Shane Black: A Career Retrospective

From Lethal Weapon through to Iron Man 3, we salute the mighty Shane Black...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Shane Black is one of the most underrated filmmakers working in Hollywood today. Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, Black was Hollywood’s golden boy. His script for Lethal Weaponlaunched a franchise and a thousand imitators, while some of his fees for The Last Boy ScoutLast Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnightbroke records. With his genre savvy self-reflexivity, and memorable dialogue, he preceded similar filmmakers such as Tarantino and Whedon. Nowadays, he is celebrated by those who know his work, but remains a somewhat unknown quantity to the world at large.

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One reason may be Black’s association with the action genre. The other reason for Black’s relative obscurity is his lack of productivity. After the release of The Long Kiss Goodnight, he dropped off the map and went on an extended hiatus through the late ’90s and early ’00s. And even though his writing-directing debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a critical darling (and put Robert Downey Jr. on course to scoring the Iron Man gig), it failed at the box office. Now with the massive success of Iron Man 3, Black has gained the financial clout to get future projects off the ground, and (hopefully) enhance his place as one of the best genre screenwriters working today.

While most of his work has been as a screenwriter, an overview of Black’s filmography reveals a strong set of recurring themes, motifs and conventions which mark out a strong authorial voice. Common character types, relationships, dialogue, plot conventions and themes are repeated over and over in Black’s films. Regardless of whether the director is Richard Donner, Tony Scott, or Renny Harlin, Black’s voice remains relatively undiluted and progressively more interesting and developed as his work has progressed.

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Humor

The most obvious aspect of Shane Black’s style is the humor. While comedy has been a major component of action movies before Lethal Weapon, Black brought a new level of sophistication and self-awareness to the tired genre. A few years before Hollywood learned what post-modernism was, Black was filling his scripts with one liners based on pop culture references. Like Tarantino, language itself is a subject, used as a sign of intelligence (or lack thereof): Check out the early Kiss Kiss Bang Bang party scene between Perry (Val Kilmer) and Harry (Robert Downey Jr.), in which the power dynamic between the two is established as Perry quickly figures out that Harry is not so quick on the uptake.

In The Last Boy Scout, there is one of the most unique examples as Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) and Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) are distracted by a henchman’s rather pretentious vocabulary.

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What differentiates Black’s work from the lightweight po-mo trappings of late ’90s action films which followed his example is that they are based on genuine emotional weight. At their core, all of Black’s films, are about fallen heroes in a cynical world. This basic set up reflects the most prominent influence on Black’s work is film noir and hardboiled detective fiction. Black’s humour is of a darker shade. His characters don’t crack wise out of a genuine need to alleviate whatever situation they are in.

Martin Riggs’ (Mel Gibson) humor is a defence mechanism, his way of dealing with a world that no longer has any place or meaning for him. Joe Hallenbeck in The Last Boy Scout similarly uses jokes and insults as a defense, or even as a delaying mechanism in confrontations with his foes. The primary examples are his ‘your wife is so fat’ monologue with the gunman in the alley and his surreal gambit with a stuffed animal in the forest standoff to save his daughter. 

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Character types

The washed up hero

Influenced by his love of noir, all of Shane Black’s protagonists are psychologically damaged by their past mistakes. They echo the ‘fall guy’ anti-heroes of classic noir in this respect. Whereas classic noir end with their protagonists either failing or dying, Black’s narratives begin after the fall when every other character has counted them out.

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In Lethal Weapon, Martin Riggs is a suicidal wreck after the death of his wife; and more recently, Iron Man 3’s Tony Stark, fresh from a near-death experience in The Avengers, is forced to confront his own mortality. The most interesting variation on this idea is The Last Boy Scout, in which both Joe Hallenbeck and Jimmy Dix have been used up and spit out by their respective professions – Joe’s family is breaking up, while Jimmy’s hopes of a family were snuffed out in a tragic accident.

Both heroes are victims in need of redemption. In all of these cases, what makes Black’s anti-heroes so compelling is that they straddle the boundary between good and evil. Black highlights this duality by creating a character who symbolizes who the anti-hero will become if s/he goes to the dark side.

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The dark twin

Every Shane Black film includes a secondary villain who is a dark twin for the hero. With similar backgrounds and skill sets, these bench men act like the hero’s Id. They represent what the hero could become.

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Once again, Black is willing to play with this idea in interesting ways – the main example being Timothy (Craig Bierko), the secondary muscle in the underrated The Long Kiss Goodnight. Samantha Caine’s (Geena Davis) former colleague, Timothy is the only character who can match her skills and experience, albeit without the empathy Samantha has gained post amnesia (shades of Jason Bourne). Complicating this dichotomy is the fact that she is also Sam’s former lover, and the father of her daughter. This complication is sadly dropped, but it muddies the divide between hero and villain, and leads to one of the film’s best scenes.

These evil twins are essential to the protagonist’s arc. By destroying this evil double, it signifies the hero’s rebirth. That is the reason why the demise of the film’s technical ‘big’ bad guy always seems so cursory — in terms of the conflict with the hero, they are not as important as the henchman (think back to Lethal Weapon. Who’s more memorable? General McAllister or Mr. Joshua? Case closed). This emphasis on what should be a secondary conflict over the presumptive ‘boss’ villain is indicative of Black’s interest in the conventions of the action film: he is much more interested in focusing on the arc of his protagonists than the villain’s plot.

