With the stench of Hudson Hawk and The Bonfire of the Vanities still hanging foul in the air, critics and audiences alike were ready to consign Bruce Willis to the has-been compost heap when The Last Boy Scout was released theatrically in December. The fact that Shane Black’s script was one of the first in the million-dollar screenplay sweepstakes of the last few years only meant that the knives were being honed more sharply. And when the movie turned out to be — well, not a turkey, at least — critics were nonplussed, and audiences happily embraced it as if Willis’ previous bombs were aberrations best ignored, like belches in a church.

Still, with its stale cynicism and bigger, better bloodbaths, The Last Boy Scout is pretty much the same old crap on a fancy plate. And on video, you can’t even see the plate: The quick-cutting visual style that dazzled and frazzled theatrical viewers comes to the small screen looking like a music video edited through a Cuisinart.

Director Tony Scott has long favored style over substance anyway. Most of his films, such as The Hunger, Top Gun, and Days of Thunder, are notable more for their adrenaline-rush imagery than for such seemingly antiquated notions as characters or storytelling. Compared with his brother Ridley, director of Thelma & Louise, Alien, and Blade Runner, Tony does not appear to be the intellectual of the family. In fact, he seems to have trouble simply telling a story — and in The Last Boy Scout, he has a doozy. Black’s is a tortuous tale about a straight-arrow-Secret-Service-man-turned-burnt-out-detective (Willis) joining with a former-quarterback- turned-disgraced-cokehead (Damon Wayans, of TV’s In Living Color) to uncover greed, graft, and gambling in the closely intertwined power circles of L.A. football and politics, while at the same time cleaning up their messy domestic problems, in particular the detective’s errant wife and foulmouthed daughter.

It doesn’t matter that this story gets more contrived the closer you look; what matters in movies like this is the Big Bang-Boom. The dialogue doesn’t have to make sense if it evinces the necessary ”hip,” profane swagger (”You’re a lot of fun to be with.” ”F— you.”). The plot doesn’t have to convince if the explosions are big enough and as many characters die as messily as possible. Psychological depth is secondary if all of your characters display the nihilistic chic that’s meant to pass for subversive street realism but — let’s face it — really just panders to yahoo bloodlust in the hope of making some green.

The funny thing is, on the big screen The Last Boy Scout did the Big Bang- Boom just well enough to coldcock one’s finer sensibilities. It moves like a whippet, and Scott’s knack for brainlessly beautiful camera work gets a full workout. Each scene is a self-sustaining node of Panavision sensation — even Willis’ living room is suffused with blue smoke — and in theaters it barely mattered that the only thing connecting the dots was our own numb curiosity to see what the next brutality might be. On video, though, The Last Boy Scout suffers far more than most wide-screen movies; the visuals are so jazzy that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. By the climax, when Willis battles the villain on a stadium scaffolding during a night game, the editing is so epileptic that your only response has to be a disoriented shrug.

At least the two stars keep you watching (as for Taylor Negron’s effeminate hit man: Paging the man from GLAAD…). If Willis isn’t as compelling as in the Die Hard flicks, where his smartass-of-the-people act felt like more than an act, neither does he embarrass himself á la Hudson Hawk. And Damon Wayans picks up the slack with a surprisingly pleasant ease, which, for this macho genre, really is subversive. True, with its emphasis on corny, self-referential tough talk, Black’s screenplay never quite makes clear what these guys are doing together, but Willis and Wayans are good enough to paper over the story cracks. They’d better be; after Willis’ character has kissed and made up with wife and daughter, the script makes sure to send him walking off into the sunset with Wayans. How many snaps up would ”Men on Film” critics Antoine and Blaine give that? C-

The Last Boy Scout
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