Monday, February 22, 2010

Titan Week - "Shadow Company"


Welcome to Titan Week, where we feature five scripts by writers who currently are or at one time were titans in the industry. What constitutes a titan? Maybe they're that writer every producer in town calls when they need a rewrite on their 200 million dollar film. Maybe they've sold multiple million dollar spec scripts. Maybe they're universally praised and respected. Maybe their style was so impressive they influenced an entire generation of writers. In order to keep things fresh, I'm going to let you suggest the last review of the week, as I haven't chosen a script for Friday yet. So if there's a particular script by a huge writer you think I should review, go ahead and suggest it in the comments section. In the meantime, let's start off with one of the biggest names in screenwriting history - Shane Black. I'll hand it over to Roger as he takes us back to a simpler time. A time where Pac-Man ruled and when Michael Jackson was cool...the first time. Here he is reviewing "Shadow Company."

Genre: Horror, Action, Science Fiction
Premise: Jake Pollard is a forever-changed Vietnam vet, a pariah just scraping by in American society. When he learns that the bodies of six MIAs, found sealed in a Cambodian temple, are being shipped back home for a military funeral at the National Veterans Cemetery, he transforms from drifter to man on a mission. When the six MIAs resurrect and start killing everyone in the town of Merit, California, Pollard makes a last stand, revealing both his ties to the townspeople and his shadowy past with the MIAs.
About: Shane Black's first script. Written in 1984. Got him his first agent. Optioned by Universal. After the success of Lethal Weapon, John Carpenter came on as director (this would have been his follow-up to They Live) and Walter Hill attached himself as executive producer. This draft is dated October 20, 1988 and is co-written by Black's pal, Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps, The Monster Squad). I'm not sure if Dekker was always a co-writer or if he came onboard to help Black write this particular draft. Do any of you dear readers out there know?
Writers: Shane Black & Fred Dekker

