In honor of The Nice Guys, we're kicking off a month of weekly spotlight articles celebrating Shane Black and the subgenres visited by his latest film.
Shane Black began writing about old guys when he was really young. Though his first screenplay, Shadow Company – a supernatural thriller set in Vietnam and co-written by Fred Dekker – never actually saw cameras roll (John Carpenter briefly flirted with directing it), his second, Lethal Weapon, damn near made him a household name. Sold in 1986 for $250,000, the 24-year-old UCLA graduate was sharing a bachelor pad in West Los Angeles with other writers before his movie went on to gross $65 million domestically. Part of Lethal Weapon’s success was undoubtedly tied to the psychopathic joy its star, Mel Gibson, brought to ex-Special Forces freak with a badge, Martin Riggs. The action also carries a sense of real danger, as our heroes mow down their opponents in a hail of gunfire with zero hesitation. It’s the type of '80s bullet-fest that renders the moral arcs of modern superhero incarnations (like Batman or Daredevil) not only uninteresting, but downright wimpy in comparison to a mulleted, wild-eyed maniac.
The lazy way to refer to what Black refined over the course of several screenplays and directorial efforts is “formula”, but really what he cultivated was an identity. Though it’s redundant to call someone an “auteur author”, the fact remains you know when you’re watching a movie written by Shane Black, the same way you do when Aaron Sorkin is behind the keyboard. Signifiers beyond bombastic action and snappy one-liners are present. There’s a tangible texture to each movie; a weighty three-dimensionality that you only get from a fully envisioned universe. Certainly advantageous is the ability to friskily convey a scene this fluently to your creative partners:
EXT. POSH BEVERLY HILLS HOME – TWILIGHT
The kind of house that I’ll buy if this movie is a huge hit. Chrome. Glass. Carved wood. Plus an outdoor solarium: a glass structure, like a greenhouse only there’s a big swimming pool inside. This is a really great place to have sex.
Everybody knows that fucking house. You can see it in your mind, despite the fact you’ve probably never been there. That’s the touch of a true fantasy artist: the ability to take you to a place you might’ve only ever visited in the goofiest corners of your imagination. Shane Black’s movies are undoubtedly fantasies – big, broad, aggressive male unrealities that don’t mind empowering women, POC and LGBT folks every now and again. He’s always flexing some sort of oiled muscle, but doing so in a terse, thoughtful, inclusive way. That’s really cool, and streets ahead of a decade that was mostly peddling super buff action figures who could barely emote. Each movie in his filmography feels “of its time” (thanks mostly to the director/producer pairings) yet amalgamates into a cohesive body that’s one of the more conspicuously “written” wholes in cinematic history.
I. Lethal Weapon I + II (dir. Richard Donner)
Watching the Lethal Weapon movies in 2016 is an odd task, and not just because of Mel Gibson’s perception-altering tirades. The first two films Black was involved with (though he left Part II over narrative disputes we’ll get to in a minute) feel like they truly came from another time, where audiences were OK with watching heroes bulldoze through a bevy of bad guys, spraying bullets first and asking questions never. These days, many of our most popular superheroes have a rather quaint moral quandary placed at their feet (“should I kill in the name of justice?”). Lethal Weapon doesn’t give a shit about such introspective soul searching, instead opting to deliver a mulleted madman in Martin Riggs (Gibson), whose main asset is the fact that he doesn’t care about the lives of those who are doing wrong.
This doesn’t mean Black’s first big hit is completely lacking moral gravity. Quite the contrary; as a solid chunk of the main narrative arc actually belongs to Riggs’ aging partner, Roger Murtaugh (a truly iconic Danny Glover). Murtaugh is a family man, celebrating his fiftieth birthday, and really just counting the days until he can ride a desk before retirement (he joined the LAPD in ‘67). He has a beautiful wife (who unfortunately can’t cook), and loving children. He’s too old to be saddled with a new reckless partner who everyone knows is crazy. Frankly, he’s too old for any of this cop “shit”. But he’s great at his job, and actually learns from Riggs that he still possesses a capacity for toughness in the face of vicious adversity. Lethal Weapon is achingly homoerotic, as it becomes a tale about one man reconnecting with the violent roots of his profession via a bond with another who has lost everything in the world. In each other, Riggs and Murtaugh discover love – the love of murdering the shit out of any and all who aim to do the people of Los Angeles harm.