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The world-weary child

The portrayal of children (Last Action Hero aside) in Black’s movies. While Rianne Murtagh in Lethal Weapon is more of a side character, Black has developed an affinity for unsentimental portrayals of child sidekicks. Darian in The Last Boy Scout is the first of Black’s child characters to be really developed. Tony’s cynical sidekick, Harley (Ty Simpkins), in Iron Man 3 takes up the same convention of a non-cute child sidekick.

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Both characters are smarter than they are given credit for, have little respect for their elders and show a willingness to manipulate those adults they find useful. These children, while as cynical as the anti-heroes they accompany, also provide a strange mentoring function — intentionally or not, they are responsible for catalysing the protagonist’s shift from destructive self-involvement toward empathy for the people around them.

An example of how this dynamic works is present in mangled form in Last Action Hero. While the film does have a child protagonist, the conception of that character can not be laid at Black’s feet. In Black’s original draft, the kid was a world weary teenager, in the mould of Black’s other films. This take also worked with the darker, more violent tone of Black’s version, and the action hero’s evolution toward self-awareness. Subsequent rewrites by an off-form William Goldman led to the character losing years, gaining innocence and losing the resonance of the original dynamic.

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Plot conventions

Shane Black’s films are all dependant upon a series of repeated narrative conventions that play into the key theme which underpins all of his work (and which I will go into more detail on in the next section). In general, the ‘action’ plot is the least interesting aspect of the film, and is fairly simple to follow. This allows Black to focus on the most interesting aspect of his movies – the relationship between the protagonists.

All of his films are based around the relationship between two damaged heroes, and their ‘buddy cop’ dynamic is the centrepiece of the narrative. While this convention had existed in the action genre pre-Black, he brought a sense of pathos to his partnerships. Both characters are brought together by circumstance, but are ultimately fused by a shared sense of pain and injustice. Beyond being merely friends, Black re-imagines these partnerships as makeshift families. In Lethal Weapon, Martin Riggs is rejuvenated by being a part of Murtagh’s family; the same goes for Jimmy Dix in The Last Boy Scout, who finds himself his own surrogate family in the Hallenbeck clan.

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His movies feature a third act kidnapping of a secondary character: Generally a child, or other loved one (see Rianne in Lethal Weapon and Darian in The Last Boy Scout). In all cases, this action acts as a catalyst for the heroes to act and attain their collective redemption. Samantha Caine’s family in The Long Kiss Goodnight are the most interesting variation on this trope, as Black flips the sexes of his damaged protagonist and adds a maternal aspect to Sam’s quest to find out who she was, and make up for the mistakes of her past as a secret agent.

As well as a kidnapping, all of Black’s films follow the attempted rescue with an extended torture sequence to bridge the end of the second act and the beginning of the third. On the surface, this torture sequence acts as a final challenge for the hero to overcome, but unlike other action movies of the same period, which feature a hero who sacrifices his body for his comrades (e.g. Rambo: First Blood Part II), Shane Black’s dual protagonists have to share the pain, as a way of cementing their bond and overcoming the villain’s attempts to break them.

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In Lethal Weapon, Endo tortures Riggs while Murtagh is beaten to a pulp by McAllister’s thugs; In The Last Boy Scout, Hallenbeck and Jimmy Dix are tortured by villain Shelly Marcone. While these sequences are played straight, Black is willing to play off the tension with black laughs: In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, while Harry is tortured, quick-thinking Perry breaks them out by appealing to the torturer’s homophobia. The torture sequence, a hoary cliche by itself, is never gratuitous in a Shane Black film — it is a catalyst for his hero’s redemption.

Common theme

Redemption is the key theme of Shane Black’s work. While it is a familiar theme from many other action movies, Shane Black creates characters in genuine need of absolution from their sins. The Shane Black anti-hero always has a personal tragedy in his or her backstory (Lethal WeaponThe Last Boy Scout), which s/he has to comes to terms with.

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The fact that Black’s movies tend to take place during Christmas (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss GoodnightKiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3) reinforces this theme – except, instead of a newborn messiah or a fat guy in a red suit bringing hope and joy, it is a suicidal cop rescuing his partner’s daughter (Lethal Weapon); a disgraced Secret Service agent and a former NFL star-turned-drug addict foiling a political assassination; or a perpetual loser with a missing finger saving his childhood sweetheart (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). These people are selfish, self-absorbed individuals who, through circumstances outside their control, are forced to act selflessly. In that way, the Christmas setting has a perversely wholesome resonance: by the end of their stories, Black’s protagonists truly have something to be thankful for in the middle of this over-commercialised season.

While his filmography is small, the influence that Shane Black has had on genre cinema cannot be denied. Lethal Weapon became a beloved franchise, Kiss Kiss Bang Banghas become a cult classic and Iron Man 3, despite the fan backlash, made for a pleasing variation on the Marvel formula (it also made a boatload of cash). One hopes that his future projects will allow him to continue to develop and build upon his past work — to not just move beyond the most recognisable elements of his style, but to attain the greatness and appreciation he so richly deserves.

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Shane Black’s next film, The Nice Guys, is due out this summer.