Shane Black
Not that it matters, but the first character we meet in Shane Black and Fred Dekker's "Shadow Company" is Lt. Col. Frank Nikko. Nikko dies a peculiar and interesting death, and his presence in the story exists only to give our monsters the appropriate shock and awe that is required for such horror movie introductions.
It's February, 1973 in Saigon and Nikko is looking for some action. Curiouser and curiouser, Nikko finds a backroom poker game inside of Torchy's, that ubiquitous den of vice found in many Walter Hill scripts.
A quick aside: In both format and language, Black and Dekker adopt the samurai-spare haiku style that Walter Hill acquired from screenwriter Alex Jacobs (Point Blank), and they use it with aplomb. The result is a hardboiled whiskey prose that fits the violent subject matter appropriately. It's no wonder that Mr. Hill was attached as executive producer to the project.
Six American commandos play a silent game of poker. Their matching black berets and tattoos (note: black snakes coiled around a machine-gun) denote Special Forces, and their silent and robotic demeanor in the face of Nikko's wisecracking makes them plain creepy.
Things get creepier when the stakes are raised and one soldier cuts off his pinkie finger and throws it into the pot. While most normal men would probably exit the room at this point, Nikko sticks around and is killed because he's a.) annoying and b.) a red shirt.
Our prologue ends when Major Garrett Stark (paging Professor Stark?) and Col. Woodhurst tell these same six men, "The mission you men are about to undertake does not exist...nor do you exist...You are not ordinary soldiers. Your training has purged you of the true enemies...Fear...Pity...Conscience..."
The men have names, but they are unimportant. What is important is these men are flying into the jungle to die, and that apparently, there used to be a seventh man.
Cool prologue. Who's our main guy?
Jake Pollard is a Vietnam vet who can't even afford a grilled-cheese sandwich at a greasy spoon. But like most badass Western heroes, he settles for a cup of coffee.
It's sixteen years later and people still harbor harsh feelings towards Vietnam. Case in point, the guy in the diner who calls Pollard a baby killer (which contrasts sharply with the moment beforehand when Pollard gets friendly with the shy kid playing with a toy gun behind the counter).
If we don't know it's a Shane Black script yet, then we should note that the story is set in the month of December. A Christmas setting is a Shane Black staple.
Perhaps it's the immediate nostalgia that accompanies the Santa Claus & Reindeer imagery, or perhaps it's the way this nostalgia mixes with our conflicted feelings that Christmas culls forth. Either way, if we have learned anything from Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as setting, the month of December creates a helluva backdrop for mayhem and action.
Shane Black playing Hawkins in "Predator"
As Pollard is about to give Insulting Diner Patron a piece of his mind, a television newscast catches his attention (a heraldic device also used in The Long Kiss Goodnight). Some self-styled mercenaries have retrieved the bodies of six American MIAs.
The interesting thing about these bodies?
The Vietnamese sealed them in a Cambodian temple. Why? They were afraid of men they had already killed. They believed the men were more than just men.
The MIAs are gonna be buried at the National Veterans Cemetery in Merit, California, and soon enough (with reasons we can only guess at), Pollard is off to Merit.
Once there, he gathers so much firepower it's like he's preparing for Vietnam: Part 2.
Who are the rest of our players?
There's Kyle Traeger, an eighteen-year old kid who is so brooding it's like he field-stripped Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights and wears his skin as a cape. He lost his father to the horrors of Vietnam.
Kyle is in love with Heather Stockton, daughter of one of the dead MIAs.
Heather's stepdad is Sheriff Buchalter, who has married the widow, Doris Stockton.
Honestly, the characters peppered throughout the script are just cannon fodder and headshots.
The troubled romantic relationship of Kyle and Heather and their relationship to the MIAs and Jake Pollard is the emotional core of the story.
So these MIAs, they're zombies, right?
The town of Merit is in for a long and gory night (Black and Dekker-style) when the MIAs crawl out of their grave, bayonet and shoot the MPs in their way, and raid the armory.
There they acquire grenades, bouncing betties, c4, detonators, tripwire, and lots and lots of guns.
They don't eat flesh, they don't eat brains.
But what they do is kill.
A lot.
And they themselves are very hard to kill. At a point of crazed desperation, Heather asks, "Why...why can't they die?"
To which Pollard replies, "Because the Government won't let them."
So...what are they?
In 1965 Col. Woodhurst commissioned a team of scientists to experiment on twenty men assembled from seventeen Special Forces units. A two year program involving drugs, hypnosis and brainwashing to eliminate weakness and conscience.
To strip away a soldier's humanity and leave nothing but fight.
America, like the Nazi's, tried to create a Superman.
The only catch is, these men would have to die and be resurrected to complete the process.
And the resurrecting mechanism?
Agent Orange.
Only seven men survived the program.
They are Shadow Company. And they're credo is: My will is strong / My name is dread / I fear no death / 'Cause I'm already dead...
So lemme guess. Pollard is the seventh member of Shadow Company?
Yep. And not only that, but Kyle Traeger is his son.
Interesting. So how does it all play out?
How you would expect. Remember, Fred Dekker helped write this thing, so there's lots of bodily mayhem and gory explosions. If you've seen The Monster Squad, then you know there's going to be scenes with disembodied limbs and severed torsos trying to kill our heroes.
There are some nice classic creature feature moments as well. That couple making out in the car? Dude, of course it's going to end gruesomely. And as it should, amirite?
Some macho buddy-action moments between Pollard and Kyle. Sure, it's damn cheesy, but it's also damn entertaining. If you like Shane Black, and if you like Fred Dekker, it's all stuff that works on a visceral level. It's all stuff that would work in an action-horror movie.
Sure, as a guy that reads a lot of screenplays and forms opinions on how they could be possibly improved, I have my scruples. There's the usual suspect: Showing Versus Telling. I think the story could benefit by restructuring and rethinking some of the choices made in regards to the Pollard and Kyle relationship.
It's no surprise that Pollard has some type of emotional connection and backstory to Merit and the MIAs, so why not be up front with all this stuff? We know something is motivating the guy, so why try to present it as a mystery?
Again, so much is said through dialogue giving us all the information about Kyle and Heather's relationship...I would have preferred to just see it. Or would have preferred more subtlety.
An entertaining action-horror (cautionary) tale that pays homage to war movies, Westerns and low-budget zombie flicks, as distilled through the unique minds of a young Shane Black and Fred Dekker.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: If you're going to have a relationship reveal late in your script, it should really be something that actually surprises the reader. In "Shadow Company", I think the writers telegraphed Pollard and Kyle's father-son relationship. Why? As a reader, I was never presented with Pollard's motivation concerning his goal, which was to stop Shadow Company. Sure, there were hints that he was the missing 7th man of Shadow Company, but it was obvious there was more to his story. As soon as Kyle was introduced, I knew he was probably going to be Pollard's son. I think the story could have benefitted by serving us this information straight up. Think of the great relationship reveals in stories: Luke and Darth Vader, Luke and Leia, Jack and Claire in's all stuff that comes as a surprise and fleshes out a story. It makes us think of the events that came before in a different way. We rewatch, look for clues, find different meanings, recognize the subtleties as something more. And you know, these relationships aren't really the motivating factors for the goals of the characters. Or if they Darth Vader's case, it's presented in such a way that adds value to the story. In "Shadow Company", the relationship reveal feels unnecessary.