Dir. Shane Black, US, 2005, 103 mins
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Dexter, Larry Miller
In a week that sees the re-release of a classic of the genre in Double Indemnity (1944), screenwriter Shane Black brings us bang! up-to-date with a brilliant and witty deconstruction of Film Noir in his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Black is well-known for, at one point, being the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, having penned such actioners as Lethal Weapon I, II and IV, The Long Kiss Goodnight and The Last Action Hero. With the latter proving somewhat prophetic, Black has been away from his desk for close on a decade, having grown somewhat jaded with the Hollywood system. Getting behind the camera for his comeback script, this was his way of making sure that the film he wrote was the film that audiences ended up seeing.
And what a film! Robert Downey Jr stars as Harry Lockhart, a smalltime thief who, fleeing the cops, unwittingly stumbles on a Hollywood casting call and finds himself hailed as the ‘next big thing’, thrust into the glitz of glamorous poolside parties, amused by his luck. Harry communicates a lot of things to the viewer – he’s our narrator, and the film is structured around the device of Harry living a novel as he writes it. His is a smart, knowing voice-over, implicating us in his misadventures, his monologues the stream-of-consciousness of the working writer, complete with re-writes and re-edits. He’s aware he’s telling us the story – at one point he thinks aloud ‘this is bad narration’ – but we’re witnessing a work-in-progress and it’s up to us to keep pace with his breakneck train of thought.
As an actor, Harry still needs a little polish, so he’s sent by his producer to work alongside a real life Private Investigator for a while, a touch of the Method School of Acting here. Perry Van Shrike (aka ‘Gay’ Perry, played by a very, very surprisingly charismatic Val Kilmer) takes him under his wing, and the tough homosexual and the hapless actor make for a very watchable buddy team. Unfortunately for Harry, events conspire to lead him deeper into the dark underworld than he’d prefer – first, he has to play along that he is a real PI in order to impress his newly-refound highschool sweetheart and wannabe actress Harmony (Monaghan), who is looking for her sister who has fled to LA in search of her real father; and second, he manages to discover two bodies in the space of 24hrs, one of which then reappears in his bathroom. Someone thinks that Harry knows something and wants him to know that they know he knows something but all the time Harry knows nothing – but he’ll have a damn good go at finding out something!
If that all sounds a little confusing then it reflects the way in which this film comes in with all guns blazing. It’s certainly both a homage and parody to the Film Noir-style, with it’s structure of chapters, each pertaining to the title of a Raymond Chandler novel, plus our weary narrator; hardened, cynical private investigator, and the lovely blonde femme fatale who just might prove to be our protagonists undoing. There are murders and guns aplenty, set in a sleazy dark world of shady dealings. Oh yes, we are very much immersed in the world of the pulp novel. However, one gets the impression that a straight noir would be too simple for someone of Black’s calibre; this is his calling card as a director and he uses all the tools at his disposal, not least his precision-cut writing and insider film knowledge. He deconstructs the genre, and then throws a basketful of ingredients into the pot – they’re not essential to the basic dish but boy do they make it tastier. In much the same way Scream was knowingly self-referential to slasher movies so too is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to not only Film Noir, but to filmmaking itself, with Black deftly playing around with the film’s narrative and structure. In less capable hands, this could very easily have been a messy mish-mash but, thankfully, it works.
Both Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer have endured somewhat checkered film careers, for very different reasons. Downey is impeccable in this role; considered by many as one of the best actors of his generation (‘such a shame’ is the usual aside, referring to his extracurricular activities), here he displays perfect comic timing, mixed with deadpan delivery, and yet conveying a good deal of endearing helplessness. Kilmer, meanwhile, finally gives us a strong, larger-than-life character performance, delivering at last on the promise of his first screen role in Top Secret. His ‘Gay’ Perry is a hilarious, cocky creation and Kilmer, looking somewhat larger in girth and chin than usual, has never looked better. Credit too to Michelle Monaghan as Harmony, who displays the kind of personality that’s likeable to both men and women.
Shane Black is, I’m sure, going to be joining the canon of revered modern directors. In fact, with the chapter headings, Jules & Vince style buddy partnership, the post-modern structure, the resurrection of an actor’s career, smart, populist dialogue AND the subject matter, is anyone else put in mind of a certain Mr Quentin Tarantino? Except this film is slicker and more polished – the kind of film you could imagine Tarantino making if he were just ever so slightly less exuberant. I’m not saying move over Mr T by any means, but there’s definitely room for another great director in this town.
Warner Home Video have announced the UK Region 2 DVD release of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for 13th March 2006 priced at £17.99.
Presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with English DD5.1 Surround.