‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ turns noir conventions on its head
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Directed by Shane Black
Written by Brett Halliday (novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them), Shane Black (screenplay)
In his directorial debut, Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang begins, as with many noirs, with a crime. This crime, a robbery of a children’s toy store, however, lands the protagonist and eventual reluctant hero Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), two bit thief, in the middle of Los Angeles surrounded by all of the Hollywood usual suspects– media moguls, cynical outside consultants, and, of course, the shattered dream starlets. An awkward, yet fortuitous, case of mistaken identity wins Harry an acting audition. There, he meets private investigator Gay Perry (actually gay) played by Val Kilmer as well as Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan) as the epitome of the girl who got away. While “preparing” for his role, Harry follows Gay Perry on his investigations. Guided along by Harry’s occasional 4th wall breaking musings, what begins as a surveillance case involving infidelity quickly turns into a tale embroiled in murder, media moguls, twisted family ties, abuse, pink haired girls, and Santa hats.
Shane Black, director and writer, has built a resume on penning ’90s popcorn action flicks with a core of memorable characters. From the quintessential buddy cop film, Lethal Weapon (1987), to The Last Boy Scout (1991), his films popularity is an example of a writer who understands the fundamentals of story and how it connects to an audience. His action films are memorable due to great interactions via his characters. Robert Downey Jr. may have been launched back into the stratosphere with Iron Man (2008), but Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was truly his saving grace. It was a return to the charismatic actor’s ability to charm and shoot out lightning dialogue. With Downey’s charm channeling Black’s black wit and self-reflexive humor, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a brilliant result of this synergistic pairing.
The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Kilmer who is brilliant. They develop a rapport throughout the film, trading jabs and banter that charms the audience and creates loveable characters. Core to the cast is the relationship between Harry and his childhood friend, Melody. She is the broken dream exemplified. Escaping a broken home to make it big in Hollywood, only to be crushed by the realities of missed opportunities and expedited standards. With Melody, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is not only a raucous neo noir film but one that has an awareness not only of its genre but of the culture of its medium as a whole, critiquing Hollywood culture.
The film follows Harry through his fish out of water mishaps as he slowly gets more and more embroiled in the underbelly of Los Angeles and its characters. Although the narrative does tend to get crushed under its own complexity, especially around the third act, the ride is so full of sharp wit and reflexive humor that this mishap is slight.
The dialogue is sharp and quick, reminiscent of classic noirs such as Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep (1946). The plot curves and turns, layering on top of one another, racking up the body counts along the way. Although a neo-noir, the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang avoids many of the pitfalls that this genre tends to veer towards. It dances between the self seriousness of noir and black comedy. The film is full of nods towards noir conventions such as the Philip Marlowe-esque pulp novels Melody adores. The film does all of this with tongue firmly planted in cheek such as when Harry complains to Perry about how all mystery stories have to parallel cases that end up being inexplicably linked before they find out their own two cases are also linked. It is this self reflexive humor that has Kiss Kiss Bang Bang playing with audience’s expectations with the genre.
Take the approach to the femme fatale for example. Every noir has one. However, Melody, the lead female, is not the self removed, cynically conniving archetype but a flawed, hurt girl who ran away from home only to be crushed by big dreams. Every character is more than their respective archetype be it the reluctant hero in Harry or the grizzled, jaded veteran in Gay Perry. However, Black is not shy about poking at other genres as well. His own stomping grounds, action flicks, are cleverly played up when we see Harry’s transformation from grumbling bystander to full on action hero by the climax of the film, resulting in hilarious irony and subtle commentary on the shortcut conventions and stunted development of many modern films today.
Black imbues Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with a sense of black humor that challenges the notions of noir while also reveling in it. Noir, as a genre, can be summed up as grit. From the early ’30s pulp stories to Jean-Pierre Melville’s period of French criminal minimalism to the cotton candy aesthetics of Bunraku (2010), noir has taken on many forms. What started as a zeitgeist of the early depression 20s has managed to stay relevant. Passed the shadowy smoke, leggy brunettes, dirty cops, and aesthetics, noir at its core is a reflexive study of man, heroism, and human decisions in the face of inhumane situations. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang retains the thematic center of noir along with side splitting awareness.
The film is able to keep noir conventions from growing stale while still retaining the core of what keeps it relevant today. With Black and Downey Jr.’s collaboration on Iron Man 3 later this year as one of this year’s most anticipated films, their original collaboration may not be overlooked for long.
- David Tran