived archetypes, the worst is Willis's teenage daughter (Danielle Harris). She doesn't talk just dirty. Large sods of earth roll from her tongue. In Scout, if a woman isn't a slut or a bimbo, she's a bitch.”

The Last Boy Scout performed fairly well at the box office and has since enjoyed a second life on video and television (thank you, TBS). Black went on to get paid more than $1 million for his rewrites on The Last Action Hero (1993), a criminally underrated romp that is the granddaddy of self-reflexive action movies. This movie was crucified by critics and did not perform as well at the box office as expected but this did not tarnish Black’s reputation either. However, he disappeared from movies for a few years before coming back with a vengeance with the quirky private detective movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and is currently working on Iron Man 3 (2013). The Last Boy Scout is a lean, mean guilty pleasure with a misanthropic streak that is uncompromisingly un-PC in attitude. This is further reinforced by its rather poor view of women. They are either liars and cheats (Joe’s wife), whores (Cory), or foul-mouthed brats (Joe’s daughter). Joe takes it all grimly in stride because hey, he’s already hit rock bottom. He doesn’t care about anyone or anything, including himself. Action films don't get any nastier than this one.


Greenberg, James. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Millionaire.” Los Angeles Magazine. August 19, 1990.

The Last Boy Scout Production Notes. 1991.

“Tony Scott on Tony Scott.” Empire.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Tony Scott’s Project.” The New York Times. July 12, 1991.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Beat Street

The early 1980s was an exciting time for music. Hip hop was fast emerging as a new and exciting genre of music. Breakdancing was a part of this scene as a form of expression and how it made one feel while listening to it while also acting as a way of settling disputes. For years it had remained underground but 1984 marked the year when both hip hop and breakdancing broke into the mainstream with Breakin’, its sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Beat Street. In their own way, each are a fantastic time capsule of their times in all of their cheesy (and in Beat Street’s case not so cheesy) glory. Naturally, the major Hollywood studios had no idea how to depict hip hop culture on film so it was up to fledgling independent companies like Cannon and Orion to take a shot with varying degrees of success.

Coming out a year after the influential hip hop film Wild Style (1983), Beat Street was the East Coast answer to Breakin’ by being grittier, edgier and therefore not as successful but definitely more authentic. This is immediately evident from the opening credits, which feature a montage of the dirty, graffiti-heavy streets of the Bronx juxtaposed with stills of the main characters as the title track by Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious 5 plays on the soundtrack. This lets you know that Beat Street is going to be as faithful a representation of life on the streets and New York hip hop culture as is possible with a fictional film.

Shot on the dirty, grungy, pre-Giuliani streets of New York City during what looks like a very cold, snowbound winter, it juggles several characters and storylines. There’s Kenny Kirkland (Guy Davis), an up-and-coming rapper with the DJ moniker “Double K” who spins at parties in abandoned buildings. He’s friends with Ramon (Jon Chardiet), a gifted graffiti artist who spends his time “bombing” trains with his signature style under the moniker of “Ramo.” His dad doesn’t understand his son’s artistic ambitions and this fuels the headstrong young man’s frustration with his lot in life. It doesn’t help that he can’t support his girlfriend (Saundra Santiago) and their baby but instead of turning to a life of crime, Ramon makes an honest go of working a regular job in order to provide for his family.

Kenny’s younger brother Lee (Robert Taylor) is an aspiring breakdancer who does his thing on the streets with his crew for spare change. Kenny dreams of DJing at the Roxy, a slick, hip club awash in neon and people clad in all sorts of vivid attire. It is a fantastic looking place that really captures the scene at the time. Everyone was coming off the tail-end of the disco era and hip hop was emerging from the underground ready to take over. There is even a memorable dance battle between the legendary Rock Steady Crew and The New York City Breakers that features some incredible breakdancing — definitely the film’s showstopper. What is so striking about this scene is that there is very little editing and director Stan Lathan employs long shots so we can see these guys dance and show off their awesome style.

The filmmakers even introduce a bit of class warfare with the introduction of Tracy Carlson (Rae Dawn Chong), a music student and composer at a local college. Kenny admires her from afar but she ends up inviting Lee to audition for a television program about dancing. When Lee and Kenny arrive at the school, interrupting a rehearsal, they find out that Lee’s performance won’t be televised, which understandably pisses off Kenny. However, Kenny becomes attracted to Tracy despite their socio-economical differences and for a few minutes the film downshifts into a romantic subplot.

