Much like a stack of your favorite yellowing, dog-eared mystery paperbacks, the films of screenwriter Shane Black offer the cozy comforts of an author repeatedly riffing on a familiar formula at which he excels. From 1987’s “Lethal Weapon” to this past summer’s “The Nice Guys,” Black has spent three decades telling tales of mismatched manly men gone to seed; lost, chivalric souls who typically drink too much and probably got thrown out by their wives.
Our detectives inevitably stumble upon sinister conspiracies in which dirty, old, rich dudes prey upon the young and vulnerable (most of these stories start with dead sex workers) until our oft-soused, dysfunctional knights errant must make a futile last stand, slouching toward redemption against insurmountable odds. Speaking to the sentimental streak running a mile wide beneath Black’s seedy scenarios, these movies always take place at Christmas.
Ensuring I won’t get my shopping done until the last possible moment, this week The Brattle Theatre is running “Shane Black’s Christmas” — three days of double features that reek of whiskey, cigarettes and mistletoe. If you prefer your holiday tidings laced with soaring arias of profanity, inventive torture sequences and comically brutal gunfights, Santa’s got a lot of presents under the tree this year: "Lethal Weapon," "The Last Boy Scout," "The Long Kiss Goodnight," "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," "Iron Man 3" and "The Nice Guys" are all being presented on increasingly impossible-to-find 35mm prints.
But don’t be surprised if you discover a melancholy undertow to these films’ yuletide cheer.
"It’s sort of an emotional shorthand," explains The Brattle’s creative director Ned Hinkle. "Dropping his deceptively dark plots into a time of year when many are reflecting on the past or meeting up with family and friends adds an unspoken depth to the proceedings."
“I’m not obsessed with Christmas, I’m only obsessed with Christmas in movies,” Black confessed to critic Kim Morgan. “You recognize the hush that comes and the sort of [rarefied] arena that it provides at that time of year… and the homecoming feel of people striving to come back to something at Christmas is important.”
Written when he was just 23 years old, Black’s screenplay for “Lethal Weapon” is all about that striving to come back to something at Christmas. Like the original “Rocky” or “Dirty Harry,” it’s a much more thoughtful movie than its silly sequels might have you remembering. (Black was famously fired from “Lethal Weapon 2” over his insistence on killing the main character.) Mel Gibson is electrifying as an alcoholic Vietnam vet, despondent and suicidal after the death of his wife in a car accident. Danny Glover is rock-steady as his square, family-man partner, iconically “too old for this s---,” yet nonetheless helping the younger man rejoin a world from which he’d withdrawn.
All these years later, “Lethal Weapon’s” spectacular chases and crashes and shirtless Mel being tortured (in ways that later became his trademark) still can’t hold a candle to the film’s tender epilogue — when Gibson gives Glover the hollow-point bullet he’d been saving to shoot himself with, wrapped in a big red bow as Elvis croons “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on the soundtrack.
“Old Satan Claus” figures prominently in “The Last Boy Scout.” The crayon-sketched, serial-killing Kris Kringle, drawn by the daughter of Bruce Willis’ washed-up private detective, becomes an all-purpose metaphor for greed gone mad in the city of fallen angels. Black’s most bare-bones, Raymond Chandler-esque effort features what’s probably my favorite Willis turn. The star packed on the pounds to play our beefy, stubbornly principled anti-hero, who wakes up every morning with a blistering hangover, lights a cigarette and confides to the mirror: “Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You’re gonna lose.”
After a notoriously miserable production that left most folks involved unable to shut up for the next few years about how much they hated each other, “The Last Boy Scout” was reportedly rescued mere weeks before release by legendary editor Stuart Baird, brought in so late he wasn’t even credited on the posters. Yet for all that behind-the-scenes drama, the movie turned out to be a hoot — hard-boiling Black’s most hard-boiled-isms into a naughty, adolescent noir. Every last line of dialogue is a filthy quip (“I’m going to the bathroom. Want to come with me? The doctor says I’m not supposed to lift anything heavy.”) and the action only stops long enough for the stars to get loaded and feel sorry for themselves. Back when I was in college this was the LaserDisc my roommates and I put on every time we came home drunk.
Barely released to a handful of theaters in 2005, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is Black’s directorial debut and remains his masterpiece. Starring a then-unemployable Robert Downey Jr. and the still-unemployable Val Kilmer, this slippery, hilarious screwball mystery piles meta-commentaries on top of busted conventions and works simultaneously as a sendup of and a love-letter to the pulpy, dime-store mystery novels that these characters hold so dear. It’s half Mel Brooks and half Charlie Kaufman and probably the funniest movie of our new century. The third time I went to see it some folks in the theater walked over and asked my sister and I if we would please stop laughing so loud. We tried, but we couldn’t.
The never-better Downey Jr. stars as a petty thief mistaken for a method actor (long story) being coached for a role by Kilmer’s slick Hollywood private investigator, Gay Perry. It’s a masterstroke of chemistry bouncing Downey’s jumpy motormouth routine off of Kilmer’s Iceman cool, particularly with the latter playing our first (and I believe to this date, only) homosexual action hero, gigglingly lewd while saving the day. They both riff with an ascendant Michelle Monaghan, who has depressingly never again been given the chance to strut the way she does here, firing zingers in in a skimpy Santa suit.
“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was the movie that brought Downey back to Hollywood’s attention, and he returned the favor by getting Black on board with Marvel as the director of “Iron Man 3.” This is probably as good as one of these paint-by-numbers comic book blockbusters can be, so it’s OK. Black commendably strands Tony Stark without his armor and lets Downey be a jerk to a little kid sidekick until it’s time for the FX department to take over. There’s a terrific twist with Ben Kingsley’s supervillain and, to Black’s credit, “Iron Man 3” is the least superhero-ish of all the recent superhero movies, until the inevitable third act when it’s all just a bunch of empty cans crashing into each other.
“Tiny bits of Christmas exist here but they are things you have to unearth," Black said to Morgan, talking about Christmas in LA. "Like, I remember walking at Christmas and seeing a little Mexican lunch truck with a broken Madonna and a candle in it. And I thought, that is as much, that is as powerful, as talismanic a bit of Christmas as the 40-foot tree at the White House. It’s like little guiding beacons to something we all recognize as a time to put things aside and focus momentarily on the retrospective of our lives; a spiritual kind of reckoning where we’ve been and where we’re all going to.”
“The Nice Guys” is notably missing Christmas decorations until its bittersweet epilogue, when in no-spoiler noir-fashion our heroes have won the battle but lost the war. Russell Crowe’s teetotaling good-guy is off the wagon, melting down at the bar realizing there’s nothing he can ever do to make a difference against all the corporate-backed Motor City sleaze. Ryan Gosling’s blotto sidekick, whose glass is always half-full, can only offer a toast.
I assume it was there all along, but suddenly I noticed a Christmas tree behind these two. Like a little guiding beacon.
"Shane Black's Christmas" is on at The Brattle from Wednesday, Dec. 21, to Friday, Dec. 23.