(From left) Director Shane Black, Ryan Gosling, and Russell Crowe, on the set of ‘The Nice Guys’ (Photo: Warner Bros.)
If this weekend’s noir-comedy gem The Nice Guys seems familiar, it’s not just because it features two established leading men in Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, or because it takes cues from old-school Dashiell Hammett pulp fiction, or because it’s a ’70s-era period piece full of big collars and even bigger mustaches. It’s also because it’s infused with the style, swagger, and banter-heavy spirit of writer-director Shane Black, who defined a generation (and a genre) before dropping off Hollywood’s radar for a decade.
Watch a ‘Nice Guys’ trailer:
While Black may not be a household name, there aren’t many modern movie fans who don’t know his work, and the echoes of it in films following his breakthrough. The first script Black ever sold, as a 24-year-old straight out of UCLA, was 1987′s Lethal Weapon, which not only kickstarted his career, but invigorated the action genre. The story of a psychotic young white cop (Mel Gibson) and his older, grouchier African-American partner (Danny Glover), directed by Richard Donner, won over audiences with its fast-talking screwball vibe drenched in sunshiny L.A. glitz and glamour—not to mention a Christmastime aura that would become one of Black’s many trademarks. Its combination of well-drawn character drama, rapid-fire zingers, and breakneck action established the modern action-buddy-comedy—and the film’s $102.2 domestic gross swept Black to the top of the A-list.
(Lethal Weapon: Warner Bros.)
After co-penning 1987’s The Monster Squad, Black bailed on 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2 when Warner Bros wouldn’t allow him to kill Gibson’s Martin Riggs—no surprise, given his central role in a lucrative franchise. But that didn’t derail Black’s industry ascendancy, as Warners purchased his follow-up script for 1991’s The Last Boy Scout for a staggering $1.75 million. Again featuring a racially and demographically contrasting pair (Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans), the Tony Scott-directed feature was a box office disappointment, grossing only $59.5 million domestically, but it further solidified Black’s formula, replete with a Yuletide setting and a healthy dose of R-rated profanity, bloodshed, and sexuality.
(The Last Boy Scout: Warner Bros.)
Two additional Black signatures appeared in 1993’s Last Action Hero, which he was contracted to rewrite. The first was a child sidekick who’s more than capable of holding his/her own alongside a larger-than-life hero. Here, the kid was Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), a movie buff who’s magically transported into the latest cinematic outing of his favorite action star, Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger). That set-up not only allowed for lots of adult-tween repartee, but also allowed Black to engage in a self-conscious dialogue with the action-movie conventions he’d pioneered—and that he was here tasked with both embracing and spoofing.
(The Last Action Hero: Sony)
No matter the talent involved, including Die Hard director John McTiernan, Last Action Hero was a disaster for Columbia Pictures, yet Black subsequently nabbed his biggest payday ever. For 1996’s Renny Harlin-directed The Long Kiss Goodnight, the story of a small-town schoolteacher (Geena Davis) who discovers she’s actually an expert CIA assassin and then teams up with a private investigator (Samuel L. Jackson), Black was paid a whopping $4 million —at the time, the highest figure ever given to a screenwriter. It marked the peak of Black’s decade-long run as Hollywood’s action king.
Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson in ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ (New Line/Kobal)
It would also signal the beginning of the end for the first phase of Black’s career, thanks to The Long Kiss Goodnight’s underwhelming theatrical performance ($89.4 million at the box office, vs. a $65 million budget). Suddenly, Black was persona non grata — as the Hollywood Reporter put it in a May 13 profile, Black would find himself “an industry punchline, a symbol of on- and offscreen excess. Alcoholism, drug abuse, career atrophy, angry ex-girlfriends with lawyers — Black checked off pretty much every crisis on the list for a successful Hollywood screenwriter of the era.”
It wouldn’t be until 2005 that he’d get another high-profile shot, this time via an original project that he wrote and directed: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a wry buddy-comedy featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer as bickering partners embroiled in goofy hardboiled-mystery shenanigans. In other words, it was a prototypical Black work.
‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ (Warner Bros.)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and got a limited release from Warner Bros. While it made almost no dent at the box office, its consistently hilarious, fourth wall-breaking script, and standout performance from a rejuvenated Downey Jr. — who was trying to bounce back from his own substance abuse troubles — put both star and director on the road to repairing tarnished reputations. With Downey’s staunch support, Black was hired to write and direct 2013’s Iron Man 3, which wed Marvel’s familiar aesthetics with unmistakable Black-isms, be it Downey and Don Cheadle’s contentious rapport, Downey’s partnership with a young boy (Ty Simpkins), or a festive December time frame. With $1.2 billion worldwide gross (the 10th highest ever), it was an unqualified smash.
Which brings us to The Nice Guys, a smaller-scaled effort in which Crowe’s kind-hearted bruiser and Gosling’s drunken P.I. form an unlikely alliance in order to solve a case involving a murdered adult film star and a missing girl. From its leads’ insult-heavy verbal jousting, to its seamy L.A.-porn-world milieu, to the crucial participation of Gosling’s character’s daughter (Angourie Rice) in the proceedings, Black’s latest feels like a cross between Lethal Weapon, Robert Altman’s revisionist Philip Marlowe classic The Long Goodbye, and an Abbott and Costello lark, except with more profane buffoonery (highlighted by a brilliant bathroom-set Gosling bit). In short, it boasts virtually every hallmark that once made Black the most highly coveted wordsmith in Hollywood. And given its droll hilarity, there’s reason to hope The Nice Guys—along with Black’s forthcoming The Predator reboot, and likely Dwayne Johnson-led Doc Savage—will reaffirm his position as one of genre cinema’s most entertaining and invaluable voices.
‘The Nice Guys’ (Warner Bros.)