Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: October 21, 2005
Directed by: Shane Black
Rating: 4 out of 5
The title of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” may be a sly reference to the shallow, flashy content of mainstream action movies, but Shane Black’s clever detective film offers a lot more than the title suggests. Although there are kisses and gunshots as promised, this crime comedy is a fun and witty blend of genres. It’s a tough task for filmmakers to balance postmodern self-awareness with genuine, old-fashioned entertainment; nonetheless, Black and his talented cast manage to pull it off in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”
Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) serves as the film’s protagonist and narrator. His wry, self-referential voiceover guides the viewers through the surprising events that have led Harry to his current situation. Harry is a petty thief, but his fortunes have taken a steep turn recently. After stumbling across a Hollywood audition during a police chase, Harry switches his focus from burglary to potential stardom. If Harry thinks navigating the streets of the Big Apple is difficult, he has no idea what waits for him in Hollywood. Glamorous parties and towering palm trees hide some dark secrets, and Harry is soon right in the middle of everything.
To prepare for his upcoming role in a movie, Harry ends up befriending Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer). The private detective typically goes by Gay Perry, a punning nickname he has for one fairly straightforward reason: he’s gay. Although Perry is only plans to help Harry get into character for his screen test, the two wind up receiving an unexpected crash course in method acting.
It doesn’t take long for Harry to bump into Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan), who is just another pretty face hoping to make it big in Hollywood. The twist, however, is that she was once Harry’s unattainable high school crush. When Harmony loses someone close to her and begs Harry for help, he realizes that he’s still unable to resist her charms. The thief, who is now playing an actor playing detective, goes one step further and convinces Harmony that he is a private eye. This leads Perry and Harry down a rabbit hole of shadowy enemies, red herrings, lost fingers, mistaken identities, and close calls.
The snappy title of the movie references the works of Pauline Kael, a renowned and insightful film critic. This is only fitting, since “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is a movie about movies as much as anything else. Los Angeles is a familiar setting in film noir classics such as “Double Indemnity” (1944) and “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). Hollywood is a suitable setting for “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” for two reasons. For one thing, it’s a clever homage to the genre that Black is attempting to recreate. More importantly, placing all the action in the hub and heart of the moviemaking industry grounds the whole theme. With a script that delights in playing with tropes and stereotypes, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” aims to reveal what’s behind the curtain of filmmaking conventions.
Black’s crime comedy isn’t an especially easy film to follow. The plot is labyrinthine and complicated, with plenty of unlikely coincidences and unexpected twists. Some of this complexity pays off, while some of the plot machinations are only distracting and needlessly confusing. Although elaborately plotted, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is certainly fun to watch. The fast-paced, cutthroat dialogue plays on the one-liners that have made hardboiled detective movies so quotable.
While no romance develops between the two, the energy that exists between Downey and Kilmer is the highlight of the movie. Although Harry may literally be the straight man of the pair, Perry plays the straight man to Harry’s manic, wisecracking arrogance. Perry is the one to keep his cool in the face of adversity, embodying a world-weary suaveness. The interactions between the two spark a witty, tough-love camaraderie. Although the romance between Harry and Harmony doesn’t stand much of a chance in the face of this friendship, Monaghan also turns in a likeable, funny performance.
Downey has a talent for playing multilayered characters. His deadpan, roguish charm works well with his moments of hapless vulnerability. Though cocky, Harry is never irritating. Although the winking, clever quality of the plot could bury the actors beneath too much quirkiness, Downy and Kilmer still shine through as genuinely sympathetic. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is a movie that pokes a little fun at moviemaking in general, but it also shows a true love of the art. Kisses, gunshots, snappy dialogue, and a moody setting-in the end, viewers really couldn’t ask for much more from a detective comedy.