It’s difficult not to reconsider Gibson’s performance following his recent racial/anti-Semitic tirades. Yet instead of refusing to revisit these movies (as many have understandably chosen, thanks to the star’s bad behavior), a re-watch underlines Riggs’ weirdest attributes, which may not have been readily apparent before and only help to strengthen just how thematically strange these pictures actually are. Riggs is a racist homophobe, remarking that the idea of two women having sex is “disgusting”, before asking Murtaugh if he’s a “fag” after the detective shields him from a prostitute’s exploding home. However, the original trajectory of the initial Lethal Weapons culminates in the wild man telling his more conservative partner that he loves him before dying at the end of Part II. Riggs, of course, only perished in Black’s original script – a producer-mandated change that caused the writer to leave the picture and relinquish screenplay credit to Jeffrey Boam. While we can’t really say Riggs has done away with his prejudice because of this spark (he remarks that “the Japanese own everything” roughly ten minutes into the sequel), the friendship that forms between Riggs and Murtaugh marks these as the ultimate buddy cop movies. Countless others would try and copy Black’s design (which is at least partially derived from Walter Hill and Freebie and the Bean), with one (much) later sitcom going as far as to make their own blackface-swapping satire on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
The other trademarks of Black’s writing act as window dressing for this legend of amorous architectural demolition. The Christmas setting, the godlike henchman (Gary Busey’s Mr. Joshua is an all-timer bad guy), the grandiloquent finale; much of the fun is picking out the thumbprint Black was leaving from the get-go. Conversely, it’s the racially mixed pair of cops at the picture’s core that make the madness so enjoyable. The first two Lethal Weapon movies (and, to a lesser extent, the Black-less later installments) are fueled by the illogical harmony generated by Gibson and Glover. The marriage of their performances and Black’s writing perfectly realizes the “buddy action” movie’s potential. It’d be a magic that the young writer would continue to chase (along with tagline doctors at WB), transforming it into a personality that he’d warp to fit each tale he was telling.
II. The Last Boy Scout (dir. Tony Scott)
The fact that The Last Boy Scout was nearly DOA thanks to behind the scenes strife (producer Joel Silver publicly called it “one of the worst experiences of his life”) seems to inform the change in Shane Black’s buddy action method more than the actual script did (though Black’s writing certainly made it to the screen mostly unscathed). The Lethal Weapon producer won a bidding war ($1.75 mil) to bring the wunderkind screenwriter’s next potential blockbuster to the big screen. Bruce Willis, fresh off the preposterous bomb, Hudson Hawk, signed on to star as grizzled PI Joe Hallenbeck. Damon Wayans went from making minor appearances in major motion pictures (like the original Beverly Hills Cop) while becoming a prime time genius with In Living Color characters like Homey the Clown. On paper, his fallen from grace ex-NFL superstar Jimmy Dix was the perfect match for Willis’ boozy former Secret Service agent.
Apparently Willis and Wayans hated one another, as Bruce joined forces with Silver and hijacked the shoot. Sections of Black’s script were re-written, and director Tony Scott constantly raised objections over scenes he disliked. Composer Michael Kamen despised the rough cut, and only agreed to score it because he had close personal ties to the star and super producer. In the end, the real hero was Lethal Weapon editor Stuart Baird, who re-spliced the film from what was reportedly a borderline unwatchable work print. While there are many narrative head scratchers left in the final cut (logic errors abound via scene transitions), Baird’s workmanlike splicing keeps The Last Boy Scout chugging along at such a breakneck pace that it’s impossible not to get caught up in its freight train of testosterone-juiced storytelling that rivals Black’s first big hit in terms of pitiless bloodletting.
Though they may have hated each other, Willis and Wayans still manage to manufacture incredible chemistry that heightens Black’s already clever work. Their disdain for one another is palpable in early scenes, as Dix wants to do nothing more than spike a football off of Hallenbeck’s nose. On the other side, Willis gives it his all. Hallenbeck isn’t simply a John McClane riff (though there are certainly aspects of the Nakatomi hero present), as the star taps into the man’s sad center while still remaining incredibly funny. Black’s characteristic quips (“I like ice. Leave it the fuck alone…”) are perfect for the actor’s disheveled dog delivery. But it’s a sense of darkness, seemingly imported from the belly of Martin Riggs, which keeps both of these men somewhat grounded, even as the action beats hit ludicrous heights. Unlike Lethal Weapon, there is no Murtaugh; no moral center anchored to the values of the “real world”. Sure, Hallenbeck has an estranged wife and daughter (again representing Black’s fascination with fatherhood), but that doesn’t stop him from throwing a gallon of ice cream out the back door when he gets attitude from either of them. Both halves of this latest odd couple are on edge, drinking and drugging as they try to keep their respective darkness at bay. This rumbling discontent ends up fusing the two, as they look to solve a murder that may end up redeeming them both.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Shane Black joint if Dix and Hallenbeck didn’t have a murderous psycho to contend with, and The Last Boy Scout may offer up the writer’s best. Taylor Negron absolutely steals the movie as Milo, the sexually ambiguous henchman who has no problem plugging cops at the behest of his professional football franchise owning master (Southern caricature extraordinaire, Noble Willingham). Negron runs wild with the character, hissing threats at Hallenbeck before taking shots at State Senators. So while the entire production may have been seconds from full collapse, you can hardly tell watching the badass picture The Last Boy Scout turned out to be. Black’s one and only collaboration with mayhem maestro Tony Scott was tumultuous, but was also been a key moment in the evolution of his buddy action dynamics.