The cast of unknowns, including a young Rae Dawn Chong (who had appeared in Quest for Fire three years before), add to the authenticity because we have no pre-conceived notions of any of them. So, we immediately accept these people in their respective roles. Also, their lack of experience and polish gives the performances a real, raw quality as if they just came off the street and stepped in front of the camera as themselves. This is evident in the few scenes we get of Kenny and Lee’s home life. Their strict but caring mother (Mary Alice) tries to keep her sons out of jail and avoid the fate of her eldest child that died on the streets. At the time it was rare to see a film populated almost entirely by African Americans and Latinos. Beat Street refuses to water down its content for mainstream consumption but rather comes across as a film made for and by hip hop fans.

Unlike Breakin’, this is how the hip hop scene really looked and sounded back in the day. Parties take place in the basements of burnt-out buildings in the slums of the city. These guys are all young, poor and hungry to make it out of the ghetto anyway they can. Beat Street also trumps Breakin’ in the number of cameos by pioneers of the genre, featuring the likes of DJ Kool Herc, Kool Mo Dee, Doug E. Fresh, Afrika Bambaataa and Melle Mel. This also results in a great soundtrack that shows many of the influences on early hip hop: calypso, salsa, jazz — all thrown into the mix.

Beat Street began as a series of articles written by Steven Hager for the Village Voice. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, he researched hip hop culture in the South Bronx. His articles were based on interviews he had conducted with rappers like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. He eventually adapted it into screenplay, which he described as a “slice of life drama and a vehicle for showing some authentic hip hop performances from the golden age of the first generation,” entitled Looking for the Perfect Beat. In 1983, legendary musician Harry Belafonte was getting ready to go on a European concert tour when Hager came to his office in New York and showed him his Voice articles along with the script. Belafonte had grown up in the Bronx and was fascinated with the hip hop culture that came out of the neighborhood. He wanted to make a film that was “not all about the down and out and never to rise again. If anything, this hip-hop culture is the phoenix out of the ashes.” Hager sold the script to him and the musician promptly ditched most of the content except for the character’s names. He then brought in Andy Davis (The Fugitive), David Gilbert and Paul Goulding to do a complete rewrite.

In January 1984, Belafonte and co-producer David V. Picker auditioned hundreds of teenagers at the Roxy Dance Club. From these sessions, 16-year-old Robert Taylor of the Freeze to Rock breakdancing crew was cast as Lee. According to Belafonte, the teenager came from the streets and “had 39 raps against him – out of school, knife fights, carrying dope.” Principal photography soon began afterwards with Andy Davis directing but after a week he was fired by Belafonte and Picker. They contacted veteran television director Stan Lathan (Fame) on a Friday and the following Monday he took over directing duties on the film. According to Lathan, the producers “didn’t want it to be an unrealistic, Hollywood kind of film, and they didn’t want the kids to be alienated by someone who didn’t understand the culture.”

The reviews for Beat Street were mostly negative. In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “History may not change but it sure does accelerate: it's been less than a year since Wild Style, and already the time is ripe for the Spinal Tap producers to get together for Spinal Tap II: Breaking Breakin'.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “The film's melodrama adequately supports the nearly nonstop music and dancing, but the film itself is best understood as a trailer for the soundtrack album.” However, in her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “The movie hails the ethnic truce won by such youth in the South Bronx and spreads the word to other trouble spots. Its splashy melodramatic finale looks like Fame, but it feels like a new Woodstock.”

As far as breakdancing films go you could do a lot worse than Beat Street. If that seems like faint praise it isn’t meant to be. Beat Street is everything that the Breakin’ films aren’t: gritty, cold, grey with characters that swear and even die with the finale a bittersweet one tinged with melancholy and also hope. It has aged surprisingly well and serves as a fascinating snapshot of East Coast hip hop in the early ‘80s, during a time when people settled their beefs on the mic or by dance battles. Beat Street is also a more ambitious film than others that came out at the time, juggling several storylines populated by an unknown cast of African American and Latino actors. It is also a celebration of street culture that argues DJing, breakdancing and graffiti are legit forms of artistic expression.


“Belafonte Auditions ‘Breakers’ for Film.” Reuters. January 20, 1984.

Harrington, Richard. “Belafonte and Hollywood: A War of Tradition.” Washington Post. June 17, 1984.

Maslin, Janet. “Capturing the Hip-Hop Culture.” The New York Times. June 8, 1984.

Thomas, Bob. “Belafonte is a Star but Still has Disappointments.” Associated Press. June 29, 1984.