What Action’s Most Infamous Writer Can Teach Us About Losing.
There’s nothing quite as much fun as a Hollywood comeback story. Fine, so maybe Russell Crowe never quite fell off the radar in the same way as other actors – we’re not exactly talking Robert Forster in the 1980s here – but Hollywood audiences still needed a reminder that Crowe is a talented actor with a more diverse skill set than the occasional scowl, scream, or weight fluctuation. That’s where Shane Black comes in. With The Nice Guys, the action auteur has given us the Russell Crowe master class, a role filled with throwbacks to the actor’s action film pedigree, physical transformations, and yes, a wonderfully dry sense of humor as the film’s straight man. If every comeback needs a catchy name, then I officially declare this one the Russclamation.
Plenty of middle-aged heavies could play Jackson Healy, but only Crowe adds personality to the role that exist outside of the film. The links between L.A. Confidential and The Nice Guys are there for the making – the uncomfortable friendship between brains and brawn, the threat of outside interests moving into Los Angeles, the alluring screen presence of Kim Basinger – but Black seems most interested in having Russell Crowe serve as intertextual reference point. We appreciate Healy’s struggles all the more for seeing Crowe’s recent box office failures embedded as subtext. His professionalism and desire to make a difference in his chosen field can be read as the perfect introduction to the next (and perhaps final) chapter in Crowe’s career.
And while the Russclamation may or may not take hold in Hollywood, The Nice Guys continues in Black’s tradition of finding actors on the wrong side of their peak to play his lovable losers. Casting decisions may not be the most obvious part of Shane Black’s reputation as a filmmaker – a reputation I’d recommend exploring alongside critic Jacob Knight in his history of Shane Black buddy comedies – but Black’s fascination with pulp fiction and detective novels is closely tied to his appreciation for people just beyond their collective prime. Some of this is autobiographical. As Knight notes, Black shot to stardom when he was just above the legal drinking age. In 1990, the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece on the recent boom in Hollywood spec scripts, noting that the bidding war for Black’s The Last Boy Scout script set the then-record at $1.75 million. A few years later, Black would more than double his own record, earning $4 million for 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Despite his financial gains, however, Black’s time as Hollywood’s golden boy was short-lived. From 1991 to 1996, Black’s fees for his scripts advanced at an exponential rate while his new releases – those not part of the Lethal Weapon canon, at any rate – bombed at the box office. Consider the following:
– In 1991, The Last Boy Scout, the nominal box office heavy in this crowd, grossed $59 million on a reported $29 million dollar budget. Contemporary reviews referred to it as “another exercise in mechanical sleaze” (The New York Times), “the kind of thing 14-year-olds dream up” (The Los Angeles Times), and, in a comment that seems sadly unprepared for the internet age, a film about “rage and impotence, not love, friendship, or even heroism” (The Washington Post).
– In 1993, Last Action Hero grossed $50 million domestic on an $85 million dollar budget. Contemporary reviews referred to it as “alternately too clunky and too clever” (New York Times), “overproduced action and underwhelming comedy” (Los Angeles Times), and “a perfect example of cinematic self-hatred” (Sight and Sound).
– In 1996, The Long Kiss Goodnight grossed $33 million domestic on a $66 million dollar budget. Contemporary reviews referred to it as possessing “an excessive amount of excess” (The Washington Post), “highly professional, smartly polished artifice” (The Guardian), and a film that “lands a long way from the flip, edgy style it’s after” (Boston Globe).
This string of box office failures led to a self-declared hiatus from Hollywood. When Black returned in 2005 – sporting the new title of writer-director – it was for the pulp fiction Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a hard-boiled thriller starring two reclamation projects in Val Kilmer and Robert Downey, Jr. Downey had famously spent the past few years in and out of police custody; Kilmer, despite putting in impressive work in movies like Spartan and The Salton Sea, had put the final nail in his A-list coffin with Oliver Stone’s Alexander. By choosing to stake his own comeback to the performances of these two actors, Black continued his career-long trend of pulling for the reclamation projects over the Hollywood stars. Consider Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight. Although the actress had strung together an impressive list of movies in the ’80s and early ’90s, her career was pointed in the wrong direction by 1996. The Long Kiss Goodnight followed on the heels of her role in the box office fiasco Cutthroat Island and cast the forty-year-old actress as an action star in an industry not known for its magnanimity towards women. Similarly, Bruce Willis in The Last Boy Scout had used up the goodwill accrued from Die Hard and Moonlighting and was looking for a rebound from the same year’s disastrous Hudson Hawk.
It’s not too difficult to see some of the underlying messages at work here. At a point where most women would be relegated to mother characters in Hollywood – Davis’s first role after The Long Kiss Goodnight was as the mom in Stuart Little — Black wrote a character who accepts the idea of maternity without sacrificing her own skills or physicality as a result. Similarly, Black wrote Joe Hallenback in The Last Boy Scout as a man living in the shadow of his one moment of greatness; he then cast Bruce Willis, still struggling to repeat the success of Die Hard at the box office and years away from his career revival in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. While Tarantino gets the credit for being the ’90s filmmaker capable of reviving actors’ careers, the failure that drives Black’s cinematic engine runs deeper than that. He is drawn to the acting failures as much (if not more) than the successes.
Maybe it’s strange that a filmmaker who was once the highest-paid at his craft – and who returned to direct a Marvel movie, the Hollywood equivalent of being a ‘made’ man – continues to be so obsessed with failure both on the page and off. But maybe that’s just what makes Shane Black such an enduring figure in Hollywood. While industry golden children come and go, Black has always been fascinated with losers, and his openness to casting different actors every time out means his work always feels fresh (even when he is revisiting the same paperback crime novel themes). There will always be actors in need of a second act in their careers; may Shane Black always be ready to greet them, sleazy screenplay in hand, to remind us of what once made them stars.