Shane Black has crafted an astonishing film from a block of hard-as-rock film noir, that has all the wit and irreverence of the modern era and yet still recalls the tough-guy films of Hollywood’s golden age of Cagney and Bogart.
Harry Lockhart is a loser. A small-time crook, bad father and husband, with nothing to recommend him to anyone. Somehow he gets caught up in becoming a movie star, goes to Hollywood, meets a private investigator for acting lessons, meets the girl of his dreams, loses her, wins her, loses her again, and somehow manages to survive to the end. Along the way, he will get shot at, kill some bad guys, feed the dog, smirk a lot, swear even more, and provide an endearing and amusing narration of his exploits. A lot for one man, to be sure, but who better to pull this off than Robert Downey Jr.?
Downey is amazing, yet again, in a role that requires incredible charm, depth and talent. He has affirmed once more his exceptional ability, and hopefully with critical acclaim for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang he will spend more time on our screens. Lockhart has to be charming and yet inept, quick-witted and yet dull, and Downey manages to imbue him with these qualities and still more – he is manic and thoughtful, hero and villain. Were it not for Downey, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang would have had no hope of success.
Supporting Downey is Val Kilmer as ‘Gay Perry’, the homosexual Private Dick, paid to give lessons to Lockhart on the art of playing an onscreen investigator. He is competent, mature, self-contained… he is everything Lockhart isn’t. Kilmer is remarkable as Gay Perry, a long way from roles such as in Spartan or Batman Forever. He is restrained when needed, and somehow resists the temptation to be camp. His portrayal beautifully counterpoints the more energetic Downey.
Black has a penchant for teaming up badly matched heroes for buddy flicks – he is the writer of the Lethal Weapon series (Mel Gibson and Danny Glover), The Long Kiss Goodnight (Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson), and The Last Boy Scout (Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans), all of which feature two leads with different personalities who must team together or fail – but this may well be his most inventive pairing yet. Downey and Kilmer work beautifully together, with perfect comic timing and an eventual empathy that ensures their ongoing survival.
Completing the heroic ménage à trois is Michelle Monaghan as the improbably named Harmony Faith Lane. We are never sure of her motivations… is she is evil on good-looking stems, or the messed-up dame with a heart of gold? Monaghan is fresh and exciting, sexy when needed, and despite lacking the immediate allure of Lauren Bacall or Mary Astor, she nevertheless manages to perform the femme fatale role with a skill to rival the best of classic noir heroines.
The plot flirts with being incomprehensible, in the tradition of the best of the genre (like The Big Sleep, my personal favourite), and this allows all manner of freedoms for the filmmakers. We are required only to sit back and accept what we’re seeing, even if it’s Downey talking over the onscreen action, changing tack and rewinding the film, skipping ahead, or whatever. This is postmodern film noir, and it works, it truly does. Black clearly loves this style, and despite having fun with its conventions, he scatters many references to the old masters throughout – the use of chapter headings all sourced from Raymond Chandler novel titles is the most obvious, but there are several, more subtle, homages within.
In addition to the wonderful cast, characters, form-breaking style and awareness of what has come before, the clever use of the in-film series of classic ‘Private Eye’ novels starring Johnny Gossamer, allows discussion by major characters of the defining characteristics of these novels, which in effect becomes an onscreen discussion of the film itself. (The books always take certain turns and contain certain character archetypes, and if you’re awake to it, that’s exactly what is happening in the film.) This self-awareness is an extremely interesting approach, and leaves Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang even more densely packed; it surely will reward a second viewing.
That the end approached and I was no closer to fully comprehending what the hell I’d seen didn’t matter one bit, it was the thrill of the ride I loved. Seeing something new is always wonderful, and this is certainly an evolutionary step for the classic genres of buddy cop and film noir.
Without question, one of the highlights of 2005.Rating: