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Posts Tagged ‘Shane Black’

Just before I went off on this most recent trip, I made a stern promise to myself that I would stay strong, hold fast, remember my principles and not go to see any new movies in Russian no matter how much I regretted not being in the UK to see them. As it turned out, the only one that even came close to testing my resolve was Shane Black’s The Predator. There is some historical irony to this, as one of the films which led me to swear off the whole dubbed experience was watching Alien Vs Predator: Requiem in Italy, ten years ago. What can I say, I must just be a sucker for the Predator franchise.

Further proof is lent by the fact that, finding myself back in Britain, the very first film I trundled along to see was Black’s new offering, the fourth in the series – or possibly the sixth, depending on how you feel about those little-loved Alien cross-overs. Well, I say little-loved, but one of the weird things about the Predator franchise is that it seems to go on and on and on without ever making a film which is actually, um, much good or especially popular. The last (and indeed only) Predator film generally agreed to have any significant quality to it came out in 1987, which was so long ago that the likes of Emma Stone, Daniel Radcliffe and Jennifer Lawrence were not even born at the time (Jason Statham was 19), that the Tory party was still winning sizeable UK majorities, and that Donald Trump had yet to go bankrupt even once. Possibly only Highlander is a better example of something that was mildly popular a long time ago managing to hang on seemingly indefinitely, more like a cockroach infestation than an actual franchise.

The movie opens in the traditional fashion with a Predator arriving on Earth, in Mexico (presumably a deliberate call-back to the original film, but who knows), and thus spoiling the evening of US special forces sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), whose mission is thrown into chaos as a result. McKenna manages to lay his hands on some of the alien’s kit, which he promptly posts off to his ex-wife and son (as you would), before he is grabbed by shadowy government types and thrown in a rubber hospital to ensure his silence. Meanwhile, biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) is recruited by the same agency to investigate some strange anomalies discovered by an examination of the Predator, whom they have managed to capture.

Well, it’s all going reasonably well (for the shadowy government types at least), until another starship shows up. The captured Pred takes advantage of the panic and confusion this causes and busts out, heading off in search of its purloined equipment. In pursuit of the creature are Bracket and McKenna, the latter having teamed up with a busload of wacky army veterans suffering from various psychiatric disorders. The hunter has become the hunted! Although, to be strictly accurate, the hunters hunting the hunter are also themselves the objects of some hunting from another hunter. What could be simpler?

‘A very large number of things’ would be an honest answer. It is slightly baffling that they have gone for this particular story for the new film, especially given that it’s the work of someone with at least a passing connection with the original (good) Predator movie – Shane Black had a small role back in 1987 as the first member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s team to get disembowelled. The thing about the first Predator is that it is a deceptively simple story – sure, there’s a not-very-deeply-buried subtext about the Vietnam War, but mainly it’s about tough guys in extremis, in fear for their lives as they are picked off one by one by a terrifying and mysterious alien force. It’s a great SF-action-horror movie, but how are you supposed to come up with a sequel to it that isn’t just an empty retread?

They have, of course, had several goes at finding a follow-up to that classic Predator hunts people in a jungle scenario: Predator hunts people in a city, to start off with, followed by Predator hunts Aliens at the South Pole, then Predator hunts especially disgusting Aliens in small-town America, and finally Predator hunts a bunch of people on a fairly boring alien planet. Most of the preceding films are really not very good, but they are still easier to summarise than the new one, which is never knowingly under-plotted and seems to be deeply conflicted about the idea of letting the Predator ever actually do any hunting. For most of the film the only reference to this is a running gag about how the Predator is really badly named, as it actually behaves more like a trophy-bagging sports hunter than an actual predator in the biological sense – it’s a typically smart and cynical Shane Black line, but comes perilously close to the film sending itself up.

