Directed by Shane Black
Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Bernsen

Did you get all crazy excited over the trailer for The Nice Guys? Boy howdy, I sure did. If not, I assume you haven’t seen it yet. Let’s remedy that:

Holy hell, that looks like a lot of fun. In the trailer, writer/director Shane Black is prominently credited for Iron Man 3 (and rightly so – it’s great) but discerning fans know him for an earlier, better and sadly under-appreciated flick, the 2005 comedy thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Shane Black made his bones as a writer with the 1987 buddy cop action classic Lethal Weapon, and over the next decade-plus he penned a number of films marked by heavy action, cynical comedy, an appreciation of pulp genre tropes and, more often than not, a Christmas setting. After 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, which saw Geena Davis star as an amnesiac assassin opposite Samuel L. Jackson’s low-rent PI, Black disappeared off the radar for a while, reemerging a decade later with his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

After an after-hours toy story burglary goes wrong, small time New York thief Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.) runs from the cops into a movie casting call and is mistaken for an auditioning actor. Reading Harry’s trauma and tears as method acting, producer Dabney Shaw (Larry Miller) flies Harry out to LA for further screen testing, and to get “detective lessons” from private eye Perry Van Shrike (Val Kilmer), aka “Gay Perry.” It isn’t long before Harry and Perry are caught up in several murders which may link back to retired actor and man-about-town Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen). Harry also connects with his childhood crush Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) who is now a struggling actor. Believing Harry’s lie that he is a detective, she asks him to investigate the death of her younger sister. Harry, unable to say no without revealing his deception, agrees, and the plot inevitably thickens.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wears its genre roots on its sleeve. There’s a running bit of business involving a fictional pulp detective, Johnny Gossamer, who starred in books Harmony read as a child, and who Dexter once played in a TV movie.* The Gossamer character functions as a kind of in-movie meta-commentary on the plot, which mirrors the stereotypical twisty convolutions of the hard boiled school. Also commenting on it – and elevating what could have been a fun but rote action thriller to “all time classic” status is Harry himself. RDJ gives one of the best voice over narrations in the history of the trope. He constantly punctures the fourth wall, rewinds the action, changes up the order of events, contradicts himself, berates himself for forgetting pertinent details – it’s just brilliant. Even more incredibly, all the knowing nods to the story’s artificial nature still don’t sink it as a thriller: the characters are still relatable and the stakes, small by blockbuster standards, huge to our heroes – still matter to the viewer.

This is ground zero for the RDJ renaissance, who was a bit of a no-go zone at the time of production due to his addiction issues. He gives a performance that is clearly the prototype of his go-to onscreen persona going forward: cocky, charismatic, self-deprecating, unexpectedly heroic. Harry is a loser and he knows he’s a loser, but he’s a jerk with a heart and a noble soul under the crusted on crud left by a life of petty crime. the film takes great delight in punishing harry for his skeevyness, too: he’s repeatedly insulted by pretty much everyone, beaten, shot, has his balls electrocuted, and manages to lose the same finger twice. That he comes across as lovable and even, in the final analysis, admirable, is remarkable. Downey Jr. gives the role everything he’s got and Black, to his credit, let’s him have at it; it’s no wonder that, when Downey’s stock had risen a few years down the track, he gave Black the Iron Man 3 directing gig on a platter.

The film also contains what may be Val Kilmer’s last great performance as Gay Perry: seasoned investigator, consummate professional, tough as nails and, yep, gay. Black writes great banter and Kilmer is fantastic as he goes toe to toe with Downey, running the dozens and trading barbs. It might not be quite up there with Riggs and Murtaugh or Jack and Reggie in terms of classic crime pairings in cinema, but it’s in the same ballpark.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang also brought Michelle Monaghan to the attention of a wider audience. There was a brief moment there when Monaghan looked like she was gonna be the Next Big Thing based solely on her work here: in her hands, Harmony is smart, sly, sexy and strong, a woman who knows how to use her sexuality to her advantage but also maintains her own standards of behaviour and decorum. She also brings a knowing melancholy to the role, which matches Harry’s: Harmony knows she’s getting on a bit to be expecting her big break any time soon, and that knowledge colours her attitude and actions. It’s a great turn, and that she was last seen opposite Adam Sandler in Pixels actually underscores this film’s cynical take on the career prospects of women in Hollywood.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a small scale thriller: the nefarious plot doesn’t really affect anyone but our protagonists, the threat to them comes largely in the form of two ruthless henchmen (Rockmond Dunbar and Dash Mihok) rather than an army of goons, and what victory is achieved is low key and more than a bit Pyrrhic. What the film does achieve is making you absolutely love these characters: it’s one of the few movies where you actively wish for a sequel, if only to spend more time with Harry, Perry and Harmony. At this stage of the game it’s clear we’re out of luck in that department, but there’s a universe out there where we got a new Harry Lockhart adventure every couple of years.

What doesn’t work? A decade on, some of the sexual politics are awkward, although considering they’re largely voiced by noted fuck up Harry, that may be the point. there’s also an incest plotline woven through the larger narrative that sits uncomfortably next to the more glib, jazzy tone the film goes for. It’s not treated lightly, but nor is it ever really confronted with any gravity. It’s a weird bum note in an otherwise flawless tune.

For all that, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a bona fide classic. It’s nimble, witty, laugh-out-loud funny, audacious in its structure and winking acknowledgement of conventions, filled with great performances, great characters, great dialogue, great atmosphere. It is, quite simply, the duck’s nuts. Add it to the your Christmas movie rotation ASAP – you will not, I promise, ever regret it.


*Eagle-eyed fans of The Warriors will also spot Michael Beck in the bit of footage we’re shown.

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