Letterboxd Review: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)


Detective stories these days tend to settle in one of two very distinct camps: the ones where the crime and the suspects and the modus operandi take center stage, and the more hardboiled ones where the setting, tone, atmosphere, and the commentary from the detective supersede the actual mystery. Shane Black is clearly a fan of the latter, and in 2005 he made one that I really wish got more attention and credit.

Robert Downey, Jr., in one of a handful of "right before Iron Man" roles that I admire him for, is a revelation as a motor-mouthed, flustered crook-turned-actor. It's the perfect casting, as he carries the movie as the narrator and as the greatest source of energy and enthusiasm. Val Kilmer, as the more laconic and breezy private detective suffering through their partnership, is much better than he had been in years up to that point, deploying the comedic abilities that really didn't turn up again until 2010's MacGruber. I won't say that Michelle Monaghan is in any way the weak link on display, as she does some of her best work in certain scenes, but because her character functions as the femme fatale, the damsel in distress, and as Downey's "his gal Friday," depending on what the scene demands, it's hard to nail down a performance. The same could be said for Corbin Bernsen's mysterious Hollywood elite character, whose lack of bombast could easily be a thin spot in a tightly focused script or just a stately, underrated character actor's choice to underplay it.

The story is pretty boilerplate Hollywood underbelly stuff, but just like a good Chandler novel, it's less about the mystery and more about the detectives navigating the world in which they are immersed. And as many modern touches as there are, classic LA noir set pieces dominate most of the plot, including a body dump in a remote lake, a ritzy Hollywood producer's mansion pool party, and even an out-of-the-way mental clinic straight out of Farewell, My Lovely. Though the mystery appropriately gets bigger and bigger as the leads get closer to the climax, the limits of the budget do keep it smaller than a real "whodunit" would allow. While there are some unsettling turns made, the meat of the film lies in the cheeky dialogue and post-modern take on the genre.

Black has always had a flair for banter, but here he does one better and has Robert Downey, Jr. bantering with the audience in his narration, complete with bungled explanations, deprecating jokes about bad movie banalities, and freeze-frames to catch us up. This sets a tone for the rest of the dialogue and the exposition that is wonderfully deconstructive of the detective genre while remaining perfectly game to participate in all the most fun elements. Yes, there's a scene where two characters avoid suspicious cops by kissing passionately, but here it's Downey and Kilmer. Yes, someone plays Russian Roulette to torture and interrogate a hired goon for more info, but that doesn't go the way it usually does. And while the movie is quick to call out how bullshit it might be for a character to survive a fatal gunshot wound, it doesn't stop that character from doing just that. This extends to the use of 1940s and 1950s slang and private eye lingo, with each of the protagonists taking turns hanging a lantern on outdated terms and making extended grammar jokes. No fooling, the proper use of the adverb "badly" becomes a running gag. This is all too much fun for an English major who loves old detective novels, but it does fall into a formula too often. More than once, I found myself nodding impatiently as we took another minute or so to tell a "Is that the thing?...No, that's this other thing," joke.

I will say that the film suffers from a very measured, closed off visual style, but I'm not going to give too much grief to Black, who was a rookie director and has since gone on to such visual candy as Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys. Really, my only problems come out in the final twenty minutes, where the final action sequence is staged so haphazardly that it must be on purpose. It was this and a few fistfight scenes that strayed too far away from the tone of the rest of the film, as if Black had Warner Bros. peeking over his shoulder and trying to pivot the movie into a full-on action film. Between that and a completely superfluous nude scene for Monaghan, the elegance of the script is lost in translation to a final product.

I like this movie a lot, though. It glibly holds the audience's hand and walks us through the mystery. And if we stray into an overused trope, it's fine. Black calls it out as a trope, such as "that obvious shot of someone unimportant so we remember them for later...like that shot of the cook in Hunt for Red October. I hate that." And suddenly, even though Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is just as guilty of indulging in this, all is forgiven. This is precisely why this movie works better than, say, Lucky Number Slevin, which came out maybe a year later. This film is less concerned with surprising you or staying one step ahead of you, and more concerned with engrossing you. I will admit that The Nice Guys is a far cry better, with its more dynamic visuals and lived-in characters, but you can't help but be impressed with this indie prototype.

This review is part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile where you can find more reviews not available here on the blog, including a list of films from his book, Cinema Autopsy, which is now available on Amazon.

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