Harry Lockhart (Downey Jr.) is a petty thief turned accidental actor (dont ask) being shown the ropes by real private eye Gay Perry (Kilmer), who happens to be gay. Then he meets his childhood sweetheart, Harmony (Monaghan), a failing actress working the
That this film is called Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a big hint. It’s a snarky in-joke, a gleeful signpost to exactly where this energetic and blackly comic return to the fold for screenwriter Shane Black (who directs for the first time) is headed. For not only does it reference the working title of 007’s fourth adventure Thunderball, it is the name of legendary critic Pauline Kael’s second collected work, a label penned to deride the thrill-seeking shallowness she felt had irrevocably poisoned cinema. Which is where Mr. Black comes in. His murder-mystery-noir-farce (it’s kind of a first) is, at heart, a deconstruction of both Kael’s complaint and Bond’s sexy, trigger-happy delirium. Can you make a movie undeniably shallow, base, violent (and incomprehensible), yet invest it with satirical cunning and knowingness, energised by brilliantly barbed screenwriting? Yes, it transpires, you can.
Black, who burned out at the close of the ‘80s, has taken the formula he helped cement — Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout et al — turned it on its head and slammed it into the sidewalk. Out of the bloody remains, he’s assembled a manically askew take on pulp fiction. The story is partly based on a Brett Halliday novel and keeps tabs on its own fictional dime-store scribe Johnny Gossamer, whose novels eerily echo the gumshoe smog of the plot. Or is it the other way around? It’s a traditional beat lurching through a lurid, contemporary world. The LA scene, the director’s old turf, is smeared across the screen and junked by Harry’s motor-mouthed comebacks, fed by Black’s caustic attack on his own industry. Check out the Native American Joe Pesci.
No holds are barred. We’re talking the kind of meta-lunacy where the narrator — a testy Harry — can spool the film backwards to re-run to a forgotten detail, admit an evident cheapness, or even have the
lead pair bid farewell to the audience.
At times it strains its own conceptual arrogance, shaving scarily close to the blather of Last Action Hero (which Black had a hand in). The plot itself is so jet-propelled it’s impossible to follow. You’re not really meant to, but it is a policy that opts for hip gesture over genuine drama, not so distant from Tarantino’s movie-movie world where emotion is denied a visa. The violence is bloody but nonchalant — Harry variously loses a finger, acts as a local punch-bag and has his balls electrocuted, and the idea is to laugh.
That it doesn’t cave in beneath the weight of its own chaotic, po-mo posturing is down to the charming, not to say disarming, delivery from three fabulous lead performances and Black’s deft hardwiring of genre conventions with outrageously funny booby traps.
There are moments here that rival Pulp Fiction’s iconic dementia for permanence: Harry urinating over a dead body, Harry dangling from a coffin that is dangling from a freeway bridge, Harry’s ill-considered variation on Russian roulette. Downey Jr., his face a blueprint for partying way too hard, gives this intrepid loser a restless vitality; he’s our man, but an idiot all the same. Monaghan’s leggy Harmony is all contradiction, a sweetheart femme fatale and a brainy-bimbo nerve-ball. And the inspired Kilmer, preened and put-upon, actually manages to camp things down. He and Harry are the oddest of odd couples: “It’s not good cop/bad cop,” snarls Perry at another upended cliché, “this is fag and New Yorker — you’re in a whole lot of trouble.” Get the drift?
Bold and breathless, this trippy, hilarious, know-it-all comedy-thriller will have you reliving its ironic spoils for days, but youll still be hard-pressed to nail the actual story.