In his previous incarnation as one of Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriters, Shane Black wrote or co-wrote the scripts of Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon 2, The Monster Squad, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, but he’d like you to know that he’s sorry. He no longer wants to be associated with mindless action movies; he’d like to move on to a more mature, sophisticated kind of filmmaking. And so he’s written — and, for the first time, directed — Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, an action-comedy about mismatched crime-solving partners in Los Angeles. As new leaves go, this one seems to have rotated a bit less than a full 180 degrees. But Black is at pains to point out that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a smart, character-driven action-comedy about mismatched crime-solving partners in Los Angeles. Also, one of them is gay. See? Different.
The aforementioned ‘mo is Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), Gay Perry to his friends, a stoic, no-nonsense L.A. private eye who gets caught up in a murder case after he meets Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) at a Hollywood party. Harry’s getting ready to screen-test for a role in a detective movie, and the producer, Dabney Shaw (Larry Miller), has asked Gay Perry to let Harry shadow him to prepare for the test. Thing is, Harry’s not actually an actor; he’s a petty thief who accidentally stumbled into an audition back east while running from the cops. As luck would have it, the character being cast is in much the same situation Harry’s in, and he’s able to pass himself off as an intense method actor, winning a trip to Hollywood and out of his dead-end life.
But like many a transplanted New Yorker, Harry has a hard time fitting in out west. At the big Hollywood party, an attempt at chivalry gets him beaten up, and when, a few hours later, he goes to a bar and bumps into the woman whose virtue he tried to defend, he’s told to get lost by her friend Flicka (yes, I know). But Harry is undeterred, and after some pretty bizarre flirting, she reminds him that they know each other — she’s Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), his high-school crush, out in L.A. trying to make it as an actress. So far, the extent of her success has been playing opposite a bear in a beer commercial and, at 34, she’s almost ready to give up hope.
On top of that, she’s got a sister who’s come out west looking for her and wound up dead. When Harry, who, remember, isn’t even really an actor, begins to pretend to be a detective, things go from bad to worse. Soon he’s stumbling into apparent suicides, accidentally peeing on dead bodies in his hotel room, and being manhandled by three big goons. Not to mention the finger that gets chopped off in a slammed door or the electroshocks administered to his genitals. On the whole, he might have been better off if those cops had caught him.
From the opening titles, a canny blend of Saul Bass minimalism and 007-style babes and guns, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is about four different kinds of pastiche and every kind of self-conscious. I’ve seen it described as a “film noir spoof,” but that’s pretty wide of the mark. The Cheap Detective is a spoof; Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a spoof — this, pardon my French, is an honest-to-God hommage, lovingly borrowing elements from noir and other genres to create a bizarre post-modern hybrid. The closest I can come to naming its genre would be “screwball noir,” but there’s some surreal black comedy and bizarrely out of place stuff about child abuse, too. Throw in a couple of zombies and some jiggly boobies and it’d be a sure-fire hit.
The story is partly derived from an old Brett Halliday detective novel, Bodies Are Where You Find Them, and it’s split up into chapters that take their titles from various Raymond Chandler books. The plot is knotty enough to be genuine Chandler, but Chandler never wrote characters like these. Harry serves as our narrator — really serves: “That’s me there; I’m Harry Lockhart. I’ll be your narrator.” — and he tries to deliver a classic hard-boiled voice-over, describing a leggy woman as having “great stems,” etc., but he’s too much the neurotic New Yorker to carry it off — he keeps interrupting himself, backing and filling, apologizing for wasting our time with exposition, and qualifying every statement with three or four more. This is funny at first, but not forever; wisely, Black eliminates the narration after a while, bringing it back only at the film’s close.
Despite a few predictable plot developments, Black really has written a smart script, full of clever, punchy dialogue and idiosyncratic characterizations. Harry’s basically a good guy but a little slow on the uptake, and Downey plays him as simultaneously likable and hopelessly muddled — it’s a great performance. But we expect that from Downey, what’s surprising is that Val Kilmer is just as good — he actually underacts for once, making Gay Perry tough, menacing, and only subtly light in the loafers. And Monaghan, who’s had small roles in a number of films, though, for the life of me, I can’t recall her in any of them, is good, too; her Harmony is the kind of tough cookie who could hold on to her dreams of stardom while the years slowly pass without becoming either cynical or delusional.
The best word for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is clever, in both its laudatory and its disparaging senses. The dialogue crackles, and it earns real belly laughs, but it can be a bit twee, and there are a few gags that pop up once more than they should. Black’s direction is mostly solid — he certainly seems to work well with actors, even notoriously troublesome ones — but things get a bit lurchy in the latter part of the film; the tempo changes frequently and rather abruptly, suggesting that maybe the editing was completed in a hurry. And then there’s that child abuse subplot, which brings the movie to a grinding halt whenever it shows up. It’s not played for laughs, thank God, but in a movie that plays nothing else straight, it’s a mighty odd fit. I was able to laugh at the death, dismemberment, and torture that fill the rest of the movie but, for me, and, I’d wager, quite a few others, child molestation just doesn’t belong in a comedy, no matter how it’s treated. Of course, ideally, child molestation doesn’t really belong anywhere.
This thorny issue mars the film, but it did little to decrease my overall enjoyment of it. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is far from perfect, but I grade on a curve, and it’s a hell of a lot better than having to sit through Lethal Weapon 5.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()