Written By: Daniel Kinsley
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was initially deemed too large by management, and thus will be broken up into several installments so that for all three of our readers, the size will be more manageable! PART TWO will cover CHAPTER III.
III. THE SHANE BLACK INTERLUDE: A POST LETHAL WORLD
It has been said that many artists spend their lifetime creating ways to express variations on the same themes, and in Shane Black’s case, that may be more true than for most. From early on, Black has always had an immediately recognizable style of writing; complex plots often populated by colorful villains, beat-down heroes in need of redemption, a wicked sense of humor, and a penchant for setting films during the Christmas season. *
By any metric then, Shane Black has had one hell of a career. At the time he sold his first script for Lethal Weapon, Black was only in his early 20s. Following that, he did uncredited script work on the Schwarzenegger fronted Predator (1987) [along with a small role in the film as Hawkins] and co-wrote the cult classic The Monster Squad (1987) directed by friend and director Fred Dekker.
Shortly after it’s huge success, a Lethal Weapon sequel was quickly given a green light and producer Joel Silver asked Black to take a crack at the screenplay. Co-written with Warren Murphy, Black turned in a first draft called Play Dirty. While the skeleton of the shooting script was owed to Black and Murphy (they earned a “story by” credit) the original draft was a bit more melancholy, and as is often reported with Black’s original scripts, a good deal more graphic. But perhaps the biggest change was owed to tone. Black once said he feels much more comfortable writing a story that has jokes in it rather than writing a straight comedy. It’s little surprise, then, that Black was uncomfortable with the tone of the sequel, most obviously exemplified by the presence of Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), a very minor character in the original script. The most notable difference, and ultimately the thing that divorced Black from the project, was the death of Martin Riggs. After the first film saw Riggs come back from the brink of suicide, the sequel would have completed his arc in a poetic way.
To hear Black tell it:
“This guy who was gradually brought back to life and brought back into the real world, and he can let his guard down and learn to accept the love of real people, and in my version of the sequel that’s the very love for that family that makes him say ‘ok, now I gotta go back and die, basically, to protect them’. And they didn’t like that idea.”
While Black would ultimately part with the project, he went on to have working relationships with several of the people involved, including Joel Silver and Mel Gibson. Perhaps the greatest disappointment is that the original draft of Play Dirty was never released to the public, especially as Black is on the record saying the script is “the best thing I ever wrote.”
Black would return in a few years, however, with The Last Boyscout (1991) directed by the late Tony Scott. Black had experienced an identity crisis of sorts after the experience on Lethal Weapon 2 and Boyscout was a bit of a breakthrough for the writer. Originally envisioned as a much smaller film, the film fell prey to a battle of egos. Bruce Willis played Joe Hallenback (reportedly at the height of a phase where he acted like a real asshole) whose latest investigation gets him tangled up with former disgraced quarterback Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) in a plot that centered on gambling and pro sports. Nearly everything written about the film describes it as a nightmarish experience; Black reported that he was forced to do more re-writes to the script than any other, Willis and Wayans allegedly hated each other, and Tony Scott notoriously butted heads with producer Joel Silver, calling it one of the worst experiences of his professional life. Yet, it is an undeniably fun, rollicking experience, and this is due in large part to the presence of Black’s razor sharp writing.
Despite the success in honing his writing skills, it began a troubling pattern for the writer in which his scripts were both endlessly tinkered with and saddled with larger expectations (due in large part to their price tag; Boyscout sold for $1.75 million). While he went on to have a similarly troubled experience as a hired gun on Last Action Hero (1993), the most significant experience in Black’s first act revolved around The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996).
To the knowledge of this writer, the script for The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) remains the most expensive ever sold at a whopping $4 million. The film starred Geena Davis as Samantha Caine. Now a schoolteacher, Caine settled into her new life in small-town Pennsylvania after washing up on a beach, pregnant and amnesiac, with no clues as to who she really was: a spy operative named Charly Baltimore. After suffering a concussion in a car accident, she begins to remember her former life while these burgeoning memories coincide with P.I. Mitch Hennessey (Samuel L. Jackson) investigating her past.
Davis and Jackson make for one of Black’s most dynamic pairings in terms of chemistry, and while they don’t quite reach lightning in a bottle of Black’s highest peaks, they come damn close. The film was undoubtedly ahead of its time in casting a female action lead, a decision which Black determined was the only real way to distinguish it from other similar films. Though the script was heavily edited (like much of Black’s output in the 90s), Samantha Caine is one of Black’s most thoroughly realized protagonists. While many of the heroes (or anti-heroes) of Black’s scripts share similar DNA (a sense of melancholy, a quick-witted sense of humor), Samantha fulfills the writer’s intent of creating a complex female character who is both a mother and a cold-blooded killer. Upon release, the film grossed very little at the box office and was generally regarded as the peak (or nadir, depending on your perspective) of early 90s excess. Some detractors would say it was Black taking his formula (so to speak) to its most logical and extreme conclusion. It is perhaps fitting then that this was the last film he would make for nearly a decade.
