There was a time when the name Shane Black meant something in Hollywood. In 1987, Black's script for Lethal Weapon helped usher in a new era of bombastic action films defined by a mismatched pair of unlikely heroes, witty banter, car chases and tons of explosions. Black became the reigning king of over-the-top testosterone-fueled flicks with scripts like The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, each one selling for a higher price tag than the last. And then, when Shane Black seemed to be in the position every screenwriter dreams of—getting millions of dollars just for ideas—he disappeared.
Despite his status as one of the highest-paid screenwriters in the history of film, Black still occupied what is arguably the lowest totem on the Hollywood pole of power. Despite generating the ideas and stories that become the movies, most writers have no say in the creative process once the cameras start to roll. As such, his disappearance, for whatever reason, didn't even warrant a cautionary tale. There were rumors of why he left the business—depression, burnout, writer's block—but at the end of the day, few really cared. After all, it wasn't like the formula Black was credited with defining couldn't be done by anyone. The first Lethal Weapon might have seemed original, but by the time Lethal Weapon 4 rolled around, it was nothing more than hackneyed clichés and well-worn characters doing the same old shtick.
It's been almost a decade since Black's name and pedigree commanded any attention or respect. In an industry that values youth and has a collective memory of only a year or two at best, Black has been all but forgotten. But all that stands to change this week, when Black returns—this time as a writer and a director—with the new comedic mystery, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
"I sort of subtracted myself from the limelight," said Black during a recent phone interview. "A while back, I decided that I still had all the love of thriller movies, suspense movies, but I had started to become disenchanted with what I consider a misnomer, and that's 'action films.' It seems like it's a shame to call things action films because what's implied is that what is important has nothing to do with the story or character, but simply the kinetics of things flying through the air and/or blowing up.
"I was getting a lot of attention of the wrong kind based on the money I'd made, and no one considered me to be a creative force of reckoning. I wanted to just try something that would let me flex my muscles a little bit. So what I did was I took a little time—probably squandered a little time—trying to go way far away from an action movie."
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang does more than mark the end of Black's sabbatical; it serves as notice for his creative rebirth, and as a cinematic reinvigoration. He has taken the conventions and trappings of the sort of films that his writing once embodied, and has turned them around, twisting them into a darkly comedic satire. At times the film feels like a very smart, cynical parody of the Shane Black film paradigm—only it's Black spoofing himself.
"Yes it's cynical, but I still think there is a good spirit in it, and a good heart behind it," he says. "I hope no one takes this movie as being the caustic, angry pokes at Hollywood of someone who is bitter and frustrated, because the exact opposite was true."
Robert Downey Jr. stars as Harry Lockhart, a petty crook in New York who, while fleeing the cops, seeks refuge in an audition for an upcoming film. Next thing you know, Harry is whisked off to Hollywood, where he's groomed to become a big star. He's paired up with Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a hardboiled, light-in-the-loafers private investigator hired to teach Harry how to act like a real detective. As Harry ineptly narrates his own adventures, unexpected twists and turns await. He is reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), a woman of questionable moral integrity and an aspiring actress who's never amounted to anything. Believing Harry is a real detective, Harmony asks for his help, but things become even more complicated when Harry and Perry witness a murder.
In contemporary action films, style generally wins out over substance, with characters being used as tools to showcase special-effects sequences and fight choreography. Modern film has degenerated to a point where a film like The French Connection would now be about the car chase, and not the hardboiled cop in the car chase. Just think of garbage like Transporter 2 or XXX: State of the Union. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, however, is a return to genre storytelling that allows the characters to move the story, rather than merely having them along for the ride.
"The task I set for myself in doing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was to write a character story that was interesting enough to hold you even when the guns were put away, but had the flavor and the edge that reminded you that you were still very much in the hands of someone who was steering you through the detective world," explains Black. "But it couldn't just be a private-eye movie. It had to be a movie about something that then becomes a private-eye film."
Produced for a mere $15 million—Black's script for The Long Kiss Goodnight alone fetched $3 million—Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a low-budget gamble for a man looking to reinvent himself in an industry where similar films cost upwards of $50 million. On a pure entertainment level, Black succeeds as both a writer and a director, delivering what he describes as "a detective movie that feels like it was made by someone who has already read a thousand detective stories." At the same time, Black's success with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang may also be his greatest failure. As one of the freshest, most intelligent and most entertaining pieces of popcorn filmmaking to come along this year, it may actually be a bit too clever for audiences. In a time when films are becoming more and more like watching a video game, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is more like reading a book—it requires thought and consideration.
Whether or not the film manages to find success at the box office, Black has achieved what he set out to do when he emerged from his self-imposed exile. "Ten years ago, I think things might have gone very differently," says Black. "The only advantage that taking time off afforded me was that it allowed people to sort of forget that I'm that guy who made all those action movies and a lot of money. Now it allows me to reappear as someone who doesn't need to make big movies, who's perfectly willing to make a smaller movie—and not necessarily an action film. And I'd much rather be thought of that way."
Opens Friday, Nov. 11. For review and theaters, see Screen listings, page 55.