"Sometimes you just gotta play out a bad hand."
Warner Bros. continue their series of high-definition Blu-ray double features with this single-disc "Action Double Feature" containing two thrillers starring Bruce Willis. Both movies offer exactly the kind of entertainment genre fans want; namely, action, action, and more action. You want to see people shoot and punch each other? That's what you get in "Last Man Standing" (1996) and "The Last Boy Scout" (1991), plain and simple.
LAST MAN STANDING
In 1929 detective writer Dashiell Hammett ("The Thin Man," "The Dain Curse," "The Maltese Falcon," "The Glass Key") published his novel "Red Harvest," in which a Continental Detective Agency operative (the "Continental Op") cleans up a Montana town by pitting rival gangs against one another. In 1930, the first of several movie adaptations appeared, "Roadhouse Nights." Then, in 1961 Akira Kurosawa made "Yojimbo," turning Hammett's idea into the story of a wandering samurai cleaning up a village by pitting two rival gangs against one another. The filmmaker steadfastly denied he used "Red Harvest" as his source; go figure. In 1964 Sergio Leone relied on elements from Hammett and Kurosawa for his Spaghetti Western "A Fistful of Dollars." In 1978 and 1984 several foreign films, "La ciudad maldita" and "Hrafninn flýgur," also found their plots and characters in "Red Harvest." In 1984 the Coen brothers stole a line from "Red Harvest" for the title of their crime film "Blood Simple," and in 1990 they borrowed heavily from "Red Harvest" for their gangster saga "Miller's Crossing." Finally, at least for now, producer, director, and screenwriter Walter Hill used Hammett, Kurosawa, Leone, and heaven knows who else as inspiration for his 1996 action yarn "Last Man Standing." Whew! Was there ever an original idea in the world of film?
In "Red Harvest" Hammett never identified the Continental Op; the main character tells the story in a first-person narration, and no one ever addresses him by name. In "Yojimbo" Kurosawa didn't give his character a name, either, the wandering samurai using a pseudonym. In "A Fistful of Dollars," Leone kept his hero nameless, as well; thus, we've come to know him simply as the "Man with No Name." Appropriately, in "Last Man Standing" Bruce Willis plays a character who calls himself "Smith, John...from back East," another pseudonym and as close to having no name and no history as you can get.
In a tribute to Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, Walter Hill sets his story not in Hammett's Montana but in Texas, a more "Western" locale. Still, Hill keeps the period time setting the same as in "Red Harvest," the 1920's, Prohibition days.
Willis's John Smith tells us he's on the run, looking for a place to hide out, when drives into the tiny, dusty, little Texas town of Jericho. He discovers about two minutes after he arrives that two rival gangs of bootleggers run the town: an Italian gang headed up by a fellow named Strozzi (Ned Eisenberg) and his cousin Giorgio (Michael Imperioli) and an Irish gang headed by a guy named Doyle (David Patrick Kelly) and his right-hand man Hickey (Christopher Walken). How evil is Hickey? Well, I just told you Christopher Walken plays him; that should tell you something. But besides that, the film tells us he is so evil he slit his own father's throat, and when the State sent him to an orphanage, he burned it down.
Smith figures he can make a buck by playing the two gangs against one another. What he doesn't figure on is having to deal with a full-scale war between the gangs.
We never learn what Smith did before coming to Jericho or what he's running away from. We only know he's tough, he's smart, he can mow down whole armies with his twin 45's, and he sports the worst-looking bowl cut since John Dillinger.
The first shoot-out occurs early on, and it's devastating, coming like something out of "Bonnie and Clyde." We know we're in for a loud, bloody, ultraviolent, gut-wrenching time, and, sure enough, the movie doesn't disappoint.
Actually, I think "Last Man Standing" is a much underrated film. The fact is that while it's preposterous and overstated, it's enormously fast moving and exciting. It's like a boxing match where the fighters are continuously punching every minute. Moreover, Walter Hill's direction is more stylish than you'll find in most other action movies, and the film maintains an effective, atmospheric, period look throughout. Plus, there are some fine supporting players involved: Bruce Dern as the corrupt Jericho sheriff; William Sanderson as a saloon keeper with a screw loose; Karina Lombard and Alexandra Powers as pair of gangster's molls, and so on.
Drawbacks? Sure. It's not a great action film by any stretch of the imagination, merely a good one. By that I mean there isn't enough going on between the action scenes for an audience to appreciate, and the bloodshed itself is so incessant it might get old fast. Yet the look of the film is so enjoyable and the pace is so relentless, it's hard to care that there's no real story or characterizations in it.
"Last Man Standing" makes no excuses about what it is: an old-fashioned shoot-'em-up with an invincible hero. At least it's not a film you have to think about.
