by Josie Kafka
Shane Black’s directorial debut is one big in-joke that anyone can get. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a meta slap-dash noir that has plenty of fun (and very little deeper meaning). It’s a hoot and a half.
The title of the movie comes from a book of reviews by Pauline Kael, in which she explained that “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was a common way of referring to James Bond (and similar) films. It is, she said, “perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.” KKBB is not more than that. It is precisely that, and no despair is permitted.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Harry is a small time thief who stumbles into a casting session while running from the police in New York. That leads him to spend Christmas in LA, where he re-ignites a relationship with his grade-school crush Harmony, tries to take “detective classes” with Val Kilmer’s “Gay Perry,” loses his finger not once but twice, and illustrates why Russian roulette is never a good idea.
Critics inevitably point out the odd pairing of Downey and Kilmer—odd, because it works even though it shouldn’t. Neither actor takes himself too seriously in his role, thank goodness, and Shane Black’s previous screenplays for the Lethal Weapon franchise obviously helped him hone his skills at the buddy movie. Kilmer’s well-coifed masculinity is a perfect foil to Downey’s caffeinated idiocy, and it’s only inevitable that they kiss not once, but twice. But, for my money, Michelle Monaghan is the star of the show. As failed actress Harmony, she exudes enough intelligence to carry off correcting Harry’s grammar and one-upping his detection attempts.
When Harry, Perry, and Harmony stumble onto a series of murders in LA, they quickly realize that life imitates art: just like the old pulp gumshoe novels that Harry and Harmony read as children, two (or even three!) seemingly unrelated cases begin to converge in a pile of bullets and blood. And that’s not all with the meta: Harry’s narration frequently addresses the audience—as in the lead quote at the top of this review—stops and starts the film again, and helpfully points out scenes that will be significant later. Even the chapter titles are taken from Raymond Chandler novels.
Is it meaningful in some deeper way? Not at all. But it’s great fun to watch a noir pastiche admit its own simple pleasures and refuse to transcend genre in any way. From the occasional slapstick idiocy to the fast-paced dialogue and surprise gotcha moments, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang more than lives up to the simple appeal of its title.
Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)