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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

The Last Action Comedy

Don’t ask me how I avoided watching Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for six years.  People tirelessly recommended it to me and I kept putting it off because, frankly, I had no interest in watching a pre-comeback Robert Downey Jr. movie—no matter how good it was supposed to be.  It’s an ugly prejudice, I know, but I feel the same way about RDJ as I do about The Indigo Girls.

Indulge me for a moment:

Years ago, I fell in love with the folk/rock duo’s greatest hits album, Retrospective.  There’s not a song on there that doesn’t touch my spirit or set my head to bopping.  After one listen to that collection, The Indigo Girls became one of my all-time favorite bands.

I love their music so much that I’ve never listened to another one of their songs.

Confused?  Yep, it’s strange behavior, all right, and it boils down to my fear that their other stuff might somehow not be as good; and that the potential lack of quality may sour how I feel about the tunes on Retrospective.

This silly block has seeped into my movie-watching habits, as evidenced by my hesitation to watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  In 2008, Downey blew up with the back-to-back smashes Iron Man and Tropic Thunder.  His charm, wit, and wicked sense of fun revitalized the unreliable superhero genre and made me believe that a rich, white Australian could play a jive-talking black soldier in Viet Nam.

Then came Iron Man 2 and Sherlock Holmes, films in which the actor parodied his own talents with indulgent performances that may have amused him, but which failed to wipe the bored scowl off my face for two-plus-hours apiece.  It was at about this time that my friends began imploring me to watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and though it makes no logical sense, I preferred to freeze RDJ in the amber of his Mark One armor and leave it at that.

I was such an idiot!  Kiss Kiss Bang Bang shot straight to my Top 25 list this morning; it’s the kind of exciting, hilarious, and surprising-at-every-turn Guy Movie I’ve been begging for.

It should be, as it was directed and co-written by Shane Black, who wrote the first two Lethal Weapon films, as well as The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight (what is it with this guy and “L” movies?).  Based on his filmography, you probably have a lot of assumptions about his latest action/comedy/thriller, but I assure you this movie is like nothing Black has been associated with.  It’s probably like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Yes, it takes place in the seedy underbelly of L.A.  Yes, its main characters are two opposites who dislike each other and squabble their way through accidentally solving a big murder case.  Yes, there are car chases and gunplay.

There’s also a deliciously hip self-awareness that begins with Robert Downey Jr.’s Harry Lockhart narrating the movie as a kind of audio commentary on his life, the movie, and the movie as a representation of his life.  Acting as the Hand of God, he rewinds the picture, slows it down, presents alternate scenarios, and dissects Action Movie clichés as they happen—sometimes excusing them, sometimes not.

Harry is a New York thief who stumbles into a movie audition one night while evading the cops.  He’s been shot, and a trigger-happy neighborhood woman likely killed his partner; Harry uses the shock and emotional rush to imbue his reading with a gritty authenticity that bowls over the producer and casting director.

He winds up in L.A. a few nights later, where he attends a pool party hosted by Hollywood mogul Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen).  Here he meets a private detective named Perry (Val Kilmer) who acts as a crime consultant on movies, as well as Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), a failed actress and the subject of an unwanted sexual advance by one of the party’s attendees.

Forgive me for not delving further into the plot, except to say that Harry develops a romantic relationship with Harmony; a grouchily platonic one with Perry; and all three become involved in a complex murder plot surrounding Dexter’s family and fortune.  To give anything else away would be to cheat you out of a wild, twisty ride that revels in genre conventions while simultaneously laughing at and improving on them.

The key to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s success, besides the amazing cast—which I’ll get to in a minute—is Shane Black’s obsession with 1940s pulp novels.  Both Harry and Harmony grew up reading them, and as they navigate the film’s crazy underworld, you can see their minds making connections between the noir adventures of their youth and the very real menace of dumb thugs with guns and villains who think nothing of hooking up electrodes to a man’s testicles to get information.  Black’s dialogue pops with brief, witty exchanges that sound like a cross between Quentin Tarantino and Dashiel Hammett; unlike more recent attempts to inject hard-boiled sensibilities into a modern framework (like Brick and, to a lesser extent, Lucky Number Slevin), Black knows just where the line between believability and farce lies, and exactly how much to smudge it.

He also benefits from top-rate performances by actors that, in 2005, everyone had either written off or never heard of.  Robert Downey Jr. gives what I consider to be his finest performance, playing a noble, kind-hearted, criminal/fool.  He’s called upon to be both an action star and a stripped-bare, weeping mess, and I believed every second of it.  Downey was born to play this part; not just because of the gag involving a washed-up actor on a bender who winds up in a stranger’s apartment, but because the flawed but lovable Harry Lockhart is the perfect vessel through which the actor can prove to the world why he’s one of the most gifted of his generation.

I assume he would have done well even without a great love interest, but Michelle Monaghan forces him to master his game here.  Her Harmony is a sweet Midwest girl with a fucked-up past and no prospects, but she hides everything under thick layers of sensuality and confidence that the film enjoys peeling back (sometimes ripping back).  It disheartens me to see that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with such a revelatory actress besides package her in bullshit rom-com fare like Made of Honor and The Heartbreak Kid, or as the damsel-in-distress in Mission: Impossible III.  She’s so far above that nonsense in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that I felt sorry for her after it was over (stupid, I know, but so is my Indigo Girls problem).

(And maybe it’s just me, but Monaghan looks and acts like a grown-up version of Emma Stone in this movie—which only compounded my angst.)

This brings us to Val Kilmer, whose character is the film’s one sore spot.  Actually, his character is awesome, but the way he’s treated from a writing standpoint made me uncomfortable.  Perry’s nickname is “Gay Perry”, for obvious reasons.  Kilmer doesn’t play him as a flamboyant caricature, but rather as a hard-nosed, over-confident detective—a gumshoe Han Solo.  My problem is that his sexuality keeps coming up in the form of endless gay jokes.  With the amount of childish attention given to Perry’s taste in partners, you’d think the movie was set in Kansas, not California.

Maybe it was Black’s inability to write a fully realized gay action hero after decades of writing straight ones; or perhaps he was trying to say something about the boneheaded treatment of gays in the types of Hollywood blockbusters on which he built his reputation—either way, the jabs come off as distracting and unwarranted, especially since there are zero scenes where Perry’s preference figures into the story in either specifically or tangentially.  As a character, Perry seems to have fun with all the ribbing, but I could recognize (either in his eyes or Kilmer’s) the same frustrated boredom as I had for the steady stream of queer jokes.

Besides that, the movie’s perfect.  From John Ottman’s jazzy 60s score to the post-climax twist that sheds new light on the previous hour-and-a-half without coming off as gimmicky, there’s nothing I don’t love about this movie.  It joins my pantheon of infinitely enjoyable crime masterpieces (of which The Usual Suspects and Out of Sight are also members).

So if you’ve never heard of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—or if you have and never bothered to watch it because it came and went with little fanfare—I implore you to check it out.  You may just discover a new favorite.

I did, and now that this movie and its review are out of my system, I’m off to seek out early Indigo Girls on iTunes.

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