[box cover]

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Shane Black was the king of the spec-script in the late '80s and early '90s — when his screenplays for Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight sold for ungodly, record-breaking sums. At the time, he was (unfairly) blamed in some quarters for everything nasty and dumb and excessive about the buddy-cop boom that Lethal Weapon essentially created. But looking back now, it's easier to see that Black had something all too many modern action scribes lack: a distinctive voice and actual ideas. His dialogue was whip-smart and darkly funny. He was great at creating (and torturing) self-loathing loser protagonists. He loved to explore what he described in a recent Creative Screenwriting interview as "chivalry … in the service of women who might not be quite so moral." And he had a knack for writing movies that worked as action pictures while goofing on action clichés (see his scripts for Boy Scout and Long Kiss — films that earned cult followings after underperforming at the box-office). Anyway: After ditching Hollywood for nearly a decade, Black returned in 2005 as writer and director of the low-budget comedy thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And it's everything that was great about his earlier work. Only smarter. And much, much funnier.

Kiss Kiss is a dense, bloody, self-referential, laugh-out-loud mystery that starts out like a high-concept comedy. While fleeing a botched burglary in New York, a scatterbrained thief named Harry (Robert Downey, Jr.) hides out in a movie audition ... and gets the lead role. Soon, he's slumming in a fancy L.A. hotel and going on research ride-alongs with private eye "Gay" Perry (Val Kilmer). But after Harry and Perry see two masked men ditch a body in a lake, Black ditches the movie-industry comedy premise. Harry never even sets foot on a film set. Instead, Black's movie turns into a twisty tangle of murder, frame-ups and stupid lies, based loosely on Brett Halliday's novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them. And poor Harry weathers bullets, amputations, electroshock torture to the nethers, withering insults from Perry, and physically painful rejections from his childhood crush, a loopy actress named Harmony (Michelle Monaghan). Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is less interested in its mystery (which only really makes sense on a second viewing) and more interested in its characters, who riddle each other with acid one-liners. (Harry and Harmony's quirky flirtation makes the movie feel at times like a romantic comedy covered in squibs.) It all comes off as Black's slightly self-recriminating riff on the hard-boiled genre (and the town) that made him rich. Among the film's highlights: Downey's jittery voice-over narration, which stops and re-starts and digresses so many times that it literally stops the film dead in its tracks (but in a funny way); the film's deconstructed '80s action vibe, right down to a darkly cheesy end-credits song (sung by Downey); Black's wry mocking of L.A. manners and the city's hopeless dreamers, via Harry's bungled conversations with women and Monaghan's manic, sexy woman-child; and every sarcastic word out of Val Kilmer's mouth: "Go home. Sleep badly. If you have any questions, hesitate to call." "My dad used to beat me in Morse code." "This isn't good cop/bad cop. This is fag and New Yorker."

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's pre-credits sequence — set to John Ottman's gorgeous, sad circus of a score — is just so ... wrong. It ends on a man about to smack a little girl after she says, with an adorable sparkle in her eyes, "I'm going to be an actress." And it's a perfect, perverse summary of the movie's major concern: the collision of youthful dreams and harsh reality. In the movie, Harry and Harmony are both obsessed with a fictional paperback gumshoe named Jonny Gossamer, even though Jonny's creator has publicly disowned the Gossamer novels as hackwork. (What does he know, Harry jokes at one point; he's just the writer.) And as Harry and Harmony model their investigative tactics on their fictional hero — occasionally getting smacked in the face for their efforts — Black uses them to reflect on his own complicated relationship with the power of pulp. Some critics dismissed the film as a glib, empty pastiche, but Black is actually pulling off a pretty wonderful balancing act here — working full-blooded characters into a story that spends a lot of time making fun of itself. It's a tough trick. This is one of Downey's most enjoyable performances, and one of Kilmer's funniest. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a relationship comedy wrapped in sharp talk and car chases, it's a triumphant comeback for Shane Black, and it's one of the best vivisections of Hollywood mores ever put to film.

*          *          *

Warner's DVD release of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang features Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and a vivid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that plays up the film's excellent neon-themed cinematography. Writer-director Shane Black is joined on a commentary track by stars Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer — the latter nearly unmanning the commentary with his improvised contest to see how many names he can drop over the course of the running time — while a gag reel and the theatrical trailer are also on board. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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