If there is any genre that typifies the overkill, the standard-issue sex-and-violence decadence, the overwhelming burnout of imagination in contemporary movies, it's the buddy film. All those noisily ''explosive'' testosterone fantasies in which two wisecracking clowns get turned into profane crash-test dummies by now, I'd be happy never to sit through another one. Yet one of the things that makes movies eternally exciting is that when the lights go down, you can never truly predict what's going to come up on that screen. The Last Boy Scout is a cheerfully disreputable buddy thriller that also happens to be one of most entertaining movies of the season. Director Tony Scott (Top Gun) knows how to stage a car chase with choreographic finesse, and he has toned down his usual smoke-and-rain TV-commercial slickness. He has made a buddy movie that gives the actors room to stretch out.
The film taps into the grimy proletarian charisma Bruce Willis had in Die Hard. He plays a tough/jaded/boozing/unshaven private eye who has sunk so low he has literally stopped caring about whether he lives or dies. The role is a takeoff on Mel Gibson's half-crazy cop in the Lethal Weapon films, except that where Gibson milks his existential lunacy for laughs, Willis seems to be playing slyly off the humiliating failure of Hudson Hawk. In terms of his own star-celebrity status, he truly is down in the dumps, and his weary, too-gone-to-be-scared macho is so convincing it's funny. Willis is a true movie star. 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.
The Last Boy Scout teams him with shaven-headed Damon Wayans, who plays a former professional quarterback out to get his old job back. Wayans, the breakout star of TV's In Living Color, is surprisingly low-key here (if anything, he's the straight man for Willis), but with his blithe baby face and dead-on delivery, he has the quicksilver charm and confidence of a natural actor. The film also features a spunky performance by Danielle Harris as Willis' combatively foul-mouthed teenage daughter. The Last Boy Scout is a guilty pleasure by any standard, but I've seen plenty of guilt-free movies lately that aren't this much fun. B+