With Christmas approaching, it’s a good time look back at the films of Shane Black, the unofficial King of Christmas among moviemakers. Although he may not have any overt watch-it-every-year “Christmas movies” – his first hit, “Lethal Weapon,” comes closest to that celebrated status – he peppers holiday trappings into his films more than any other major filmmaker today.
So here are my rankings of all 10 Shane Black pictures to date (w = writer, d = director, s = story only):
10. “The Monster Squad” (1987, w) – This kids’ horror film directed by Fred Dekker seems to get the least love from Black in a year when he also acted in “Predator” and launched the “Lethal Weapon” saga. Fans of “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me” might like it because it’s in that tradition of tweens having adventurous lives with treehouses, bullies and burgeoning interest in girls – with Universal Monsters thrown in. Or they might not like it, seeing it as a ripoff. It’s an intriguingly forgotten film among “Stranger Things” influences, but “Monster Squad” is too short on originality and laughs to climb up this list. (Full review.)
9. “Lethal Weapon 2” (1989, s) – I’ve heard it said more than once that “LW2” is the best of the series. I think it’s the weakest. Through no fault of Black, who delivers the story but not the screenplay, this is the point where the series becomes untethered from reality and moves into the “dumb, fun action” zone. The most telling divide between Black’s vision and the series’ new direction is that Black wanted to kill off Riggs (Mel Gibson). For better or worse – better because it’s a peek into what could’ve been, worse because it’s shoddily staged – the finished film (from writer Jeffrey Boam and director Richard Donner) hints at how Riggs would’ve bitten the dust. The lazy rewrite is simply that he miraculously survives all of those gunshot wounds. (Full review.)
8. “The Last Boy Scout” (1991, w) – Black’s dialog-writing talent stands out in director Tony Scott’s film via grimy detective Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis), whose wit is such that he escapes bad guys by telling jokes that make them laugh and get distracted. Damon Wayans is Joe’s de facto “buddy cop,” talented child actress Danielle Harris is his bratty daughter, and a pre-stardom Halle Berry has a small role. The plot is so inexplicable it’s not worth trying, but it does have things you don’t see in any ole action movie, such as a football player scoring a touchdown assisted by a gun. Because it’s a collection of one-liners more than a logical story, “Last Boy Scout” ranks low among Black’s oeuvre. But it’s understandable why people love it despite its flaws. (Full review.)
7. “The Predator” (2018, w-d) – The fourth “Predator” solo film is brisk and entertaining thanks to the banter among a group of ex-soldier psychiatric patients who find themselves teamed up against an escaped Predator or two, plus a couple Pred-dogs. Boyd Holbrook, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane and a surprisingly good (after her nothing role in “X-Men: Apocalypse”) Olivia Munn take turns stealing humorous moments. Despite Black’s presence at the launch of the saga – he acted in 1987’s “Predator” – his interest in the mythology is much less than his interest in a good time. This is his only film as a director where he misses the bullseye. (Full review.)
6. “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996, w) – Although overblown in the final act under the direction of Renny Harlin, this box-office failure that knocked Black out of business for nearly a decade shines as an early example of Samuel L. Jackson as an A-list leading man. His initially immoral detective Mitch Henessey trades barbs with Geena Davis’ amnesiac Samantha Caine. Davis is miscast as an action star and a love match for Jackson, but she’s good with the banter. The inventiveness of Black’s plotting makes “Long Kiss Goodnight” fun to watch even amid its imperfections and bombast. (Full review.)
5. “Last Action Hero” (1993, w) – Not everything clicks in director John McTiernan’s film; notably, it’s overlong and the plot is needlessly complex. But it’s an original idea to skewer action clichés while also gleaning thrills from those clichés and showing love for them. As both the titular Jack Slater and “himself,” Arnold Schwarzenegger is perfectly positioned at this point in his career when he is shifting from straight action into comedic fare. Black tiptoed into meta commentary with “Monster Squad” but didn’t have the confidence to go all-in. With “Last Action Hero,” he does, and the end result is mostly fun and often smart. (Full review.)
4. “Lethal Weapon” (1987, w) – Buddy cop films predates this, but director Donner’s “Lethal Weapon” is widely considered to be the trope codifier for the genre – in the sense that numerous future movies (and indeed, franchises) copied what works so well here. Gibson and Danny Glover have perfect chemistry as Riggs and Murtaugh, the former being suicidally unhinged and the latter straight-laced (but understandably drawn in by the adrenaline rush of Riggs’ M.O.). Eighties trappings that are cringe-worthy today, such as Riggs’ outspoken homophobia and dismissiveness of women on the force, keep “LW” grounded in its era. But aside from those negatives, what a great era it was. (Full review.)
3. “Iron Man 3” (2013, w-d) – Now we enter what I consider the cream of the crop, with an admittedly controversial choice for Black’s third-best film. I’ve heard it said this is a good Shane Black film but a bad “Iron Man” film. But I also see it climbing higher and higher on MCU rankings lists – perhaps because the stigma of the Mandarin fake-out has faded with the announcement that the real Mandarin will enter the MCU. I think Black and Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Tony Stark meld perfectly; what a Black hero would do (rather stupidly announcing his address to the media, leading to his home getting blown up) is what Tony would do. Not only is this a good “Iron Man” film, but Tony has never been portrayed better. (Full review.)
2. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005, w-d) – Black’s comeback vehicle is also his eye-opening directorial debut, as Downey (also on the comeback path) and Val Kilmer wonderfully and weirdly pair up. Downey’s Harry is an actor pretending to be a detective. He is shadowing Kilmer’s Perry for learning purposes, but the case becomes more personal as renewed love interest Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) enters the picture. Black’s twisty plotting is impeccable and the film has a gorgeously noir look (under the lens of Michael Barrett) that suggests Black should’ve taken up directing his own screenplays long ago. I could take or leave Harry’s snarky narration, which suggests Black is slightly enamored with his own skill, and that’s the only reason I rank “KKBB” a notch below the top spot. (Full review.)
1. “The Nice Guys” (2016, w-d) – Black’s purest masterpiece admittedly builds on what he learned from “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” as we again follow two in-over-their-heads detectives – Ryan Gosling’s Holland, who isn’t very good at his job, and Russell Crowe’s Jackson, whose main gig is as a hit man. Black regularly uses kids in his movies, with differing levels of success. None have been better than Angourie Rice as Holland’s tween daughter, who admires her dad but also thinks she can be a detective, too. She can, but she also gets in over her head. “The Nice Guys” is a laugh-out-loud comedy, but it’s grounded and has stakes. Clinching the film’s masterful status: It’s set in the late 1970s, and looks it thanks to the fashions (see Margaret Qualley as a yellow-dressed femme fatale) and the lens of Philippe Rousselot. Black even gleans humor from how the perspectives of that era are funny in retrospect. This is his best screenplay, and best film. (Full review.)
How do you rank Shane Black’s films? Share your lists in the comment thread.