17) Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Written & Directed by Shane Black
Loosely based on Bodies Are Where You Find Them, by Brett Halliday
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Bernsen & Larry Miller
Now that I’m in L.A. I go to parties. You know, the kind where if a girl is named Jill she spells it J-Y-L-L-E, that bullshit. That’s me there. My name’s Harry Lockhart, I’ll be your narrator. Welcome to L.A. Welcome to the party.
I have always been a sucker for film noir. Always. Given the chance to write a scene about anything for my grade twelve play, I wrote a detective comedy — the first draft of which was 12 pages too long (further proof that I have never been concise). Given the chance to hop into a DeLorean and transplant myself into any decade, I always choose the 1940s, every time, without fail. Lucky me that the genre would see a major revitalization in this decade. It would seem there are a number of people who grew up loving it just as much as I did, and a lot of them work cushy Hollywood jobs now. Throughout the ’00s, film noir made a comeback in a big way, but never straightforwardly. It was always twisted into something it wasn’t: a sci-fi thriller (Minority Report) or a high school drama (Brick). Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a comedy, yes, but at its heart it is a detective story and it follows the conventions of the genre to a T.
Robert Downey Jr. is Harry Lockhart, our affable narrator and would-be gumshoe. Harry is a petty thief who finds himself in the middle of an audition after a heist gone wrong. Wowed by his “method acting,” a Hollywood producer (Miller) whisks Harry off to Los Angeles to receive “detective lessons” from Perry van Shreik, a real P.I., A.K.A. Gay Perry (Kilmer). All of this is just set-up, and the movie wastes no time in pairing Downey and Kilmer together and letting the sparks fly. Things get interesting when Harry lies about being a real detective to get closer to Harmony (Monaghan), an old school crush turned damsel in distress.
Perry: Do NOT play detective. This is not a book. This is not a movie.
Harry: We got it, we got it. What, do you think I’m stupid?
Perry: I think you wouldn’t know where to feed yourself if you didn’t flap your mouth so much. Yes. I think you’re stupid.
Much of the plot hinges around Johnny Gossamer books, a fictitious set of old pulpy detective novels. Having grown up reading them, Harry and Harmony discuss the conventions and clichés of the novels at several points throughout the film, only for the plot to then follow them exactly. While Gossamer may be fictitious, he is but a stand-in for Michael Shayne, the star of a long-running series of detective novels from the 1940s penned by Brett Halliday. Indeed one of these novels (Bodies Are Where You Find Them, 1941) is the basis for the plot of the film. But then, you already knew that. I wrote it at the top. This is shoddy narrating.
Much of the joy of the film, aside from Black’s razor-sharp script, is in how self-referential it is. This is a movie that clearly knows it’s a movie and is having a whole lot of fun with that knowledge. Beyond Downey’s blisteringly funny and self-aware narration, we have characters constantly comparing their situations against how it would play out in books, or movies. The film is even chaptered, and has a typical noir smoky brass score. Of course the movie rarely diverges from the beaten path, but it knows what it’s doing and does it for a reason, so we can forgive its clichéd trespasses.
Okay… I apologize. That is a terrible scene, it’s like “Why was that in the movie? Gee, you think maybe it will come back later, maybe?” I hate that, a TV’s on talking about the new power-plant. Hmm, wonder where the climax will happen? Or that shot of the cook in Hunt For Red October? So anyway, sorry.
Getting back to that script, though. Black, the man behind the Lethal Weapon movies, has spent much of his career doing uncredited touch-ups and polish jobs. Hell, he was cast in Predator just so they could have him out in the jungle working on the script. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is his first effort in the director’s chair, and his first credited script in nearly a decade. Please sir, may we have some more? The script is full of great wordplay and brilliant throwaway lines, but really, snappy as it is, the dialogue remains true to its pulpy origins. It may be spruced up with modern lewdness and pop culture references, but the core of the movie has all the cleverness and wit of Raymond Chandler. Of course no one really talks like this in reality, but isn’t that part of the appeal of movies? To watch characters who are cooler than ourselves? Harry might not be cool in a traditional sense, but at least he talks the part.
None of this would be as effective as it is were it not for great casting. This is where Downey Jr. hit the comeback trail, having spent years prior slumming it in stuff like Gothika. His Harry Lockhart lacks the suave cool of Tony Stark, but it taps into that same fun energy. Harry may be an awkward bumbling idiot, but you want him to succeed because Downey is just so watchable in the role. Kilmer is his perfect foil, steely cold and bitterly sarcastic — a rock-solid base for Downey to bounce off of. Their banter is hysterical, and the chemistry between them is why the movie makes the list.
Harry: Perry… I peed on it.
Perry: What? You peed on what.
Harry: I peed on the corpse. Can they do like, I.D. from that?
Perry: I’m sorry, you peed on…
Harry: On the corpse, and my question is…
Perry: No, my question, I get to go first! Why in pluperfect hell would you pee on a corpse??
Endlessly quotable, the movie works in large part thanks to its cast, but also because the central mystery is actually engaging. It would be easy to forget story entirely in favour of these characters and their interplay, and occasionally the script does. But unlike, say, The Big Lebowski (another post-modern take on noir themes), most of its non sequiturs wind up serving the story. The finale is thrilling and the pay-off is earned. This is a cult classic that I know I will still be watching 20 years on and enjoying just as much as I do now. It’s the best pseudo-Christmas movie since Die Hard.
Thanks for coming, please stay for the end credits. If you’re wondering who the best boy is, it’s somebody’s nephew. Don’t forget to validate your parking, and to all you good people in the Midwest, sorry we said fuck so much.