In a parallel universe, Damon Wayans is a massive star. He merely has to smile and money rains down on him from the sky. A starring role in inconsequential TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and a so-so rap career have been parlayed into a bona fide movie success. He’s starred in the biggest blockbusters of the mid-1990s, earning top billing right off the bat: Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black. He can do no wrong. He’s hailed as the ‘new Eddie Murphy’, but has also demonstrated his dramatic chops in Six Degrees of Separation. Although no one can remember ever actually seeing him in a film, his irksome kids are making more than enough money to keep him in expensive sunglasses.
Meanwhile, in our own universe, Will Smith is living the life that Damon Wayans was supposed to have. So where did it all go wrong? Were there simply too many Wayans brothers for our fragile version of reality to sustain? In an attempt to answer the unanswerable, I settled in with The Last Boy Scout (1991), a film not starring Will Smith.
It does, however, co-star Bruce Willis – and it’s worth remembering that at this point Willis was still proving himself. Although his IMDb entry goes back as far as 1980, it’s not until you hit 1985 and Moonlighting – a role he landed mainly because he wasn’t more famous than Cybill Shepherd – that anything like a starring part crops up. When the film French audiences came to ignore as Le Dernier Samaritain was released, all he had to back up his leading man status was Die Hard (1988) and the voice of Mikey the Baby in Look Who’s Talking (1990). And you’ll never guess what: one of the other babies in that latter film is voiced by … Damon Wayans.
LSB has opening credits that simply go on way too long – presumably the bill for having former Righteous Brother Bill Medley grunt on and on about how Friday night’s a great night for football while cheerleaders, marching bands, fireworks and the other obligatory ‘big game’ ephemera flashes across the scene was so hefty not a precious second could be edited. Then things take a nasty turn. Out on the football field, it’s pelting down with rain, it’s dark despite the flood lights and on live television one of the star players is, in a move that is surely against the rules, about to shoot dead several members of the opposing team on his way to the touchline before blowing his own brains out.
If you’re feeling generous, you could argue that director Tony Scott is trying to contrast the glitz and glamour of the pro-sports media hype with the devastating effect it has on the players it grinds up. If you’re feeling less kind, you could see this as an abrupt tonal shift that foreshadows a wildly uneven film from a director who can’t really get a handle on his material. Your call.
Initially, LBS looks like it’s going to capitalise on Willis’ association with Moonlighting’s modern riff on smart-mouthed, LA-based, detective noir. Willis plays a chain-smoking, hard drinking, private dick who has Venetian blinds in his office, a fast mouth, a best friend who’s screwing his wife, and a habit of winding up in dangerous situations dark, atmospheric back alleys. It’s the kind of movie where a line like “Fuck you, Sarah. You’re a lying bitch and if there weren’t all these cops around I’d spit in your face” is an honest declaration of love.
This is what makes the sharp veer into buddy flick territory heralded by Wayans’ arrival on screen all the more jarring. Wayans plays a washed-up, painkiller addicted former pro-quarterback whose cute-as-a-button stripper girlfriend is executed after attempting to blackmail another one of her clients, a corrupt football team owner, with the aim of getting Wayans his old job back (the stripper is a pre-Oscar Halle Berry, paying her dues). Wayans teams up with Willis through a sequence of events too weird to go into and away we go.
Wait – why would the girlfriend of a millionaire who pays her rent keep her job as a stripper in a seedy dive? Why would she even know that one of her other sugar daddies is involved in bribing senators into making gambling on professional sport legal? On that note, why does he then go on to try and frame Willis for assassinating a senator rather than just paying the dude the $6m he wants? Wouldn’t that be easier and cheaper than hiring a team of Euro-baddies to carry out an elaborate hit? What makes the stripper think that … oh, forget it.
Basically all you need to know is that, for the purposes of this film, both Wayans and Willis are blessed with “Immortal Mortal Man Powers“, which means that no matter how many heights they fall from, punches they take or broken bones they sustain, they’re pretty much fine. They can even endure the presence of Willis’ unfeasibly loathsome, potty mouthed screen daughter (Danielle Harris, soon to be seen all grown up and continuing her meteoric rise through the Hollywood stratosphere in Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D). Harris may be given lines more suited to the role of a dockyard strumpet, but she’s supposed to be only 13 so it’s kind of shocking how many scenes she’s in where her dad shoots someone in the face with her help.
And yet … in its own way, and despite the aforementioned wild unevenness, The Last Boy Scout is kind of great. The dialogue is fizzy and the film is well aware of its own ludicrous plot leaps and just goes with it. Willis is engaging and funny (that smirk hasn’t got its own trailer on set yet). Even Wayans is great in it – his brief impersonation of Prince is pretty good, and while no mere mortal can look cool wearing a Mandarin’s cap for no apparent reason, Wayans almost does. As someone who lived in the ‘90s, I can assure you that that nearly looking good in early ‘90s fashions is something that only someone with the real X factor can do.
So while watching The Last Boy Scout wasn’t all that helpful in explaining why Will Smith is hugely popular and Damon Wayans is not, it did strike me that Smith’s co-star in Bad Boys, Martin Lawrence, now pretty much wears fat suits for a living. Perhaps the problem is not that our universe can’t support a multitude of Wayans brothers, but that Hollywood still can’t support more than one black leading man at a time.