It is rare for a holiday movie to portray in full the reality of the season, which is that for many, it isn’t all that happy. Sure, many a popular Christmas movie takes a jaded Scrooge of a protagonist to a place where they allow themselves to experience the joy of the holiday season, but even that arc idealizes the holiday season as a balm for even the most lost of souls. The reality is that sentimental Christmas cheer often only serves to many as a reminder of what they don’t have. There is hardly ever the sort of neat storytelling bow that brings about a moment of Christmas Clarity; there’s only eggnog and the odd “wish you were here” text sent.
I think this is why Shane Black movies have, to me, always captured the Christmas spirit as well as — if not better than — most traditional holiday fare. Nearly all of his films are set around the holidays, though the spirit of the season is rarely at the forefront. The timing is often tertiary to kidnapping schemes, shoot-outs, and terminally flawed lawmen caught in labyrinthine plots. This decision on its own already engages with a certain reality of the holiday season: Life doesn’t stop for Christmas. Oftentimes, it just moves through it.
There’s also his setting of choice, which is usually Los Angeles. SoCal climates aren’t conducive to snow and cold, removing an easy crutch in fabricating holiday atmosphere. It also allows for the juxtaposition of holiday iconography against beaches, sunshine, and heat — a visual shorthand for what’s often a clash between traditional holiday cheer and the inner lives of his protagonists.
Black’s debut screenplay for the film Lethal Weapon (can you imagine coming hot out the gate with Lethal! Weapon!) helped define action-cinema tropes of the ’80s and ’90s. The film cast Danny Glover as the weary, straight-laced cop Roger Murtaugh and paired him with Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs, the prototypical Loose Cannon Cop Who Doesn’t Play by the Rules. It also happens to take place during the Christmas season.
When a film defines an archetype in the way Lethal Weapon does, its finer details often get scrubbed away by decades of sequels, homage, and parody. This is to say that it remains a bit jarring to rewatch the film and recall that Gibson’s Riggs isn’t just a live wire — he’s actively suicidal. He’s in the throes of a deep depression after the death of his wife, about to spend the holidays without her for the first time. Fifteen minutes into the movie, we watch him put a gun in his mouth. Most wonderful time of the year, indeed.
After the critical failure of 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (another Christmas-set action thriller and eventual cult classic), Black stepped away from Hollywood for almost ten years. When he returned, it would be with his directorial debut, 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The pitch-black noir comedy follows Robert Downey Jr. as a petty crook turned aspiring actor and Val Kilmer as a wildly impatient private eye. They are, to put it lightly, not the best guys. Still, they’re the closest thing Black’s Los Angeles has to good guys, as they find themselves ensnared in a complex plot involving a shady suicide, a missing girl, and a series of pulpy detective novels.
The film gave Downey Jr. the career revival that would eventually lead to Iron Man and features a screenplay brimming over with the piss and bile, the work of a man whose love for Hollywood curdled decades ago. Even its sweet ending comes with a few grains of salt.
After a brief but memorable (and Christmas-set!) sojourn into the MCU with Iron Man 3 (either the best or worst Marvel movie, depending on who you ask) (it’s the best), Black dropped 2016’s The Nice Guys, an action comedy that feels like the spiritual successor to both Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. There’s perhaps less Christmas iconography in the film than any other Black joint, but nonetheless it captures his take on the holiday more fully than any of his prior works.
Like its predecessors, The Nice Guys pairs an odd couple of Ryan Gosling’s Holland March (an idiot private eye with a drinking problem) and Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy, a conflicted meathead in the professional intimidation trade. At first on opposite sides of a complex scheme puppeteered by forces high above their pay grade, March and Healy soon find themselves aligned as they try to find a missing girl. Even as they manage to get out alive and ostensibly get one of the bad guys put in jail, they’re immediately faced with the truth of the matter: You can’t beat capitalism or the cold, unfeeling forces cranking its wheel.
When asked why he sets his films during the holiday season, Black explained to Entertainment Weekly:
Christmas represents a little stutter in the march of days, a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives … [it] is just a thing of beauty, especially as it applies to places like Los Angeles, where it’s not so obvious, and you have to dig for it, like little nuggets. One night, on Christmas Eve, I walked past a Mexican lunch wagon serving tacos, and I saw this little string, and on it was a little broken plastic figurine, with a light bulb inside it, of the Virgin Mary. And I thought, that’s just a little hidden piece of magic. You know, all around the city are little slices, little icons of Christmas, that are as effective and beautiful in and of themselves as any 40-foot Christmas tree on the lawn of the White House. So that, in a lot of words, is the answer.
So often Christmas movies paint the holiday as a happy ending, a neat bow tied on a life’s pristine package. Families reunite, lovers promise each other eternity, and Santa Claus defeats Martin Short’s Jack Frost in ritual combat (I have not seen The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, but have always assumed this is how it ends). Black presents it in a more sober light. To the broken, Christmas can serve as a reminder of the absence of what once was cherished — or never there to begin with.
Black’s affection for the holiday shines through in how his characters choose to coexist with that absence. Riggs finds in Murtaugh a brother and chooses life over death, giving his friend the bullet he’d been saving for himself. Harry, Perry, and Michelle Monaghan’s Harmony find in one another the motivation to maybe try to be a little bit less shitty to themselves and the world around them moving forward. And even with March and Healy’s efforts ultimately thwarted, their story ends with glasses clinked together, a toast to small victories. If we don’t celebrate those, after all, we have nothing.
A Shane Black Christmas isn’t all that merry. It is often a reminder that the world is a scary place, full of death and pain, and the fact that we cannot stop it. But with that comes another reminder: We must endure — and we must celebrate that endurance, even if only for one day a year. A Shane Black Christmas is a chance to take a breath, to remind yourself that you are still here, still alive, that the world hasn’t beat you yet. Maybe it will tomorrow, or next week, or next year. But not today. Not on Christmas.