In 2005, Robert Downey Jr.'s career as a leading man was in the toilet. He'd sobered up from his drug problems (again) but all the years of depressingly negative publicity left him with an apparently permanent perception problem in Hollywood.
But mega-successful screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon; The Last Boy Scout) could see beyond these issues, and cast Downey in his directorial debut, the scruffy action comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The film got decent reviews, but it didn't exactly set the box office on fire. Nevertheless, it was the first step on the road to Downey's unbelievable comeback, solidified with this success of the original Iron Man in 2008.
Downey repaid the favour when he backed Black to co-write and direct Iron Man III, which opened in New Zealand cinemas this week, a week ahead of the US. It's Black's first film as a director since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and hot damn is it awesome, positively overflowing with Black-isms.
His grasp of large scale filmmaking in Iron Man III is inspirational, bringing classically Black-ian wry humour and specific characterisations to the fore without sacrificing epicness or coherence. He'd always displayed this knack as a screenwriter (he also wrote the criminally under-appreciated The Long Kiss Goodnight, but seeing him at play in the blockbuster world as a director makes me want to hand him the keys to every major franchise currently on the books.
The cocksure snappy-patter-hurling Tony Stark persona that has now been successfully strung through four movies by Downey can be traced back to his performance in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, making it only more appropriate that Black is on megaphone duties for the new film.
He clearly understands Downey's strengths better than anyone, and has structured the film around them.
Very few directors can be relied upon to inject personality into giant-ass movies (James Cameron and Peter Jackson are two), but with Iron Man III, Black displays superlative talent in this area. As much as there's no overstating the grace with which Joss Whedon met the herculean task of adapting The Avengers into a movie, I really just want Shane Black to be in charge of everything now.
Which why it's so disappointing that this is Black's first film as a director since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang eight years ago.
Black pulled off an instantly iconic debut with his script for 1987's Lethal Weapon, which elevated the buddy cop movie to an artform and injected tangible humanity while hitting all the requisite genre notes. He was commissioned to write the script for the sequel, but the studio weren't happy with his first draft, in which Mel Gibson's Riggs dies. He received a story credit along with Warren Murphy (who co-wrote the books Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous was based on. I love Remo) on the finished film, along with the 'Based on Characters Created By' credit he receives on every sequel.
Black got a lot of press attention and kicked off the '90s spec script boom with his subsequent script, The Last Boy Scout, which sold for a then-unprecedented US$1.75 million. The 1991 film that resulted (directed by Tony Scott) wasn't a massive hit, but has since become a bonafide cult classic and can effectively function as the final word in '80s action moves.
Black's action expertise made him a natural choice to punch-up the script for 1993's self-aware action spoof Last Action Hero, which proved to be an expensive turkey. I still enjoy watching it though, and there are plenty of choice Black-isms peppered through it.
His next script, The Long Kiss Goodnight, sold for megabucks as well, but the 1996 film made from it more or less flopped, despite being super awesome. Seriously, if you've never seen The Long Kiss Goodnight and you consider yourself an action fan, you should hang your head in shame.
After Goodnight failed to hit the big time, Black couldn't get much Hollywood traction until 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, for which he made his directorial debut as well as writing the script (based in part on Brett Halliday's novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them).
Black is one of the few screenwriters who's built up a cult of personality (his wise-cracking supporting role in 1987's Predator and rep as Hollywood party-boy helped). Even fewer have such an identifiable through-line in all their work. Subsequently, action fans were very excited by the prospect of a new Shane Black-scripted movie alone, let alone one directed by him.
Although much smaller scale than all the films he wrote before, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ably demonstrated that Black knew what he was doing behind the camera too. Hopes for the film were high, but it wasn't a hit, and Black was once again out of favour with Hollywood.
That is, it would appear, until Downey tapped him to get on board Iron Man III, and with the film being the unqualified triumph that it is, my mind is swimming with the possibilities for Black's future. He cut his teeth in the era that invented the big stupid action movie, and he is one of the masters of the form.
After Iron Man III rocked my world, I went and had a look at the review I wrote of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang when it came out in 2005. If you'll forgive me quoting myself, one passage stood out: "Forget jazz music, action cinema is the only truly American art form, and Shane Black is Miles Davis."
It's an assessment I stand by. Black is far more influential than he's ever given credit for by the Hollywood decision-makers, and his imitators are running action movies into the ground. You know who I mean.
With the film's US release not until May 3, Iron Man III's fate isn't quite 100% sealed yet, but there's no way this won't be massive. If there's any justice in the world, Shane Black will get his fair share of the credit. I just can't wait to see what he does next.
Black is back baby!
Sorry, I had to. Shane Black fan? Seen Iron Man III? Thoughts? Amped to see it?