Tis the Season to be BLACK
Shane Black loves Christmas. From Lethal Weapon to the most recent The Nice Guys, the one thing his movies all have in common (aside from being very funny buddy action movies) is they are all set around Christmas. Even The Last Action Hero, for which he wrote the screenplay with David Arnott, opens with a movie within a movie set during, you guessed it, Christmastime; Christmas Eve to be exact.
Okay, The Monster Squad is not set at Christmas, but far from being the exception that breaks this rule, this is the exception that proves this rule.
“Christmas is fun,” Black says. “It’s unifying, and all your characters are involved in this event that stays within the larger story. It roots it, I think, it grounds everything. At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take reckoning, they stock of where their lives are at Christmas. It just provides a backdrop against which different things can play out, but with one unifying, global heading. I’ve always liked it, especially in thrillers, for some reason. It’s a touch of magic.”
Is Lethal Weapon a Christmas movie, some people ask, or is it just a movie that is set during Christmas? Just because it opens with “Jingle Bell Rock” does not make it a Christmas movie, they say.
(That’s another Shane Black trademark – a single gratuitous boob shot.)
I say it is Christmas movie. For sure.
Certainly, we can see the lonely people feeling lonelier in Martin Riggs, whom Black introduced us to in 1987 in the violently comedic, Lethal Weapon; a movie that brilliantly juxtaposed its deadly violence against the merriness of the Christmas season. We see this juxtaposition displayed in a Christmas tree lot, where Riggs is posing as a man who wants to buy some cocaine.
When we see Riggs at home alone, he is considering swallowing a bullet. His wife was recently killed in a car accident, and he finds it incredibly hard to go on without her. Later in the movie, he is tasked with talking a jumper down from the roof, and the theme of loneliness comes is brought up again. The jumper is lonely, and no one understands his loneliness better than Riggs. The difference between the jumper and Riggs, though, is that while the jumper is just crying out for attention, Riggs, as demonstrated earlier in the Christmas tree scene, doesn’t really care at all if he lives or dies.
According to Black, Lethal Weapon producer, Joel Silver liked the Christmas setting so much, Silver wanted to set his next movie at Christmas, too. It was an actioner about a cop trapped in a building with terrorists. At the time, Black was working on a detective story in LA called Die Hard. Silver liked that name and asked if he could use it. Black said yes.
“I did Lethal Weapon in ’87 and we did Christmas,” Black said, “and Joel liked it so much, he put Die Hard at Christmas, and there was some fun to that.” Not to doubt Shane Black, but Die Hard was based on a novel called Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, a sequel to an earlier Thorp wrote called The Detective; which was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra as the titular detective, Joe Leland. When Thorp saw The Towering Inferno, he got the idea for Nothing Lasts Forever, and he wrote the novel, resurrecting the character of Joe Leland. He set it on Christmas Eve/Christmas. So, the Christmas setting may have already been there by the time Joel Silver began producing Die Hard.
What did Shane Black change the name of his script to?
The Last Boy Scout. Whereas Lethal Weapon put Black on the map, this one, released in 1991, made news for how much Black got paid for the screenplay – $1.75 million. It will go down in history, in my opinion, as the most misogynistic movie ever made. At no time during the movie is a woman ever referred to as a woman. Instead as bitch, slut, hooker, whore, you name it. I swear he must have written this movie after a very nasty breakup. It’s virtually a carbon copy of Lethal Weapon with Bruce Willis playing the burnout, and Damon Wayans as the man with a reason to live; even if it is just to exact revenge on the men who killed his girlfriend (Halle Berry in a role before anyone knew who she was).
However, here is my favorite scene in the movie: When Bruce Willis warns a thug what will happen if the thug touches him again.
Just like Lethal Weapon, it has violence, torture, a car chase, and a daughter taken hostage.
Yet, it is missing what grounded feeling Lethal Weapon had and made it. The movie does not use the Christmas time setting nearly as well as Lethal Weapon does (or perhaps it does, though for different intent.) Despite the fact that there are some references to “Satan Claus,” Black was more interested in telling a modern-day, hard-boiled pulp fiction detective story with this script.
“I loved detective stories, and I devoured them. I’ve literally read hundreds of them. I wasn’t allowed to read them when I was a kid because they were racy, so I would sneak them. I’d save my lunch money – I wouldn’t eat for three days so I could buy the new Mike Shayne book, or the new Shell Scott, or Chester Drum. The racy scenes were great but I loved the mystery. There was a real kind of masculine, rough-hewn rhythm to those caper novels, and I acquired an even deeper sense of them that was emotional and powerful. If I hadn’t read those stories, I wouldn’t be writing movies.”
Without the emphasis on the pronounced setting and the familial ties they bring, (whether or not that healing or anxiety-inducing ties it does not matter), the movie doesn’t resonate like Shane Black’s previous movie did. It’s jaded and cynical, and it shows; not just towards Christmas (Satan Claus), but towards the nuclear family as well. Joe Hallenback’s family doesn’t just dislike him, they outright hate him. At the end of the movie when Joe and his wife are beginning their reconciliation, instead of, “I love you, Sarah,” we get a cynical version thereof with, “Fuck you, Sarah.” I guess it is supposed to be made better because Bruce Willis delivers the smile with his trademark grin.
The movie, although fun, can leave a bitter aftertaste.
