Whilst attempting to compile my list of essential Christmas viewing I wrestled with my choices more than my barely read blog really deserved. One of the films that nearly made the grade was this offering from Shane Black. It is another of those films, along with his other offering Lethal Weapon, that stand on the periphery of Christmas films and films that are merely set during the festive season. I ultimately decided that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang didn’t quite count as essential viewing over the holidays but that it deserved some recognition on this site.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangstars Robert Downey Jr. as Harry Lockhart, a small-time thief who gets mistaken for an aspiring actor and whisked off to the bright lights of Hollywood. In order to research his new role Harry is paired with private investigator “Gay” Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer) but soon gets himself, and his childhood crush Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), mixed up in crime plot to rival any Hollywood film. Once the bodies start turning up there is simply no stopping them creating more problems for the hapless Harry.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, like Ronseal, does exactly what it says on the tin. The title is the film’s first in-joke and offers the audience a clear sign of exactly what they are in for. It references the working title of the fourth outing for super spy James Bond, Thunderball, and also the phrase critic Pauline Kael picked out as a description of the thrill-seeking and shallow attitude that she felt had infected cinema. Black’s film is a response to both Kael’s criticism and the trigger-happy excitement associated with 007. We are witnessing a film that embraces its shallow, violent nature whilst remaining sarcastic and self-aware enough to show that it has some depth.
The narrative takes the formula that Black helped reinforce in the 80s and beats it senseless. The bloody and delirious remains are a blend of typical detective and action plots whilst serving as a parody of pulp detective novels. It is smart and funny and Black clearly had fun putting together the twisting storylines. It is an homage to film noir set in the bright lights of the modern and superficial LA scene. The script is full of in-jokes, self-awareness and Black’s own scathing criticism of his own industry.
This is one of the main reasons that certain critics have had such a problem with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Black makes all of the right moves but can’t help but point out that he’s doing it for his own devices. Whilst you are watching, you can’t help but feel that Black is sat beside you constantly elbowing you in the ribs and repeatedly whispering “do you get it?” There are moments when the entire film almost collapses under the weight of its own arrogance. Although, I would have to say that Black’s skill as a writer prevent this from happening. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is trashy, witty and clever and I think it has every right to point it out through Harry’s narrative.
The plot, whilst not completely nonsensical, is convoluted. The action is dragged out by the discovery of another body or a piece of vital new information. It is full of those classic moments when our heroes escape momentarily only to be captured once again. It is difficult to keep track of everything you’re supposed to remember and what’s just there to put you off. Ultimately, though, that’s the point. The plot is really a secondary feature. Concentrate on it too and you miss out on the more important matters. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is, above all else, a buddy movie and it is the great dialogue and wonderful performances that really make this film something special. The chemistry between the three main actors is terrific. Val Kilmer triumphs as the openly gay but hard-nosed PI and produces one of his funniest performances. Robert Downey Jr. is able to bring a tender and emotional slant to his smart-alecky one-liners and self-referential narration. Harry is at times idiotic and naïve but you just can’t help but like him and admire his witty and sarcastic dialogue. Without these two at the helm, this film wouldn’t work. The chemistry and the emotional centre provide a soft counterpoint to the self-importance of the script.
Shane Black tried to be clever with a formula that he and other writers had started to wear out and, luckily for him, he has the skill to make it work and breathe new life into these oft seen scenarios. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is an exciting and fast-paced look back to the works of Raymond Chandler but with a postmodern attitude. It is a dark comedy with a sarcastic and brash side. The story takes so many turns along the way that keeping up with everything can prove difficult but that is not enough to detract from everything that Black does get right.