With the stateside release of Iron Man 3, co-written and fully-directed by Shane Black, many journalism outlets have been taking a look back on The Black Man’s career. If you’re new to Shane Black’s brand of fun action and punchy dialogue, which movies should you watch? Which ones should you watch first? Where does Iron Man 3 fall in the Black cannon?
To help me answer these questions, I’ve recruited Germain Lussier, writer for /Film, Trevor Schoenfeld writer of Schofizzy’s Movie Review and host of the Top 5 Film podcast along with his co-host Jonnie Chang, who also reviews films at No One Man. We’re going to give our personal rankings for each film in Shane Black’s filmography.
Premise: L.A.P.D. Homicide Sergeant Murtaugh (Danny Glover) gets paired with loose cannon narcotics cop Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) to take down a drug ring run by Vietnam vets. Gary Busey plays the (also loony) enforcer of the “Shadow Company,” Mr. Joshua.
John says: I didn’t get around to seeing this action movie classic until pretty recently, and I was quite impressed how well it has aged. Even though buddy cop stories with one wild partner and one who is “too old for this shit” have become cliché, I had no problem being constantly surprised by the story. While there are some ridiculousnesses, especially in the villain department, this is a more grounded version of Shane Black and therefore one that remains a great introduction to his oeuvre.
Germain says: Much like Die Hard after it, it’s easy to underestimate just how influential this film is. Sure, films like 48 Hours preceded it, but almost all modern cop or buddy films have their DNA in Shane Black’s unique blend of twists, turns, humor and violence. We all remember the film for its dialogue and action but watching it again, the Riggs character is really way more complex and interesting than this film deserves. Unfortunately, the franchise loses that edge moving ahead.
Trevor says: Shane Black’s first script also happens to be my introduction to his work. I remember going to see Lethal Weapon with my father in theaters at 10-years-old when it opened and walking away loving the action comedy. It is my first exposure to an R-rated buddy comedy. As a kid, I didn’t realize how much of Black’s style seeped through into Riggs and Murtaugh. Going back and revisiting as an adult, however, Black’s sense of sarcasm and wit really shines in his first script. This brings up a quality about Black that is so great, his ability to reach both young and older audiences with his characters. As a kid, I loved the characters he created and the situations he put them in. As an adult, I am far more impressed with his knack for developing characters versus the situations he puts them in.
Jonnie says: An instant classic. Black’s witty dialogue and whip-smart plotting established — and still holds, arguably — the gold standard for explosive action fare in a modern setting. Mixing the right amount of comedy with the perfect dose of action has been re-attempted — with minimal success — by countless films that followed it, proving that Black’s voice was, and still is, truly unique. Lethal Weapon‘s pacing, story, and most importantly, characters, define the best of the genre, going over the top in just the right places, but never forgetting the importance of staying true to its dark-but-fun tone. Black perfectly showcases his abilities as a screenwriter with the alchemy of action and comedy deployed throughout the film. It’s an untouchable.
Premise: A comedy/horror film which pits the stable of Universal monsters against a group of clever kids.
Germain says: I’m not saying this film is Shane Black’s second best. Lethal Weapon is superior in pretty much every way. But, personally, this was a formative film in my development as a movie fan, introducing me to monster movies, the bonds of friendship and super cheesy ’80s montages. It’s a great adventure film, but also throws in some unexpectedly heavy-handed moments that don’t really fit 25 years later. I love this movie with all my heart.
Trevor says: This film is probably the closest to my heart of Black’s work albeit ranked a bit lower. Also it is the most re-watched of the bunch with Lethal Weapon close behind. This film would be a solid follow-up for kids who enjoyed Iron Man 3. It is basically The Goonies meets Classic Universal Horror Monsters. The film houses loads of Black’s snark blended quite nicely with horror and action. A very simple film that chugs along, perfect for multiple viewings.
Jonnie says: Germain introduced me to this movie, which he grew up loving as a kid. I saw it for the first time not long ago in the perfect setting: amongst fans at San Diego ComiCon. I can easily see why he cherished it so. Sure, the acting could be better, the effects could be more polished, it’s definitely not The Goonies, but it does maintain, like Lethal Weapon (albeit far less darkly), a playful-yet-dangerous tone that gives the stakes impact. I mean, it’s a brilliant concept: a movie with kids fighting alongside Frankenstein against Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Gill-man, and the Mummy. It could very easily go off the rails and right into straight-to-home-video territory (AHEM Van Helsing), but it never does. Ahead of its time!