Time has been good to the film, as it developed something of a cult-following and eventually earned a more favorable critical reputation. Years later, Black wondered whether lack of success was due to its female lead; though history has placed considerably more blame on the epic failure of Davis’ and director Renny Harlin’s previous film, Cutthroat Island (1995)
Black would later go on to say that the enormous pay day did more harm than good among friends and colleagues, which resulted in his disappearing act from the Hollywood scene. It would be nine years before Black would return with a new script, and Black credits his experience on The Long Kiss Goodnight with inspiring him to want to direct as well. The script reportedly had a difficult time being sold, until Black reached out to producer Joel Silver, who had given the writer his break once upon a time. In 2005, Black released his directorial debut, and his masterpiece, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
During his hiatus, Black admits to being stuck for a time in being able to generate new ideas. The writer’s block was ultimately broken by James L. Brooks, who told Black to imagine Jack Nicholson from As Good As It Gets (1997) played by Nicholson in Chinatown (1974). By his own admission, Black set out to write a romantic version of the latter film (no small feat). Black threw in a few modern updates to his buddy tropes like a gay lead (an attempt to subvert stereotypes) and set the murder mystery around a film production. What resulted was a whodunit inspired by the pulp novels of the 1950s and 60s but completely his own.
Around that same time, Robert Downey Jr. was in the midst of a second comeback following his troubled history with substance abuse and jail time. After taking on several smaller roles, Downey was cast as Harry Lockhart, a bumbling small time thief, and one of the two stars of the film. At the time, Downey was far from a sure thing, and in a fit of what will certainly now read as irony, Black received an endorsement of Downey from a former friend to both: Mel Gibson. What resulted was almost certainly one of Downey’s lesser seen roles, but for this writer, easily his best. Downey is paired with a scene-stealing and truly never better Val Kilmer as Gay Perry, a wisecracking (and yes, openly gay) P.I. and consultant to the stars. After Harry (Downey) unwittingly finds his way into an acting audition, he is tasked with shadowing Perry for a role in an upcoming detective film. When a real murder comes into play, things get considerably more complicated.
It would spoil all of the fun of the film to dive into the plot much more (not to mention a fool’s errand, as it’s wildly complex). It might be the most Shane Black Shane Black movie ever. It’s a damn near perfect distillation of his strengths, first mined all the way in ‘87; the dialogue is crackling and laser quick, the jokes fly fast, and the mystery is as good (and convoluted) as anything it was inspired by. While Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are the gold standard for buddy-action films, there may come a day when the critical consensus edges them into the second seat, as Downey and Kilmer make for cinematic perfection, complementary in a way that most romance films would kill for. It’s not only the best film in Black’s oeuvre, it’s one of the best films from the last decade.
It was a bit of a wait before Black would return behind the camera, though he returned to the tentpole world in 2013 with Iron Man 3, arguably the most notably auteur driven Marvel film, as it’s undeniably a Shane Black affair (with all of the usual trappings) as well as an MCU one. It’s a poetic thought to imagine RDJ using his newfound clout to give a leg up to the man who once did the same for him.
Several years later, Black cashed in his chips and returned to his own material with The Nice Guys (2016). Though the script was first penned in 2001 (by Black and Anthony Bagarozzi) it found new life after catching the attention of Ryan Gosling in 2014.
Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a sad-sack P.I. in 1977 Los Angeles. After he is hired to find a young girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) he crosses paths with bruiser Jackson Healy (Rusell Crowe). Soon, the two men become reluctant partners in solving the disappearance of Amelia, and the investigation leads them down a dark path of porn, the auto industry, and a mysterious hit man named John Boy. Much like Kiss Kiss, the film wears its influences more or less on its sleeve, and while it doesn’t quite reach the dizzying excellence of the former, it’s one hell of a mystery film that plays things a little more straight faced with the audience. ** Crowe and Gosling make for an unexpected, but very effective pairing, and Gosling in particular is a revelation as March, proving to be as surprisingly adept at physical comedy as Leo in The Wolf of Wall Street (2014). Black has said that his latest heroes were meant to evoke knights in tarnished armor, whose mission is saving little girls. Amelia is certainly one of them, but the sentiment could just as easily apply to March’s precocious daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) the emotional linchpin that brings the two men (and the film) together.
In many ways, the film is a perfect companion piece to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as it feels like a fairly similar variation of the detective story as filtered by Black’s sensibilities. It’s fitting after all for the man to have such a razor sharp sense of who he is. Over the years, Black invented, then reinvented the wheel, and with a little luck, this time he is here to stay.
(On a somewhat unrelated note, Black is in the midst of directing the latest in the Predator series, the same (original) film he co-starred in all the way back in ’87. The new script was written by Black and his Monster Squad partner Fred Dekker, proving once and for all, that Ka is a wheel) ***
* For those keeping track at home, The Nice Guys (2016), Iron Man 3 (2013), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), The Last Boyscout (1991), and Lethal Weapon (1987) all take place during the Christmas season.
** Kiss Kiss Bang Bang often breaks the fourth wall.