The only thing that was surprising about insanely influential screenwriter Shane Black making the long overdue jump to directing was that it took so bloody long. Black, the man who not only perfected the buddy cop movie formula with the original Lethal Weapon, raised the bar for eloquent, verbal ball busting and is the single, greatest, advocate for cinematic christmases since Frank Capra, been making a good living from one of the highest paid screenwriters around (The Long Kiss Goodnight caused quite the bidding war back in the day) but was becoming increasingly frustrated at the changes filmmakers were inflicting on his stories and so made the jump into the directors chair.
Well, thank fuck he did, because as a result, we got Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a deliciously acidic neo-noir that showed a fantastic disregard for linear storytelling and started Robert Downey Jr. on his road back to superstardom.
Motor-mouthed petty thief Harry Lockhart finds himself in Los Angeles awaiting a screen test after he is mistaken for a talented method actor thanks to his panicked self busting into an audition as he flees from the police. Whisked away to a life of decadent Hollywood parties and multi-million dollar deals, he’s happy to just schmooze and see where this bizarre happenstance takes him, even having private investigator lessons provided for him for the role on which he gets to donate ride along with notoriously prickly P.I., Perry van Shrike (aka. “Gay Perry” due to the fact that he’s, well, gay). However, before heading out, Harry accidently reconnects with Harmony, simultaneously a friend from childhood and the one that got away who has been chipping away at the wannabe actress bit after fleeing home and her abusive father years earlier.
Now, this is where things start to get complicated – you see, while Harry and Perry are out on their stakeout, they witness a car being driven into a lake that has the body of a female woman in the trunk but can’t report what they’ve seen due to Perry accidentally putting a suspicious looking bullet through the corpse’s head while trying to shoot out the lock. From here, things rapidly spiral out of control as a whole bunch of other factors come into play. Harmony, believing that Harry is an actual P.I., hires his “services” to look into the suicide of her younger sister much to Perry’s displeasure while the weird (and money fuelled) public feud of retired actor, Harlan Dexter and his daughter, Veronica creeps into proceedings when her body (the same one from the lake) mysteriously turns up in his hotel bathroom which he accidentally pees on in shock. With all these details, plus a couple of heavies who call themselves Mr. Frying Pan and Mr. Fire and Harry’s floundering attempts to get with Harmony, the whirlwind plot soon develops into a hurricane of twists and quirks. But can Harry – a man whom God gifted way more chat than brains – solve this case despite enduring a lost finger, torture and a serious case of blue balls?
A super-stylish buddy comedy that takes it’s very modern sensibilities and funnels them through a prism of a 1930’s hard boiled crime novel, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang may be the most purely enjoyable thing that Shane Black has ever been responsible for (and I love Shane Black), but one of the reasons it works so well is that in Robert Downey Jr., he found the perfect hyper verbal leading man to fit his particular manner of storytelling. Essentially framing the film with one of the most intrusive, yet meta, narration in cinema history, we see the entire, impressively convoluted, plot almost entirely through his eyes as he frantically back tracks on missed details, berates himself on bad storytelling (“I don’t see another goddamn narrator, so pipe down.”) and gets caught up in numerous tangents that ends up being a near-perfect showcass for Downey’s rapid-fire cadence that’s almost a better fit for him than Tony Stark. He’s not alone, however, as all good Shane Black adventures needs a partner to spar with with jibes so sharp they could plane wood and so take a bow Val Kilmer as Perry van Shrike who uses his famously frosty demeanor as a perfect counterpoint to Downey’s witty verbal diarea and the pairing sparks harder than a lose wire in a damp house. Elsewhere, the hugely underrated Michelle Monaghan easily matches the jocular humour on hand in what should have been a star making turn as she grabs a role that easily could have easily have degenerated into easy wish fulfilment (tough, smart woman with a filthy sense of humour) and makes it as grounded as all of Black’s verbal bullseyes will allow. It helps that Black’s dialogue has never been more on point than it is in this movie with the rat-ta-tat back and forth being ludicrously quotable with such gems as “Don’t quit your gay job!”, “I was wetter than Drew Barrymore at a grunge club.”, “Who taught you math!?” or (my own personal favorite) “Look up idiot in the dictionary. You know what you’ll find?” “A picture of me?” “No! The definition of the word “idiot”! Which you fucking are!”.
As Black expertly openly references the type of dark, narrative twists seen in old pulpy detective books (one character obsessively reads the works of fictional crime author, Johnny Gossamer), he’s obviously having a ball screwing around with conventions. Harry Lockhart is less a super-capable sleuth and more a monumental fuck up much in the spirt of The Long Kiss Goodnight’s Mitch Hennessy who even owns similar streak of decency buried way down deep while Perry, by far the most capable character in the film, is gay, something that is exceedingly rare in the world of two-fisted P.I.s and sultry dames. Even more so, the writer/director deliberately makes the knotted plot almost impossible to follow the first time round thanks to Harry’s distracted storytelling and while it may result in villains that are debatably forgettable (certainly when compared to Lethal Weapon’s Mr Joshua), the bewilderment you feel as the various facts of the case pistol whip you in the face. Luckily, Black balances the labyrinthian plot with lashings of his trademark, dark humor as the movie has a few things to say about abusive fathers, making some details hinge importantly on the fact and even features a scene of our leads in a rare poignant mood, briefly discussing their childhood with typical fellows humour (“How about you, Harry, did your father love you?“, “Ah, sometimes, you know – like when I dressed up like a bottle. How about yours?”, “Well, he used to beat me in Morse code, so it’s possible.”).
A tremendous amount of fun that focus more on character, plot and jokes over audacious action, although there is a moment involving a speeding van, a dead body, a coffin and a tumbling firearm, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang may actually be the best thing all involved has ever been a part of (except maybe Kilmer – he was in Heat, after all).
Simply put, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang does exactly that; fucking bangs.