Originally shown March 31, 2010
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Shane Black was one of the hottest guys in Hollywood. As the writer for the hits Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, every word he wrote jumped into instant demand. However, he was uncomfortable with the spotlight – among other things, he tried to kill off the Mel Gibson character in Lethal Weapon 2 before the studio ordered a happy ending – and the script for which he was highest paid, The Long Kiss Goodnight, was made into a massive bomb. His failure was the world’s gain, though, because without it he would not have been able to write his best script, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Financed with $15 million as a favor by friend and Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver, directed by Black himself because no one else would do it, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang didn’t even make back a third of its budget according to Box Office Mojo. But you’ll also notice that the grade survey on that page gives it more than 85% Bs or higher, including 50% grades of A. Look past the money and you’ll find one of the best movies of the 2000s, and one of the better movie scripts ever written.
Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr. in the film which arguably started his current career renaissance) is a small-time New York thief who, through a weird series of events that are better seen than explained, finds himself in Los Angeles breaking into the movie business. He’s learning how to be a fake private investigator from real P.I. “Gay” Perry (Val Kilmer) when a pair of strange cases spring up around struggling actress Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan). The story proceeds much like many of Black’s earlier scripts, which starts out as a couple of detectives doing their everyday work and escalates the pulpy action to outlandish proportions.
The difference in the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang script is the love of language (specifically movie language) that is poured into it. The movie’s title comes from a famous review by longtime New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who saw a French trailer for a James Bond film with that phrase as the tagline. She meant it as a pejorative, but Black intends to show us that movies which have nothing but “kiss kiss” and “bang bang” can still be great. It’s both a commentary on, and a love letter to, those movies.
Don’t watch this movie expecting to turn your brain off. Almost every line of dialogue contains a laugh, but many of the jokes are intricate and require you to pay attention. You might not expect to get much of a laugh from an exchange about the difference between the phrases “I feel bad” and “I feel badly,” but this movie delivers one – and then calls back to it later on!
The film also puts one of the best twists on narration that I’ve ever seen in a movie. Downey narrates the action, but he’s not a good narrator. Note that does not mean he’s an unreliable narrator; actually, everything he says is true. He’s just really bad at telling stories. It’s a fine way to set up Harry’s incredible talent for bumbling and screwing up everything he touches, which then pays off in an immensely satisfying way at the movie’s climax.
I love, love, love Downey’s performance as Harry. In the movies, a lot of screw-up characters start realizing the error of their ways or doing things right before Act Two even starts. Downey, perhaps informed by personal experience, does not do this. He resolutely sticks with the idea that Harry not only does wrong, but knows that he’s doing wrong, knows what the right thing is, and still does wrong anyway because it’s easier and less painful. The script’s jokes are easy, but delivering a character so incapable of being awesome that the big action climax is a surprise … that’s what the great actors do.
Shane Black does not have a directing background, and his movie doesn’t really have a signature style. However he does deliver some nice visuals, such as Downey’s witnessing a crime from beneath a bed. He also handles the action sequences competently, perfectly establishing where every character is and what action is happening, which is actually a big victory in the Michael Bay era. It’s no surprise that he’s been tapped to direct Iron Man 3, and I think the franchise is in good hands with him at the helm.
In some ways Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is like the Scream of action movies, in which one character tells you what the conventions of the genre are, and then the movie proceeds to follow those conventions to the letter. Also like Scream, this movie understands that the commentary is not enough, and that it needs to be a well-executed, entertaining example of the genre that it’s commenting on. Shane Black succeeds at that in every way. You could make twenty of this movie for the same cost as Avatar, but I’m sure I will watch it a hundred times before I see another Nav’i on the big screen, and I’ll laugh just as much every time.
Reviewed by Mark Young