Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
Robert Downey Jr. has so cemented himself as a modern-day box office titan that it can be difficult to remember that, as Robert Downey Jr. himself would be the first to admit, there was a time in the 21st century where he could star in a movie that barely even got a theatrical release. Such was the case with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the directorial debut of prolific action movie writer Shane Black A.K.A. the guy who hires sex offenders for his films without alerting his cast & crew. This comedic noir got a tiny theatrical run in the Fall of 2005 (its highest theater count was a mere 226 locations) before it became an acclaimed cult classic and ended up helping Robert secure the Marvel superhero role that would totally transform his career.
All the Shane Black trademarks are around in high doses in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Quirky narration, a buddy-cop duo, witty & sarcastically detached dialogue, a Christmastime setting, all of that and more is evident from the opening scene onward which introduces us to Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), a common thief who, while on the run from the cops, finds himself nailing an audition for a movie in Los Angeles. Now, while waiting for a screen test, Lockhart is paired up with private investigator Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), who has been reluctantly hired to let Lockhart tag along with him on a stakeout so that Lockhart can do some research for this prospective role. It isn’t long into this stakeout that Lockhart and Shrike find a dead body and get themselves wrapped up in some kind of expansive murder mystery.
Given how big of a fan I am of Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys, I was totally shocked that, at first, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was really rubbing me the wrong way. The self-aware narration from Robert Downey Jr. providing crucial pieces of set-up was fun, but a lot of it was just wallowing the sort of inside baseball “Hollywood is wacky, amirite?” jokes that I’ve seen far too many times before. Luckily, the characters soon make their individual personalities clear, particularly the hilariously contrasting personalities between Lockhart and Shrike which inform their hysterical rapport, and finally Kiss Kiss Bang Bang begins to separate itself from past tales about sordid Hollywood antics and become its own thing.
Specifically, it becomes a story that, like many Tennesse Williams plays, is about the fractured relationship various characters have between reality and fantasy. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is too energetic to ever stop long enough to become really methodical, but looking back on the film as a whole, it is interesting how Shane Black subtly impacts a recurring motif of characters who look for any way to escape reality. Harry Lockhart’s magic tricks, Harmony’s (Michelle Monaghan) fixation on a series of mystery books, Harmony’s sister’s desire to travel away from her hometown to the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, practically everyone in the cast, sans Perry van Shrike who emerges as the sole voice of the reason in the whole piece, is looking for some way, any way really, to escape the harsh truths of reality.
Without ever really calling attention to it, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ends up being an intriguing treatise on the price we pay for indulging too much in the world of make-believe, though far more than that it’s a chance for Shane Black to have some fun with doing a noir storyline with a lead character (Lockhart) who really does not fit in as a typical noir protagonist. Though much of Robert Downey Jr.’s modern-day fame comes from being as cool as a cucumber, Black is keenly aware of how good Downey Jr. is at portraying down-to-Earth awkwardness and he utilizes that talent extremely well here (he’d also get great mileage out of this trait in Iron Man 3) in some of the funniest scenes of the movie, most notably in how Downey Jr. as Lockhart reacts to discovering a dead body in his shower.
Playing off Robert Downey Jr. throughout much of the film is the criminally underrated Michelle Monaghan in a quasi-femme fatale role so different from her typical roles that she’s able to demonstrate just how versatile of a performer she is, she’s a total riot in this movie. Also getting to shine playing off of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s lead character is Val Kilmer, a performer I’ve been mixed on in the past who actually shows some fine comedic chops in depicting Shrike’s never-ending bewilderment at the inadvertent stupidity of Lockhart. Like in the subsequent two movies Shane Black would eventually direct, the performances are uniformly excellent in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and though it’s the weakest of the three Shane Black directorial efforts I’ve seen, you still get plenty of witty entertainment in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as well as a peek at an actor showing off the kind of talent that was just about to push him into a massive resurgence.