You really do get a sense of a film scrabbling around trying to find new ideas to justify its existence. Too often these come at the expense of demystifying the creatures too much, of explaining things which really did not require an explanation in the first place. There doesn’t need to be a particular reason why the various Predators have been so keen on extracting their targets’ spinal columns: it’s just a memorably scary piece of imagery. The pleasures of the Predator franchise are largely superficial anyway – once you dispense with Arnie as the leading man, you’re basically left with a banging theme tune (which gets played rather a lot in this film, especially when you consider its composer isn’t that prominently credited) and a cool monster suit. Fiddly plotting and complicated back-stories do not really find a natural home in this series.

Nor, to be perfectly honest, does Shane Black’s particular brand of humour. Here he is working with his regular partner Fred Dekker and the usual sort of scabrous, fast-talking, profane dialogue peppers the movie – if you’ve seen The Nice Guys or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang you will know what I mean (there are also some quite good pieces of physical comedy, too). But the kind of knowing and tongue-in-cheek humour that worked so well in one of Black’s detective comedies or in Iron Man 3 (one of the very few Marvel movies to attempt to succeed through wit rather than spectacle and actually succeed) always feels in danger of toppling the film over into camp or self-parody, which may be why the script is relatively restrained here: a lot of the film just feels like by-the-numbers action movie machismo. It’s almost a shame, because more and better jokes might have made up for some of the clunkier and more laborious plotting and exposition.

My instinct would be to say that, despite some good moments and interesting ideas, The Predator is a bit of a dud and unlikely to do much for the fortunes of this particular franchise: I might even suggest the films are getting worse, the stories withering away as the scripts run out of ideas. But then I would have said the same, if not much worse, about all the other sequels, and yet here we still are. I guess this is just the kind of film which will always make money, provided they don’t go too mad on the budget – and there’s no reason why they should; past releases seems to have proven that these films don’t need star names to make a profit. If so, then it is a shame that they can’t push the boat out and come up with a more interesting script, because I’m tempted to say that if Shane Black can’t come up with a more entertaining and engaging Predator movie than this one, I doubt anybody can.

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It’s a funny old world in the movies, where people can end up with CVs that at first glance look very odd. For example, that of writer-director-actor Shane Black, possibly not the most famous guy in the business but still someone worth keeping track of. Possibly best known as the writer of the first couple of Lethal Weapon movies, as well as various other overblown Hollywood action films, he also pops up as an actor in Predator, The Hunt for Red October, and RoboCop 3. He also has a respectable career as a director, with his name on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, one of the most financially successful movies of all time.

However, the world being as it is, Black apparently finds it necessary to apologise for some of his creative choices on Iron Man 3, even though the film came out years ago: such is the frothing outrage of some of the comic book fans he offended and (one presumes) the importance the studios attach to keeping this section of the audience onside. It must be particularly galling, given that Black’s latest round of media appearances is, in theory at least, to promote his new film The Nice Guys. As I believe I mentioned, it’s a funny old world sometimes.

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The Nice Guys is set in late-70s Los Angeles. Russell Crowe plays Jack Healey, a philosophically-inclined professional leg-breaker with a soft spot he tries very hard to ignore. Healey is hired by a young runaway named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to warn off Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a morally-bankrupt private detective who is looking for her. However, after making his point to March somewhat forcefully, Healey comes to realise that Amelia may be in more danger than she realises, and promptly decides to hire March himself in order to start looking for her again. March himself is understandably not keen on this arrangement, but his teenage daughter (Angourie Rice), who is in many ways the brains of the outfit, persuades him to take it on.

What follows is a convoluted, drolly preposterous story concerned with the Los Angeles smog, the adult movie industry, the Department of Justice, and many other elements which don’t obviously go together. There is a sense in which this is another pastiche of the classic Raymond Chandler private eye story, albeit heavily updated – the story initially seems a bit baffling, and I’m still not entirely sure how all of the bits connect up. However, by the final act everything has sorted itself out, more or less. That said, Black’s pedigree as a creator of first-rate action movies is also on display, and the film is punctuated by a number of superbly orchestrated fight scenes and chase sequences – there’s a fight between Crowe and Keith David which is as good as anything I can remember seeing on screen in recent years.

