The screenwriting credits of Shane Black are littered with blockbusters with a twist. So what does the creator of Lethal Weapon bring to a script?
Screenwriter Shane Black leaves his fingerprints everywhere. You know him by his works. And those works are pret-ty good.
He wrote Lethal Weapon at 23 and then kept going, pushing get smart, popcorn movies through the studio system without anyone saying, ‘Hold up, son.’
His home turf is the stylish and noir-ish crime thriller but he goes off-piste too (think about the Last Action Hero, Iron Man 3, The Predator).
As long as its Shane Black
So if he’s genre-promiscuous, how do you know its 24-carat Black?
Like I said, he leaves his fingerprints. Kidnapping, wit, spectacle, corruption, hanging from things firing guns. Check, check, check, check and check.
He’s a pioneer of the live action movie, injecting character into his motormouth protagonists with his hard-boiled quips never entirely lost beneath the sound of something exploding.
Shame on me. I left it 15 years to see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which came out in 2005). It’s now available on Amazon Prime. I’d heard great things – how he’d taken the direct narrative style from his scripts …
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
… and put them into the mouth of his unreliable narrator Harry Lockhart.
He’s played by Robert Downey Jr (yeah, Iron Man, so there’s the connection) and it’s a match made in Hollywood heaven. Those down’n’dirty asides work so well with Downey’s bass beat drawl.
Black has a queue of actors who want to take it on his characters. Before Downey Jr there was Bruce Willis (The Last Boy Scout) also somewhat of a specialist in the laconic sideswipe, and Arnie (Last Action Hero) who does what he does and also sends himself up doing it.
There was Samuel J Jackson in 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight. And more recently Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, better known as The Nice Guys.
Here’s how you know it’s Shane Black
Here’s a few of Shane Black tropes he knows so well and does so well.
- The story: There’s always a meaty plot, often twisting and often drawn from the heyday of the Hollywood neo-noir thrillers, involving daughters getting kidnapped, femme fatales and corrupt power. Grubby and compromised private eyes usually do the work because they’re free to colour outside the lines.
- The reversal: Not just the change of fortune – that comes as standard in most films – but the upending of convention. In KKBB, Harry (Downey Jr) does the Russian Roulette shtick on a suspect, spinning the cylinder and letting fate decide if the crim’s gonna talk or gonna. Only… well, spoiler alert, and check out the trailer.
- Throwaway gags: A ton of them. Everywhere. In the least likely places. But they come out of character.
B-Movie Actress: So what do you do for a living?
Harry Lockhart: Uh, I’m retired. I invented dice when I was a kid. How about you do?
- Buddies: One is ham-fisted, blundering, perhaps a hint of a coward, or at least a streak of reluctance. He’s a fast-talker because he gets into scrapes. He’s in over his head and he’ll get injured. The other one, he’s the muscle, like Val Kilmer (Gay Perry in KKBB). He’s cool. He doesn’t need wit because this is his world, and he’s packing.
Gay Perry: Look up idiot in the dictionary and you know what you’ll find?
Harry Lockhart: A… picture of my face?
Gay Perry: No! The definition of the word idiot which you f***ing are!
- Light and dark: He does humour, like I said. He does action too. What he doesn’t do is too much of any one thing. He skips between tones, keeping it varied. Action set-pieces come and go (except maybe for the final reel) and the jokey stuff never steals focus or grates like an office party clown.
- Action set-pieces: You’d think with a movie like KKBB, it’d stay quiet and low, done in the dark and carried by the characters. But it gets big. There are cars flying off bridges, explosions. These are set-pieces hauled in from other bigger movies and settling comfortably into a Black screwball caper.
He’s used to doing that. Taking genres, mixing them up, adding a little twist so it’s like what you thought it would be, only better, smarter.
He could be indie, but he’s happy in the mainstream, no doubt doing alright for himself. He wrote and directed the fourth instalment of paint-by-numbers The Predator which just about undermines everything I’ve written here. So he’s happy upending his own conventions too.
What comes next?
The plan c2016 was mainstream box office catnip.
The film was Doc Savage, the original superhero (predating Superman). The picture was going to star the biggest action hero on the planet right now – Dwayne Johnson.
That would have been great, wouldn’t it? We’re back in the 1930s (noir territory where Black likes to play). And The Rock is a smart actor who has a good ear for comedy.
But that’s on hold. Perhaps permanently.
So we have to return to his back catalogue. There’s plenty to go at a second time, and a third. Because – and maybe this is the most obvious Shane Black trope of all – he packs a lot into a movie. Keep your eyes open and your ears peeled.
There’s going to be something to chew on within the next page or two.