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May 2008

The Last Action Movie Worth A Damn

Some kids gather around a guy asleep in his car. Strike that, this isn’t just a guy. This is Joe Hallenbeck, professional grizzled ex-Secret Service agent. Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis in the performance of a lifetime) has apparently passed out from drinking what we can only imagine was an ocean of the cheapest liquor commercially available. The kids poke him. Nothing. They throw a dead squirrel at him. Nothing. They try to steal his watch, prompting Hallenbeck to immediately pull his gun. On a kid. He stumbles into his office and picks up the ringing phone. “What are you doing today?” asks a friend. “I’m thinkin’ about smoking some cigarettes,” answers Hallenbeck, in that bemused yet perpetually bored whisper that only Bruce Willis can do. Cut to Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans), disgraced former football star. He’s smoking, and he’s giving it his full attention. He glances nonchalantly at last night’s conquest, a generic blonde. His motto: “All I do is drink, lose friends and nail anything with a heartbeat.”

Obviously, 1991’s unapologetically hostile classic The Last Boy Scout would never be made today. First of all, good guys can’t smoke in movies anymore because namby-pamby weaklings like Rob “Meathead” Reiner are afraid that kids will think smoking is cool. Well guess what? It is cool. (Note to Big Tobacco: we are ready to accept your ad revenue!)

Secondly, today’s movie heroes can only be conflicted up to a point. They can’t be drunks (Dix asks his girlfriend how Hallenbeck can protect her from bad guys: “What’s he gonna do, light a match and breathe on ‘em?”). They can’t be borderline racist/homophobic (Hallenbeck calls anything with a beat “funk shit” and tells the film’s strangely effeminate villain that the only way he hear him scream in pain is to “play some rap music”). And they certainly can’t tell their preteen daughter who just started wearing makeup that she “looks like a goddamn raccoon.”

Finally, this movie has an exploding car, or graphic bullet through someone’s head, or an exploding head every 13 minutes on average. Seriously, I counted. And since violent movies are a perennial scapegoat for politicians of both parties, I’m sure there’d be a congressional hearing or two blaming it for the downfall of Western civilization.

Balderdash! I can’t think of a more suitable role model for today’s youth than Joe Hallenbeck. It ain’t called The Last Boy Scout for nothing. Sure, he may have some moderately offensive things to say about the music world, but he saved a good president’s life by taking a bullet for him and knocked four of a bad senator’s teeth out for beating up a woman. He says some kind words for his best friend even after the guy tried to have Hallenbeck killed and got blown up by a car bomb after sleeping with his wife. Plus, he knows how to kill a thug with a single punch to the face. Don’t tell me that doesn’t look good on a job application.

The Last Boy Scout represented a high point for most of its principals. It’s pretty much the only watchable movie Damon Wayans ever made, and came out during a Bruce Willis losing streak including notorious flops like The Bonfire of the Vanities and Hudson Hawk that permanently marred his career. Shane Black, the film’s boy genius writer, followed this, his greatest triumph, with Last Action Hero, his greatest failure, and promptly disappeared for a decade. But unlike Lethal Weapon, Black’s biggest hit, The Last Boy Scout has aged remarkably well over the past 17 years. It’s unquestionably cheesy, in a way that reminds us of just how fun, gleefully violent and joyously politically incorrect action movies used to be.

The State of the Action

Remember when Batman came out in 1989? It was a blockbuster to end all blockbusters, completely dominating the box office for an entire summer and grossing half a billion dollars. Why? Because it was fresh and different. The last major comic book movie of note was Superman, and that was a decade before. The sight of a man donning a spandex suit to stop evildoers was still fairly rare.Then everybody rushed to get their piece of the comics pie. It took a number of years to unravel the legal threads tangled around most of the properties, but since the late 90’s nearly every comic book character the average American has ever heard of has hit the big screen. Results have varied. There’s the good (the incredible Spider-Man 2), the bad (the giant turd Ghost Rider) and the ugly (Ang Lee’s Hulk, a fascinating experiment in cinematic failure).

During the early days, comic book adaptations were a subgenre of action movies. Now they are the action movies. The number of decent action films in the past decade with no comic book affiliation can be counted on one hand; only the Bourne trilogy and The Matrix come immediately to mind, and that last one’s just a comic book adaptation without the comic book.

There are plenty of reasons for this. First off, there just aren’t as many movies being made these days, and having a built-in fan base is a major plus to getting a project greenlit. The first half of the year has always been a graveyard for film, but 2008 is even deader than usual. The only movie that interested the general public was January’s Cloverfield, and that was more due to a brilliant ad campaign than the film itself. Hollywood basically took the year off until May, when they kick everything into high gear with, yep, Iron Man.

Iron Man is a good example of what the genre can still offer. Inspired casting (Robert Downey Jr. even made Gothika passable), a devoted director (Jon Favreau) and a good script (from part of the team that wrote Children of Men) can elevate what could’ve been just another comic book movie into something that most everyone’s interested in seeing.

But I want action movies that don’t involve mechanized suits and genetic experiments gone horribly awry! I want the one good cop on the force beating the crap out of drug dealers with ties to the corrupt mayor! I want a former Navy SEAL avenging the death of his beloved wife! I want a guy defending his family farm against a corrupt mining company’s goons with nothing except Grandpa Joe’s trusty Winchester rifle!

Sadly, I can’t report that things looking up anytime soon. When people think of an action director these days they think of the aggressively stupid Michael Bay, not the dumb fun of John McTiernan or Tony Scott. There doesn’t appear to be another Bruno or Sly on the horizon. Hell, there isn’t even another Dolph Lundgren. The “action stars” of today are pretty boys with sculpted eyebrows like Paul Walker or Hayden Christensen, dead-behind-the-eyes lightweights whose heads Arnold could’ve effortlessly crushed between his delts back in the old days. Even Jerry Bruckheimer has moved on from blowing up things for no good reason; his 2009 slate includes a cartoon about guinea pigs and a romantic comedy called Confessions of a Shopaholic.

Perhaps, though, there’s a kid out there writing the great American action movie, something that will go down in the annals of ass-kicking beside Die Hard and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Maybe he likes superheroes, but would like to see a regular red-blooded American with ingenuity and a healthy grudge taking care of business once in a while. Actually, I’m getting a little choked up just thinking about it.


  © copyright scott howard