Film

A Shane Black Christmas

Danilo Castro

Issues like regret, redemption, and red-eyed depression hit everyone in December -- the only difference is, it’s usually not followed by a shootout and attempted kidnapping.

The Christmas season is all about stockings, stuffing, and holiday cheer. It's a time for redemption, reconciliation, and plain old good will towards others. It’s the perfect excuse to relax and sip eggnog while watching reruns of A Christmas Carol (pick an adaptation) and A Christmas Story (1983) airing nonstop. For the action enthusiast, though, the viewers who want a little more punch in their winter beverages, there’s Shane Black: ace writer/director who can’t decide whether he wants to pursue pulp fiction or The Ghost of Christmas Past. Fortunately, for just about everyone who registers a pulse, Black has made a career out of spinning these genre bedfellows into certified holiday gold.

From his earliest days as a crackerjack writing prodigy to a contemporary hit maker, Black has remained steadfast in this bizarre intermingling; a violent agenda that maintains the seasonal goodwill of fluffier stuff like It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Except in this case, George Bailey has a foul mouth and a slew of hitmen on his trail, Mr. Potter traffics in women and drugs, and Mary got lost in a sea of acting hopefuls out in La-La Land. If ever a Christmas miracle were needed, they would definitely qualify. So with all due respect to Charles Dickens and Frank Capra, it’s time celebrate the holidays with The Ghost of Christmas Pulp himself: Shane Black. Make sure to leave a note on the tree so bad guys know they aren’t welcome.

It all started in 1987 with Lethal Weapon. Black had written his most famous screenplay while still at UCLA in 1985, and through connections with producer Joel Silver, the touted script (bought at $250,000) eventually landed in the hands of director Richard Donner. The rest is buddy-cop history. Opening on the single greatest use of Jingle Bell Rock ever committed to film, a strung out hooker jumps to her death, prompting a forced partnership between family man officer Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and suicidal stunt cop Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson). It’s evident that Black’s script is brilliantly worded and staged, but the real hook is the incessant Christmas spirit slathered all over the investigation.

This contrast of festivity and feverish violence is so distinct that it usurps its director and remains the stylistic triumph of its screenwriter. Decorations, season's greetings, and Murtaugh’s family dinners dominate a story that’s supposedly about dead prostitutes and heroin dealing. Oh, and a suicidal cop who likes to ponder his wife’s death by routinely stuffing a gun in his mouth. Nothing like the Noel to inspire a few morbid activities. Of course, both Riggs and Murtaugh begin to bond, but not before a rip-snorting finale of demolished Christmas trees and death-by-eggnog (Tom Atkins gets a bullet in his beverage mid-sip).

The concluding fistfight between Riggs and bad guy Joshua (Gary Busey) is the most skilled front lawn brawl in Christmas history, and perhaps the first of it’s kind that didn’t include heavy alcohol. That Riggs ultimately comes to terms with his past is the film’s crowning Christmas cherry, showing that family and friendship can be the greatest gift of all. Is it corny? Hell no, it’s not. It’s Lethal Weapon: the action smash that inspired three sequels and suddenly made Christmas the hot season for action blockbusters: enter Die Hard (1988) and Batman Returns (1992). Shane Black, Hollywood’s new writing sensation, had found his stylistic niche.

By the time 1991’s The Last Boy Scout was announced, Black was in the position of raking in a record breaking $1.75 million per script. At this point in the Hollywood game, he had become an auteur commodity that went beyond whoever adapted his works; any film with his name would trump the trademarks of his assigned director. Commercial slickster Tony Scott ultimately took the reigns, but the results were far grittier than Black’s previous Christmas spat. Four years, and a lot of cynicism later, The Last Boy Scout became Lethal Weapon’s latchkey cousin.

The prevalent Christmas mood is as thick as ever. Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) is a piece-of-work private eye who teams up with former quarterback Alexander Dix (Damon Wayans) when a stripper (Halle Berry) gets gunned down. One’s an alcoholic, the other’s a druggie--might want to make the Christmas punch a bit stronger this time around. The Last Boy Scout offers up one of the writer’s darker holiday portraits, driven home by the charming scribbles of Joe’s daughter and her drawings of decapitated Saint Nick with the inscription “Satan Claus”.

Family, a crucial aspect of the holidays, is nowhere to be seen for the men, who trudge alone both despite and because of their pasts. But instead of reconciliation, Hallenbeck and Dix seek out the yuletide miracle of redemption for their sins. Between the wisecracks, Christmas presents, and NFL conspiracies, an uneasy kinship develops through their shared misery. It most definitely loves holiday company.

Hallenbeck finally becomes a hero in his daughter’s eyes, hilariously aided by her Christmas toy, while Dix joins Riggs as a surrogate uncle. Joe’s wife even manages to forgive him, checking the final tick off his wish list. As a result, the film enables a broken family existence that still reaps a little yuletide magic. That it ultimately underperformed at the box office is a damn shame, but understandable given it's saltier content.

Conversely, The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) takes things in a more hopeful holiday direction, aided by the classic Shane Black formula: a white heroine (Geena Davis) and black protagonist (Samuel L. Jackson), an obligatory kidnapping, and a Raymond Chandleresque level of one-liners. This time, Davis is Samantha Caine, housewife/school teacher extraordinaire. She’s got a respectable boyfriend, a darling child--hell, she’s even great at baking. But a car crash and a Christmas coma eventually come to reveal Caine’s past life: that of Charli Baltimore, master assassin and one of the coolest names Black has ever put to paper.

