At the very end of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, just before they switch us off, detectives “Gay” Perry van Shrike and Harry Lockhart (Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. respectively) address us, the audience, directly exhorting us to stay for the end credits. “If you want to know who the Best Boy is, it’s someone’s nephew.” They also apologise to all the good people of the Midwest for having said “fuck” so much.
It’s that kind of film. But, whilst meta-fiction, self-awareness and fourth wall fiddling can be a bit annoying if you aren’t in the hands of a Calvino or a Diderot or even a Grant Morrison on a good day, the writer/director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang pulls it off with aplomb. Several plombs in fact.
And whose hands are we in here? Shane Black whose previous Christmas form as scriptwriter includes the finely tuned action movies Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout (the second of which has been splendidly blogged by my pal Andygeddon here http://andygeddon.com).
Whilst doing a bit of Christmas shoplifting for his nephew’s present petty crook Harry Lockhart is rumbled and pursued by the police. Seeking a hiding place behind the nearest open door he blunders into a casting call for a movie. The film-makers mistake his over-wrought demeanour for genius-level acting and he is flown to LA. Here he is buddied up with P.I. Perry van Shrike for “detective lessons”, and in the course of a routine bit of surveillance the two get tangled up in a murder case of mind-mangling complexity: The Case Of The Dead People In Los Angeles.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was Black’s first film as director. His second will apparently be Iron Man 3, due for release in 2013. Hooray, say I. This Marvel tendency to recruit celebrity directors for their superhero event movies is paying off incredibly well for them. Kenneth Branagh’s Thor has established a very healthy precedent.
Black has acted too, most noticeably with the cartoonish muscleman ensemble in Predator (1987). But it is as a sharp, cynically inclined writer that we know him best. He can structure a plot elegantly, and he has a great ear for wise guy dialogue.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is way smarter than your average thriller. And it is comfortable enough with itself that it can wear its homages lightly. The beginning of the film (“My name’s Harry Lockhart. I’ll be your narrator.”) is a shot of Robert Downey Jr. filmed up through a pool in an impertinent nod to the start of Sunset Boulevard. The film is also aware enough of its genre predecessors to specifically acknowledge its literary antecedents: the story is divided into chapters called Trouble Is My Business, Lady In The Lake, Little Sister, The Simple Art of Murder and Farewell My Lovely.
At the same time as swanking his erudition around though, Black isn’t afraid to get stuck into base gags about bodily functions. At one point Harry becomes disorientatingly aware of a body in his bathroom whilst he is (ahem) mid-flow. In an impeccable bit of slapstick comedy business Downey Jr. manages to piss accidentally all over the corpse and then fret about whether or not the authorities will be able to identify him through his urine.
He has similar detection issues later in the film when a dog makes off with his recently severed finger.
There is also a running gag about adverbs, and one of cinema’s better “spider in the bra” routines.
It’s a tight, sarcastic, funny affair, densely written and played wickedly by Downey Jr. and Kilmer who, at the time, were two of Hollywood’s badder bad boys. Michelle Monaghan’s character is far more than the usual desultorily written pretty-girl. Her role has real substance and she’s got the stones to keep the boys in their place.
Wit, warmth, action, a well thought out plot and an obvious affection for writers, writing and the written. I commend this festive treat to you without qualification.