“What a bright time, it’s a right time…”
That’s exactly how you expect a festive favourite to begin: the screen opens onto a soaring shot over a city, as Jingle Beck Rock serenades the season. Then, a woman surrounded by tinsel and Christmas lights. She leans forward to enjoy an early present: a line of the white stuff straight from Santa up her nose. Then, she walks out to her apartment balcony and jumps. The storeys of the building fly past, every now and then interrupted by a burst of blurred fairy lights.
So this is Christmas, Shane Black-style.
In 1987, Lethal Weapon blew Christmas wide open. It turned out that Christmas films didn’t just have to be festive and feel-good; they could be both of those things and feature guns, swearing and prostitutes too. Happy fricking holidays.
That use of Christmas as a concept, as a whimsical backdrop for an action movie, was so good that Die Hard copied it – a combination that’s led to it being universally recognised as the best Christmas film of all time.
“I did Lethal Weapon back in ‘87 and we did Christmas, and Joel [Silver] liked it so much, he put Die Hard at Christmas and there was some fun to that,” Shane told Collider. “You don’t have to do every film that way,” he added. “I tried to explain that.”
But Shane enjoyed the seasonal setting so much that he has since used it in pretty much all of his films, which makes it easy to tell a Shane Black project apart from the rest of the thriller genre.
His Santa obsession continued this year with Marvel’s Iron Man 3, which completed the writer-director’s ultimate Christmas trilogy: Iron Man 3, Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
So what’s the deal with Shane Black and Christmas?
Doing the promotional rounds for Iron Man in the summer, he offered an answer: “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,” he told the lovely folk at Den of Geek. “At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take reckoning, [they take] stock of where their lives are at Christmas.”
It’s true that Shane Black’s characters are usually lonely. At a time when the world is concerned with family, and Homicide Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is celebrating his 50th birthday, Narcotics Sergeant Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) couldn’t be more different: widowed after a traffic accident, he spends his Advent nights pondering suicide. During the daytime, his reputation as a reckless madman means that nobody wants to work with him.
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Shane Black’s script, directed by Richard Donner, emphasises the contrast between Riggs’ loneliness and the communal holiday spirit: shootouts take place in a pen of Christmas trees, while Christmas songs signal the opening and end credits. Gibson, meanwhile, conveys his character’s tragic desperation with a likeable charisma – that other key quality for a Shane Black protagonist.
In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, our anti-hero is Harry Lockhart. Once Harold The Great, a child magician who performed at fetes in front of local crowds, he’s now a failed father in LA. We first meet him Christmas shopping. At night. With a torch. And a balaclava. But not only does he not pay for his son’s present, he doesn’t even know what his son wants (in the land of Christmas, the ultimate crime). His ex-wife on the phone explains that he needs to find Cyber Agent. “Protocop, protector of man,” comes the babbled reply. “Is that it? Protocop? He protects men.”
Where Lethal Weapon juxtaposed Riggs against a wider, warmer community, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang takes Harry into the seedy underbelly of LA, where everyone is a lonely screw-up. Michelle Monaghan’s love interest, former childhood crush Harmony, is an equally failed actress who thinks nothing of the idea of a man touching her boob while she sleeps. Val Kilmer’s Gay Perry, meanwhile, is as cold as they come.
“Merry Christmas,” he grins cruelly at Harry. “Sorry I fucked you over.”
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As the cool detective flick unwinds its twists, the frosty pair start to warm to each other – a relationship that helps Harry to redeem himself by not giving in to the cold un-Christmassy world around him.
Odd couple chemistry, rapid dialogue, post-modern voiceover and occasional explosions? If Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the role that announced Robert Downey Jr. was back on the scene, it was just a build-up to what happened next: Iron Man 3, a darkly hilarious film featuring odd couple chemistry, rapid dialogue, post-modern voiceover and occasional explosions. It was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 2 as much as a Marvel movie; a Shane Black film that happened to have superheroes in it.
Along with all the other Shane staples came, of course, Christmas.
“I’m Tony Stark. I build neat stuff, got a great girl, occasionally save the world. So why can’t I sleep?” voiceovers Tony Stark, taking stock of his life as December 25th rolls around once again.
Tony Stark, like Riggs and Harry, is another outsider; not just because of his armoured suit that can blow up a tank or even because of his lavish lifestyle and obscene wealth, but because he choices to be. Shaken up by what happened at the end of The Avengers, he panics whenever anyone mentions it and hides behind his suits to avoid connecting with others, including Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). But it’s more than that; he refuses to take things when people hand them to him too. By his own volition, as well as others’, Tony is lonely. And as Shane says, at Christmas time, he’s even more so.
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That introspective streak turns Iron Man 3 into Marvel’s most character-driven blockbuster yet; a journey of – here’s that word again – redemption that sees Tony change his ways and learn about himself, as well as kill a psychotic bad guy.
Sound familiar? That’s because on some level, you could read Iron Man 3 as A Christmas Carol. Shane Black even did that when writing the script: “We actually started talking about this as ‘A Christmas Carol’ episode of Iron Man. Certain characters in Iron Man 3 are analogous to different ghosts from the Dickens tale.”
Certainly, there’s an element of Tony’s past coming back to haunt him; repeated flashbacks to his time in Geneva when he “created his own enemy” in The Mandarin are complimented by the introduction of young Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins – watch out for him in Jurassic World), who, like Tony, has an absent father and is prone to playing with the odd gadget. Scientist and former lover Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), meanwhile, arrives at his house one day to warn him of what’s to come, Marley-like, before reminding him of their historical Swiss connection.
Into all of that steps Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian. A smart guy with a neat line in suits and smiles, he opens up Tony’s eyes to the world that’s around him now, a present where his girlfriend is borderline leaving him and he’s lost sight of his purpose.
The spirit to leave the biggest impact, though, is The Mandarin. Played by Ben Kingsley, he terrifies Tony into action with an ominous rumble. “I’m gonna offer the choice: do you want an empty life, or a meaningful death?” he warns, threatening to strip the superhero of all symbolic meaning – painting a grim future yet to come for America, as well as our lead man. Then, The Mandarin disappears in a puff of a smoke, leaving Tony to take stock once more.
All three festive films follow anti-heroes finding redemption. It might not sound particularly original, but when done right, it’s a moving narrative; one so powerful that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been adapted for the screen dozens and dozens of times.
Even It’s a Wonderful Life, that perennial favourite, echoes a similar character development: a man coming to realise his own worth. The notion of someone thinking the world would be better off without them is present in Lethal Weapon too. That Christmas setting tips us off to the inevitably heartwarming, feel-good resolution, but that doesn’t stop it from being a satisfying watch. As Riggs runs into Murtaugh’s house to share in their dinner, even his dog comes in from the cold. Awww.
As well as flawed protagonists taking stock, it’s that sense of togetherness that gives Shane Black’s Christmas trilogy its entertaining punch: these are stories of fathers or husbands reuniting with their family, or men finding a group of friends to make a new family of their own.
“If you’re doing something on an interesting scale that involves an entire universe of characters, one way to unite them is to have them all undergo a common experience,” comments Black. “And there is something at Christmas that unites everybody.”
That driving force for a hero to connect with someone else is a universal thing we all recognise – and rather than a cliched romantic subplot or a kidnapped child in need of rescue, why not use Christmas as an emotional shorthand for an action movie backdrop?
Snowing and blowing things up, it makes Black’s movies bushels of fun – perhaps not for the whole family, but for an audience of people who are brought together by that shared love of humans trying to come good for the holidays. And guns. And swearing. And prostitutes.