Robert Downey Jr.
Action Comedy Crime Mystery Thriller
Trivia Harry Lockhart was originally to be played by Johnny Knoxville, before being replaced by Robert Downey Jr.
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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
11th Nov 05
Small-time crook Harry Lockhart teams up with private detective ‘Gay’ Perry Van Shirke to investigate the possible murder of Harry's ex-girlfriend's sister.
Lets get one thing clear – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is complete and utter nonsense - a preposterous, Byzantine plotted po-mo buddy flick with a storyline that’s about as plausible as Peter Andre recording an album of Captain Beefheart covers. It also happens to be quite brilliant entertainment and a fantastic comeback from fallen 80s wonder boy Shane Black, who has taken the very genre he help popularise back in that decade – the mismatched buddy cop thriller - and turned it gloriously on its head. The resulting movie is quite possibly the most fun you’ll have in a cinema all year.
With its Saul Bass-inspired opening titles, myriad movie references and smart alecky self-reflexive narrative piss-taking, Black’s directorial debut is one big glorious, kiss kiss to the film noir and pulp detective fiction he devoured as a young boy, with plenty of bang bang for fans of the movies he helped fashion out of that obsession – Lethal Weapon, Last Boy Scout and Long Kiss Goodnight.
Robert Downey Jnr (having even more fun than usual) is Harry, a small time crook and likeable rogue with a smart mouth whose moments of extreme dimness lead him into very bad situations. One of the films earliest scenes sets up Harry’s duality nicely – he’s on the phone to his niece checking exactly what it is she wants for Christmas, while trying not to set off the security system in the toy store that he’s pilfering the gift from. The raid is bungled in spectacular fashion (naturally) and Harry’s friend and accomplice is shot dead during the getaway. Harry himself ends up stumbling into an auditioning room for a new action flick (hey - it is LA).
From this unlikely set up emerges an even more absurd set of events. Harry is so raw and emotional after seeing his best friend killed that he winds up getting the part, and the studio put him up in swanky LA pad and assign him an acting coach for pre-production prepping - private ‘tec ‘Gay’ Perry Van Shirke (Val Kilmer definitely having more fun than usual). But just when you think this is turning into The Hard Way, up pops Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), a faded TV actress who also just happens to be ‘the one that got away’ – Harry’s long time obsession who slept with all the boys at his college except him. Bumping into Harmony at an industry party, the sparks immediately fly, and Harry is the smitten love struck boy of his youth again. Harmony rebuffs his advances, but when her sister is found dead in mysterious circumstances she looks to Harry for help, embroiling him in a ludicrously complex plot that involves faked suicide, a murdered heiress, body doubles, 80s actor Michael Beck (!) from The Warriors, and a lot of dead bodies.
Trying to follow the movie’s tricksy lopsided narrative is not really the point though. The plot is clearly informed by 50s dime novelettes and there is a scarcely credible back story involving a fictional detective - Johnny Gossamer - that Harmony's character obsesses over throughout (it all makes sense when you see the movie – kind of) but you get the feeling this is just window dressing that allows Black to run riot with the references and - more importantly - have fun. KKBB is pure movie buff nirvana, tipping that hat to a whole slew of movie classics from Sunset Blvd to Altman’s The Long Goodbye. But it would be unfair to suggest that Black’s film is just a grab bag of homage and cineliterate grandstanding– it has a pulse and a beat of its own. It also proves that Black is much better at handling his own material than Richard Donner or Tony Scott, infusing the gruesome pulp fiction with a wry affection and moments of unexpected tenderness, two things missing from the flashy high concept 80s films with which he made his name.
Much of this good will and bonhomie comes from the inspired pairing of Downey and Kilmer, two guys infamous in Hollywood circles for very different reasons - Downey cops hypocritical flak from a fucked up industry for having lived (and survived) exactly the kind of debauched lifestyle expected of hotshot actors, Kilmer has an explosive rep as a prickly, troublemaking bastard. Both have had wildly variable careers. It’s certainly no surprise that Downey is excellent – he almost never gives a bad account of himself - even in cinematic excreta like Gothika you never get the sense that he’s wanking for coins. In KKBB Downey’s Harry takes Bruce Campbell levels of abuse, with humiliating bedroom encounters, bodies piling up around him, various beatings and a couple of really gruesome moments – one involving a massing body part and a shaggy dog, the other a wincing electrodes-on-the-nads interrogation scene. Not once does he resort to mugging to the camera. Downey is almost certainly self aware enough to know he’s playing a character that has all the possibility of winding up as an irritating asshole, but he avoids this with effortless ease - pulling off even the notoriously difficult task of addressing the audience. When Black’s script pushes the film into potentially smug, overbearing territory (the kind of thing that scuppered Last Action Hero, which he co-wrote) with Harry critiquing the audience and winding spools of film back to diss the disjointed narrative, Downey never misses a beat.
Killmer is something else. His Gay Perry is sly, comedic, playful and revelatory. It’s a glorious rebirth for this actor and his relaxed, easy performance reminded me of Brando in his playful, mischievous mid 70s period. The relish with which he delivers some of Black’s killer lines – “This isn’t good cop, bad cop, this is fag and New Yorker. You’re in a lot of trouble” – is evident.
It helps that KKBB looks so damn good too, with its expensive Joel Silver sponsored sheen that suggests that Black is definitely back at the big Hollywood tables again. The detail is great too – Black using his insider knowledge to create a sardonic, sometimes withering LA backdrop of bad parties, faded TV stars, bloated executives and terrible actresses eking out commercials work and hoping for the big break.
The film’s title by the way, is a reference to the film critic Pauline Kael’s derisory quote about the basic appeal of US cinema, and took its cue from an Italian poster for Thunderball that described 007 as ‘Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’. For Kael it was indicative that movies usually offer this and nothing else. KKBB would be guilty as charged in this respect – ultimately delivering cheap thrills and little more - but when the package is as fast, funny and enticing as this it’s surely churlish to complain. Also at a time when Hollywood movies seem to be getting more and more prudish it’s nice to see some wholly irresponsible, foul-mouthed sex and violence back on the big screen.
With this silly, funny confection, Shane Black has not only breathed new life into the wizened corpse of the buddy movie, he’s delivered a poison filled valentine to the industry that wrote him off over a decade ago, which just goes to show you should always bet on Black.