Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Yes, it’s another Shane Black screenplay set at Christmas. And, as per usual, it’s in the trappings rather than the content – aside from lost characters finding themselves, or others, during the season of goodwill. And Michelle Monaghan looking very fetching in a Santa hat. One wonders if this collection of moviemakers would get together in the current climate, since Joel Silver, Robert Downey Jr and Black all have some form of ignominy attached to their names, of various orders of seriousness, and the material itself is particularly focussed on the Babylon of vice that is Hollywood. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is crude, gross, profane and very, very funny. It may be Black’s debut as a director, but thus far, he hasn’t bettered it (not that his later movies are anything to be sneezed at, mind).
Black’s stylistic sensibility often skirts close to the meta wind, predating Joss Whedon’s penchant for pop-culture referencing but doing so in a manner that rarely feels intrusive. Here, though, he dispenses with distance from the artifice of moviemaking by having Downey Jr’s amateur magician-cum-thief-cum-aspiring actor Harry Lockhart tell the story as the movie, complete with fudged frames, rewinds and confidences to camera, while dragging in structural baggage wholesale from Raymond Chandler.
Blacks’ screenplays often benefit from repeat viewings in order to unravel their digressions and tangents of plot, and none more so than here, where there’s enough material, twists and turns piling up for a picture twice the length; for that reason, though not alone, it remains fresh on rewatch, much like L.A. Confidential in its ability to draw the viewer back into its web of intrigue and contrivance once again.
This was the picture that saw Black’s return from the Hollywood wilderness (and wild parties at his mansion, also the location of the opening scene), to which he had retired following the massive Long Kiss Goodnight payday. That movie spectacularly failed to live up to its promise (I know it has its defenders, but it’s the Black movie that squanders all its opportunities, which speaks a lot about how crucial engaging the right director is). He had attempted to write a romantic comedy to stretch himself, but after seeking James L Brooks’ advice, relented and crossbred what he had with the detective genre (“I said, you know, “Fuck it, I have to put a murder in it”), such that “All that romantic stuff is left over from my attempt to be James L Brooks, basically”.
Black’s script done in 2001, but his currency had fallen to the extent that it took Joel Silver (aside from The Matrixes not exactly the force he once was by this point) to shepherd it to the screen. With a low $15m price tag, he was able to ensure Black was left alone. The casting reflects that, since neither Downey Jr or Val Kilmer (Gay Perry) were exactly flavour of the month, the former still in rehab and the latter having conclusively proved he wasn’t anyone’s blockbuster star (The Saint, Batman Forever).
In Black’s world, they’re both entirely perfect. The best they’ve ever been. The film may not have been a success (it grossed fractionally more than its budget worldwide, but found an afterlife on DVD), but it was a textbook stepping stone to it; Favreau cast Downey as Tony Stark on the strength of his Harry Lockhart. And Black was awarded the Iron Man Three gig in turn, based on Downey Jr’s respect for and indebtedness to his director (so delivering the best movie in the Marvel-verse).
One thing I’ve always admired about Black’s writing is how he casually throws in plot elements without you realising how important they are until later. It suggests someone with an innate understanding of and ability with structure. Or maybe it’s just that he’s such an ardent consumer of pulp crime fiction. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang may wear its Chandler influences on its sleeve, but the plot is based on Bodies and Where You Find Them by Brett Halliday (the picture has its own pulp homage with Johnny Gossamer’s literature, including You’ll Never Die in This Town Again).
The result is almost too smart and self-conscious for its own good, but Black keeps hold of the reins, charging ever forward. He may not be a fan of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye – he thinks it betrays Chandler – but Kiss Kiss Bang Bang does remind me of it a touch, the blend of the noir detective with contemporary mores, the seedy underbelly of a town that trades in fairy tales but reveals an ugly, debauched reality that chews women up and spits them out (Black gets accused of misogyny, but more accurately, his writing documents around misanthropy, and does so because it revolves around a town that thrives on it).
Perry: We gotta move her somewhere. You got gloves?
Harry: Excuse me?
Perry: Gloves. Do you have gloves? You have to move her. If it’s a frame-up, some asshole’s probably calling the cops right now. Do this: wrap up the body in a blanket, a sheet, anything.
Harry: Okay, Any particular kind of gloves?
Perry: Yes, fawn. Will you fucking hurry?
And there’s acres of LA, especially of moviemaking riffs and gags, in here. There’s the most self-reflexive, as Harry observes in closing “when the studio gets all paranoid about a downer ending, so the guy shows up, he’s magically alive on crutches, I hate that. I mean, shit, why not bring them all back” (on top of the reveal of the presumed mortally wounded Perry being alive, we see a parade of killed-off characters, including Abe Lincoln and Elvis; this reflecting Black’s experiences with both Long Kiss Goodnight and his semi-aborted Lethal Weapon 2 screenplay).