Film rating: 6/10
THE LAST BOY SCOUT
I can't say I liked "The Last Boy Scout" as much as I did "Last Man Standing." Willis made "The Last Boy Scout" in 1991, right after starring in "Hudson Hawk," one of the biggest bombs of all time. Willis needed something to remind audiences that he was still the same action hero they remembered from the first two "Die Hard" films, and "The Last Boy Scout" was it. The movie is formulaic from start to finish, a buddy movie that combines mystery, gunplay, and humor in equal measure, with Damon Wayans helping out for amusement.
Tony Scott ("Top Gun," "Beverley Hills Cop II," "True Romance," "Crimson Tide") directed a script by Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon 1-4"), so you know what you're getting into from the git-go. "The Last Boy Scout" is a combination of "Lethal Weapon" and "Beverley Cop": a white guy and a black guy teaming up, reluctantly, to solve a case, with every inevitable cliché along the way.
Willis plays private eye Joe Hallenbeck. As though we couldn't guess, he used to be a Secret Service agent who saved the life of a President, but a corrupt Senator unfairly drummed him out of the corps. Now, he's a drunk, with a wife who cheats on him and a teenage daughter who hates him. You know, the usual. Wayans plays an ex-major league quarterback, Jimmy Dix, another loser who used to be great but found himself drummed out of football unfairly on charges of gambling and drug abuse. As I say, the usual.
Everyone around them gets shot or blown up because there's a conspiracy afoot involving the aforementioned Senator and the owner of a big-league football team in a plan to bring gambling to the game, and the baddies think Hallenbeck and Dix know too much about it.
How stereotyped is the film? Halle Berry plays an exotic dancer; Bruce McGill plays a crooked detective; and Joe Santos plays essentially the same character, a bellowing police lieutenant, that he played for years on "The Rockford Files."
The movie starts off well enough with a forceful opening scene: During a professional football game, a player goes berserk, killing opposing players and then himself on national television. Now that's football! And from then on, it's all downhill.
Unlike "Last Man Standing," "The Last Boy Scout" tells a story between the action scenes and tries to develop some characterization, too, but it's still hard to care. Neither the Willis character nor the Dix character is the least bit appealing or deserving of our sympathy or respect. Nor is anybody else in the film worthy of our caring: Hallenbeck's wife (Chelsea Field) is unfaithful from the beginning; the aforementioned police lieutenant is a Neanderthal; the villains are interchangeable; and Hallenbeck's daughter is a brat whose only real reason for being in the film is to offer up what film critic Gene Siskel used to hate, a child in danger.
Where the film really lost my interest, though, is when Hallenbeck and Dix pull into an open parking space directly in front of the Los Angeles Memorial Colosseum during one of the biggest football games of the season. I mean, I'm lucky to find a parking space in front of my own house. Only in the movies.
Film rating: 5/10
"Last Man Standing" looks quite good, despite the fact that it has to share a dual-layer BD50 with "The Last Boy Scout." The VC-1 encode does its job preserving the movie's 2.40:1 aspect ratio, much of its natural film grain, and its golden, sepia-toned colors. There are fairly deep black levels to set off the hues, too, the transfer taken from a reasonably clean print with only a few white ticks and flecks showing up from time to time. Definition is soft, however, thanks to the dust and the lighting and perhaps a condition of the director's intent to emphasize the mythology of the era.
"The Last Boy Scout" shows up pretty well, too, its colors more realistic looking than those in "Last Man Standing," and its definition is at least as good. A lot of natural lighting for indoor shots render scenes slightly muted, but that's OK because we know the director intended this effect, too.
The sound quality, especially in "Last Man Standing," is even better than the picture quality. Using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 reproduction, the sonics stand out as first rate. There's a very wide stereo spread throughout the film, with excellent surround activity, particularly in the warm ambient bloom of the musical score and, naturally, in the flying bullets. What's more, the gunshots aren't just loud, they are dynamic in the extreme, the impact often felt in the pit of one's stomach. Along with a taut, deep bass and a sharp-etched transient response, this is a soundtrack that will test the limits of one's speakers.
"The Last Boy Scout," made five years earlier than "Last Man Standing," has a much less-impressive soundtrack. It's not as dynamic, not as widespread, and not as immersive. The rears get far less information to deliver, and the whole affair sounds closer to ordinary stereo than multichannel.
Because the two films fit onto a single side of a single Blu-ray disc, there apparently wasn't much room left over for anything else. So all we get besides the two movies are twenty-eight scene selections in "Last Man Standing" and twenty-nine scenes in "The Last Boy Scout"; English as the only spoken language in both films; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. I suppose two films on one disc is bonus enough.
If it's straight-ahead action you're looking for, it's hard to beat "Last Man Standing" and, to a lesser degree, "The Last Boy Scout." Not that either movie is any great shakes, but at least "Last Man Standing" has its limited charms. What it lacks in clever wit, snappy repartee, plot, story, or characterization, it more than makes up for in stylish direction and nonstop mayhem. Not entirely a bad compromise.
"What the hell. Everybody ends up dead. It's just a matter of when."