Jacob Farley kisses and…bangs(?) out another viewing of Shane Black’s uproarious and twisty neo-noir Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback vehicle in a lot of ways, despite the fact that it was not a huge hit. It’s easy to forget, in the wake of his massive, worldwide success playing Tony Stark, there was a time when RDJ literally could not get any work in Hollywood. Insurance companies wouldn’t touch him, afraid that he would wander off the set halfway through the shoot to go score some crack. In fairness to the insurance companies, they probably weren’t wrong. Downey had an incredibly rough time with drugs and alcohol throughout the ‘90s—the kind of rough time most people don’t come back from, which makes his current stardom all the more impressive. Even now, his contracts typically retain about 40% of his salary until the movie is wrapped, just in case. This movie, though…this is where it all started to go right for him. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang kicked off a string of strong performances from Downey in movies like Good Night and Good Luck, A Scanner Darkly, and Zodiac, before culminating in 2008’s Iron Man, and the rest is, as they say, history.
I remember the first time I heard about Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. It was on a movie website I used to spend a lot of time on, and the writer (whoever it was is lost now to the mists of time and memory, unfortunately) raved about this weird neo-noir written by the guy who tells the dirty jokes before being murdered by the Predator in Predator and starring that washed-up actor from Ally McBeal. It had a pretty small release, and I wound up being lucky enough to live near a theater that showed it. I left the theater feeling that rare buzz you get sometimes from a movie that just clicks with you. I went back two more times over the course of the following weeks, each time dragging different friends with me (other movies which have inspired this reaction in me—The Departed, Dredd, Fury Road, Ong-Bak. Apparently I’m a fan of the old ultra-violence). I hadn’t seen the movie since then, though, and came to it this week concerned that it might not hold up as well as I remembered.
Happily, that did not prove to be the case.
In order to discuss the movie more fully, here is a brief rundown of the plot—Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is a small-time thief in New York City. One night, a toy store robbery (this is a Christmas movie, by the way—Harry is trying to find a specific action figure for his nephew) goes badly wrong and Harry’s partner winds up being shot by a trigger-happy bystander. Harry himself flees and inadvertently impresses a Hollywood casting agent, landing himself a screen test in Los Angeles, all expenses paid. A private detective named Perry van Shrike (or, as he’s known, “Gay” Perry, a pun I only just now actually got—superbly played by Val Kilmer) is hired to give Harry some on-the-job training for his potential film role. Harry also runs into an old crush from high school named Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), who had moved away from their mutual small-town Indiana home to become an actress years before. Between the two of them, Harry winds up being pulled into a classically twisty neo-noir plot—bodies turn up unexpectedly, murders both successful and attempted abound, and leather-jacketed toughs gruffly threaten our hero. To say too much more would ruin the fun of the film, as well as just go on for far too long. The fun of noir movies (really, this is true for most genres) isn’t necessarily in WHAT happens as much as it is HOW it happens.
As I mentioned earlier, the movie is a neo-noir. Plotwise, it reminds me of nothing more than a James Ellroy novel (though in fact it’s actually very loosely based on a Brett Halliday novel, which I have not read), where the heroes are morally ambiguous and the glitz and glamor of Hollywood just wallpapers over the meat grinder that is Los Angeles. What’s unexpected about the movie is just how funny it is despite all the graphic murder, incest, torture, suicide, and dismemberment that occurs. Shane Black wrote and directed Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and it feels like a culmination of much of his career—this is, after all, the guy who wrote Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. He’s clearly interested in action/mystery movies and just what makes them tick, what makes them appeal to an audience. In Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Black flagrantly breaks the fourth wall over and over, and the beats of the plot are called out by Harry and Harmony via their shared love of a series of fictional formulaic pulp crime novels starring a character named Johnny Gossamer (the titles of the books we see in the movie are amazing, by the way—Die Job,Vein Attempt, You’ll Never Die In This Town Again, Straighten Up and Die Right, Kill The Big Ones First). The directing might best be described as “sure-handed”—Black effortlessly moves between legitimately realistic, unsettling violence (a murder witnessed by Harry midway through the film is a prime example of this) to wacky, slapstick violence (a late-in-the-movie Russian Roulette-style interrogation that does not, shall we say, go particularly well, for instance) without ever losing his balance.
The real joy of the movie, though, is watching Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. bounce off one another. This is one of those roles that reminds you that, oh yeah, Val Kilmer can be great. I laughed harder at his irritated questioning of why, exactly, Harry peed on a corpse (because its presence startled him, basically) than I recall having laughed at any comedy film I’ve seen all year. They have the kind of rare on-screen chemistry that Shane Black seems to try and bring to every film he writes, but this is easily his most successful attempt at it since Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the first Lethal Weapon movie. I’d watch a whole series of movies just about Perry and Harry together but, shockingly, this movie would be the last thing Shane Black wrote and directed for nearly ten years, until he was tapped for Iron Man 3.
Harry himself is a fairly interesting character, as Robert Downey Jr. is in full Tony Stark mode throughout the film. It’s a testament to Downey’s charisma that you almost instinctively root for a character who is clearly a shifty, thieving liar. Really, he’s so down on his luck that it’s hard NOT to like him. In the classic noir tradition, Harry is mostly armed only with a smart mouth, which gets him into and out of trouble throughout the movie. This is, in my opinion, where Downey first established himself as a genuine movie star, in the way that someone like Bruce Willis is a movie star, with a natural ease and charisma on-screen that compels you to not just watch him, but to like him as well.
Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan also deserve particular mention—both are fantastic. Michelle Monaghan initially seems like she will be a classic femme fatale, or at least a damsel-in-distress, but she winds up being just as competent and action-minded as Perry. She plays Harmony as tough, weary, world-wise, and excited by the fact that she has been drawn into a real-life mystery. Kilmer, as mentioned before, is as good here as he’s been in anything else. Perry’s constant exasperation and annoyance deliver the biggest laughs of the movie.
If the film has a major failing, it’s that the villain of the piece is largely regulated to a couple brief appearances at the beginning and end of the film, so he doesn’t make much of an impact. It’s easy to forget that as you watch, though, swept away by the banter and the action. It’s definitely not enough to sink the film, but a strong villain would have been nice.
I was glad to find that, ultimately, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang remains as fizzy and fun as it was when I first saw it ten years ago. Make no mistake, though, plenty of truly ugly noir-esque bad things happen throughout. This is a mean movie, but, like Harry himself, its heart winds up in the right place.
– Shane Black has had a kind of amazing career—he alternates between writing and directing some of the weirdest and best action movies in modern history, and appearing in tiny bit parts in movies like As Good As It Gets, Predator, and Robocop 3.
– Larry Miller also makes the most of a small appearance as the casting director who brings Harry out to L.A.
– Harry does not get the movie part he is initially brought to Los Angeles to audition for; he ultimately discovers that he was brought in as a negotiating tactic to get Colin Farrell to shave a few million off his price tag.
– The action scene that closes out the film is legitimately impressive. Even Harry seems a little surprised to pull it off without dying.
– “And to all you good people in the Midwest; sorry we said ‘fuck’ so much.”