III. The Long Kiss Goodnight (dir. Renny Harlin)
The Long Kiss Goodnight may actually be a better superhero story than the one Black eventually got to make with Marvel Studios. After coming aboard as a producer on Extremely Violent, a Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand) and Adam Leff (PCU) parody of the type of gargantuan ‘80s action pictures Black helped define, the writer reshaped the movie into Last Action Hero for Arnold Schwarzenegger. The story of a matinee addicted moppet (Austin O’Brien) teaming up with his favorite big screen idol (Ahnuld) to stop a psychotic supervillain (Tom Noonan), it’s a somewhat toothless yet still fun affair. Though he’s always been a gifted humorist when it comes to crafting characters’ personalities, satirizing one’s self isn’t the easiest task to pull off. Black does an admirable job, but Last Action Hero is far from perfect and became one of the bigger flops of 1991.
Failure can fuck right off it seems, as the thirst for high adventure left a mark on Black, and he created what was easily his biggest, boldest, meanest movie to date: The Long Kiss Goodnight. Selling for a cool $4 million to New Line Cinema, The Long Kiss Goodnight takes all of Black’s macho attractions and cranks them to eleven. Some didn’t look too kindly upon the writer’s latest magnum opus, as Peter Bart penned a rather scathing editorial about the hottest script in town. He scolded Black, saying:
“What you have done in The Long Kiss Goodnight is carry everything to its logical extreme. Your computer has spawned the grossest dialogue, most sadistic torture scenes, grisliest killings, and most mean-spirited heavies. In doing so, you have not only exploited the system, you have laid it to waste. You have left nothing for the wannabe Shane Blacks to try and top.”
How is this a bad thing? All Bart did was diss the guy with the sickest crossover for breaking too many ankles on the court. Furthermore, Black’s Long Kiss Goodnight script feels ahead of its time in 2016. Essentially the deconstruction of an origin story, Black repurposes the homicide-for-hire foundations of a domestic goddess (Geena Davis) into an aggro neo-noir mystery. Paired with what is easily one of the best characters in Sam Jackson’s epic collection, Black delivers a duo that rivals Riggs and Murtaugh in terms of eccentric crescendos. Jackson’s con man private investigator Mitch Hennessey stealthily navigates every scenario, yapping his way in and out of danger while making money to try and buy his disaffected son toys. But he’s also incredibly unimpressive once Davis makes the transformation from homemaking Samantha Cane to trained assassin Charlie Baltimore. Thanks to a freak car crash, Samantha’s mind shatters, leading her and Hennessey down a rabbit hole of her own unbeknownst making. It’s a genius bit of narrative craft, allowing the audience to discover bits and pieces about this superhuman, all while Charlie saves Mitch’s ass time and again.
It’s somewhat easy to understand why Bart reacted the way he did to Black’s latest ultraviolent operetta in the same year something as unrepentantly gnarly as Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Black’s style was already played out in the paop consciousness by the time he put pen to paper for The Long Kiss Goodnight, while Quentin Tarantino was inventively setting shootings to surf rock riffs. This ostensible flatness might also account for why the movie was a considerable box office dud ($29 million on a budget of $65 mil), leading to Black’s own self-exile from Hollywood work (though he became something of a notorious party animal in the meantime). It may be a movie that’s rife for re-appraisal, but upon initial release it fit into a trend that Black himself described as a “culture where people want to be deafened”. Maybe that’s why The Long Kiss Goodnight stands out on re-watch – we’re in the midst of another cynical blockbuster boom where movies are manufactured by studios who want to hit as many awkwardly bombastic beats as they can (see: Batman v Superman). Something that may have felt stale in ‘96 was just unlucky to be released at the wrong time, as it feels like a fresh re-mapping of Origin Story Island twenty years later.
