Screw it, it's Christmas: dreaming of a Shane Black Christmas
The holiday season means a lot of different things to different people. We explore the Christmas season from a pop culture point of view.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) stands amidst the twisted wreckage of girders and the licks of flame wrought by the preceding spectacular action sequence. “Screw it, it’s Christmas,” he shrugs, and his legion of Iron Man suits explode overhead, striking fireworks illuminating the yuletide sky.
Those wandering into Iron Man 3 last year – and given the film’s position in the top ten highest grossing films of all time, that’s most of you – may not have expected a Christmas theme to appear in Iron Man 3. After all, the film was released mid-year; piggybacking onto the festive spirit might have made some sense for a December release, but in April? Those familiar with the work of Iron Man 3’s director and co-writer Shane Black, however, wouldn’t have been surprised, with Christmas a common theme in Black’s filmography.
Of the eight features Black has written, five of them take place at Christmas time (more if you count the film-within-a-film that opens Last Action Hero – the first line is “This is one hell of a way to spend Christmas…” – or Black’s first, unproduced screenplay Shadow Company). Black’s explanation for the apparent obsession, as reported by Den of Geek:
“Christmas is fun. It’s unifying, and all your characters are involved in this event that stays within the larger story. It roots it, I think, it grounds everything. At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take reckoning, they stock of where their lives are at Christmas. It just provides a backdrop against which different things can play out, but with one unifying, global heading. I’ve always liked it, especially in thrillers, for some reason. It’s a touch of magic.”
Lethal Weapon (1987)
It all began, of course, with the screenplay that made Shane Black one of those rare screenwriters to be part of the auteur conversation long before he stepped behind the camera (or, if you prefer, “vulgar auteur” because apparently real auteurs don’t make movies with explosions).
Lethal Weapon was a sensation, earning Black a half-million dollars and raking in $65 million, enough to secure it a top ten position in 1987’s domestic box office, instigate a four-film franchise and make a star out of Mel Gibson. Lethal Weapon frontloads its Christmas spirit; the opening credits play over a nocturnal cityscape with “Jingle Bell Rock” blaring before cutting to a half-naked woman snorting cocaine before hurling herself off a building.
This sort of juxtaposition between merriment and the macabre defines most of Black’s oeuvre, and goes some way towards explaining why Lethal Weapon still feels so vital almost thirty years on. It’s not Black’s best screenplay – we’ll get to that – but it’s certainly his most successful and most influential. Lethal Weapon pairs Murtaugh (Danny Glover), a no-nonsense experienced cop overwhelmed by his family on his fiftieth birthday, with Riggs (Gibson), left unhinged and suicidal by his wife’s death (but, as this is a Shane Black film, he’s still quick with a wisecrack). It’s hardly the first buddy-cop film – Black borrowed heavily from 48 Hrs. – but essentially every film that followed borrowed heavily from the tropes (arguably) perfected here.
The Christmas setting, too, proved influential. If Black is to be believed, producer Joel Silver borrowed the setting for the following year’s Die Hard, which now stands as everyone’s unconventional-conventional choice for favourite Christmas film. (Sidenote: if you haven’t read Lisa Thatcher’s examination of these two films as apologia for white police brutality, it’s necessary reading. It certainly coloured my rewatch of Lethal Weapon, which prominently features a scene where black children warn one another about talking to cops before Murtaugh wins them over.)
The festive packaging of Lethal Weapon is more meaningful than a clever juxtaposition between the family-friendly iconography of Christmas and Black’s ultraviolence. Specifically, the screenplay is interested in the interplay between family and isolation brought into sharp focus by the holiday season. The critical scene in the film occurs when Riggs visits Murtaugh’s house to celebrate Christmas, with the two men’s disparate experiences of family and Christmas coming to a middle ground. Murtaugh’s exasperated antipathy towards his family softens as he sees Riggs almost imperceptibly overwhelmed by the welcoming household; Riggs, meanwhile, is presented with a beacon of hope in a world that seemed absent light since his wife’s death. It’s as sentimental as the sappiest Christmas film, honestly.
The Last Boy Scout (1991) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Nowadays, Black’s two subsequent Christmas-themed action films are best remembered for financial reasons; The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight each broke records for money spent on a screenplay, with the latter attracted a still-intimidating four million dollar price tag. This is understandable; these films are essentially rehashes of Lethal Weapon with little to distinguish them.
Observe: both films centre on a traditional interracial buddy pairing: Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout, Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson in The Long Kiss Goodnight. Much as Riggs’ suicidal tendencies operated as a kind of superpower in Lethal Weapon, Black grants his white protagonists similarly unlikely talents: Willis can quip his way out of any conflict, while Davis – playing Jason Bourne before Matt Damon – has a more traditional set of assassin skills uncovered once her amnesia wears off. All three films conclude with a convoluted firefight impelled by the kidnapping of an innocent daughter. All three include an obligatory torture sequence, because it isn’t a Shane Black script without some unnecessary pain and suffering.
I could go on, but suffice to say that these two films are very much cast in the Lethal Weapon mould (and I could comfortably vomit out another thousand words on what it tells us about 1990s Hollywood that a conventional, kinetic action thriller with a female lead failed so dismally at the box office, but that’s for another time). More interesting is how they diverge when it comes to Christmas. Much like Lethal Weapon, these films inextricably link the Christmas setting to familial anxieties – not especially surprising, given the durable connection between family and Christmas in Western culture.
