Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Shane Black's Frantic Film Noir

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Warner Bros. // 2005 // 103 Minutes // Rated R

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“SeX. MurdEr. MyStery. Welcome to the party.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a description coined by influential film critic Pauline Kael (who devoted most of her career to writing for The New Yorker). After seeing a poster for an Italian film that translated into those words, Kael decided that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is the briefest possible way to describe the fundamental appeal of movies: a little romance, a little action (sometimes that’s the same thing). Action screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) makes his directorial debut with this bizarre film — heavy on dark comedy and bloody action, with a surreal flavor that will keep viewers off balance. For those who are game, it’s a hoot.

A Bit of Plot…
Small-time crook Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr., Chaplin, The Solist) bumbles his way out of a failed heist in a New York City toy store into an acting audition, where he’s immediately offered the lead role as a detective in a new movie. We know this because Harry supplies constant narration and throws flashbacks into the mix whenever he gets confused about what's going on or what he intended to tell us. His commentary is heavily peppered with sub-references, asides, and hipster chit-chat. Harry confesses that he's not a good narrator, but he's all we've got, so deal with it.

Having nothing better to do, Harry relocates to Los Angeles. Producer Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen, "LA Law") wants Harry to train for the detective role, so he hires a mentor — a caustic and über-tough gay detective, improbably named Gay Perry (Val Kilmer, Pollock). At one of Dexter's lavish Hollywood parties, Harry meets his dream girl in one Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan, Mission: Impossible III, and at right). In the department of small coincidences, it turns out she really is Harry's dream girl, as the two were childhood friends. Then: flash, bam, pow! The plot kicks into overdrive. We're going to hit the accelerator now, so keep up:

A day later, while helping Gay Perry on a stakeout, Harry and the detective stumble across a murder, which may be tied to Harmony's missing sister, who's come to Hollywood looking for fame. But that may not have anything to do with the case because more bodies begin to pile up with no apparent connection between them. Yes, and it looks like Harry is being set up to take the rap…but all Harry wants to do is get it on with Harmony—whew, that's a lot of plot. There's more. Two extremely nasty bad guys are slinking around in the background working for some unknown evil individual. Or maybe not. Is Gay Perry really Harry's friend or foe? Maybe he's just a mean-spirited jackass who likes to mock people. Is Harry going to survive Hollywood with or without his twice-severed finger? How did Harry get to be such an ace shot with that semi-auto? When is Harmony going to stop acting coy and fool around with Harry, already? How many more Percocets will Harry have to swallow before the case starts to make sense and his hand stops hurting so much? And, considering what happens the second time his finger is lopped off, does Harry really want it back?

This is self-referential pulp fiction for people who wish Tarantino would just shaddup and make movies. Writer-director Shane Black is working the same side of the street, but he clings tighter to the hard-boiled noir tradition. Tarantino takes only what interests him and inserts references to breakfast cereals. Tarantino wants everyone to think he's cool, although he reacts to praise like a puppy peeing on the carpet when its head is patted. But I get the impression Black doesn't give two shakes of a rat's ass what people think. Evidently, they didn't think much of his first film. And that's unfortunate because this is a unique piece of work, a real love-it-or-hate-it picture that viewers either "get" or they don't. If you smile at the idea of a detective movie making fun of detective movies while trashing all things Hollywood, then Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang belongs in your shopping cart.

Black (who also penned The Long Kiss Goodnight and turned in a brief supporting role in Predator), makes a curious directing debut with this picture. It's no classic action film, nor is it a failure. It's just…peculiar. At the risk of sounding hopelessly vague, he either tried too hard or not hard enough. The results are ultra-hip, super-cool, smart-assed, extremely violent, laugh-out-loud funny, and confusing as hell. Black's audacious film, which tanked at the box office, throws a knowing wink to those familiar with his bombastic style, but will also appeal to those who understand the classical noir tropes. There's probably too much inside baseball to appeal to mainstream audiences. Action film fans and noir cognoscenti will dig it the most. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang has since developed a cult following and found success on DVD.

Downey and Kilmer play off each other with ridiculous ease, like two tennis pros knocking the ball back and forth just for kicks on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Kilmer is so deadpan convincing as a macho gay detective that you may have to remind yourself, hey, that's Val Kilmer. Monaghan is sexy as hell, but she's a lightweight actor. Since she's at least a decade younger than Downey, there's a plot quibble as well (they were childhood friends, remember?)

Black shows flair for staging action and outrageous violence. His set pieces are breathtaking both for their audacity and sick humor. He also likes to poke fun at noir clichés, but has the good sense to practice what worked in the 1940s and still works today: Virtually all the key characters are introduced at that Hollywood party, then Black cuts them loose to do their mischief in classic noir style. All the threads come together for a tidy and wholly unexpected conclusion.

If the movie has a dominant strength, it's Black's dialogue. No surprise, there. His characters prattle on in grand, profane style — sniping and cussing at each other in a fashion most elegant and sometimes overwhelming. I wouldn't mind if Black would settle down and concentrate on a story worthy of his immense talent with dialogue, rather than prancing around with all this smarty-pants hipster banter. It's funny, but all good things grow tiresome after awhile if that's the only trick in the hat. Still, the man puts words in the mouths of characters that grab our attention.

During a key scene, Kilmer's gay detective gets an urgent phone call from a character who needs help. Urgently. As in, right now. Kilmer's startled response is precious: "Why in pluperfect hell did you pee on the corpse?"

At that point, I was hooked.

The picture was produced by famed action maverick Joel Silver (Die Hard), whose personal wealth has been enormously enhanced by the Lethal Weapon franchise that Shane Black created. It will be interesting to see if Silver gives Black another shot, since his freshman directing effort wasn't a financial windfall for either of these players.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Video and audio are tight; no qualms here. The commentary track with Black, Kilmer, and Downey is breezy and informative, but mostly funny as hell. These guys had a blast making the film, and seem to be having a mighty fine time dishing on the commentary track as well. An amusing gag reel and theatrical trailer round out the extras.

I had a big time spinning this film, but I also watch a lot of movies so anything fresh and unique will pique my interest. I also understand that Black's brand of humor tends to attract a narrow audience who are willing to forgive his excesses for the sake of watching him score a direct hit. Black scores often; his characters slice each other to the bone with their words.

So when does too much of a good thing become bad? The answer is clearly a matter of taste. Some viewers will grow weary of Black's wise-ass characters long before Act II cranks up. Others will wander into Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang expecting another round of Riggs and Murtaugh shenanigans. And they'll be disappointed.

Black raises the bar quite high, then shows off by demonstrating how nimbly he can leap over it—and how often. This is certain to annoy some people. For the action crowd accustomed to formulaic plots populated with dim-bulb heroes (hello, gov'nah!), this noir satire may be too slick for its own good.


Here's a crime movie for people who live to watch crime movies. If Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, and Out of Sight are your idea of fun, then Black's venomous bon-bon will surely satisfy. It’s a ribald, raunchy, rockin’ good time.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Cinema Uprising values comments and feedback from readers. Although we cannot reply to every message, we do read comments and take your thoughts into consideration as we continuously produce fresh content.