When people think of writer-director Shane Black, they think of his signature bloody films. But there has always been a layer of sleet over said violence. More than half (five) of the nine films for which he received writing credit took place during the holiday season.
We’ve learned through Hollywood (and to a much lesser extent, the Hallmark film industry) that Christmas is a season of literal enchantment and wonder. Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street reassure us that God or Santa Claus will send snow to save the day.
Black’s characters and plots are a direct rebuke to that philosophy. The snow has melted to a sloppy state, and it is littered with blood and machine gun rounds. To him, the glitz of ornaments and tinsel of kitsch quality is like a smothering blanket. The Christmas season seems to cage the people in Shane Black’s movies, making them feel worse off as they struggle through another year of their lives.
Black has built a name for himself with his gloomy holiday films, which typically feature law enforcement characters (mostly detectives) set in contemporary noir environments and juxtaposed against the glitz and glamour of the holiday season.
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Detectives in Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Nice Guys all work together with an unlikely partner to solve a case and develop a stronger friendship by the film’s conclusion. So taken by Lethal Weapon’s December mood was action megahit Die Hard in 1988 that it inspired the age-old debate, “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” with its wintry surroundings and wisecracking Christmastime police officers.
In an interview with Den of Geek in 2013, Black neatly summarised the season’s appeal:
The holidays are always enjoyable. It serves as a unifying force, and it ensures that all of your characters remain inside the context of the bigger story. That’s where I think it starts; that’s where I think everything is anchored. As they watch their loved ones pass them by, those who are alone on Christmas feel even more isolated.
At Christmas, people often pause to take stock of their lives. It’s merely a stage upon which various events may be played out, under a single, overarching global theme. This is a technique that has always appealed to me, particularly in thrillers. In a word, it’s magic.
His characters, therefore, stand in stark contrast to the reality we’re supposed to accept. Although the films’ protagonists (whether suicidal police officers in Lethal Weapon or post-traumatic stress disorder–afflicted superheroes in Iron Man 3) aren’t exactly fans of the holiday spirit, that doesn’t mean the movies avoid all traces of cheer.
Black utilizes his characters in much the same way that Dickens does in A Christmas Carol, with the exception that Scrooge’s jaded dislike of Christmas is replaced by a jaded dislike of one’s self and a fondness for whiskey. If Tony Stark from Iron Man 3 is Black’s Ebenezer, then the spirits who show up to remind him of the significance of Christmas are a young kid named Harley.
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In the film, Stark has been having panic attacks regularly and is currently missing, along with his broken Iron Man armor (making every iteration of himself effectively deceased). Harley, a youthful inventor in his own right, reassures Stark of the good in humanity while also transporting him back to his childhood (in a very Dickensian way).
Not Even a Mouse
Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) rides across town on a sleigh as Mrs. Claus in the opening scene of The Long Kiss Goodnight. A refreshing change of pace, she lets us in on the fact that she has amnesia and can only remember the past eight years of her life. Samantha’s sleeper agent status is only “activated” after she returns from a Christmas party and crashes into a tree after hitting a deer and losing control of the car to the tunes of Let It, Snow.
She is living a lie, from the Christmas sweater she designed herself to the lighted bauble earrings she wears every year. At only ten minutes into the film, Christmas serves as both a character in its own right (yes, in the same way, that specific cities can do in other movies) and as the catalyst for her to return to her life of isolation as a dangerous superspy and abandon the new one she has found.
Too Old For This
On the other hand, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) plays with a group of coke traffickers before killing them all while hiding out in a jungle of Christmas trees for sale in Lethal Weapon. As soon as Riggs and Roger Murtaugh become partners, the next scene shows Riggs at the polar end of the spectrum, drunk and alone in his caravan with a gun to his mouth (Danny Glover). The older investigator is settled into family life in his two-story, holiday-lit home and is likely headed toward retirement.
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According to Black, the holidays make Riggs, who is already desperate and on the verge of collapse, look worse and even more isolated. Riggs binds a suicidal man and jumps off a building with him, only to hit the ground hard before reaching the safety net below. But at that very time, he is giving in to his suicidal thoughts and impulses.
Once he and Roger have gotten to know each other well enough for him to be invited into their home, he may make jokes about Mrs. Murtaugh’s horrible cooking, but it will still be the greatest dinner he’s had in weeks.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
These people personify everything that shouldn’t be present during the holidays, and the stress of the season just makes their problems worse. Their eyes are irritated by the brightness. As the music plays, they ignore it and mock the happy atmosphere. The colder air and visible breath they exhale are not just signs of increased life, but perhaps a sigh of relief that they are still with us.
These characters might not make it to the New Year, but with the support of their unconventional new families (and an appropriate amount of hyperviolence), they stand a good chance.