The Long Kiss Goodnight is Black’s sly take on the tropes of It’s A Wonderful Life. As Caine, Davis goes as far as dressing up like Mrs. Claus to hammer home the squeaky clean image of her small town. But the descent into Charli Baltimore is an ugly one, and one that P.I. Mitch Hennessey (Jackson) continues to be weary of; as if he were some mortal bound version of Clarence. That Baltimore eventually has her George Bailey moment in choosing her life path is a masterful example of Black’s eye for homage, down to the borrowing of a snowy bridge for the finale. Action wise, it remains Black’s most over-the-top entry, a testosterone fueled medley of roughhouse and reindeer.

Baltimore’s eventual return to Caine by the film’s end is indicative of her redemptive change. After a life of killing more cats than Jason Bourne, her loyalties now lie in providing her daughter with a good Christmas. This familial staple runs through Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, but it’s delivered in it’s most sincere form here, aided by Black’s emphasis on a happy ending; which he had occasionally been hesitant to succumb to in the past, having initially intended to kill off Riggs in Lethal Weapon 2’s final act.

The Long Kiss Goodnight earned Black another pretty paycheck, but the Renny Harlin directed film was a box office misfire. This string of flops, coupled with the rise of witty counterpart Quentin Tarantino, pushed Black into a self-imposed exile that would last close to ten years. Black Christmas was suddenly on hiatus.

When it finally did return, in the form of 2005’s noir comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Shane Black decided to make the move from hired pen to full-fledged writer/director. In the process, he would craft his most calculated, holiday themed, and outlandish film to date--the Shane Blackfest to top them all. Pairing thief-turned-actor-turned-detective Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.) with experienced P.I. “Gay” Perry Van Shrike (Val Kilmer) was the just the tip of the iceberg for a film that starts on a Christmas party right out of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001).

Over a barely coherent narration, Lockhart waxes un-poetic over a yuletide serving of celebrity look-a-likes, combative bears, and a scantily clad Michelle Monaghan. Lockhart, a self-made loser, is in search of some clarity amidst a city gone weird, while Perry just wants to bypass the B.S. and do his job--not exactly the noble archetypes of Riggs and Murtaugh. Freed from the demand of big-budget expectations, Black indulges tenfold in his Bad Santa tendencies and throws every trick in his gift bag at Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s canvas. The results are about as subtle as a revolver to the crotch.

With two decades of bite under his belt, Black infuses plenty of meta-references into the film’s narrative, so much so that the Christmas trope essentially pokes fun at his own recipe. Lockhart’s undying love for Harmony (Monahan) and her twisted past play out as the anti-Lethal Weapon: fractured families and ambivalent friendships prove to be the most irritating gift of all. The good-will pleas of adventures prior are hacked off at the ankles, making for a spoiled serving of L.A. deceit that would make even Tarantino feel grimy. But while mockery is the party theme of this outing, the director still wraps his indie fever dream in a holiday happy ending that falls in line with Black Christmas’ of yesteryear. Ironically, it stands tall as Black’s best film; an embittered kiss under the mistletoe of criminal intent.

Unfortunately, when the box office numbers of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang fell anemic despite critical praise, Shane Black had only verified his reputation as talented financial poison, but as with all Christmas ventures, a happy ending was in sight. Enter Iron Man 3, the 2013 superhero blockbuster that bucked the writer’s trend by raking in a spectacular $1.2 billion worldwide--the 6th highest grossing film of all time. And though the franchise was already a proven commodity, Black’s auteur fingerprints helped yank it out the critical muck of Iron Man 2 (2010) and into the magic of holiday acclaim.

That magic comes to manifest itself rather creatively in the film’s structure, which pulls heavily from the almighty of holiday novels: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Suddenly, The Ghost of Christmas Past (Rebecca Hall’s shifty scientist) brings warning of prior mistakes. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin) delivers jolly effigies of the now. And The Ghost of Christmas Future (Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian) embodies the malignant dread of loneliness and death.

In the midst of it all is Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.), the crime-fighting Scrooge who’s lost sight of the righteous path through his (literally) damaged heart. It’s brilliant writing on Black’s part, capturing just enough influence to familiarize viewers without beating them over the head with a Christmas turkey leg. And only Shane Black would be able to pull off something as deliriously goofy as Iron Man sporting a Santa cap.

The film’s most notable difference from anthology peers is in its focus, which is reserved solely for Stark and his poisonous inner-turmoil. No longer does the story hinge on the strength of a partnership, but rather that of the uncertain individual. As a result, the writer/director tackles holiday motifs that have avoided his grasp for so long (legacy, mortality) and fuses them to storytelling trademarks (humor, action, snow); solidifying Iron Man 3 as the most distinct of his holiday bunch. That such mainstream content retained a creative touch is a resounding Black Christmas miracle. The gargantuan box office numbers? About as explosive as ornament hand grenades.

On a surface level, Shane Black’s Christmas anthology is the same rinse-and-repeat of bells and bloodshed each time out. But with each subsequent addition, the writer/director embarks on another flavor of the action/holiday dichotomy. Lethal Weapon’s overpowering friendship, the family thread of The Long Kiss Goodnight, or the self-discovery of Iron Man 3 all thrive under the scope of unified yuletide emotions. Issues like regret, redemption, and red-eyed depression hit everyone in December--the only difference is, it’s usually not followed by a shootout and attempted kidnapping. So whether the warming flame is created by firewood or an exploded car, stockings or semiautomatics, the time of year has come to celebrate A Shane Black Christmas.

Danilo Castro is a freelance critic and editor of the Film Noir Archive blog. He has contributed essays and reviews to several publications including CinemaNerdz, Noir City, and The Explorer.

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