Even these moments are flavoured by a vein of humour, frequently very dark, sometimes quite broad. Black combines the elements of thriller, action, and comedy with great dexterity. The script on this occasion is co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi, but tonally this feels very similar to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Perhaps this time the film is a little deeper and more complex – there’s an element of historical irony going on, while you could probably have a pretty good post-film discussion over whether its ending is happy or actually rather downbeat.

There’s a level of complexity to the characters, too, rather more than what you’d expect from this kind of film, and perhaps shows the difference that hiring star actors can make to what might otherwise be quite a generic piece of work. The counterweight to The Nice Guys’ absurd comedy is the depth of characterisation provided by Crowe and Gosling – I’ve never been a huge fan of Crowe in the past, but he is enormously charismatic and likeable here, making his character’s ethical struggle quite clear without ever indulging in histrionics. Gosling gives a slightly more comedic performance, but not by much, while Angourie Rice can expect to be offered all kinds of dodgy projects on the strength of her performance here. But all the performances are good: perhaps the most noteworthy being a rare appearance by Kim Basinger.

The subject matter of this film may mean it’s not for everyone – in particular, the level of violence is definitely at the top end of a 15, and may be more than some people will be comfortable with (I expect I’m just desensitised myself). But this aside, I enjoyed The Nice Guys enormously, because it is a smart, funny, extremely confident film made by a director who knows how to do this sort of thing as well as anyone else in the business. Well worth checking out.

 

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Ah, it’s the first Marvel movie of the year, summer must be almost upon us. Actually, it looks like being another relatively light season for the company, with only one film on release (although the sequel to Thor is dipping its mighty toe into the hitherto-untested waters of the pre-Christmas blockbuster season). This is, obviously, Iron Man 3 (actually, Iron Man Three if you judge by the title card), written and directed by Shane Black and starring Robert Downey Jr (what are the chances?).

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Now, as always, with any Marvel movie there is one burning question to be answered, and in Iron Man 3‘s case the answer is: yes, it’s worth staying all the way to the end of the credits, provided you’re the kind of person who follows Marvel’s unique franchise-of-franchises. This is their first movie since last summer’s The Avengers, which did rather well for itself both commercially and creatively.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Iron Man 3 has basically been slipped the hospital pass by The Avengers – it can’t have been easy to contemplate following such a huge, colourful, massively popular film. After seeing half a dozen Marvel superheroes ripping up the screen, how can a movie only starring one of them not feel a little disappointing? Hasn’t The Avengers lifted the bar too high for comfort?

Well, Shane Black is obviously a clever man, and the script of this movie suggests he’s aware of this potential problem. As it opens, playboy-billionaire-genius-adventurer Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is struggling to come to terms with his experiences taking on the alien invasion in New York (yes, there are flashbacks, just really short ones) – this is destroying his ability to… well, do whatever he would otherwise be doing, the film is a little vague as to how he actually spends his time when not either wearing the suit or working on it.

However, his attention is grabbed by a reign of terror, responsibility for which is claimed by an enigmatic terrorist warlord known only as the Mandarin (His Imperial Eminence Professor Field-Marshal Sir Ben Kingsley BSC MFI GCHQ). Detonations across the world are causing carnage, but, strangely, no sign of actual explosives has been found at any of the locations. When one of the presumed bombings strikes close to Stark’s home, he issues a public challenge to the Mandarin in person: but it appears his ego may once again have got the better of him, as his adversary’s first response is a full-scale rocket attack which topples Stark’s house into the Pacific Ocean with him inside…

This is just the first act of a very solid bish-bash-bosh action movie structure, which Black deploys with great assuredness: take everything away from the hero so he can show his mettle (thanks, I’m here all week) by building himself back up again in order to sort out the miscreants in an everything-explodes-deafeningly climax. And all this is present and correct, as you’d expect: Marvel are careful to assemble their movies so they at least work on a basic narrative level (and to be fair, none of their films has been an outright stinker so far).