John says: I only just saw this film, so I didn’t have any childhood nostalgia attached to it. It has a handful of snappy bits of dialogue between the cops that I’ll bet Black had a hand in, but it doesn’t strike me as a very great example of Black’s work. Unless you have a kid who is really into old monster movies, I’m not sure I would recommend watching this.
Premise: Riggs and Murtaugh are back, trying to protect an irritating witness (Joe Pesci), while investigating a gang of South African drug dealers.
Germain says: Lethal Weapon 2 is okay as sequels go. It has its moments, introduces some new characters, but the complexity and surprise of the first film are gone. Plus, I watched it recently, and I found it had long stretches of boring in the middle. Ultimately, it’s okay, but feels much less polished.
Trevor says: At the time Lethal Weapon 2 released I remember really enjoying it, as an adult I still enjoy it, however it is a major departure from the first film. Why? Everything that worked in the first film is built up just a bit bigger. Typical issue that happens when a studio has a hit. They start to want to improve versus just focusing on what worked. In hindsight it is clear that Shane Black was also testing the water a bit more, with the first film being such a hit he had a bit more room to soar.
Jonnie says: I’ve seen Lethal Weapon 2 the least out of the series (I know, I’ve seen Lethal Weapon 4 way too many times) but I remember it being a fitting sequel, despite its shortcomings. There are so many similarities to the first movie that it’s hard for me to separate the two, but I do remember that they fought white men from Africa who were all racist and genocidal. The racial elements always felt more a product of their time than vital social commentary, and were there just to drive the plot and make things weird for Murtaugh. The end sequence is impressive, though. Satisfying. Didn’t they bring Joe Pesci into the series with this one?
Premise: A private investigator played by Bruce Willis joins up with a retired football player played by Damon Wayans to solve the murder of the football player’s girlfriend.
Germain says: I haven’t seen The Last Boy Scout in a long, long time, but I do remember it being entertaining on every level. It ranks where it does simply because in the years since its release, it hasn’t resonated with me that much. There’s just a general sense of “That’s a good movie.”
Trevor says: Shane Black’s return to form, or at least a step back in the right direction after Lethal Weapon 2. This film dials back the situations and focuses more on the characters. Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans play incredibly well off each other and a lot of the credit should be placed in Black’s lap for writing some hilarious dialogue. If you like 48HRS or other adult cop films, The Last Boy Scout is an absolute must.
John says: I just saw this movie and was blown away. First of all, the late great Tony Scott directs the hell out of it. As far as Black’s writing goes, it’s rock solid. It works perfectly as a tightly-constructed mystery and has some super-quotable hardboiled dialogue. The movie holds up today, and with the plot about NFL owners being indifferent to player injuries, it even seems prescient. I’m ranking it #2 and dropping Lethal Weapon to #3 because I believe this one is way underrated.
Jonnie says: Now we’re talking. I loved this movie growing up, but only recently did I find out that I’m definitely not alone. The plot is ludicrous, the characters are outlandish, but it’s SO much a product of its time that its incredibly endearing and endlessly fun. Perhaps one of Tony Scott’s most underrated movies. It’s filled with memorable one-liners (“Shit, we’re being beat up by the inventor of Scrabble”) and the chemistry between Willis and Wayans is priceless. Willis has never been more grizzled. In fact, when I think back to some of the best badass, don’t-give-a-crap roles that Willis has played, I think of Joe Hallenbeck and The Last Boy Scout. The guy is unstoppable. Unflappable. You can’t torture him. You can’t scare him, you can’t make him cry. Unless you play rap music.
Premise: A spoof/fantasia of the action movie genre about a little boy magically transported into the world of fictional badass detective Jack Slater (Arnold Schwartzenegger). Black was one of series of writers on the project, but was credited with the script that got it a green light.
John says: I saw this movie on video as a kid right after it came out and haven’t seen it since. From what I remember, I really liked the juvenile tenor of the humor. (I was, after all, a juvenile.) I have no idea if it holds up today for adults, but it worked perfectly for me as a kid, so I have to rank it up there.
Germain says: Disappointment. That’s what I remember about The Last Action Hero. Fantastic premise, great cast but it never quite hits on all cylinders like Black’s other work. I recall enjoying it as a kid, enough to buy a Jack Slater action figure I think, but even then I knew it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.
