At the pinnacle of his screenwriting career, Shane Black was the highest paid scribe in Hollywood, with films like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout to his name. His scripts spawned enjoyable, commercially successful films for the most part, but Black has long stated that directors alter his original ideas, causing a great deal of frustration on his part. Black vanished for the better part of a decade, but stages his triumphant comeback with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Inspired by James Bond, Pauline Kael, Raymond Chandler novels, and everything in between, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang could be Black’s greatest creation to date, even exploiting his time-honoured love of Christmas that has provided a backdrop for all of his thrillers. In order to avoid frustration in the translation from page to screen, Black directed the film himself, and the product shows no evidence that Black is a first-time filmmaker.
In the midst of L.A.’s holiday rush, small-time thief Harry Lockhart (Downey Jr.) inadvertently stumbles into an audition while trying to evade the police following an unsuccessful robbery. Harry’s performance amazes the casting agents, and he’s subsequently thrust into the spotlight as he’s flown to Hollywood for a screen test. Propelled into the cut-throat world of L.A.’s pros, cons, losers and wannabes, Harry is partnered with tough private eye “Gay” Perry (Kilmer) who’ll prepare him for his screen test. For experience, Perry allows Harry to help with his latest assignment. Harry is also reunited with his childhood crush – Harmony Faith Lane (Monaghan) – who has become an actress. However, when the mysterious suicide of Harmony’s sister intersects with the seemingly unrelated case Harry and Perry are investigating, the duo find themselves embroiled in a real murder mystery.
Got that? Good. Now don’t worry about it.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is an unabashed exercise in style and wit, with its plot serving as a rack on which to hang wildly entertaining vignettes. It works marvellously, as Black’s script is populated with terrific characters dispersing witty dialogue. The sharp exchanges and one-liners are never-ending, with pop-culture pisstakes (a head-to-toe soaked Downey at one stage proclaims himself to be “wetter than Drew Barrymore at a grunge club“) and sneering subversions of hard-boiled posturing (Perry uses the word ‘pluperfect’ at a rather odd time), not to mention sly satire of the film industry. Without a doubt, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of the most quotable films in history, and it remains hilarious upon repeat viewings. The story is convoluted and you’ll be hard-pressed to nail it, but this is a massive positive – critics often complain that stories are too straightforward and by-the-numbers, hence Black subverted this stereotypical pitfall. Furthermore, there’s more to latch onto and absorb with each new viewing.
Black’s script is (in part) based on the novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them by Brett Halliday. In adapting Halliday’s novel, the writer-director added his own satiric slant on the story and inserted elements of Raymond Chandler novels to ultimately produce something unique. Constant references the old masters of film noir are scattered throughout the flick – chapter headings are sourced from Chandler novel titles, for instance. Visually, the film is a hodgepodge of quick edits, pans, zooms, fades, dissolves and crosscuts, combined with flashy colour alterations. However, none of these (usually irritating) gimmicks are damaging at all due to Black’s limitless elegance as a director. Moreover, his exaggerated cinematic style is fitting for this incisive Hollywood satire. Poking fun at everything from storytelling clichés to the way filmmakers manipulate their “assets”, Black has created a top-notch picture that is simultaneously an engaging noir-style mystery and a hilarious observation of the film industry.
Black treats his audience as peers, and never takes them as fools. The man clearly understands that very film-savvy audiences exist, and they’re every bit as cynical about Hollywood conventions as he is. At one stage, through the voice of Harry the narrator, he remarks “Don’t worry, I saw the last Lord of the Rings. I’m not going to have the movie end like 17 times“. Throughout the course of the film, Harry also chastises himself for leaving out important details, or for making seemingly pointless observations. Sometimes, scripts like these are too consciously clever for their own good, but Black’s work is well-judged. Naturally, witty dialogue wasn’t enough for the writer-director, as Black felt the urge to include a number of action sequences for good measure. Fortunately, such scenes are dazzling, intense and splendidly choreographed. It’s all the more amazing that the film was produced for a slight $15 million.
At the centre of the film is a top-notch cast. The chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer is killer – they’re the most downright entertaining screen pair since Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Downey is in top form here, showing a real sense of comic timing. He’s an endearing narrator, too, introducing himself by saying “My name’s Harry Lockhart, I’ll be your narrator“, which establishes the film’s non-serious tone. Meanwhile, as the ambiguously homosexual cynic, Kilmer steals every frame, delivering some of the best one-liners in recent memory with graceful confidence. The beautiful Michelle Monaghan also appears as Harry’s former flame. Monaghan has the perfect look for the part, and the actress oozes sexiness when she wears tight dresses, including a Santa’s Helper outfit. Not to mention, she has great chemistry with Downey. Outside of the three protagonists, there’s an amusing Larry Miller as the producer who plans to screen test Harry, and Rockmond Dunbar and Dash Mihok appear as a duo involved in the whole murder mystery. You know that actors have done their jobs correctly if you crave more time with their characters once the credits begin to roll.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is not only one of the best films of 2005, but it’s also one the most overlooked. The Phoenix Film Critics Society even voted it “Overlooked Film of the Year”. Okay, so no-one knows who the hell the Phoenix Film Critics Society is, but they have a point. One should also bear in mind that the film received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a delightful return for Shane Black, showing us that he was gone for far too long and that he deserves to continue in this business for a long time to come.