The Film: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
The Principles: Shane Black (Writer/Director/God), Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Bernsen
The Premise: It’s Christmas, and Shane Black is writing and directing. Somebody’s holidays are going to be really fucked.
It doesn’t seem that way at first. Harry Lockhart – smug, self-aware and utterly inept narrator that he is – tells us that his life has taken a turn for the joyful; while ducking cops after a botched B&E (featuring an attempted boosting of Christmas toys, no less) in which his buddy is killed, he inadvertently aces an audition for the lead role in a detective thriller. He’s flown out to Los Angeles to be screen-tested by the studio, and given a crash course in the art of investigation by “Gay” Perry Van Shrike (Val Kilmer) a private dick who…loves…dick. At a bland Christmas party thrown by faded actor/noted philanthropist Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen, hilariously arch here), Harry gets his ass kicked defending the honor of a sleeping beauty (Michelle Monaghan: loves snakes, afraid of spiders) who awakens a sense of longing he’s not felt since he carried a torch for this one girl he knew in high school, Harmony Faith Lane.
Turns out – in true magic-of-the-movies fashion – the girl at the party is Harmony.
It’s in that realization – expertly rendered by awkward flashback and sold by Downey‘s rat-a-tat patter VO – that random chance and worn cliché melt away. The film becomes a full-on fantasy, fueled by Shane Black’s love of action flicks and detective novels and screwball romance, as Harry, Perry, and Harmony Faith stumble into a murderous conspiracy mired in seedy dealings and twisted shenanigans.
SEE! Robert Downey Jr. pee on a corpse!
SEE! Val Kilmer kill a guy with his hwang (possibly)!
SEE! Downey and Kilmer make out (not with the corpse)!
SEE! A dog eat a human finger!
SEE! The goddess Angela Lindvall with her distinctive ears!
The film is twisted, vulgar, and violent – and yet utterly heartfelt. As outlandish and demented as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang gets, there’s a very real care that develops between the three leads – and we become invested in the sloppy romance brewing between Harry and Harmony…we worry that Harmony might not warn Perry in time…we hope that Harold can use his awesome might to save them from this hopeless plight.
Is It Good: Indescribably so. It fills me with joy every time I watch it. The last time I watched it with a woman, she had sex with me afterwards. When I saw Val Kilmer at a nerd con, this happened:
The film is the crystallization and the realization and the confirmation of a great many things. Robert Downey Jr’s entire career since 2005 exists because of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and it’s possible that every step – and misstep – he’s taken was prelude to this performance – which is so fucking good that, by the end, you’re convinced you just saw the real Robert Downey Jr. – and you want to shake his hand and hug him (and none of this “bro-hug” bullshit, but a hug that shows you care about another human being who gave you a piece of their heart as a gift, and he healed you with that gift, and you can love and respect him for it as a man and a friend). Everyone who saw this flick on its initial release rediscovered Robert Downey Jr. He is Iron Man because of this film. End of story.
Val Kilmer is amazing in the film as well. Never playing into campy stereotype, his Perry is an easygoing, soft-spoken, light-hearted sort – who nevertheless has seen and perpetrated some serious shit in his day. Based on what we know of him, Kilmer also seems to be playing a variation on himself, as the actor has been described as a soulful, sensitive, and intelligent performer with a quick wit and a quick temper – an equally apt description of Perry. Kilmer reminds us that he’s worth weathering that tabloid-touted temper – as when he’s invested in the material, there are few who can touch him.
Monaghan is flawless in her portrayal of a dream girl for whom the dream has died. She’s smart and tough and resourceful, and she thinks those qualities are fairly worthless in comparison to an ass that sits just a couple inches higher than hers – and yet…the fight hasn’t completely left her. Harmony is so much more complex a character than the typical ingénue or femme fatale found in most examples of the crime/noir/detective form – and a great deal of that is owed to a performance that seems to emanate from a being as wounded as her character is. It might be the first time I’ve ever felt this way for a character – overwhelming sadness, meanwhile – you’ve got a rodney?
Is that sick? Hm. Yeah – I think that’s sick…
It’s like these people were cast because of who they are, not because they could play at being a thing.
As much as it’s a magic-fueled miracle, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang feels like the truth. Working in a well-worn groove cut by Chandler and Spillane and the salty one-eyed Brett Halliday (whose Mike Shayne books were enough of an influence on Black that he asked that the author be credited), the tale is as brutal and wise-assed as any those men might have spun (and many Black himself has scripted) – but it’s also one of amazing warmth. Shane Black has always excelled at that. He gets to some pretty core things about human behavior, then wraps them in epic artifice – so that even as massive chaos unfolds, the underlying emotion feels not only real to us – but familiar.
But here, the love has never been more passionate, the fear has never been more chilling, and hate has never been more vengeful. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang feels like the culmination of every single sentiment the legendary action scribe has ever scratched at – and as it’s the first time he’s had total control of his work, it hits the screen completely undiluted. It’s Shane Black’s world – I just wanna’ live in it.
Is It Worth A Look: It’s worth an own. If you don’t own it, it’s because you haven’t seen it. So see it and buy it and love it.
And if by some chance you don’t love it, never talk to me. I don’t want to know you.
Random Anecdotes: How’s this for random: I got a mad cackle out of Corbin Bernsen once when I yelled “CAPTAIN FUCKING MAGIC” at him from across a crowded room for no reason.
Cinematic Soulmates: Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Goodbye
I’ve had these on my hard drive since the film came out. If you read this because you love the flick, they might be of interest to you (also they’re huge):
And here’s the film’s gorgeous French poster: