''Lethal Weapon'' writer back after string of flops. Shane Black, who is also responsible for bringing us ''The Last Boyscout'' and ''The Long Kiss Goodnight,'' has returned after an eight year-hiatus from Hollywood

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated May 28, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Imagine you’re a boy. A boy who feels different from your classmates. You sense that somewhere inside you is something exceptional. But you’re small, weak, and more often than not, scared. You have few friends. So at recess you sneak off and sit under a tree to read ghost stories and comic books. You pray that somewhere in these tales lie the strength and bravery you do not possess. Reading makes you feel strong. Like a hero. But then recess ends.

Imagine you’re in your bedroom at night. You live in Pittsburgh. Your grandfather came here from a distant country and became a coal miner. Your mother tells you about growing up next to the mine. How time would stand icily still as the whistle blew, signaling that one of the workers was injured or dead. This, too, scares you. So you pick up a pencil and begin to write your own stories. Stories about someone who’s big and fearless. You call him Super Pooper because you’re a kid and you think shit is funny. He’s an ordinary man who survives an accident at a nuclear reactor. He absorbs so much radiation that he becomes invincible. Like you, he has so much pent-up energy that it’s going to make him explode. So you draw antennas on his head to discharge electricity and shoot bolts of lightning. He can magnetize things. He can fly. He can do all of the things you cannot do. Writing these stories makes you feel like a hero too, because you have finally found the thing that makes you exceptional. You can tell stories.

Shane Black could always tell stories. And once upon a time they paid him millions of dollars to do just that. It didn’t always come easily for him. Sometimes it was even painful. But he was exceptional at it. He may still be. Few know for sure, because at the height of a 10-year run as one of the most original and brilliantly commercial screenwriters in Hollywood, Shane Black stopped doing what he loved. And that too was exceptional.

For the past eight years, Hollywood has gossiped about Black’s vanishing act. Some said he buckled under the pressure of justifying those seven-figure paychecks. Some said he was plagued by writer’s block. Others guessed that he’d been writing all along, secretly polishing hack scripts on the sly or filling a drawer with unseen screenplays like a Tinseltown J.D. Salinger.

Then, early last summer, Variety reported that Black was planning a comeback. The article said he had two projects in the works: a TV pilot he cowrote for CBS called ”The Nice Guys,” as well as ”Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” a $15 million Warner Bros. detective noir starring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer that Black wrote and would also direct. The article chronicled all of the high points of Black’s career — his string of headline-making screenplay sales for such decade-defining action films as ”Lethal Weapon,” ”Lethal Weapon 2,” ”The Last Boy Scout,” and ”The Long Kiss Goodnight” — scripts that many agreed were often far better than the movies they became.

Last month, on the Los Angeles set of ”Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” Black agreed to talk about his past successes, his comeback, and the unexplained period in between. At 42, he is physically worlds away from the loner under the tree with his nose in a Hardy Boys mystery. Over six feet tall, and built as sturdy as a college linebacker, Black doesn’t look like your stereotypical screenwriter — the sweaty, mouth-breathing Charlie Kaufman of ”Adaptation.” He’s handsome in a square-jawed sort of way and wields a dark, cutting sense of humor — even when he’s the butt of his own jokes, which is often.