“I’m too old for this shit,” claims Detective Roger Murtaugh, as he repeatedly finds himself caught in action-packed and thrilling police cases. Murtaugh was one half of the “Riggs & Murtaugh” duo that first-time screenwriter Shane Black developed in Lethal Weapon. You know the phrase.
Lethal Weapon was born in the mid-80s. By this time, action films such as First Blood, Commando, and Aliens had already been ingrained into the action lexicon. And the most popular 80s crime-comedy at this point was Beverly Hills Cop. Enter Shane Black and director Richard Donner, with a crime-comedy that focuses on two cops, who couldn’t be any more of a bad combination, brought together to solve a case they can only solve together. These ordinary, everyman detectives trade quips and bullets, while also getting caught in violent action scenes and becoming the heroes of the day. It may sound familiar now, but that’s because it’s one of the defining films for the action genre, the crime-comedy sub-genre, and almost all buddy cop films. If action films had a Mount Rushmore, Lethal Weapon would be on there. With Christmas lights and all.
Shortly following Lethal Weapon came what is perhaps Black’s weirdest film yet, The Monster Squad. Co-written by Black and Fred Dekker, The Monster Squad is a horror comedy packaged like a family feature. The plot follows a group of teenagers who are instrumental in stopping film’s most infamous monsters from taking over the world. The film isn’t a full-on camp-fest with its portrayal of its monsters, as one might expect. It actually handles its characters with a lot of charm and wit, allowing the viewer to fully embrace the sincerity of the movie. Rooting the film in the children’s personal and familial relationships, Black and Dekker create a monster movie with a lot of heart.
With great success comes great sequels. While it’s still up for much debate which Lethal Weapon film is “better”, it’s quite clear that Lethal Weapon 2 is less Shane Black and more a Jeffrey Boam, who came in after Black, who left after having written a couple drafts. The second film moves away from the dark, sharply-written, perfect balance between plot and characters and goes for a more fun, character-driven sequel, which is not to say that it’s anything less than the previous installment. Not at all, it’s just different from Black’s take on them. It’s the sequel that lets you engage more with these characters, which is possibly why the series and its characters remain so well-known today.
Black returned in the 90s with The Last Boy Scout, which combined Tony Scott’s directing with Black’s snappy dialogue and writing sensibilities. The product is very much a predictable collection of excess in action and spoken words. The film is gruesome, explosive, and misogynistic, yet it still somehow functions as a fun action-fest about self-reparation. The film could be best explored through its two main characters, Joe Hallenback (Bruce Willis) and Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans), an unhealthy combination of an aged cynic and a self-destructive football player who manage to shoot their way to saving the day.
Black later found himself rewriting Last Action Hero, a screenplay that parodied 80s action films, including those by and inspired by Shane Black himself. The film itself follows a young boy with a lot of pop culture knowledge, who gets himself stuck within the plot of an action film. Using his knowledge of films and clichés, the kid helps action hero Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) save the day. The film is fun and charmingly heartwarming, and playfully names a lot of tropes used in the action genre, but isn’t particularly insightful in its approach to the parody.
The Long Kiss Goodnight is the last film in Black’s 90s filmography. The film follows Gena Davis’ character, an average housewife who suddenly remembers her past as a secret agent, and how she tries to remember her past and stop the bad guys. The directing by Renny Harlin is rather plain, but this film features some of the best examples of “Shane Black-isms,” such as set-ups and pay-offs, reversals, and sudden twists . Black’s dialogue is as snappy as always and the action sequences are inventive, making this film one of the more under-looked gems of its genre.
Then, after nearly a decade of silence, Black resurfaced with his first directorial feature, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In the film, Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a thief-turned-actor who teams up with PI “Gay Perry” (Val Kilmer) to get training for his upcoming role, but he also pretends to be an actual PI for his high school friend Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) who’s looking for her sister. Here, Black showcases his absolute mastery over sharp dialogue and narration, his stylistic and charismatic approach to dark comedy, noir, and the LA lifestyle, and his ability to make genre tropes stand on their head. The film feels like the fresh voice of an up-and-comer, not the voice of the man who helped establish the same genre under inspection a couple decades prior.
Strangely enough, Black took another near-decade to stage another comeback, but what a comeback it was. Black returned with his second directorial feature, Iron Man 3, the end of the Iron Man trilogy and the first post-Avengers MCU film. For the final film in Iron Man trilogy, Black decides to separate Tony Stark from his armor to examine the trauma caused to the character and to see if Tony is the real hero under all that protective armor. Couple that with the intelligent villain plot that plays with the archetype of the previous Iron Man film villains, and exists as a commentary on the xenophobic nature of the American people and simultaneously the audience who bought into the villain’s theatrics, and it’s not only a great Iron Man film, but it’s also a really intelligent and relevant comic book film. While still having Black’s distinct and Christmas-y flavor.
Shane Black started in the film business in his mid-20s, and has made impacts of various sizes on the action and crime genres, the film industry, and this writer’s life plan. Shane Black is now 55 years old. And he is just getting started.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.