Trevor says: One combination that Black tends to use in everything he writes is the odd couple formula. Here he puts a snarky kid with a snarky Schwarzenegger. Not very far from what we see used in Iron Man 3. The duo doesn’t always work like in Iron Man 3, but here there are certainly some fun moments. For younger audiences that enjoyed Iron Man 3 I’d also recommend watching this film after seeing The Monster Squad. Each one highlights Black’s play with fantasy while still trudging through his usual tropes.
Jonnie says: I need to revisit this one. It’s been awhile. Look, I know it’s a train wreck. There’s an animated talking detective cat. Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) from Amadeus plays a guy named “John Practice” and there’s a running gag about how one gets to Carnegie Hall. The kid who plays Danny Madigan, the central protagonist, is fucking horrible. But there’s just something endearing about the badness that The Last Action Hero proudly exudes. It’s a genius concept, executed in the shittiest, most studio-driven, micro-managed way imaginable, and because so much was likely invested in it, it’s so fucked up tonally and all over the place that it never stands a chance at shining. A waste of a great idea. But hell, I’ll re-watch it anyway. It’s a good reminder that you can’t ever play it safe with a high concept idea.
Premise: There’s no doubt Black wrote a great script, because it sold for $4M, still a record almost 20 years later. A hitwoman who has been suffering from amnesia for 8 years (Geena Davis), with help from an unethical private investigator (Samuel L. Jackson), suddenly finds herself on the run from an enemy from her former life, One-Eyed Jack (Jack McKenna).
John says: This movie famously bombed at the box office and, while I believe the script is beautifully structured, there’s just something about the way it was produced, acted and directed and yes, maybe even written, that failed to get me involved in the characters. Black took almost ten years before his next major Hollywood project — maybe he felt with this movie he had exhausted that vein of movie gold he’d been mining.
Germain says: Like many of Black’s films, I saw this movie when it was released but don’t remember a lot of it. It does hold a little bit of prestige because I feel like it was one of the first movies I saw that was directly influenced by the John Woo action films of the Nineties and I hadn’t seen them yet when it came out — but other than that, it’s merely serviceable.
Trevor says: The one film on this list I have seen the least. It was Black’s biggest seller and also his biggest flop. Geena Davis pulls off the agent who lost her memory pretty well, but once again, what works is Black’s ability with the odd couple formula. Davis and Samuel L. Jackson have some moments that are sure to make you chuckle at the very least.
Jonnie says: I re-watched this recently, as I’ve only seen it once, on DVD, way back when. I remember liking it a lot more. It’s… not good. On all levels. From the stale, uninteresting plot right down to Samuel L. Jackson’s ridiculous wardrobe, this movie is just filled with terrible creative choices. I get that it takes a colossal turd of a movie like this to make someone rethink their career choices (no offense, Shane). It was probably a lot better on the page, and I’d like to blame Renny Harlin for most of this movies problems. (I like to blame Renny Harlin for anything I can, admittedly.) This movie is arguably Black’s worst effort at building a captivating plot peppered with action set-pieces. QT showed us how the ‘hitwoman with amnesia’ is done later with Kill Bill. That, and the next movie on this list, cleared the bad taste from my mouth left from The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Premise: Black is a deep fan of hardboiled detective fiction. Here he adapts the plot of Brett Halliday’s obscure novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them into a great vehicle for reviving the careers of Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer. A criminal fleeing a robbery (Downey, Jr.) hides in an acting class and manages to channel his emotion from the heist into landing a role. Private Investigator Harry van Shrike (Kilmer) gets introduced to him to consult on his acting and they wind up getting sucked into a very Hollywood murder mystery.
John says: I love this film’s playful remixing of genre tropes and the chemistry between Downey, Jr. and Kilmer. Although it didn’t do great at the box office, it has aged well and become a sort of cult favorite. I can see why this movie convinced the bigwigs at Marvel to give Black a shot at Iron Man 3 despite his short directing resume.
Germain says: Hilarious, surprising, self-aware and one of my favorite films of 2005. This was a movie that Shane Black was not only meant to write, but direct as well. It works on every level while simultaneously subverting the detective story and filmmaking itself too, in a way. Downey Jr. is hilarious, Kilmer has never been better and this is a film that’ll be remembered for a long time.
Trevor says: Snark, Christmas, mystery, and an odd couple — all things that Shane Black loves to write into his films, but here he hits it out of the park. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is his best script next to Lethal Weapon. It is a film that put Robert Downey Jr. back into people’s memory in a good way, plus reminded us what a talent Black can be. Unfortunately the film was not a success financially, so it has mainly gone unnoticed, but now that Iron Man 3 has gotten a whole new generation’s interest in Black, let’s hope people discover this wonderful little caper. For younger audiences, this isn’t the best film of Black’s to watch, but for us old folk, put it at the top of your must-see list.