Having said that – well, look, I have an odd issue when it comes to the Iron Man movies, probably because the first time I saw the original film I was living in Puglia and it was dubbed into Italian. I thought it looked pretty good, but the subtleties of the script and performances were really lost on me. When I saw it again in English, my expectations were that much higher, but, coupled to the fact I’d already seen it…

(On the other hand, I feel I should point out that nearly all the films I originally saw in a foreign language felt disappointing when I later caught them in an intelligible form: Iron Man, Quantum of Solace, Star Trek, Watchmen, Crank: High Voltage, and Wolverine. You may with some justification respond that most of those are pretty bad films in any language – but even so…)

Then, Iron Man 2 felt to me like the work of a bunch of people who’d unexpectedly made a massive smash hit and weren’t quite sure what to do next. So I turned up to this one without very great expectations. But, I have to say that I enjoyed Iron Man 3 rather more than either of its predecessors, and as much as the best of the individual Marvel movies. Then again, this is a movie which seems to be dividing audiences – most of the respectable critics seem to have been broadly favourable, while the comics-loving fanbase has in places been venomously hostile towards it: one memorable review I dug up cited its ‘rancid somnolence’, which is a nicely-turned expression even if I don’t see how it applies here.

However, my enjoyment of it is very much based on the fact that it’s not just a standard superhero movie. All the requisite elements are included, with the usual bunch of familiar characters, mostly well-played (Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, and so on), a crash-bang-wallop finale, immaculate CGI, and so on. But on top of this, Black has managed to come up with a storyline which allows Robert Downey Jr to wander through the movie being an unfeasibly witty smart-ass, rattling off inspired one-liners and contending with a bevy of diverse stooges (a small boy who keeps trying to ask him questions about the Avengers, a rather creepy uberfan, and so on). Stark obviously remains a rather more competent protagonist than Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but there were still faint echoes to my mind – the movie even opens with Stark as a not-entirely-reliable narrator (who’s he actually narrating to…? Ah…). For me, the success of Iron Man 3 is that it works as a comedy as well as it does as a superhero action film.

Then again, this may be part of the problem for some people. Ben Kingsley’s performance is brilliant, rip-roaring stuff, and indicates to me that he’s a much better sport than his image suggests, but the fact remains that the film’s treatment of the Mandarin is radically different from the way in which most classic comics characters are handled. To say any more would be to spoil a very bold plot twist, but I can imagine how long-term fans of the character might feel a little aggrieved by the way he’s treated – this is probably a key reason why Iron Man 3 is drawing fanboy flak.

Well, I don’t care, I enjoyed it enormously. The timing of the film feels odd – I’m not referring to the fact that a summer movie is set at Christmas (it’s a Shane Black script, that’s practically his trademark), but to the fact that – in some ways – this film would have seemed unexpectedly topical and satirical, had it only been released a mere eight or nine years ago. And the climax suggests a series running out of space in which it can feasibly operate – Iron Man’s capabilities are now so sophisticated and powerful that it’s hard to think of a situation which can seriously threaten him for long.

But these are issues which will have to be addressed by whoever takes up the reins on this particular area of Marveldom – it seems unlikely there’ll be another Iron Man movie this side of Avengers 2, anyway. If so, then at least the character will be heading into his second team outing on a high, because this is a very strong example of the kind of thing Marvel do best.

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More fun and games courtesy of the DVD rental people – actually, the timing of this isn’t quite as suspect as it possibly looks, partly because a) someone was bound to get sent Shane Black’s 2005 Robert Downey Jr-led movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the same weekend that Shane Black’s 2013 Robert Downey Jr-led movie went on release and  b) it wasn’t actually me that it got sent to this weekend anyway, they originally sent it a fortnight ago, but the disc was chipped, and so… do you really want or need to hear this stuff? I think no. I think no with a great deal of confidence.

