Looking back at Shane Black
Iron Man 3 opens this week. For some viewers, the film's appeal isn't the eponymous superhero, but the sarcastic-yet-sensitive hero behind the gravity-defying, repulsor-ray-shooting suit of armor.
I refer, of course, to Shane Black. Iron Man 3's co-writer–director recharged the buddy-cop flick in the ’80s with his screenplay for Lethal Weapon, but found himself exiled to the Phantom Zone--OK, Marvel Zombies, to Nightmare's Dream Dimension, sheesh – after two spec scripts he sold for record sums became pricey box-office failures. He rebounded with 2005's well-received but low-profile Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
Iron Man 3 is Black's return to presumptive blockbuster filmmaking, and his first at-bat as director of a big-budget megalith. Herewith a revisitation of the major pictures in Black's weirdly specific filmography: Four of the movies he's written are, to a greater or lesser degree, buddy thrillers set at Christmastime. (And Iron Man 3 is set – well, just guess.)
Lethal Weapon (1987)
If 48 Hours inaugurated the modern, shoot-from-the-quip buddy action flick five years earlier, this Vietnam-vet–cops vs. Vietnam-vet–heroin-smugglers thriller, which Black wrote when he was only 23, perfected the formula. But Lethal Weapon didn't feel formulaic, because it brought vulnerability to the 'splosion genre in an era when Stallones and Schwarzeneggers reigned. Die Hard was still a year off when we met Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs, bawling with a photo of his recently deceased wife in his lap – and his Beretta 92F in his mouth.
The heart of the film is the scene where Danny Glover's Roger Murtaugh invites his possibly psychotic new partner home with him for a family dinner. The wife napalms the roast, the teen daughter won't stop making eyes at Riggs, and the two youngest Murtaughs goad their father into trying to rap. It's all beautifully written and performed; we actually buy that we're watching the spark of an emotional bond that will restore Riggs's will to live, love and, obviously, kill again.
The movie climaxes with Riggs and a never-crazier Gary Busey having a superfluous-but-awesome mixed martial arts fight on Murtaugh's front lawn while the other cops stand around and watch. Gibson and Glover turned out to have great chemistry, but every beat of their whirlwind proto-bromance was right there on the page.
The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Black set his first screenwriter payday record when he got $1.75 million for this lurid, potty-mouthed mystery about a plot to assassinate a senator. A swollen Bruce Willis stars as an alcoholic P.I. who was once a hot-shot Secret Service agent; a jacked Damon Wayans plays a pill-popping pro football player banned from the league for gambling. Kaboom!
Director Tony Scott shoots the thing through with testosterone (revealingly, he made this movie in between Days of Thunder and True Romance), but you can still feel faint echoes of existential 1970s L.A. detective films like Chinatown and The Long Goodbye (though the later The Long Kiss Goodnight is the Black joint where we actually see Samuel L. Jackson watching that Arthur Penn gumshoe classic on TV). It contains two scenes in which Willis uses his surprisingly funny comic patter to buy time while he thinks of a way to kill the guy holding the gun to his head.
Black's script contains a subplot about snuff films and a boat-chase climax around Catalina Island. Neither element made it to the screen, but the movie's subbed-in football-game finale, wherein a stadium-load of bystanders hangs around to cheer a video of Bruce Willis dancing after they've just been sprayed with machine-gun fire, is really the only way this thing could end.
Last Action Hero (1993)
This is the sole Shane Black picture that doesn't accomplish its mission. But then, no one involved with Arnold Schwarzenegger's biggest turkey ever agreed on what its mission was, other than to out-gross Jurassic Park, which opened one week earlier.
Black didn't conceive this screenplay, nor was he its sole script doctor. William Goldman and Carrie Fisher were both among the big-name scribes brought in to try to fix the ambitious but rushed and tonally unsettled mess. The result? An overlong, not nearly funny enough mash-up of Terminator 2 and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Robert Zemeckis or Penny Marshall might've had some idea of how to handle this material, but director John McTiernan – who, like Black, had been handpicked by Schwarzenegger after their collaboration on Predator, in which Black has a small but memorable acting role – was far outside his wheelhouse.
So: Don't Blame Me, I'm Just (One of) the Writer(s). Though hiring Shane Black to rewrite what began as a parody of Shane Black-style action movies seems, in hindsight, dumb.
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Black's third buddy movie is so entertaining, I can't believe it isn't on Encore Action twice a day. Naturally, it tanked. Geena Davis plays an amnesiac cookie-baking schoolteacher who gradually pieces together – with the help of Samuel L. Jackson's opportunistic private dick – that she's actually a covert assassin being hunted by her former comrades. This script sold for another record sum: $4 million. "I lost friends over it," Black told The Onion's Nathan Rabin in 2005. "No one talked about the creative content of anything I did anymore."
Netflix this underseen gem and you'll long for the days when studios would spend big bucks on a profane, R-rated action thriller that repeatedly puts a child in jeopardy. (Yvonne Zima, who played Davis's eight-year-old moppet, is now a 24-year-old beauty; IMDB lists her among Iron Man 3's cast.) Crisply shot by Renny Harlin, fresh off the implosion of his other would-be blockbuster with then-wife Davis, Cutthroat Island, the flick more than delivers the trashy goods. Jackson appears to enjoy himself way more in this movie than in any of his later appearances as Nick Fury, perhaps because the array of plaid trousers, turtlenecks and golf caps he sports seems to have come from his actual closet.
The villains are American spooks aiming to stage – that is, commit – a terror attack to justify a funding boost. "I've no idea how to fake killing 4,000 people, so we're just going to have to do it for real," big, bad Patrick Malahide explains. "They'll blame it on the Muslims, naturally." It was 1996, people.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Come back, Shane! We've missed you! Black's old pal and champion Joel Silver got Warner Bros. to pony up the $15 million he needed for his directorial debut, a brilliantly funny and self-aware caper thriller/Hollywood satire with yet another inspired pairing of leads: Robert Downey Jr., three years pre-Iron Man, as a petty thief who stumbles into a movie audition, and a top-of-his-game Val Kilmer as a private eye named Gay Perry. Heartbreaker Michelle Monaghan is in the mix, too, as a childhood pal of Downey Jr.'s now in Hollywood watching the last flickers of her dreams of stardom fade.
Black keeps the convoluted mystery almost clear, his dialogue has never been sharper, and there's a playful quality to the set pieces that remind us, deep into the high-Bay epoch of incoherent action filmmaking, that action scenes are supposed to wake us up, not wear us out. Best of all, in his third film to feature a private detective, Black finally goes the first-person narration route. The way Downey Jr. bites into these lines will make you wonder why it took him and Black eight years to make another film together.
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