Jonnie says: I have nothing but effusive praise for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I love it. And what I find really cool is that it couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s a breath of fresh air, a bright, shiny light that permeates the dry repetitiveness of “clever” modern mystery/heist films and every time I see it playing on HBO, I watch it. It’s brilliant. It’s perfect. And if filmmakers cared about their stories and characters as much as Black cared about every little detail in this movie, movies would be a lot better on average.
Premise: Black gave Robert Downey, Jr. a chance with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Downey repaid the favor by throwing Black’s hat into the ring for the third entry in the Iron Man franchise. It seemed like a brilliant move to give a quippy superhero action movie a writer/director known for his skill with quips and action. But how do our rankers feel?
John says: A Christmas setting, a precocious child, a black-white pair of heroes, a spoof of Hollywood, a murder mystery, military dudes gone bad — Iron Man 3 is, in addition to being a Marvel superhero movie, an encyclopedia of Shane Black tropes. It has a few good laughs and a few good moments of fun action but I have to say that I was expecting more from this movie. I think Black failed to really hold the Tony Stark character’s feet to the flames, especially when it comes to the Pepper Potts character (Gweneth Paltrow, whose super power appears to be shredded abs).
Germain says: This obviously has the benefit of being the most fresh Black film in my mind (save for Monster Squad, probably) and it’s nice that he was able to adapt his hard-boiled, razor-sharp sensibilities into a massive-budget blockbuster. I think it works better as a Shane Black film rather than an Iron Man movie, and he’s a bit too ambitious with his story, but there’s way more to like than dislike.
Trevor says: I hope this film raises Black’s stock again. He deserves it. Iron Man 3 works on a number of levels but what I appreciate the most about it is how Black wrapped up Tony Stark’s development as a playboy-turned-superhero. He confirms Stark’s statement of “I am Iron Man” regardless of a suit. Black’s script also dabbles in his best screenwriting tricks; an odd couple, Christmas, sarcasm, and a mystery. Iron Man 3 is a film that will entertain both young and old plus it is a great addition to the cinematic Marvel universe.
Jonnie says: I feel like Black’s writing and directing abilities come together at last in Iron Man 3. He’s perfectly suited (hah!) for the genre and manages to keep the film alive, funny, and cohesive. I could talk for days about all the stuff I think Marvel is getting right and wrong in the movie versions of their characters, and at the end of the day, I might be first to point out that none of them are close enough to “perfect.” But, with this film, I think they finally have something truly worthy of the universe and brand. It embodies the spirit of the character, doesn’t placate you with references and setups, organically weaves in the big set-pieces that are expected in a superhero film, all the while keeping itself as stand-alone as it can be, despite the many films that have lead up to it. It’s an impressive feat, given the circumstances. I’m happy to say that I finally feel like we’ve gotten a genuinely good movie out of Marvel, and not just another in a series of origin stories and setups for The Avengers. If only they’d sign Black for more…
* * *
A.W.O.L. (2006, 20 min short)
Black’s role: Screenwriter (under the pseudonym Holly Martins)
John’s Rank: Unranked, haven’t seen
Germain’s Rank: Unranked, haven’t seen
Trevor’s Rank: Unranked, haven’t seen
Jonnie’s Rank: Unranked, haven’t seen
Premise: From the IMDb summary: “Vietnam. 1972. US Army Special Forces Major Cliff Marquette leads a squad ordered to investigate unusual reports and secure a remote jungle temple locals believe has mystical powers.” This leads me to believe it is a rewrite of Black’s unproduced early script Shadow Company, which was reportedly a supernatural thriller set during the Vietnam War. You can see a clip from it on Vimeo but otherwise this short seems to be unavailable to the public.
You can also see Black as an actor in a small role in Predator (1987). The story behind that:
According to Predator producer Jon Davis, there was an ulterior motive behind their decision to hire the hot screenwriter of the moment to play a grunt: “The idea was hatched — we’ll hire him as an actor and then when he’s stuck in Mexico we’ll make him rewrite it.” This never actually happened; instead Black read a lot, hung out in Mexican discos, and worked on the script that became The Last Boy Scout.
As of 2016, Black is developing a Predator sequel. No word yet on whether the critical and box office performance of The Nice Guys will help or hinder a sequel to that film as well.