Thursday, July 3, 2014

L. A. Noir

Year: 2005
Director: Shane Black
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It's a testament to the high quality of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that I went in expecting to hate it, but was forced to make a dramatic turnaround. To be fair, I expected to hate it because I was being dumb and confused two titles together so I thought my dad was making us watch Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. But nevertheless, this film grips you from the moment it begins to the moment it ends, a near perfect neo-noir.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang tells the story of one Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), a small time thief who, when on the run from the cops, accidentally barges into a Hollywood audition room and steals the show. When he is flown out to LA for a screen test, he meets a childhood friend, Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), who moved to the city years ago to try and become an actress. 

After riding along with a sarcastic and suave detective named Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) to train for his role, he manages to convince harmony that he is a private eye. Much to his chagrin, Harmony thinks she's in luck because she's in desperate need of investigating her sister's recent death - an apparent suicide, but Harmony has serious doubts. 

Enormous, perky doubts.

Working alongside Gay Perry, Harry begins to unravel a web of crime, deceit, and murder that spreads throughout the city like a particularly violent and bloody case of chlamydia. I shan't get into the plot specifics here, but it is a twisting path that Harry walks down, a thoroughly modern murder mystery packed to the brim with influences from the very best noir cinema and literature.

On top of all that is a highly unexpected sprinkling of structural humor. The entire conceit of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is that it is a movie being presented to the audience by Harry himself. It's overwhelmingly meta and it's spectacular. Meta movies and I are like Taylor Swift and boys. Most of the time they're dumb but I love them anyway. 

It is with this immense joy for the craft that I can announce that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a truly fantastic example of the form. An important thematic thread that runs throughout the film is the divide between fiction and reality, present in the Hollywood setting and the parallels between the film's plot and the in-universe series of pulp crime novels.

Under extremely microscopic analysis, the true intent of the concept becomes a little dodgy, but it's too hilarious and integral to the tone and mood of the movie to affect enjoyment in any important way. Prolific action screenwriter Shane Black, in his directorial debut, serves up a sardonic world filled with wit and sparkle (and casual gore that wouldn't be out of place in a horror film) and the meta humor - largely applied through narration - is just the icing on the cake.

Or the bandage on the... hand? I didn't get much sleep last night.

The entire cast is impressive for a genre film this slick, but the MVP without a doubt is Robert Downey Jr. Still scrabbling to find a foothold in the business after his descent into drug abuse, this hungry young actor had something to prove. And boy did he. Harry Lockhart is equal parts bitter sarcasm and whimpering puppy dog, a man caught somewhere between his id and his heroic perception of himself.

This is the role than won him Iron Man and it shows. He is tongue in cheek and pithy and lovely and also a sublime idiot. Harry is a man struggling to tamp down on his awkward impulses because the ones that slip out get him deeper and deeper in the muck. His cockiness and his deeply flawed psyche are a playground for the talented Downey, who creates a masterpiece of psychology perfectly conjoined with the heightened tone of the film.

So much so that even relatively mundane actions for the genre become hilarious.

I am perhaps not as well-suited to discuss the ins and out of the action genre as my friend Zach Nix, who indeed runs a blog about the very topic. So I won't make a fool of myself by digging into Kiss Kiss Bang Bang any further than I need to other than to sing its manifold praises.

But I will close out by saying that this film is notable for being the first action film to depict a gay character in a protagonist role, which is a tremendously important development in cinema. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is remarkably progressive, so much so that Google lists the movie under its "LGBT Films" category, which is patently ridiculous (and, in fact, indicative of a deeper prejudice at work - just because a film has a gay character doesn't mean that it is a gay film. You wouldn't label Reservoir Dogs "Crime/Action/Hetero" #socialjusticebrennan) but not altogether unearned.

All in all, this is a film with tremendous value, both entertainment-wise and thematically. It tells a riveting mystery story with a punchy upbeat tone and is absolutely a gem of both the genre and the decade. Always worth a watch.

TL;DR: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a hilarious and sharp mystery movie featuring a top notch performance by Robert Downey Jr.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 906


  1. Hell Yes, I really enjoyed this... you can see a lot of Shane Black's skills in this and in his directing of Iron Man III... nice post and solid review.

    Jeremy [Retro]

    There's no earthly way of knowing.
    Which direction we are going!

  2. Yeah, as an action fan Shane Black is one of my heroes of action cinema! His screenplays are so awesome and hilarious, he should be writing every action film. Love this movie, it is honestly one of the funniest and most creative mysteries I have ever seen all in one film. And Robert Downey is so good in it too! I agree with the 9/10 rating too!