Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005): Shane Black’s Feature Debut, Starring Robert Downey Jr.

Cannes Fest World Premiere: The darkly humorous Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang reflects writer Shane Black’s lifelong fascination with the private eye and pulp novels he began reading as a boy.

His feature directorial debut shows a playful, healthy disrespect for pure genres, slyly mixing formats and conventions, such as the action buddy comedy with classic film noir.

The end result is a funny, suspenseful, and even romantic deconstruction, full of fresh, unexpected, and subtle moments. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a postmodern movie par excellence, one that pays homage to classic noir and pulp fiction while sustaining an utterly contemporary tone.

Kiss Kiss does for the private eye what Black’s former scripts did for the action comedy, but with greater originality and success. The three engaging characters at the center of his new film step in and out of the plot and time frames with remarkable ease. Infused with clever dialogue and rapid-fire temp, the new movie recalls classic screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Black’s film joins other contemporary interpretations of the great L.A. private eye traditions, walking a fine line between taking itself seriously enough to be suspenseful and being a self-reflexive romp that’s playful enough to be entertaining.

Kiss Kiss shows the same flair that Black has shown in his previous movies for creating characters as flamboyant and explosive as his frenetic action sequences and sly dialogue. The structure of all of Black’s scripts is based on two characters with vastly different personalities and methods that nevertheless need to collaborate in order to accomplish some desirable tasks.

Lethal Weapon was a character-driven hybrid of comedy and adrenaline-fueled actioner (also produced by Joel Silver) that paired a vet detective who’s a family man (Danny Glover) with a wild, suicidal cop (Mel Gibson) whose unorthodox behavior sets off a surprising mix of comedy and suspense. Similarly, The Last Boy Scout was a buddy actioner starring Bruce Willis as a down-and-out private eye looking for redemption when he teams up with a disgraced ex-quarterback (Damon Wayans) to investigate corruption in the high-stakes world of professional football. The Long Kiss Goodnight teamed Samuel L. Jackson as a fourth-rate private eye with Geena Davis amnesiac schoolteacher-secret agent, working to overthrow the government

The saga concerns Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), a petty thief who skates through life on a shaky dog-eared charm and cockeyed optimism. Harry is basically a decent guy, who wants to do the right thing, but he doesn’t know how. His perpetual bad luck takes a turn, when he and his partner are doing some after-hours Christmas shopping at a New York toy store. Unfortunately, the security alarm breaks up the party. In making a frantic getaway from the cops, Harry inadvertently stumbles into an audition for a Hollywood detective movie. His audition is so persuasive that the producer flies him to L.A. for a screen test.

Harry is thus thrust into the cutthroat world of L.A.’s pros, cons, and wannabes. To prepare for his screen test, Harry is teamed with tough-guy private eye Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), aka Gay Perry. Ruthless, relentlessly tough, and gay, Perry has little patience for Harry, who tries out his acting skills by passing himself off as a detective.

It’s a destiny for a thief-actor-detective like Harry to cross path and fall for a femme fatale, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), an aspiring actress who needs his help. Inspired by Jonny Gossamer, a fictional hard-boiled private eye featured in a series of pulp detective novels, Harmony had moved to Hollywood to pursue her dreams, but after years of rejection, she has to face the harsh reality that her best days are behind her.

When the mysterious suicide of Harmony’s sister intersects with a seemingly unrelated case that Harry and Gay Perry are investigating, they find themselves embroiled in a real-life murder mystery. Bodies surface and resurface, and corpses pile up in the strangest locations. True to its format, Kiss Kiss has plenty of melodrama as well, here in the long buried, dark family secrets that erupt unexpectedly in the present-day mayhem.

Soon, what began as a free trip to L.A. threatens to become Harry’s one-way ticket to the morgue. If he’s going to stay alive and become the hero that Harmony needs him to be, he has to convince his reluctant buddy Gay Perry to help him solve the murders, and for that, he needs to channel Jonny Gossamer’s tough-as-nails swagger. A combo of luck, fate, and artifice makes sure that everything is all right at the end.

In a pre-credits flashback sequence, a bunch of wild children are seen playing at a circus. A girl about to be sawed lets out such a hysterical scream that the fun is interrupted. The significance of this scene becomes clear later in the narrative, as fateful links are established between the past and the present.

The movie is narrated in a hip, ironic mode, placing a layer of cynical commentary on happenings that are never less than bizarre. Kiss Kiss at once honors the conventions of its genres and deliberately defies or sends them off. Black shows penchant for combining original characters, innovative action, and fast dialogue. Black’s drive to explore the action-crime milieu was greatly influenced by his boyhood obsession with cheap paperbacks about hard-boiled private eyes and dames in distress in risque stories, in which two seemingly unrelated cases intersect in a confluence of scandal and murder.

Black turns the conceit on its ear by having the most traditional macho character in the story be gay, reflecting his fun in playing with audience’s expectations. Rugged, ruthless, and relentlessly tough, Perry stands in sharp contrast to Harry’s gregarious naivete. He’s a crack shot with a gun as well as his deadpan delivery, and he makes no secret of his disdain for his new charge.

Black says that he read the suspense fiction intended for kids (The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators) but wasn’t influenced by them. Instead, his childhood heroes tended to be in the library’s adult section. Considered to be too racy, he was not allowed to read them openly, so he would sneak them, saving lunch money to buy the new Mike Shayne book, or the new Shell Scott and Chester Drum. Those caper novels had a masculine, rough-hewn rhythm, which he has replicated in Kiss Kiss with considerable success. Very much a summation work, Kiss Kiss brings together Black’s knowledge of and feelings for his childhood’s cherished genre.

The setting is the tarnished promised land of contemporary L.A., a sprawling shark tank, where damaged and flawed characters that are basically decent collide with destiny much in the same way the fated fiction unfolds in the private eye novels. Criminal Harry and sometime actress Harmony are recently reunited childhood friends, who both share love for the long-forgotten pulp hero Jonny Gossamer, a tough guy in the tradition of Blake’s fictional heroes. Gossamer is an obscure, trashy dime-store paperback phenomenon, but it represents much more than that for the film’s trio of characters.

Black uses Jonny as a metaphor for youthful enthusiasm, a belief in something beyond you and where you are the moment. The fictional Gossamer appears only briefly in Kiss Kiss (in a movie within movie), but he is an important reference point for the characters and his presence is felt throughout the story

As soon as Harry and Harmony begin to seize opportunity in order to rise above their past, their reality begins to take on the qualities of Gossamer’s fictional world, where randomness gives way to fate, truth is stranger than fiction, and everyone has a chance for one (but no more) shining moment.

Downey is perfectly cast as the protagonist and narrator Harry Lockhart, a flawed but basically decent man, endowed with blue-collar charisma and a quasi Capraesque upbeat optimism. Though perpetually unlucky, Harry remains a cockeyed optimist; he keeps slamming headlong into the same wall, but somehow never loses his youthful enthusiasm. Even when he finds himself in the most cynical, desperate, and backbiting places, he still retains a childlike lack of guile. As viewers, we root for him, despite his tendency to get in his own way.

Along with his obvious talents as an actor, Downey exudes a boyish charm and appeal that’s perfect for Harry, effortlessly conveying a peculiar blend of optimism, recklessness, misguided persistence, and likeability. Downey totally inhabits Harry, bringing a great deal of vulnerability and tenderness to the character, along with endearing boyishness and subtle comic timing.

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