Hmmm. Black, whom you will of course know as the slightly dorky radio operator guy who gets eviscerated in the second act of the original Predator, mainly has a career writing films in which highly-paid movie stars dangle from wires while stuff explodes in the background: the first Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Last Action Hero, and so on. It’s easy to sneer at this kind of movie, but anyone looking a little closer – at Black’s scripts, at least – should easily discern that there is a distinct level of intelligence and wit at work here that makes all the pyrotechnics and to-a-degree-formulaic structuring much more palatable.

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang feels like a film in which Black feels much less constrained by mainstream tropes: not quite a vanity project, but certainly something in a different key. It’s also notable for being a bit of a career milestone for Robert Downey Jr: all-conquering, much-feted superstar presence he may be (and his recent movies have made Marvel Studios in particular a ton of money), but it’s not that long ago that he couldn’t get arrested in Hollyw… well, hang on, famously he could, but that was about all. Landing parts in episodes of Ally McBeal and Elton John videos was about as far as he could be trusted, or so the received wisdom had it.  This was arguably his first real leading role in a long time.

Anyway, Downey Jr plays Harry Lockhart, a small-time crook and all-purpose idiot who has lucked into an audition for a major Hollywood movie through an outrageous twist of fate. As part of the process of being groomed by the movie studio, he is being given ‘private detective lessons’ by established LA investigator Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer, in the closest thing to an acting performance he’s ever been responsible for), also known as Gay Perry because… well, it’s sort of self-explanatory now I consider it.

As well as all of this, Harry also bumps into an old flame (Michelle Monaghan) who buys into his claims of being a PI whole-heartedly, and when her sister is found dead in mysterious circumstances retains him to investigate. This would be less of a problem for Harry and Gay Perry were it not for the fact that a routine surveillance job has led to them witnessing a murder, for which the real killers are enthusiastically attempting to frame them…

The LA setting and convoluted plot instantly recall the hard-boiled pulp fiction of Raymond Chandler, something the film is quite open about: its various acts are subtitled with the names of Chandler novels. The plot is furiously complex and by the mid-section of the film I really had to dig in in order to keep track of who was doing what to whom and why, but in the end it all resolves itself relatively neatly. However, this is not just an exercise in accomplished pastiche – the film works as well as it does by alternating between being a classic LA detective thriller and a tongue-in-cheek parody of the traditions of the genre.

This is a tough trick to pull off, but Black gets away with it with style. For a film to start poking fun at its own shortcomings is usually fairly risky – when Seven Psychopaths, a film not a million miles away from this one in some ways, started making self-conscious jokes about how underwritten its female roles were, the response of many sensible reviewers was to say ‘good gag, but it doesn’t excuse how underwritten the female roles are’. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang manages it, probably because it’s poking fun at its own genre as a whole – and underpinning the gags and commentary is a clever mystery, shot through with moments of real thought and emotion.

It’s still a very funny film, full of bitchy jokes about other movies and actors. In the middle of it is a very sure-footed comic performance from Downey Jr as possibly the most incompetent protagonist in thriller history. He is frequently beaten up and has his testicles electrified; small but vital body parts get severed and eaten by toy dogs; he accidentally urinates on a corpse even in the process of discovering it. Not just that, but he’s equally dire at narrating the movie in which he appears, forgetting to include key scenes and forgetting to narrate vital information (possibly a tip of the hat to The Big Lebowski, another off-the-wall Chandler pastiche). Of course, he comes good and redeems himself in the end, but even the obligatory final shootout is so wry and over-the-top it’s hard to take it completely seriously.

But then the same applies to most of the movie. I enjoyed this a lot, and it has pretty much the complete package as movies go – good performances from the principles, an involving story, a terrific bunch of jokes, and well-executed mise en scene from a confident director. I’m somewhat surprised this film isn’t better known and liked than it is: it’s arguably in the same league as Lebowski and Psychopaths, two cult favourites. Now what, I wonder, would a reteaming of Downey Jr and Black, working with a much bigger budget, look like…?

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