Five years later, in 1996, The Long Kiss Goodnight was released, and Black broke another record when he sold the script; this time for $4 million. In a way, it can be viewed as an apology for The Last Boy Scout. Instead of a male buddy action movie, we get a female/male buddy action movie with the female taking center stage. Geena Davis takes over the Mel Gibson/Bruce Willis role, however, she is no burnout. As Samantha, she is a mom who is happily married to her husband and couldn’t love her young daughter more. Still, accident happens. During which she hits her head, and she begins to remember skills she didn’t know she had; not the least of which is the ability to snap a dying deer’s neck with her bare hands.
Thus emerges the personae of Charly, the secret agent she really is, and for whom the personae of Samantha is just another undercover identity.
You could say this is Bourne before Bourne, but remember Robert Ludlum wrote The Bourne Identity long before this movie. It was released in 1980, and first adapted as a TV movie in 1988 starring Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne.
Geena Davis’ character leaves home to find out about her special set of skills, and she partners up with ne’er do well private detective played by Samuel L. Jackson (in one of his best comedic roles to date). Just like Black’s previous two movies, there is lots of violence, gunplay, torture, car chases, and the kidnapping of a daughter.
Although this movie is more hopeful, the Christmas setting is merely incidental again. Before the accident, Geena Davis as Samantha takes part in a parade as she is riding a float and dressed up as Mrs. Claus, before becoming the dangerous and deadly Charly. As the movie ends, we get that feeling of hope that is largely absent from The Last Boy Scout when Samantha, with her daughter rescued, returns to her family. The cynical attitude towards the nuclear family, so prevalent in The Last Boy Scout, is replaced by a more “traditional” attitude. This makes The Long Kiss Goodnight more similar to Lethal Weapon’s attitude towards the nuclear family, it still feels like a mere pale imitation thereof; which is probably part of the reason it is now considered a box office failure (though my Editor will argue with me to the grave that Kiss Kiss is Shane Black’s most underrated movies.)
Black seemed to suffer from a burnout after this, and disappeared and/or went underground for a few years. When he emerged in 2005 with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (a reference to James Bond), gone was the formulaic approach to a story that was so fresh in Lethal Weapon and so stale in The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Black reinvented himself with this one, for which he served as the screenwriter, as well as the director. He not only resurrected himself but Robert Downey Jr., too. In this one, Downey Jr plays a thief, who on the run from the police, stumbles into an audition. Before too long, he is following a private detective, played by Val Kilmer, for research. The story takes place with all sorts of Christmas parties, Christmas trees, Christmas lights, and even a stripper decorated as a reindeer; all of which serve as a backdrop for typical Shane Black violence, murder, and even incest.
The cynical attitude towards Christmas is back, but as opposed to The Last Boy Scout, it feels fresh again. It feels fun, and all of the Christmas iconography feels less like a formula as it did with the last two movies. More of a knowing nod, a wink if you will, to what audiences come to expect when walking into a Shane Black movie.
Eight years later, in 2013, Shane Black brought us Iron Man 3; again writing as well as directing. This movie is by far one of the more unique entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not the least of which because of the curveball thrown to us by Black in regards to the movie’s villain. Christmas is even more incidental in this movie than it was in The Long Kiss Goodnight. There is an interpretation that this movie takes a liken to a modern-day Christmas Carol. I’m not too sure about that, though.
Iron Man 3 does have Black’s signature dark humor running throughout it,
but aside from that and the setting of Christmastime, it’s Shane Black’s least “Shane Black” movie. I say that not as a dig towards him in any way. You can’t blame him. Everyone wants a paycheck, right?
This brings us to Black’s most recent movie, The Nice Guys (2016). Set in 1977, and starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. It is another story of mismatched partners who trade quips and dodge bullets as they unravel a story linking the porn industry to the automotive industry to the LA City Government. No doubt there is a conspiracy the heroes stumble upon, which only puts them and eventually Gosling’s daughter in a great deal of more danger. It is fast, funny, furious, and of course – violent.
Gosling tries to come to terms both with the death of his wife and his drinking problem; both in which affect his daughter who just might withdraw from him completely if he didn’t need her to chauffeur him around because of his drinking.
In the end, despite (or maybe because of) the trauma they have suffered, Gosling and Crowe’s characters end up in a better place than they began, and better for having met each other. Also, Gosling’s relationship with his daughter is on the mend, too. It does not feel too sentimental or artificially sappy the way Black does it.
It feels just right. Like that Christmas gift you’ve been hoping for that, you’re now holding, and waiting to unwrap.
“Christmas represents a little stutter in the march of days,” Black says, “a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives. I tend to think also that it just informs as a backdrop. The first time I noticed it was Three Days of the Condor, the Sydney Pollack film, where Christmas in the background adds this really odd, chilling counterpoint to the espionage plot.”
We can certainly see this juxtaposition in Black’s movies.
“I also think that Christmas is just a thing of beauty,” he continues, “especially as it applies to places like Los Angeles, where it’s not so obvious, and you have to dig for it, like little nuggets. One night, on Christmas Eve, I walked past a Mexican lunch wagon serving tacos, and I saw this little string, and on it was a little broken plastic figurine, with a light bulb inside it, of the Virgin Mary. And I thought, that’s just a little hidden piece of magic. You know, all around the city are little slices, little icons of Christmas, that are as effective and beautiful in and of themselves as any 40-foot Christmas tree on the lawn of the White House.”
And so it is.
(Shane Black as Hawkins in Predator.)
Until next time,