IV. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (dir. Shane Black)
There’s almost always been an element of dime store mystery to Shane Black’s work. Though it unquestionably becomes a shoot ‘em up rollercoaster, Lethal Weapon begins with the murder/suicide of a prostitute, which leads Riggs and Murtaugh to a rather grand conspiracy (all set to wailing sax and Clapton guitar licks). The Last Boy Scout finds two burnouts on the trail of a stripper’s murderers (which also points to quite the shady cabal). The Long Kiss Goodnight literally turns a woman’s past into the enigmatic secret that drives its two leads further and further into a heart of darkness (which, naturally, leads to more sedition). They’re threads that we’ve seen a million times before on yellow-stained pages, revised to fit Black’s distinctive crowd pleaser aesthetic.
So it seems only natural that the writer’s directorial debut would bring this storytelling beguilement to the forefront, albeit with a tongue in cheek twist. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a murder mystery “greatest hits” compilation, complete with a fictional Mike Shayne (Johnny Gossamer) and a narrator who will rewind the film himself so he can tell you his story just a little bit better. Though near perfectly lensed by Michael Barrett, this is certainly a “writer’s movie”, sporting the excitable gabbiness of a scribe whose words on the page sound like your best friend dishing jokes from a bar stool.
And man, what jokes he tells. While Kiss Kiss Bang Bang doubles down on seedy miasma, it leaves behind a good amount of the genre fireworks Black’s name had become synonymous with. In violence’s place is levity – jokes that hit hard due to their smarmily observant nature (“Native American Joe Pesci” is one for the ages). It helps again that Black gets the perfect actors to deliver his words, this time working with two notoriously “difficult” performers, one of which (Robert Downey Jr.) seemed to be polishing up his tarnished star (Iron Man was still two years off), while the other was content in bit part self-parody (remember Val Kilmer’s Entourage turn as “The Sherpa” just the year before? Yeesh). When taken in context with Black’s own past as a creative control happy establishment-branded “hack”, it’s hard to really imagine Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ever being made by another creative team. All three were once bankable names who had seen their share of dark nights in the desert, and were now coming together behind a really special, idiosyncratic big studio script.
Upon first glance, Gay Perry and Harry Lockhart don’t seem like your typical Shane Black power couple. First of all, they’re both white. Yet Perry’s gayness is a compliment to Harry’s slippery foppishness. Black is again crafting something like a love story between these two men, as they grow closer despite possibly being as far apart personality-wise as people get. The real revelation in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is Kilmer, whose deadpan delivery turns lines revolving around time traveling monkeys who can only say “ficus” not only believable, but downright natural. Where every other Black buddy picture contained at least one live wire, here both are cool, if somewhat neurotic (Downey is really only doing a variation of his jittery chic persona). Neither of these men are threatening to pop off at any minute, yet don’t have any trouble negotiating or shooting their way out of trouble (Perry’s “tiny gun” comes in quite handy). This is Black at his most playful; bobbing, weaving but never quite flexing like before. It’s a whole new set of strengths that still seem vaguely familiar, rendering Kiss Kiss Bang Bang thrillingly fresh.
Black’s re-entry into the world of big budget action filmmaking is one of the greatest things Marvel (along with Robert Downey Jr.) helped enable while establishing their massive empire of serialized storytelling. Though his “fingerprint” is somewhat obfuscated by the studio’s in-house production style, Iron Man 3 still carries the most divergent mark of its creator out of any entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (rivaled only by James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy). The Christmas setting, the badass henchman (James Badge Dale is superb as Savin), even the issues of fatherhood rear their head in order to make it clear that this is, in fact, a Shane Black joint. Toss in a little full scale destruction just for good measure.
Yet the most distinct Shane Black moment comes at the very end of Iron Man 3, which sees Tony Stark tossing his red and yellow helmet into the sea and swearing off his heroic ways….at least for a little bit. Like the rest of Black’s protagonists, he’s grown tired of his existence, and is looking to settle down for a bit of the good life. Murtaugh just wanted to blow the candles out on his cake and snuggle his wife. Joe Hallenbeck just wanted to dance a jig. Charlie Baltimore just wanted to hide and bake as Samantha Cane. All Tony Stark wants is to make sure that he and Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) – the love of his life whose continuation is placed in just as much danger as his own – can live free from the burdens of a superhero’s day to day. Like the rest of Black’s weary leads, he’s too old for this shit, and it’s time to move on to something new. But heroes don’t move on. We need them to watch over us and guide us through times of strife. We know that Iron Man will return, once retirement has bored him to tears and inventions hold no more interest. Because heroes never outgrow the need to help those in need, and once the call is sounded, they’re right back in action – age be damned.