There’s also the obvious homage referencing (TV parody Protocop, porn parody Lord of the Cock Rings, Harry noting how Kiss Kiss Bang Bang won’t have seventeen endings like The Lord of the Rings). The references to stars (the Native American Joe Pesci, Harry never having stood a chance of getting the part he thinks he’s up for as he was just a bait for Colin Farrell, who wanted too much money). And just plain untrammelled crudity (“I was wetter than Drew Barrymore at a grunge club” – that’s ’80s Black, the one telling pussy jokes in Predator and Last Boy Scout).
Harry: Still gay?
Perry: Me? No, knee-deep in pussy, I just like the name so much, can’t get rid of it.
This may be Downey Jr’s film, but Val Kilmer is the thoroughbred scene stealer as Gay Perry, witheringly smarter than everyone else and an attempt by Black to invert stereotypes. But only so much, since it comes via much mutual abuse including creatively homophobic taunts (“Don’t quit your gay job”). Harry’s no idiot, but he is a consummate fuck-up. Perry, in contrast, is incredibly competent, such that he basically knows “Little sister punched her own ticket” from his first assessment of the crime, even though the nuances are far more involved and offbeat.
Perry: Look up “idiot” in the dictionary. You know what you’ll find?
Harry: A picture of me?
Perry: No! The definition of the word idiot, which you fucking are!
Perry embraces stereotypes (I Will Survive is his ringtone) but also turns slurs into badges of invective and badinage (“I call it my faggot gun… Because it’s only good for a couple of shots, then you gotta drop it for something better”; “This isn’t ‘good cop-bad cop’. This is fag and New Yorker. You’re in a lot of trouble”). Downey is content to play the fool, while Kilmer proves a master at assuming the derogatory stance (telling Harry to look up the word “idiot” in the dictionary, asking him “Who taught you grammar? Badly’s an adverb” – resonant of the inventors of Scrabble scene in Last Boy Scout – before moving on to arithmetic, following Harry’s ill-fated Russian Roulette interrogation; “Eight? Who taught you math?”)
Most hilariously absurd is Harry’s response to Perry killing a heavy with a concealed weapon (“I shot him with a small revolver I keep near my balls”): “Thank God you had a gun in there. For a second, I thought it was like a gay thing, like somehow you guys could do that. Sorry”.
Perry: Why in pluperfect hell would you pee on a corpse?
Mention of the Russian roulette scene highlights how Black really loves grappling with gross and icky ideas, locating a queasy push-pull that also betrays a certain honesty, from the very direct Harry finding sex winning out over empathy towards Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), while at the same time displaying double standards over her sexual encounters (he sleeps with her friend because he’s afraid of messing up with Harmony).
At times, Black is content to fall back on basic farce (Harmony awaking to discover Harry putting his hand down her top; he’s genuinely trying to get a spider). At others, for just so-wrong gross out (Harry peeing over a corpse in shock). And at others, for chills (Harry putting his finger on the lips of a dying Shannyn Sossamon so she doesn’t alert her murderer to his presence). He also takes great relish in brutalising Harry, severing his finger early on when Harmony slams it in the door (a not so subtle emasculation stand-in), and then having hit men tear off the stitches after it has been freshly sewn back on. And then, finally, having a dog remove it from an ice bucket and eat it.
Monaghan is great, but she simply doesn’t have as strong a part as her two male co-stars; she’s essentially the unattainable love object until she’s attained, and it feels a bit like – as satisfying as it is – the scene in which Perry, rather than she, confronts (her and) Jenna’s abusive father is slightly wrong-footed (even given Perry is motivated by rage at his own violent dad). And I have to admit, I don’t buy that Harmony and Harry are the same age; although Downey Jr can play younger and Monaghan older, they can’t quite meet in the middle of their eleven-year age gap.
Corbin Bernsen is suitably nasty as the bad guy, Black turns the modest freeway climax into a lot of bang for his buck (and allows Harry to finally come good as the unlikely hero). The score by John Ottman shows off classic genre beats, but also has the occasional whiff (or riff) of prime Michael Kamen.
If I had a gripe, it would be that the picture could use a little extra time to breath, but I can’t really gripe. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is just too damn satisfying, too damn watchable, and too damn good not to want to see Harry and Perry team up again. Forget Nice Guys 2, this is the Shane Black sequel to hold out for. Is this a Christmassy movie? No, no more than Lethal Weapon or Long Kiss Goodnight. But it will make you very merry.