starring Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Bernsen
written and directed by Shane Black
by Walter Chaw The same kind of movie as Doug Liman's Mr. and Mrs. Smith but more so, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang marks the hyphenate debut of star screenwriter Shane Black, and it's the kind of movie his Last Action Hero would have been had they aimed it at adults (and cast actors). A meta-exercise taken to plucky, insouciant excess, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is nihilistic, misanthropic, and it just might hate its audience a little, but damn if it doesn't wash out as something as exhilaratingly lawless as Sin City and recklessly experimental as Rian Johnson's Brick (two other examples of noir's recent extreme makeover). Though it's not shy in its one agonizing scene of gore, the picture seems more concerned about the way we assimilate--and anticipate--sex and violence at the movies.
The treatment of the most well-traveled corpse since Harry's, for example, undermines the necrophilia at the end of Bad Boys II by tying it to an idea of how young women are used up in Hollywood. A scene in a bar early on where reluctant, soft-boiled, anti-heroic faux-detective Harry (Robert Downey Jr.) woos his femme fatale Harmony (Michelle Monaghan, in--finally--a star-making turn) by mocking the other patrons is introduced with Harmony pointing to a woman in her mid-thirties she identifies as pathetic because she still harbours dreams of making it in Tinsel Town. The last shot of the film would be incomprehensible but for a memory of this "over-the-hill" unfortunate, creating a fascinating subtext for what by all rights seems a misogynistic picture paying tribute to a misogynistic genre. It's something that, when taken with Harry's attempts to show women respect, makes of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang a boy's movie that's actually interested in teaching boys, at the least, how their actions impact women.
Then again, it could be that any satire of Hollywood is incomplete without a fairly stinging rebuke of the way that young men and women, both, are ground beneath a monstrous millstone as the unconscionable price of fame. There's much to say about the double-edged sword of that adoration, but Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang treats it all like last year's problem. The hot buttons of sexuality, misogyny, and racism (catch the riff on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and wonder why Black is so interested in Christmas movies) are accorded the currency of narrow ties and Flock of Seagulls--the sterling example of this smart movie being smart enough to take the piss out of its own pretensions. It's a patter from an accomplished wit and a Hollywood insider but, more, it is, for all its puerility, the product of a grown-up who appears to have gotten over that sensitivity bullshit and is launching his comeback now with something that traffics in the same kind of sleazy gunmetal thrill as his landmark screenplay for Lethal Weapon did eighteen years ago, only this time with a self-awareness that mocks not only our comfort with it, but his complicity in its mainstream acceptance, too. That the trope that unifies Harry with Harmony--besides a gay gumshoe nicknamed Gay Perry (Val Kilmer)--is a shared love of pulp fiction is a pinafore for where the film's going and, more importantly, where it's coming from.
Its MacGuffin something to do with a dead sister and an evil studio executive played with a suspicious but unsurprising level of ease by Corbin Bernsen, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is really just an essaying of noir set-pieces remixed with a hipster attitude in an increasingly ironically-dubbed City of Angels. That it messes with structure and medium is nothing new, but as with the casting of Downey Jr. and Monaghan as grammar-school classmates (even as it's commenting on Hollywood's treatment of women, it's guilty of it), as it's fucking with the way we look at film and understand narratives, it's indulging in the topsy-turvy, smart-alecky vogue of Guy Ritchie/Christopher Nolan chic. Like Scream, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (its title a Pauline Kael collection, its title cards pure Raymond Chandler) simultaneously respects and mercilessly deconstructs the genre to which it ultimately belongs. It's a tightrope, and Black navigates it with grace. A self-deprecating, lop-sided shit-eating grace, sure, but grace all the same. Originally published: November 11, 2005.