In The Last Boy Scout, Wayans’ character is mostly incidental to the narrative. He’s given Murtaugh’s straight man role in the odd couple pairing but Riggs’ backstory, with the same dead wife and an addiction to Demerol smothering any suicidal despair. Willis plays a more substantial role (and it’s easy to see why – he was born to star in a Shane Black film), as does his family. It’s very easy to describe Willis’s character Joe’s relationship with his family: they fucking hate him. He stumbles upon his wife sleeping with his best friend, while his daughter (Danielle Harris!) greets him with barely-disguised contempt (naturally, she’s introduced watching Lethal Weapon). The link to Christmas and familial dissatisfaction is made clear with his troubled daughter’s drawing of St Nick over a decapitated corpse, titled “Satan Claus.”
Four years after Lethal Weapon, and already Black is noticeably more cynical about the nuclear family. Joe’s heroism uncovering nefarious pro football corruption wins his daughter over, admittedly, and she plays an integral part saving her father late in the piece thanks to a gun concealed inside her favourite puppet. One suspects the eternally unmarried Black has some unresolved problems when it comes to women, however. When Joe’s wife inevitably pleads for forgiveness in the denouement, this is the response she gets: “Fuck you Sarah. You’re a lying bitch and if the cops weren’t here I’d spit in your face.” You really feel the warmth of a family Christmas in dialogue like that.
The Long Kiss Goodnight is more hopeful, using the split personality of heroine Samantha/Charly (Davis) to address pretty much the same dichotomy between isolation and exhaustion that Riggs and Murtaugh respectively embodied. Samantha is a symbol of the idealized American family. She’s a loving wife to her long-term boyfriend and doting mother to her eight year old daughter. Family and Christmas are again intertwined; Samantha even dresses up as Mrs Claus in the town parade to make the link explicit. Her alter-ego, Charly, is the antithesis of the family Christmas: she’s sexy, assertive and she kicks a whole lot of ass. But the film ultimately sides with Samantha over Charly, the story ending with our protagonist returning home after killing very many bad guys.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
The well-publicised box office failure of The Long Kiss Goodnight – along with the rise of quippy competition like Quentin Tarantino – saw Black banished from Hollywood for a decade (whether by choice is debateable and entirely uninteresting). Kiss Kiss Bang Bang heralded his return as screenwriter and his debut as director. I will brook no argument on this – it’s his best film by a country mile. It’s smart, zippy, funny, taking all of the Shane Black characteristics and dialling them up to the maximum. And if you thought The Last Boy Scout was cynical about family and Christmas, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Christmas iconography is everywhere here, but the context makes it all seem a little dirty. Robert Downey Jr (in a career-saving performance) plays Harry Lockhart, a full-time thief – introduced illicitly rummaging through a toy store looking for a seasonal gift for his niece – who’s shanghaied into the Hollywood scene when he stumbles into an audition while on the run from the police. His induction into the film biz provides a plot when he’s asked to accompany private detective Gay Perry (Val Kilmer, killing it) as research.
But it also compels to wander through a series of scungy parties and exclusive nightclubs, all festooned with Christmas paraphernalia rendered grubby by association. Christmas lights as a backdrop for incest and murder. Harry’s high school bestie and love interest, Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), traipses around in a revealing elf outfit (and I mean revealing – at one point Harry is distracted by her nipple popping intermittently out of her neckline). And I struggle to think of a single moment that better sums up Shane Black than Robert Downey Jr leering at a stripper decorated as a reindeer …shortly before he’s accosted by an interracial pair of wisecracking henchmen.
It should be noted that this is all very self-reflexive; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is an intensely metatextual, self-reflexive film and the best exemplar of Black’s wit. Arguably the seediness of the Christmas symbolism is a knowing nod to his previous films. But the film’s depiction of family is entirely contemptuous in a way that feels somehow raw. The only family given serious screentime is Harmony’s; a family with a rapist father and mentally ill daughter. The film concludes with the bedside beating of said father; a couple decades after Lethal Weapon, any of Black’s sentimentality has evaporated entirely.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
With most modern Marvel films, it’s hard to read too much authorial intent into one person. Yes, Shane Black directed and wrote Iron Man 3, but Marvel is notorious for expressing control over their franchise (after Black’s clashes with his studio writing Lethal Weapon 2 – which he intended to end by killing off Riggs – he was reportedly much happier to play ball). Shane Black’s signature shines through, just intermittently. There’s the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang-esque commentary that opens the film… only to vanish until a clever post-credits stinger. There’s that spark of knowing humour that invests Black’s work. And there is, of course, a Christmas setting.
Let’s be clear: Christmas is fairly incidental to the film. It’s referenced about as often as it is in The Last Boy Scout, but where “Satan Claus” ended up being pretty integral to the thrust of that picture, Iron Man 3 is, on the surface, pretty uninterested in addressing these traditional themes of family and isolation. Stark’s ostentatious Christmas present for Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) may have warranted intense overthinking from Marvel fans, but was simply a symbol of Stark’s predilection for grand yet ultimately thoughtless gestures. And that’s about it, really.
Or is it? Over at Slate, Forrest Wickman teased out Black’s interview remarks to analyse the film’s links to Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. It’s an interesting and entirely plausible interpretation of the film (although I’d argue that Stark’s hollow companion, the Mark 42 model, is a better fit for the Ghost of Christmas Present than the Mandarin). It feels a little underwhelming compared to the personal ruminations on family and Christmas that – for better or worse – distinguish Black’s earlier films from his many impersonators.